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Katrina Ramser, The Auto Channel

By Katrina Ramser
San Francisco Bureau
The Auto Channel

As an automotive journalist, I test drive many different vehicles. With one car always coming and another going each and every week, the desensitizing of 'new' has helped me develop objectivity (if not an attitude of blasť) towards all vehicles. Many of times I've loved the look of a brand, only to feel shafted once inside and on the road. Yet flip the coin and vehicles I first detested based on styling ended up winning my heart in the areas of interior features, safety and engine.

If you're in the market, with help from The New Car Buyers GuideI've complied the top 10 vehicles I drove in 2008 (which include both 2008 and 2009 models). Some are surprises, some are affirmations, but all have been under the scrutiny of our female criteria – I aim to deliver cars that meet your comfort, reliability, cost, performance, and green concerns.


2008 Buick Enclave. General Motors steals the thunder from any other mid-size SUV and Crossover competitor in its class. Attractive, classy, and functional – not to mention a steal at $36,045 with all the bells and whistles such as the 3.6-liter V6 engine, wood accents, dual air control, audio controls on steering wheel, remote start and liftgate, ultrasonic rear parking assist, top-notch Bose speakers, and OnStar. When you're ready to upgrade from the minivan, look to the Enclave – it's just as roomy but a step up in style.

2008 Volvo C30. Who knew this alternative to a sedan could look so retro-cool? It has a sporty, vintage feel with lasting class. The large hatchback glass gets the most eyeballing. Total vehicle price came to $29,350 (with $4k of that being in convenience features), but it looks much more expensive and I first guessed in the $40ks. Bucket seats make the C30 feel spacious for the driver and passenger (it's not a kid car). The 2.5-liter 5-cylinder turbocharged engine averages 23-mpg. The only issue is Volvos can be a mixed bag of reliability and this is a new model.

2008 Kia Sportage. I started out skeptical and have ended loving this small yet capable crossover for what is can do both on and off-road. It's a Consumer Reports recommended vehicle – CR states Kia is generally a good value. My tested ride was economical at $24,820, and while the interior isn't going to dazzle you, the sunroof, power windows, heated outside mirrors, trip computer, roof rack and keyless entry does not come as an extra cost or better known as an upgrade package. It's 2.7-liter V6 gets an unfortunate 19-mpg average for it's smaller size.

2008 Ford Escape (Limited). The Escape gained some weight and better embodies Ford's beefy image. I don't think this smaller SUV is getting as much recognition as it should – which could be because of the maker's tarnished image or that the braking/stopping doesn't rate as well as the other SUVs in its class. But fully loaded at $33,280 with some of the nicest leather seating five comfortably; it's a classy, affordable and sporty act.

2008 Mercury Mariner Hybrid. It would be unfair to toss kudos to the Escape without speaking highly of its hybrid twin with the more luxurious or prominent front grille, as well as recognition from the Green Car Journal to the EPA. For $31,000 you get a 153-horsepower 2.4-liter 4-cyclinder combined with a 94-horsepower electric motor, 34-mpg city and 30-mpg highway driving, and a navigation system. You can qualify for a federal income tax credit and save much on gas – enough for the car to end up paying for itself in a couple of years.

2008 Suzuki SX4. A Mini with so much more. I laughed at the economical size but not when the 143-horsepower 2.0-liter engine showed surprising immediate acceleration in tight situations – excellent grip and go. At $16,870, you've got a 4-door car that can park easily and reduce gas consumption in the city on the weekday, but drive up to the snowy mountains with its all-wheel drive on the weekends. You'll get an average of 21 to 22-mpg overall. I like Suzuki's 100,000 miles/7-year powertrain warranty, 24/7 roadside assistance, and the fact they give you a repair courtesy car. The Grand Vitara was a favorite of mine as well – the brand is getting stronger.

2009 ML 320 Diesel Bluetech. Can you spoil yourself? If so, I'd do it with the 210-horsepower, V6 3.0-liter turbocharged cleaner diesel engine that gets an average of 22-mpg and a score of 7 out of 10 from the EPA's Green Vehicle Guide. Starting price for this smaller crossover/SUV is $49,475, but with all the amenities that make this vehicle what it is, you're looking at low $60k. The ML 320 is off the style charts: blue-tinted window glass; square chrome exhaust tips; 3-zone climate control; full leather seating with wood trim; heated steering wheel; 8-way power adjustable seating with a 4-way lumbar support, not to mention the fact your seats can be heated three different ways. I had a very hard time saying good-bye to this vehicle, and put it a step above the Land Rover, Range Rover, and VW Touareg I drove.

2009 Acura TSX. Acuras in general are a testament to the fact you don't have to spend a lot to land into the lap of automotive luxury. For $32,820, you get a slick and affordable 4-door sedan great on fuel; so nice-looking that neighbors at first glance might assume you brought home a BMW. I thought the engine excelled powerfully, was quite, and ultimately very fun to drive. Handling was agile with an average of 25-mpg. I also just drove the 2009 Acura TL for $39,445, which blew the doors off me in performance, design and interior. I've warmed up to the navigation and audio system and find it amazing – one of the most complete tech systems out there.

2009 Subaru Forester. Applause for the Forester to drop its nerdy look and finally get some SUV sex appeal. Critics are loving this car, which has the honor of being awarded Motor Trend's 2009 Sport/Utility Car of the Year. It also became Consumer Report's top-rated small SUV, beating out competitors like the RAV4 and Honda CR-V. The panoramic moonroof is a definite standout. My 2.5-liter 4-cylindar Pzec (Partial Zero Emissions) engine was $25,623, which came with great new (free) standards as the moonroof, roof rails and steering wheel mounted controls. The EPA's Green Vehicle Guide gives the Forester a 9.5 out of 10 for reducing air pollution.

2009 Honda Pilot. The easiest way to describe what makes this redesigned, boxier mid-size SUV Honda Pilot great is that its not too big, not too small, but sized just right. A comfortable 3-row, 8-passenger Pilot with a 250-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 engine gets an average of 19-mpg at $33,595. Honda added 2.9-inches of wheelbase to create a third-row that is actually functional, has easy access, and gets thumbs up from passengers. I dare say this was my favorite mid-to-large size traditional SUV that I drove in 2008.

Katrina's Car Tips For Women Drivers
2010 and 2009 Model Reviews
2008 Model Reviews