April 27, 2009 11:09 PM | By Jeremy Sinek, MSN Autos

Top five of the year: A car for all budgets

2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Clean Diesel Wagon (© Photo: Volkswagen)

What were my five favourite cars in 2008? That’s easy, they were the five most expensive cars I drove this year. Actually, no. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 35 years of reviewing cars, it’s that price is no predictor of automotive impressiveness.

If anything, high-dollar cars are more likely to disappoint, because you expect more to begin with.

A cheap car, on the other hand, has so much more potential to exceed expectations. Like the thrill of finding a diamond in the rough, some of the most rewarding test drives are entry-level cars that turn out to be way better than they need to be.

And let's face it, given the state of the economy and the environment, we all need wheels that deliver the most function and fun for the least loot.

But let's get down to business. My top five list is presented in descending order of price ... starting with a car that seems to give the finger to everything I have just written.

2009 Cadillac CTS-V

2009 Cadillac CTS-V (© Photo: Cadillac)

At its $68,500 list price, however - and I'll wager the street price is a lot less - the Cadillac CTS-V is actually decent value among its peer group of compact monster-engined uber-sedans.

In a group that includes the BMW M3, Lexus IS-F and Mercedes C63, there are no duds. But this new-era Cadillac nails the sweet spots in all the driving-enjoyment areas that I value most. First, I'm a sucker for "iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove" performance, and that perfectly describes the silken smoothness with which the 6.2-litre, 556-hp supercharged V8 delivers its epic acceleration.

Then there's the absolutely pin-sharp steering. Neither too light around town, nor artificially heavy at open-road speeds, it's equally satisfying whether you're pottering around town or feasting on the car's prodigious grip and superb handling balance.

And the clincher for me is the CTS's driving position: Very few cars at any price let me so perfectly position the wheel and seat to fit my body type. Nice one, Cadillac!

2008 BMW 135i

2008 BMW 135i (© Photo: BMW)

To be honest, the BMW 135i and I got off to a rocky start. Even before I met one in the flesh, I was ticked that BMW North America didn't bring us the four-cylinder 1 Series hatchbacks - including hyper-frugal diesels - that are sold in other markets. Instead it deemed that North American (well, American) tastes demanded powerful six-cylinder 1 Series coupes and convertibles priced well north of $30,000.

The antipathy continued when I first sat in a One, and found the driving position downright warped.

But, boy, have I come around. The reconciliation began after I finally located the complex manual adjusters of the optional sport seat and tailored myself a comfortable fit. Then - well, then I got to drive the thing.

The 135i's 3.0-litre, twin-turbo six pushes out silky surges horsepower anywhere and everywhere in the rev range. It feels much stronger than its rated 300 horsepower. Heck, its 0-100 km/h of 5.1 seconds recorded at the Automobile Journalists' TestFest is only three ticks behind the redoubtable M3.

So maybe "our" 1 Series isn't the 60-mpg diesel I'd been hoping for, but with that kinda squirt for not much more than $40,000, the One we do get is a whole load of go for the dough.

But enough of the fun stuff. Time to get serious and sensible. My remaining fave raves are three cars that deliver maximum functionality for the money, with great fuel economy and at least decent driving manners.

2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Clean Diesel Wagon

2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Clean Diesel Wagon (© Photo: Volkswagen)

If someone were to tell me I could have just one new car to keep for the rest of my life, I'd probably pick this one.

As a Volkswagen, the $25,775 Jetta TDI Wagon will probably last forever. As a wagon, it has more versatile cargo room than most compact SUVs and even some midsize ones. As a Jetta, it possesses a solid ride and planted handling that no SUV or crossover can equal. And as a TDI, it has an engine for the ages.

Volkswagen's new 2.0L, 140-hp Clean Diesel is quick, quiet and fabulously frugal. With the standard six-speed manual transmission, my test car averaged 5.6 L/100 km (50 mpg) ... even the most economical subcompact can't approach that.

2009 Kia Rondo

2009 Kia Rondo (© Photo: Kia)

Although it's been around since late 2006, the Kia Rondo remains one of the industry's best-kept secrets. It took me 18 months before I could even lay my hands on a test sample.

Not quite a car, but not a van or an SUV either, this cleverly packaged hatchback packs the passenger room of a full-size sedan into a compact exterior measuring just 4,545 mm. Starting at just $19,995, you can get it as a five-seater with ample cargo room. Or from $23,345, choose an ultra-versatile seven-seater that adds a 50/50-split folding third-row seat that can actually accommodate real people.

The base engine is a relatively economical 175-hp, 2.4L "four" (9.2 L/100 km combined fuel consumption) with more-than-adequate performance. Or for more grunt with less grind, upgrade to a 192-hp, 2.7L V6. Whichever grade of Rondo you choose, standard safety kit includes six airbags, anti-whiplash head restraints, anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control.

2009 Honda Fit

2009 Honda Fit (© Photo: Honda)

A lavish suite of standard safety gear was one of the standout aspects of the Honda Fit when it first came to Canada in 2006, and the same is true of the redesigned 2009 model. But that's only one asset in the portfolio of this brilliant little car.

Starting at $14,980, the '09 Fit's blend of performance and fuel economy (both improved over last year) is best in class. The optional automatic is the only five-speed in its peer group. Its driving position is arguably the most "grown-up" in its class. It's also well screwed together, and fun to drive.

Above all, Honda has taken the Fit's single most outstanding element - the quart-in-a-pint-pot spaciousness and versatility of its interior - and stretched the envelope even further. Our family used a 2009 Fit to transport an antique double-bed frame, complete with headboard, footboard and 75-inch side rails. We got it all inside, with my wife in the co-pilot's chair, all the doors closed ... and my son sitting in the back seat.

The 2009 Fit wasn't the cheapest car I drove in 2008, but it wasn't far off. It didn't win any Car of the Year awards either, but in my humble opinion it sure as heck should have.

More best rides of 2008 articles

Top cars for the thrill of the ride
The year's best vehicles - by continent
Top cars worth celebrating
It's all in the details: Best auto features of 2008
Best and worst used cars of the year
Six for the road: Driver delights
The biggest (and smallest) surprises of the year
The year's high-performance pleasures
Top picks for four-door family sedans

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