For American consumers, a few names immediately spring to mind when considering great cars: the BMW 5 Series, Honda Accord, Toyota Highlander. With exquisite handling, great gas mileage and comfortable interiors, these are the go-to automobiles of enthusiasts and daily commuters alike.
There are also lesser-known vehicles — or at least less obvious ones — that get the job done just as well but don’t command the same respect as their better-known counterparts. These underrated cars are the dark horses, and though they may not be household nameplates, they have as much to offer as those that have achieved legendary status.
The cars on this list were provided by Karl Brauer, CEO and editor-in-chief of TotalCarScore.com, an online review aggregator and information resource for cars currently on the market. “These cars and SUVs not only earn impressive Total Car Scores, they actually score better than many nameplates long considered best in class,” he said in an e-mail.
Read ahead and see which coupes, sedans and SUVs made TotalCarScore.com’s list of underrated cars of 2012.
The Chevrolet Cruze was named "Best Compact Car for the Money" by U.S. News and World Report. It also won the “2012 Top Safety Pick” award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and a 5-Star Overall Vehicle Score from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“Chevrolet doesn’t have a long history of producing excellent small cars, but the Chevrolet Cruze is among the top scoring cars in the compact sedan category,” Brauer said. “In fact, it’s better rated than longstanding stalwarts like the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Volkswagen Jetta.”
The Kia Soul is a compact car that debuted at the 2008 Paris Motor Show. For the 2012 model, the car received an upgraded exterior, navigation and automatic climate control.
The Honda Fit is TotalCarScore.com’s top-rated economy car, but the Soul runs a strong second. “This puts the Soul ahead of several well-known economy nameplates, including the Nissan Cube and Toyota Yaris,” Brauer said.
The Cadillac CTS is a mid-size car available in three styles — coupe, sedan and sport wagon. It has been named to Car and Driver’s 2011 10 Best list, where it was singled out for its “psychedelic power” and “organ-shifting g-forces.”
“Ask anyone to name a great entry-luxury sedan and you’ll likely hear names like ‘Audi A4’ or ‘BMW 3 Series’ or ‘Mercedes-Benz C-Class,’ Brauer said. “And while those cars continue to be excellent vehicles, the industry likes the 2012 Cadillac CTS even more, giving it the highest Total Car Score in the Entry Luxury Sedan category.”
The Buick LaCrosse is a mid-size luxury sedan. In a mildly embarrassing turn of events, the car had to be sold in Canada as the Allure, because "la crosse" is a Quebecois slang term for self-gratification. Nonetheless, the vehicle has received high marks on TotalCarScore.com.
“The large sedan category has become quite competitive in recent years, with models like the Chrysler 300, Ford Taurus and Toyota Avalon vying for the top spot,” Brauer said. “But that honor goes to a newcomer you may not know, the Buick LaCrosse. Both the standard LaCrosse and its hybrid variant take the top spots.”
The Infiniti M debuted in 1990 as a two-door coupe. If observers saw similarities to the Nissan Leopard, they were right: It was modeled after that car but with modifications to the engine, suspension and transmission.
“Luxury sedans like the Audi A6, BMW 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class are almost legendary for their combination of plush cabins, powerful drivetrains and advanced technology,” Brauer said. “But the 2012 Infiniti M rates better than all three of them, with a Total Car Score at the top of this highly competitive segment.”
The Hyundai Sonata is a midsized car that’s received multiple facelifts since its South Korean debut in 1985. At the time, you couldn’t even buy one in the U.S., as it failed to meet emissions standards. But that was all worked out by 1989 and it became available stateside that year.
“The Hyundai Sonata was a finalist for North American Car of the Year after a 2011 redesign, so its high Total Car Score might not surprise some,” Brauer said. “But few people would guess that for 2012 it continues to rank above the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Volkswagen Passat, making it one of the most desirable Midsize Family Sedans available.”
The Sportage is made by the Korean automaker Kia. The compact crossover SUV has been rolling off of assembly lines since 1993. In 2010, it was named the Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
“In the world of compact SUVs, long-time players like the Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4 go up against newer models like the Mini Countryman and Nissan Rogue,” Brauer said. “Earning a higher Total Car Score than all of them is the Kia Sportage, which rivals even mainstay models like the Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester.”
The Cadillac SRX is a midsized crossover SUV that’s been produced since the 2004 model year. It was redesigned in 2010, but according to Brauer the listless engine stopped the SRX from realizing its full potential.
“That all changes for 2012, with a new 3.6-liter V6 that finally does the Caddy proud,” he said. “It now outranks Audi’s Q5, BMW’s X3 and Mercedes-Benz’s GLK to lead the Entry Luxury Crossover category.”
The Chevrolet Traverse is a full-size crossover SUV that debuted at the 2008 Chicago Auto Show. It arrived at dealerships in October 2008, just in time for the financial crisis, but it weathered the storm and it continues to sell.
“That the Chevrolet Traverse ranks better than all other large SUVs, including the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander, is impressive in and of itself,” Brauer said. “But add in that this model is four years old, with a highly updated version just around the corner, and it’s clear Chevrolet knows how to build an enduring SUV.”
Ford Taurus SHO
The Ford Taurus SHO — or Super High Output — is a full-size sedan whose design is based on the original Ford Taurus. It was produced from 1989 until 1999, but made its triumphant return to the marketplace in 2009.
“The world of performance cars in 2012 includes iconic models like the Camaro ZL1, Mustang Boss 302 and Charger SRT8,” Brauer said. “Yet when it comes to industry ratings the Ford Taurus SHO leaves them all in the dust.”