Commentary: Is A "Good" Car Hard To Find?

2008 Hyundai Sonata 1
Photo by Randy Stern

What is a "good" car?

That is a question that takes on individual meaning since not everyone agrees what a good car really is. Lots of consumers rely on pundits, enthusiasts and the Consumer Union to help them determine what a good car really is.

"So, Randy, what is a good car?"

I knew you’d ask that question. Lucky for you, it is not an uncommon question I have received from you over these past several years. It is not definitive, since the idea of a "good" car has changed with improved quality and better choices in the marketplace.

If things have changed over years, has the criteria determining what a "good" car is changed as well?

The truth is that we have all have our individual criteria. What I think is a good car may not be yours. There could be agreement, but I doubt if we'll have an exact definition in mind. You might defer to me, as my job is to drive almost every vehicle sold in the USA. That is one hell of a burden to put upon me.

At some point, I may refer you to Consumer Reports. I happen to know a few folks working there. Then again, you will find me somewhere – like eating dinner at Joey Nova's or traveling through your city – corner me and ask me the twenty questions about so-called "good" cars.

Perhaps I should divulge what I think a "good" car is, then! After all, you read this site t find out what;s inside my mind – all hamsters and such.

For me, there are a lot of criteria to meet for a "good" car. It starts with the simple things: comfort, room, ergonomics, fit-and-finish, performance, ride, handling, braking, ease of controls and safety. OK, maybe these are not the simplest of things to quantify, but you asked!

Given all of the criteria above, there is more! The human factor is taken in consideration. In my case, can my friends enjoy the car as well as I do? I used to cart friends along – and they happen to be of a larger frame like me. I take in consideration interior space for four adults. By adults, I mean people who might touch their heads with the headliner, the glass in back or their legs being scrunched in the second or third rows – more critically, the second row.

If I can determine if my friends are comfortable in the back, then I can say which cars are considered "good," right?

Not exactly, folks! Say "hello" to my size 14 foot! When I began driving, my first car, a 1972 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight, had an accelerator pedal as big as my foot. Oh, the power one had when they stepped on the gas with that thing! Nowadays, even the most luxurious of cars have gas pedals about half the size of the sole of my shoes! Let's not forget about spacing! One would hope that there is enough space between the pedals – along with uneven positions to the foot. This way, one would hope that my big right foot do not depress on two pedals – and that would be very dangerous.

Other than my oversized feet, my hands will indicate to me what cars are truly "good." When I feel the steering wheel, I want to see how it fits at the nine-and-three position. Not ten-and-two, not even a single hand on the rim…but the proper position for better maneuvering.

The gear lever must be tactile enough to switch ratios. Granted, gear change levers have changed. However, I still prefer the good old gated automatic shifter where I can "throw" it into reverse or drive with confidence. These new electronic shifters are a bit of a challenge, to be honest. Knobs are a completely different story.

My hands also like to touch many things. The keys and their remote lock fobs, for example. The fobs have to have a discreet and powerful touch for my fat fingers to operate. Old fumble fingers would rather have one thing to work instead of two.

What about the climate and audio controls? What about them? Again, fat fingers must be accommodated when turning a knob on pressing a button. This can also be applied for light switches, wiper controls, cruise control switches, hazard lamps, fog lamps and steering wheel-mounted controls.

Most importantly, the eyes need to taken in consideration when considering a "good" car. I wear glasses, so my eyes get that extra boost in the visual department. My eyes love big and clear instrumentation, including a tachometer and a fuel gauge I can read. Audio readouts must be understandable for someone with ADD. Oh, and once I adjust the seat and steering wheel right, I want to see the big picture: the speedometer, fuel gauge and the road ahead of me without dipping my head too much.

Speaking of sights for sore eyes, the car has to look good. Ugly lines scare me. Uglier details will make me run home and curl inside me bed. What's an ugly detail? Paint imperfections! OK, I do notice these things unlike most consumers, but this is a lesson for car buyers: scrutinize your chosen car before you sign any papers or cut any checks! I’m talking a deep cavity check here!

Did I miss anything? Actually, yes. There's performance, engineering, driving dynamics and other tangibles that make up a "good" car. These are measurements for competency.

Now that we got this out in the open, exactly what cars do I consider "good." This is where the problem lies. We have become so segmented in terms of vehicle types in matching needs and wants, it has become difficult to pinpoint which specific models would be considered "good."

Would I favor a SUV or pickup truck over a sedan or coupe in meeting the above criteria? Good question! There is a delicate balance between what consumers wants and actually purchase in contrast to personal taste. It is always the marketing and sales people who know better than some automotive blogger/writer/journalist. We just evaluate them and translate our results to you.

This brings up measuring driving dynamics, performance and so forth. Because there are base competencies for each vehicular category, one cannot put one measuring stick for every automobile or mode of transport. That would not be fair to impose a standard for a sedan upon a SUV or pickup truck. Deciding what a "good" car really is to ignore everything else using a singular set of matrices.

Just remember, you asked!

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