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Buying a Car: Are You Underestimating These Automakers?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro May 2015

When it comes to buying a car, we all have our biases. Maybe you grew up in a Toyota family, or maybe you've always been a Mercedes person. Hey, if you've had good experiences with a brand in the past, you're going to expect good things in the future; that's just human nature.

But what if some of the automakers you haven't liked in the past have been raising their game in a big way? If you keep dismissing them in your mind, couldn't you be missing out on some really compelling cars?

In our opinion, the best car shopping happens when you start with an open mind, and we've identified five automakers that you may be underestimating. If any of these brands are on your you-know-what list, hear us out and then see if you still feel the same way. The more brands you try, the better informed your final decision will be, and we think these seven merit particularly close consideration.

Chevrolet

For folks who grew up driving Japanese cars in the '80s, '90s and even '00s, Chevy can seem like the bogeyman. There were a number of subpar Chevrolet products back then, but they were up against reliable, cleverly engineered rivals from stalwarts such as Honda and Toyota, which is exactly how biases get started. If you look at Chevy's current lineup, there's no Cavalier in sight and no Corsica, either. What about the Lumina? Nope, that's gone too. There's still an Impala, but it's been completely reinvented and is now ranked as one of the best large sedans on the market. Based on what we've seen so far, the 2016 Malibu looks like it will follow in the Impala's footsteps. The C7 Corvette is totally awesome, and the new Colorado midsize pickup has given segment leaders Nissan and Toyota a scare for the first time in years. Those are just a few examples. Plus, practically every Chevy now comes standard with 4G LTE connectivity and mobile Wi-Fi. The brand with the bowtie emblem has arguably never been better.

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Ford

The brand with the blue oval emblem suffers from the same anti-domestic bias as Chevrolet, and that's no small thing. But there's another problem that Ford frankly brought on itself: For many years, the company's best cars were only sold to Europeans and perhaps other overseas customers, while shoppers back home were stuck with the low-tech leftovers. Thankfully, those days are over. The U.S.-market Focus now boasts the same tight handling and high-quality interior as the Euro model. The same is true of the Fiesta, which is one of our favorite subcompact options. If you look at the Mondeo that's sold across the pond, it's virtually indistinguishable from the stellar Fusion sedan that's sold stateside. Heck, even the new 2015 Mustang was designed for the global market, and it shows in this 'Stang's unprecedented grace and polish. Ford continues to make solid trucks and SUVs, of course, but now its cars are world-class choices, as well.

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Hyundai

If too many people say something's underrated, it starts to seem overrated, right? That's the risk we're taking by putting Hyundai on this list. Industry observers love to talk about how much Hyundai has improved since the bad old days. "Enough already," you might be muttering, but here's the thing: The latest crop of Hyundais appears to herald the second revolution within a half-decade for the Korean brand. The first came when the swoopy Fluidic Sculpture Sonata debuted for 2010, with the rest of the lineup following in its footsteps. That put Hyundai on the map as a respectable alternative to established brands, not just a bargain-bin special. But with the launch of the all-new 2015 Genesis and Sonata sedans, one could even argue that Hyundai has pulled ahead of the pack. Their crisp, assertive styling, exemplary cabin technology and fully competitive driving dynamics make these Hyundais the work of a confident automaker at the top of its game, and we may soon be adding the 2016 Tucson to that group. If you're still thinking of Hyundai as a second-tier automaker, you have to check out its newest creations.

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Kia

The same "underrated leads to overrated" philosophy might apply to Kia as well as Hyundai. We're guessing the average shopper might be thinking of Kia vehicles as cheap economy cars and they may know a little something about the Kia Optima. The Optima is like a number one rock song: Even if you don't like that kind of music, you're gonna hear about it in some way. But Kia is far from an one-trick pony. In addition to the Optima, the smaller Forte is an excellent little car that's easily on par with the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. One step up from the Optima is the Cadenza, a luxury sedan that has the look and feel Lexus buyers have been enjoying for years. Kia also has a full-size K900 sedan that's offered with as many bells and whistles as a Mercedes-Benz, including an optional V8 engine. Kia has you covered with an all-electric version of the Soul too, should you want an alternative to gasoline power.

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Mazda

Operating with a fraction of its rivals' investment and marketing budgets, Mazda faces long odds in its bid for mainstream credibility. Everyone loves an underdog, of course, but until the past couple years, Mazdas weren't lovable enough due to their subpar fuel economy and infotainment technology. Thankfully, Mazda has focused its limited resources on rectifying these shortcomings, and the results include triumphs such as the Mazda3 sedan and hatchback. These are standout small cars with efficiency of over 40 miles per gallon and nifty, BMW-like infotainment systems that include a central control knob. There's also the completely redesigned 2016 MX-5 Miata, which shares the Mazda3's tech features and promises more fun for the dollar than any other car on the market. Notably, Mazda's current lineup includes transitional products, such as the 2015 Mazda6 and 2015 CX-5, which get great fuel economy but don't have all the interior upgrades. Regardless, the brand's definitely headed in the right direction, and it's putting outdated stereotypes to rest with every new model it releases.

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Nissan

Lately, a lot of attention has been paid to Nissan's all-electric Leaf. Years from now, we'll all look back and see that the Leaf was the car that got all of us into, or at least comfortable with, the idea of electric cars. If you don't want to spend a penny on gas each month and you want a car that functions like a normal hatchback, the Leaf is the car for you. The Nissan Altima is still a top contender when it comes to midsize sedans offering a little bit of luxury in an otherwise functional car. Add to this the stylish new Murano and Nissan's jaw-dropping new Maxima and it's obvious the brand should move up a few spots on your shopping list. Improving quality, top-notch interiors and a near-perfect blend of ride comfort and handling round out Nissan's strong points. Serious driving enthusiasts will also want to check out the Nissan 370Z and the 545-hp Nissan GT-R.

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Volkswagen

The "People's Car" company has faced a couple hurdles in the American market. The first was the notion that a car for the masses couldn't have a premium character and price, but that's no longer an issue, as VW has been selling upscale models for a few extra bucks since the 2000s. The second has been tougher to overcome, though, and that's the company's reputation for subpar reliability and long-term quality. Every year, many car shoppers opt for a domestic or Asian car because they're afraid a Volkswagen would cost too much to maintain. But we think the tide is slowly turning in VW's favor. If you obsessively read consumer reviews like we do, you'll find fewer complaints about VW products in recent years, and that's not just because they're newer. If you look at the dates of the original reviews for each year, it's clear that Volkswagens used to vex owners from the get-go, whereas modern models seem to be relatively dependable. That's the consensus among many VW forum members, too. If you're intrigued, poke around and see if you can find enough evidence on your own to justify taking the plunge. In our opinion, it's time for shoppers across the country to give Volkswagen a second chance. Diesel powered TDI models are some of our favorites.

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Autotrader Says

If you've made it this far, we tip our collective cap. It's a testament to how open-minded you are and shows that you wanted to get the lowdown on these brands. Are they guaranteed to knock your socks off? Of course not. But you might be pleasantly surprised by their latest models when you're considering buying a car.

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Used 2015 Chevrolet Tahoe 4WD LS
Used 2015 Chevrolet Tahoe
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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Buying a Car: Are You Underestimating These Automakers? - Autotrader