By on February 20, 2019

It’s easy for a car to disappoint — it’s seen all the time in the reviews featured on these pages. A squeaky seat here, loose trim there, or a ride quality as smooth as falling down a flight of stairs.

But what about those times when the opposite happens?
Today we want to talk about instances where a vehicle exceeded your expectations. The bar didn’t necessarily have to be low to start. Perhaps your expectations started out high, and the vehicle in question delighted anyway. The example I’ve got in mind was certainly an instance of a low bar to clear.

My expectations were so low because of the family lineage which preceded the car that impressed. By now you’re aware we’re talking Chevrolet Cruze; specifically the first generation. I didn’t have a lot of hope for the Cruze after considering its predecessors, the Cobalt and Cavalier. “Neither of those were very good,” I mused at the Avis counter. “GM will make the same mistakes again.”

And yet, no. The well-equipped rental Cruze (2LT I believe) rode pretty nicely. It was quiet at freeway speeds. The suspension handled rough roads and potholes with aplomb, and the seats were generally comfortable. The materials used, while not upscale, were at least competitive for the class. And the whole car felt solid, and like it was screwed together properly by people who weren’t drunk. The Cruze impressed me in lots of ways where I was expecting it to fall flat. I’d still recommend the first-generation Cruze as a used car buy, assuming one could be found that wasn’t used up, or a prior rental (same thing, really).

When did an experience with a vehicle surprise and impress you?

[Images: Mitsubishi, General Motors]

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87 Comments on “QOTD: Found Yourself Pleasantly Surprised?...”


  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    I have had a handful of first gen cruze for a rental. Every time came away thinking it was a pleasant place to spend ones time.

    Always for me the one I want to dislike, but I am drawn like a moth to light at the rental counter…..(wrings hands at the sky) damn you FCA! I’ll take the Dodge caravan or the Pacifica if you have one.

    I have a little over 200 miles this week in a Pacifica and will close out the day with 155 more when I drop the ride off to National and depart MDW. These things are freaking awesime to lay down miles; heated steering wheel and seats, perfectly acceptable audio with easy controls, can pair my phone in less than 2 minutes, cruise at 75 easy peasy while sitting up straight in a comfortable chair.

    While I am certain the one consumer reports got literally fell to pieces when they brought it back to the shop, every single one I have rented has been fine with no squeeks or fit and finish issues. If you need a van of this size the surcharge you pay for the Odyssey or Sienna makes no zero sense to me. I seriously doubt the additional repairs will outrun the cost differential.

    • 0 avatar
      Lie2me

      I had a similar experience with a Chrysler Town & Country a few years back. I was last to the rental counter when all they had left was this Chrysler. I had to cover about 600 miles on my business trip to call on various customers. I had no use for such a large vehicle since it was just me and a couple of bags, but I had no choice. Turned out to be a very comfortable road car and made my 600 miles quite pleasant

      • 0 avatar
        gtem

        I’ve had some good seat time in a Pacifica (8 hour slog from Des Moines to Indianapolis), and likewise came away quite enamored with the thing. An indicated 29mpg after sustained cruising at 77mph and some construction zone ending blasts from 55-80. I thought the interior was very good looking and well screwed together. When it came time to van-shop ourselves, we ended up going with the older Town and Country platform. Quite frankly the gap in price was just too big to ignore (paid $18,500 for our 34k mile ’16 Touring L T&C versus $24k for a similar ’17 Touring L Pacifica). Our T&C is crashier and creakier over bumps, that is undeniable, and MPG isn’t quite what the Pacifica can pull down, although we did see 27.7 on a highway drive back from Fort Wayne this winter. We did get a few features that were missing on a Pacifica: removable center console, and a way to drop just 1-2 gears manually. Touring L T&C also already gets you heated steering wheel, a Pacifica with that would widen that price gap even more. Finally even with its known weak points (TIPM and various cheap Chinese interior motors and actuators), the 5th gen Chrysler van is just more of a known quantity. The Pacifica is a move ever more further towards increasing number of control modules, flaky auto-start-stop, etc.

    • 0 avatar
      EGSE

      I was in a friends Dodge Caravan on a road trip and was surprised how much I liked it. Drove like a car, not a UPS truck which is what I expected. It was about 5 years old (give or take), everything worked and didn’t look/feel worn out. Seats were pleasantly elevated above the floor and more comfortable than I thought they’d be (wasn’t a stow and go). Roomy enough to swallow all the detritus we had. It was the best choice hands down for what we needed; there was no sedan that could have done as well.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Previous generation Kia Rondo. Have written about this before. Came with features that were either upgrades/options or not even available in much more expensive vehicles. Great visibility, seating. Excellent ergonomics. Fits 5 plus groceries/belongings comfortably (excellent headroom even in the back seat), and robust enough that many are still being used as taxis in mid-sized Ontario cities such as Kingston and Guelph.

    Unfortunately the newer generation was never sold in the USA. And I believe that the Rondo is now no longer available in Canada.

    Perhaps as another QOTD: ‘What older model/marque that you ignored or disrespected have you changed your mind about?” My opinion is based on the number of these that I still see driving around regularly, years after they stopped being manufactured.

    • 0 avatar

      I actually did this question already, albeit with a bit more historical angle.

      https://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2018/12/qotd-falling-in-love-a-little-too-late/

      • 0 avatar
        87 Morgan

        I was thinking the opposite QOTD

        which model left you scratching your head as to what all the hype was about?

      • 0 avatar
        Arthur Dailey

        I remember that thread and yes, it was interpreted with a historical angle.

        More relevant would be vehicles that you still see on the road.

        My first pick would be the Chev Astro/Pontiac Safari. Although now at least 14 years old, not a day goes by that I don’t see at least one of these still soldiering on, often as work truck for a contractor or courier. And some are still in pretty good shape, despite the amount of salt used in the GTA.

        Honourable mentions to 5th generation Malibus. Low revving 6 cylinder, strong transmission and styling that has aged gracefully.

        Toyota Echo. 1st generation. Bad handling, bad road holding and nearly impossible to kill.

  • avatar
    gearhead77

    Chevy Sonic- Had one as a rental and I liked the car. It had just enough quirkiness to offset the GM aura and more refinement than I thought it would. The original with the “motorcycle inspired” gauge cluster (or gage in GM speak) and the quad beam lights were distinctive compared to now.

    I leased a Cruze in 2015 when they were offering them for $99 a month. If I could have gotten a Sonic for that rate, I would have rather had that. But they wouldn’t lease Sonic like they leased the Cruze.

    The Chrysler LX cars. Never liked the first gen, but the refinements to styling and especially the drivetrain/interior from 2011 put these cars on my shopping list. Had a 300 in 2012 for a day and a Charger in 2014 for a week. Enjoyed them immensely, I just don’t really need that big of a car. But if something happened to my Golf tomorrow and I couldn’t find an Alfa Guilia that I want, I’d be shopping LX cars.

    Honorable mention: Kia Soul for the same reasons as Sonic. Quirky, useful and a decent drive for what it was. $12/day from Hertz over a weekend in DC was money well-spent.

  • avatar
    ajla

    Buick Lacrosse Avenir – holy sh*t this thing was great. The only wrinkle was the S/S system, which although was integrated decently, it wasn’t “inperceptable” either and GM should still give owners the ability to turn it off.

    • 0 avatar
      APaGttH

      The original TTAC review of the Buick LaCrosse from 2017 is positive and nails the pros and cons pretty well. I think a lot of the Haterade typed by the B&B are from people who never spent any real seat time driving the current gen with the 3.6 under the hood.

      It has its flaws – but it is a damn nice car. Alas GM can make more money slapping a CUV body on the same platform – suckers.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    The last-gen Jetta was nowhere near my shopping list a couple of years ago, but by a happy accident, it won me over.

    I’d also list the Infiniti Q50 as a pleasant surprise – as long as you skip the one with the silly Nintendo steering system, it’s a darn nice ride, and deserves a lot more respect than it gets.

    It’s too bad the current Cruze doesn’t measure up. I had one as a rental last summer while my car was in the shop for hail damage, and it was thoroughly underwhelming – it was dull and plodding on the road, and it had an infuriating (and non-defeatable) start-stop system. On the plus side, it had a smooth ride, and it had Android Auto, but when the phone’s plugged in, there’s nowhere for it to go but a tiny, rounded bin that lets it flop around while you’re driving. I once took a tight corner fairly hard, and the phone actually flew out of the bin and onto the floor. It’s no wonder that the Cruze is a dead nameplate walking.

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    I’m going to go with what most consider the ‘lowest of the low’, the Fiat 500.

    My wife needed a car with an automatic and while I had a Jeep Wrangler, which is what I would have preferred her to drive, considering our winters (ice storm coming as I type this) that Jeep was a 6-speed manual. The other vehicle we had was a 1990 full-sized pickup–with all the width you’d expect. While she enjoyed driving it, she was also concerned about meeting other vehicles because of its size and in one specific case, as we were going around a blind curve, we met another full-sized truck with its driver’s side wheels over the double-yellow line, forcing her to hit the shoulder… and very nearly into the ditch. She recovered very well, but after that event she refused to drive the truck again. I think you can see where this is headed.

    That’s right, we had to replace the truck and she wanted something much, much smaller. She really wanted one of the “new Beetles” but they’d already been replaced with that longer-nosed, non-Beetle that, as we all know, failed to inspire buyers–including her. By then she had seen the photos and commercials of the Fiat 500 and insisted that was what she wanted. I resisted because, like most of you, I thought they were essentially old-school econoboxes given an updated look. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

    We went down to the showroom and saw one she liked. She trusts my driving skills and asked me to test-drive it for her, with her in the passenger seat. I told her I didn’t expect much… that it would be weak and slow…unable to get out of its own way. We pulled out of the lot after I made sure there was lots of free lane to accelerate and hit the gas…that little beast launched like a roadster! I drove up to the next traffic light and once assured I could legally U-turn, I did so, garnering my second surprise a very tight and firm turning radius with almost no body roll. This thing felt nothing like what I’d expected! This had the firm, tight responsiveness of a sports car with acceleration that would have challenged my ’96 Camaro’s 6-cylinder engine at almost 3x the cubes. Oh, she was no luxury ride but she was a good ride; better even than my ’08 Wrangler.

    Pleasantly surprised? I was happily amazed. If I had room for three vehicles, I would very willingly add another 500 to my fleet or at least a Fiat 124 as my toy car. Only reason we traded the 500 is she realized she needed something just a little bit bigger, with some form of 4WD to handle the winters. She bought a Renegade.

    • 0 avatar
      Lie2me

      How does she like the Renegade?

      • 0 avatar
        Vulpine

        @Lie2me: The way she drives it, you’d think it was the Fiat 500. Surprisingly agile and quick with that 9-speed automatic, despite what certain reviewers have claimed. Oh, it does seem a little sluggish in some parts of stop-and-go traffic but most of the time it scoots right out.

        And I can’t fault the AWD. I’ve driven it out to the in-Laws’ farm in snow and ice before and never had any issues with losing traction. I like how FCA made the three-differential system work so cleanly with putting power on the wheels that have traction to prevent wheel spin. Even on the dirt and stone driveway (and moderately steep grade) the Renegade simply doesn’t slip, wet or snow.

        Oh, I’ve offered to trade her up to an automatic Wrangler, but she doesn’t want it. She really likes the Renegade.

    • 0 avatar
      Kenn

      “Oh, she was no luxury ride but she was a good ride; better even than my ’08 Wrangler.”

      An ’08 Wrangler is your yardstick for what constitutes a good ride? ‘Interesting perspective.

      • 0 avatar
        Vulpine

        Compared to earlier versions, Kenn, the ’08 Wrangler was quite good; certainly a lot better than my 1990 F-150, that’s for sure. And certainly no worse than my 2002 Saturn Vue. The Fiat rode and drove like a roadster, not a luxo-barge. The new Wrangler rides even better than the previous generation.

        Yes, my perspective is not from the luxury side but rather the utility side and the Fiat 500 has never been considered a luxury car, now has it?

    • 0 avatar
      el scotto

      Mr. Vulpine,
      the Fiat 500 has a LOT of space for a compact car. Since you’re somewhere between Charm City and Philly, look for an automatic Abarth.

      • 0 avatar
        Vulpine

        @el scotto: I won’t disagree; for as little as it is, when you fold the back seats down you do have a surprising amount of cargo space… but it’s not enough when you have to carry Christmas shopping AND two back-seat passengers along. That’s why she had to upgrade to the Renegade. Meanwhile, I replaced an underpowered ’97 Ranger with a V6 ’19 Colorado extended cab. Bigger than I wanted but the best choice available at the time. I’ll have to move a little farther out of town before I can add a third car to my ‘fleet.’

  • avatar
    e30gator

    I was handed down a ’99 Saturn SL2 (5-speed) in college that belonged to my father. It was clean and low mileage, but I expected it to be a bland experience. Not so. The “Twin Cam Power Module” was peppy, it handled nicely, and was well-screwed together. I made a back country road drive from Gainesville to Alachua everyday for work and the car was a lot of fun in that environment. After a 180k miles of ownership in my hands, it was still in great shape and I sold it to a family who was going to surprise their 16yo daughter with it. I was legitimately sad to part ways with that car.

    My 2015 Toyota Highlander is also something that I expected to be well-built, safe, and reliable, but not exactly a pleasure-inducing ownership experience. So far, it’s met all the aforementioned expectations but also it has been a smooth and quick vehicle that I enjoy taking on our weekend trips around the state.

  • avatar
    cognoscenti

    2015 Chevy Impala, with the 2.5 L 4-cylinder! Honestly, I was amazed at how much better the car drove with this engine versus the 3.6 L V6. It changed my mind about two huge things simultaneously: Chevy build quality (way better), and the need for a V6 in a midsize car (not necessary). It drove quietly and smoothly, with low NVH and nary a creak or rattle. The panel gaps were clean, tight and consistent, and with the four-cylinder it felt more balanced and light on it’s feet versus the V6, which felt decidedly nose heavy to me. I also really liked the maroon/red color and the rear fender creases could even be described as muscular when seen in late afternoon to dusk light. If sedans weren’t dying they could have upgraded it to the GM 9-speed (and paddles – I wish – instead of that ridiculous up/down button on top of the shift knob). Honestly, a handsome car and I’d like to have one again as a daily driver. I might go find one used, now that they’ve depreciated on the domestic curve far enough…

    • 0 avatar
      cimarron typeR

      Ha. I totally I agree, I rented one in LA.2015 (refresh year iirc) Mid grade 2.5 LT with vinyl cloth. Ridiculous amount of interior volume. Start stop wasn’t horribly integrated ,and was very quiet. I averaged 28mpg in LA. Adeuqate passing power, no NVH from 2.5 4 cyl.
      I recommended it to my father in law but he is keeping his Buick Lacrosse MY 2000 forever.

  • avatar
    jack4x

    2011 Subaru Outback 2.5 – wife’s former daily driver.

    From the comments I see here regularly, I should have expected the head gaskets to disintegrate the minute she drove it off the lot. Instead we took it from 20K miles to 90K without a single major repair. Not bad to drive with the 6 speed either.

    • 0 avatar

      I think people are too hard on Subaru in these parts with regard to reliability. I have a high-mileage one, and it’s fine.

      It’s not *refined* in many ways, but it runs great. And the interior looks nearly new.

    • 0 avatar
      Kenn

      I don’t believe anyone seriously expects every single unit to experience the infamous head gasket failure. But it was a well-known, widespread problem lasting at least 10 years before Subaru finally corrected it. That Subaru never acknowledged the problem is what will deter my ever considering the purchase of one of its products.

      • 0 avatar

        Now that is a fair point. They handled that badly and should’ve bit the bullet and did something for owners.

        • 0 avatar
          PrincipalDan

          Right.

          When people are scared of a brand due to its perceived reputation I’m always more concerned with how the dealer/manufacturer actually treat you when you have a problem.

          If they treat you like a king when you have an issue you tend not to mind so much.

          If you have ONE issue during the warranty period but they tell you to “go to [email protected]” then you’ll remember that for life.

          • 0 avatar
            Vulpine

            @PrincipalDan: “When people are scared of a brand due to its perceived reputation I’m always more concerned with how the dealer/manufacturer actually treat you when you have a problem. If they treat you like a king when you have an issue you tend not to mind so much. If you have ONE issue during the warranty period but they tell you to “go to [email protected]” then you’ll remember that for life.”

            If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were describing most FCA dealerships in my area.

          • 0 avatar
            jack4x

            FCA has done right by me.

            When a potential engine defect was uncovered in a certain run of vehicles including mine, they ran an oil analysis and would have replaced the engine no questions asked if it failed. Mine passed and they still extended my powertrain warranty to 10 years/100k miles.

          • 0 avatar
            Vulpine

            @jack4x: Oh, I have no fault with FCA, it’s their dealerships around me that I don’t like. With only two exceptions, it seems that all of the others want to screw FCA itself for every penny they can get–especially on Fiat cars but even on the ones they sell off their own showroom floors. Only one Jeep-only lot and the newest ‘chain’ store from out of area seem to be working for customer satisfaction rather than their own.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    2 contenders both GM.

    2012 W-body Impala fleet model (front bench and all) with 3.6 V6 and 6 speed auto. Belonged to the then director of special education. Got to ride in the back seat and then got to drive it roughly an hour back to central office because she didn’t feel like driving on the return trip.

    Backseat was the penalty box that W-bodies always were. Cushion too close to the floor and legroom in short supply. Slumped and spread legged was the intended seating position.

    DRIVING however was a treat. Effortless acceleration (once underway) and at 85 mph the engine was loafing around 1500 rpm. Reminded me in the best way of the last of the Box B-body sedans that I got to drive during my teenage years. If I wanted a cheap cruiser and didn’t care about the rear seat passengers it would be high on my list. (It is one of the reasons I want to give the current Impala a try. They kept the engine and improved everything else with the new platform.)

    Candidate 2 is the current (2nd gen) Terrain. My wife has a 2016 end of 1st gen model and I don’t particularly care for it. NA 4 cyl, 6 speed auto, FWD, and for the money she could have gotten a midsize sedan. It also doesn’t really do any better than my Highlander in highway fuel economy. However, her money, her loan, and her daily driver. I simply participated in the negotiation (at her request) to make sure she got a good deal.

    My Father-in-law wrecked his old Canyon and after the insurance payout was looking for something to replace it. Ended up getting a 2018 Terrain SLE 2.0T AWD with Towing Package & “Driver Confidence Package” that included heated cloth seats.

    I drove it on a trip from Gallup to Albuquerque and back. It was extremely pleasant to drive on the interstate. Quiet and the 9-speed kept it in its torque band to ensure that with the cruise set there wasn’t a slowing down and surging going up hills, I’d also swear it did some “engine braking” on the down hill sections to keep speed from getting out of hand.

    That engine was a beast, braking the tires loose when AWD wasn’t engaged (it’s selectable) and I loved the torque plateau. Felt like a rocket ship compared to the NA vehicles I’ve been driving at 6500 ft in altitude.

    Fuel economy was very high 20s and tickled the 30s on the mostly down hill portion of the trip.

    Only drawbacks are that I wish the cargo area was a little bigger, wish that the 2nd row slid forward and back (a feature GM pioneered and then deleted for this generation), and I’d need an SLT model just to get the power liftgate because the button to open it from the outside is in a stupid place.

    The Terrain is on my list although I would find it weird to have the same nameplate as my wife. It has also sent vehicles with the “old” 2.0T to the top of my shopping list. (Bleh on the “new” lower powered 2.0T.)

    • 0 avatar
      e30gator

      I’ve had a few later-model W-body Impalas as rentals, and I was surprised at how quick they were. I used to work at a Cadillac dealership in SW Florida that sold lots of DeVilles and later the DTS to retirees and the 3.6 in the Impala would blow away a Northstar-equipped Cadillac.

      They make pretty good cheap-o daily drivers today since they’re reasonably reliable and parts are cheap.

    • 0 avatar
      redapple

      DAN

      RE: GM Products. Does the start stop bother you? I HATE it and avoid all cars without the defeat button.

      Also, I prefer cars with a CD player. I know – I know, i m the only one. GM products killed off all CD players 3-4 years ago.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        There are at least two of us.

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        @Redapple…

        A.) In the Terrain I learned the “creep forward” routine that kills the stop/start. Stop at light (engine dies) creep forward a foot engine stays on (GM calls that “drive thru mode” because they don’t want you having to worry about on off on off on off when you’re trying to get your kid a Happy Meal.

        My commute is 90% highway and if it was a vehicle with an easily accessible manual mode (like the Regal) or paddle shifters (like the Lacrosse) I would just “row my own” in town which is literally 4 stops before I hit the state highway, engage the cruise, and arrive at work 25 min later.

        My driving routine makes it less of an issue. If I lived in the city and had to do the stoplight drag race for 30 min plus to get to work I can see how it would be a pain in the a$$.

        • 0 avatar
          geozinger

          PDan: Yes, the creep forward mode works really well. Especially in snowy weather when you’re trying to plow through six or more inches of precip.

          I compare it to getting ready to accelerate at a stop light in a manual transmission car. Of course, less and less people drive manuals, so that frame of reference is not applicable.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    A friend of mine bought a brand-new 2018 Elantra GT (new body style), base-model with a 6MT. I was impressed with how solid it felt and the levels of equipment you got with it.

    As for your Cruze, the same cannot be said for the 2nd-generation model. I briefly owned one, with literally every single feature they offered, including the RS Package, and it didn’t feel anywhere near as solid as the old Cruze.

  • avatar
    crtfour

    A recent Ford Expedition rental (the old body style). I like truck based vehicles, but more of an import fan over domestic. I was hoping for an Armada but was pleasantly surprised at how quiet and refined even the old body style Ford was…not to mention the power from the V6.

  • avatar
    theBrandler

    2015 Scion Tc 6sp manual. BIG surprise! It was faster than I expected, it handled very well, not just better than I expected, but it was very fun to throw around. It’s engine was a joy to wring out every last rpm, and the manual transmission was quick and engaging and the clutch was good. I was shocked.

    The interior was roomy, I could even get my kids car seats in the back without issue – on a coupe!? How they managed that I couldn’t quite figure out. The liftback was useful, and I’m a sucker for lift backs, I love them, and the ride was good for how well it handled.

    Overall I was shocked, and wanted to buy it. I almost did buy it, but the other aspects of it’s build quality gave me pause. It’s interior was the cheapest I’ve ever seen, and it lacked a coolant gauge, which I don’t consider optional. It also completely lacked any sound insulation so driving over any sand on the road made it sound like the underside of the car was being pelted to oblivion by rocks. I’d honestly never heard that horrible racket before on any car I’ve driven and it shocked me so much that I almost turned around to take the car back thinking it was broken.

    Honestly, I was so amazed at how fun and practical that Scion Tc was, that if it had a coolant temp gauge and enough sound insulation to make driving over sand sound like normal cars do, it would still be sitting in my driveway.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      Once rode a short distance in a tC that belonged to a teacher who came out to “tour” the area to see if she wanted to take me up on a job offer. Her Dad had tagged along (she was a mere 20 something) and I got stuck in the backseat. Very pleasant back seat and seemed like a totally livable daily driver.

      I could have pictured myself rocking a 6 speed manual model with a few TRD mods (but also mods that would be transparent to most people.)

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      Most temperature “gauges” in cars these days have about the same functionality as the light. If you really want to know the coolant temp, use an OBD2 dongle and readout of your choice.

  • avatar
    Middle-Aged (Ex-Miata) Man

    I rented a 2017 Cruze LS last Fall and came away fairly impressed. I thought it accelerated well for a compact car, got more than 40 mpg over a week of driving in Orlando and across Central Florida (verified at the pump) and it was impressively solid and rattle-free at 20,000 miles. As FreedMike said above, I also found the ridiculous stop/start system and overall cabin ergonomics to be demerits against its overall appeal, but to say I was nevertheless surprised by how decent the second-gen Cruze actually seemed would be an understatement.

    The Nissan Frontier SV Crew Cab 4×4 I rented last month was another pleasant surprise. At first it was a rather unwelcome “free upgrade” to the full-size sedan I’d requested from Enterprise, but I wound up having a lot of fun flogging it around for the week. As with the Cruze, I’d never own one, but with the Frontier I came away a bit happier knowing one can still buy a brand new 2005-spec small truck if they so desire.

    • 0 avatar
      Big Wheel

      @MAM & FreedMike,

      You can defeat the stop/start in a Cruze, at least in the LS trim with the six speed automatic. We leased one last fall as a third car for dirt cheap thanks to the piles of incentives on the hood that we qualified for. In the owners manual, it says the stop/start feature doesn’t work when the trans is in any other mode than D (Drive). My wife also found a youtube video on it. To defeat the stop/start, put the transmission in the L position which selects Electronic Range Select (ERS) or sometimes called Manual Mode. In the ICU, you will see L1 light up. This means you are limited to first gear. However, use the + button on the top of the shift lever to bump it up to L6. Voila, stop/start is defeated, & it will use all six speeds when you drive. I have noticed no difference in the transmission shifting between L & D modes, but we are in relatively flat Michigan. The owners manual says in L mode it may run in lower gears when climbing or descending hills. Not sure if this defeat procedure works in other GM cars – check the owners manual.

  • avatar
    don1967

    Of the many cars I’ve owned over the past 35 years, the only one that truly surprised me was the 2008 Hyundai Santa Fe.

    What was supposed to be a quick rule-it-out trip around the block turned into an extended test drive, and a major case of cognitive dissonance. The modern design, robust construction and buttery-smooth V6 engine took me completely by surprise. And the ownership experience which followed was nearly flawless.

    Our Hyundai surprise continues to this day, with our daughter currently driving an 8-year-old Elantra which has never exhibited a squeak, rattle or trace of mechanical trouble.

  • avatar
    jkross22

    Rentals that surprised pleasantly:

    – Cadillac Catera – the Caddy that zagged. Around 2000, choices were improving at National, but Catera was the best of the bunch. They’d throw ’em on the Emerald Isle every once in a while and it made the trip a little nicer.

    – Silverado pick up – brand new, good infotainment, cylinder deactivation and a bunch of other cool driver aids I’d seen for the first time. Nice ride.

    We’re shopping for a replacement for our POS X5, drove a bunch of smaller CUVs and despite it’s lack of newness, the surprise winner appears to be the GLC300. Drives much more solid than expected.

  • avatar
    EGSE

    My sisters 2010 Elantra GLS, the cheapo version. Handling is uninspiring, the seat fabric has wrinkled and hasn’t worn as well as my ’07 Civic and the sheet metal is remarkably thin.

    But for an inexpensive car the content is surprisingly good, even came with satellite radio. In over 100k of mostly city driving the reliability has been phenomenal…one oxygen sensor replaced for about $200. It just refuses to break. And I don’t feel tortured riding in it. For TCO it’s been a champ.

    I went with her to buy it and unfortunately the dealer experience checked every box for sleazy. For that reason alone she’ll look elsewhere when the next time comes.

  • avatar

    The Cruze was almost entirely designed and engineered in South Korea. Calling it an American GM car is a stretch. Its apparently has only 45% North American content.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      You say that like it’s a bad thing. There are millions of people out there in Korean engineered cars, doing things, living life.

      Or is it only bad because it’s a GM product and not a Hyundai/Kia/Ssyangyong, etc…

      Where do you think other brands of cars are engineered?

      • 0 avatar
        gearhead77

        And most of the first generation (all?) were built in Lordstown Ohio. I believe the parts content was 60% US in the first generation cars. I’m sure that changed when Mexican production started.

        My ’16 Cruze wasn’t my favorite car, but it was better than any Cavalier or Cobalt I ever experienced. But I wouldn’t have gotten another one. I had a ’17 while the ’16 was in the shop and I didn’t care for it.

      • 0 avatar
        darex

        I think he’s saying that the Cavalier was horrible. The Cobalt was also horrible, and it wasn’t until they turned it over to the Koreans, that GM finally had a semi-decent small sedan to offer. I concur. Even if it eventually was manufactured in North America, it was first manufactured, marketed and sold in South Korea, as a Daewoo model, and only later was brought to North America. On that note, I blame GM squarely for destroying Suzuki in North America, by forcing them to sell rebadged Daewoos as Suzukis (indeed, their worst ones!). Suzuki makes great stuff, that’s extremely reliable, but their reputation went down the toilet, when they were forced to sell those Daewoos, and they never recovered. It’s sad.

    • 0 avatar
      el scotto

      The only American content on my Lexus are the tires and maybe the spark plugs and wires. Oh, and the driver, SAR member here. Hyundai and Kia seem to be doing a bang-up job with vehicles. I imagine H/K have a design studio in Southern California and some engineering facilities in the greater Detroit area. The teeth-sucking euro-trash fanbois of all things German would be tearing their shirts to rags to find out that their beloved car company has some testing/engineering facilities in the greater Detroit area. Few, if any vehicles are designed/engineered/built in one specific geographical area. The parts semi is here. GM gets the money.

      • 0 avatar
        geozinger

        @gearhead: I can’t remember if Mexican production (for South America and maybe Middle East markets) happened on the first gen Cruze or not.

        @el scotto: Correct about the fanbois of all stripes, many North American manufacturers share suppliers, no matter the nameplate. I used to work for a Tier one, they supplied everybody, US, Asian and European.

  • avatar
    R Henry

    Kia Soul. When I first saw one, I considered it a clown car seeking to emulate the mark 1 xB.

    Upon driving a Soul over a two day rental in Minneapolis, I realized how much I liked the great view out the huge windshield, how wonderful it is to have lots of head and shoulder room, and the beauty of contemporary fabric seating surfaces..which don’t feel cold or make my butt/back sweat.

    Additionally, I drove a Soul very HARD during the parent teaching portion of my son’s BRAKES teen driving school (https://putonthebrakes.org which I recommend VERY highly!!!) That Soul was fantastic when pushed.

    • 0 avatar
      JMII

      +1 on the Soul. I got it as a “managers special” from Hertz once when ATL got snow and they shut down all flights. I drove back to FL overnight and found the Soul very pleasant as a highway cruiser. It was comfortable and got decent mileage. I too figured it was kind of joke of a vehicle and would handle terrible or be noisy, but not at all – it was just a normal car in a slightly odd but useful package.

      Another shocking yet similar vehicle is the Mazda 5 which is this micro-van MVP thing. It had sliding doors like a mini-van but manage to pull of looking (and driving!) small yet being HUGE on the inside. I got one as a random rental at a small airport (Greensboro NC) while traveling on business. I threw my bags into it and realized it would have gobbled up about 20 times more stuff. It wasn’t a Miata but it drove like a other Mazdas only with more upright seating and acres of space inside. Sliding doors are way more user friendly in parking lots so I see the appeal.

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        “Sliding doors are way more user friendly in parking lots so I see the appeal.”

        Although I know it wouldn’t have helped sales I wish Ford had put sliding doors on the Flex. Much more practical.

      • 0 avatar
        gearhead77

        JMII, I enjoy my ’17 Golf and we outgrew it as family, but our 2008 Mazda 5 GT is one of my favorite cars. It was more fun than any small box had a right to be and while it wouldn’t win many stoplight drags, it could make up for it in the corners. Zoom-zoom.

      • 0 avatar
        Liam Gray

        We had a brand new ’08 Mazda 5 with the 5spd Manual. The most fun minivan ever made. It was incredibly handy when my kids were little and a total blast to drive. It seats 6 and was barely longer than my 3 hatch. It started to develop electrical weirdness at around 80k miles and we sold it. I still miss that car.

      • 0 avatar
        pourspeller

        Bought a 2012 Mazda5 in fall of 2011. Seemed like the perfect urban runabout for a family with two small kids. We’ve kinda outgrown it now but the packaging is just so unbelievably efficient and it’s so easy to drive and park that it’s hard to get rid of – especially given that nothing has ever gone wrong with it. Ever. 160,000 kms and nothing but maintenance. And we’ve taken it everywhere – including some really rough logging roads for camping, packed with gear. Downsides are road noise on the highway, hard seats, cheap materials and the fact that it BARELY fits me at 6′ in the driver’s seat. And only because my height is in my torso, not my legs.

  • avatar
    spookiness

    For a while now I’ve been calling my 2010 Focus (bought 2014) the best crappy used car I’ve owned so far. It is ugly and on a very dated platform, but it has been holding up well. Lots of plastic inside, but at least it cleans up well. SES trim has heated leather-ish seats, Sync, moon roof, and all the basic niceities one expects these days. Its fairly quiet and easygoing on highway cruises, and sort of feels like a more substantial car. Downsides are small back seat and trunk, and perhaps less than robust front suspension.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    The 8th generation Chevy Malibu (Uglibu Mk2) was a surprise and a revelation to me. I’ve owned and been in a number of Epsilon I GM cars, they drive well enough but have a kind of “willowy” feel to them. Not that it’s stopped me from owning them over 15 years, but I’ve felt they could have been stouter or quieter.

    My kid leased a 2016 Malibu Limited but later needed an SUV for her daily drive, she let me keep the car until the lease ran out. I expected it to drive very much like my G6, or previous Malibu or even the Saturn Aura, but I was wrong. It was very quiet, very sure-footed and isolated, but in a good way. For the cheapest non-fleet car you could buy, it always impressed me every time I drove it. Quiet, quick and inexpensive to run.

    It was great for an old guy like me; cars come with so much stuff these days, I really didn’t want for much, except maybe the next level of stereo. No sunroof, no power seats, no fake leather, no fake wood, no 20” wheels and none of the fru-fru stuff my wife likes on cars. Due to the nature of greenhouses these days, I would have liked blind spot monitoring, but that was probably a trim level up, with the better radio. Not a deal breaker.

    Sadly, the lease was up last month, we had to give her back to GM. I tried to convince my wife to buy it from the dealer before it went back into the system, but we have been paying down debt lately, and frankly, she didn’t like the car. It was too lowly optioned for her (WTF)… I was not a big fan of the stop/start system, but like others, I learned to creep at lights (kind of like getting ready to go in a manual shift car) and the GM six speed autobox was just as tone-deaf as the ones in the Aura and G6.

    Bummer.

  • avatar
    Rick T.

    I’ve been picking up the Kia Optima from the 5 Star row at Hertz in Florida. I once picked a Challenger with a hemi. It’s what the heart wants but the limited visibility outward in unfamiliar territory and visibility with the local Popo who could take my license, it’s a very bad choice. Without a driver’s license it’s a very long walk back to Tennessee.

    • 0 avatar
      APaGttH

      I got a Challenger R/T with the 5.7 from Hertz out of Oakland about 5 years ago. Wrecked it an hour later on the Bay Bridge heading west into the setting sun out of the Treasure Island tunnel.

      Was blinded at just the right 1/2 a second to attempt to drive through a Toyota Camry that came to a sudden stop in front of me. No airbag deployed, but $8800 damage on the 2000 mile orange and black example.

      Hertz then handed me the keys to a Chevy Impala with 44K miles and the 3.5 under the hood, scratched to hell with a couple of small dents.

      • 0 avatar
        MRF 95 T-Bird

        Last summer I rented the Challenger RT from Hertz on a visit to the Denver area. When I was at the counter I thought to myself “They actually rent the Hemi?” It was less costly than a Mustang or Infiniti for us Gold members.
        I had a good time with it driving in the area and up route 25 to Wyoming. Cruising at 75 mph getting 26.5 mpg in a comfortable seats four, big trunk old school RWD was ok with me.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    In no particular order and over the last 9 years:

    1) Ford Edge – was a loaded model and I was super impressed outside of the Infotainment system crashing – a lot – but when it all worked, loved it

    2) Ford Fusion Hybrid – had one last year in the Bay Area – when I walked up I was a bit, “ugh, underpowered, hybrid with no trunk” but it had plenty of grumpf, got 47 MPG in combined driving, and the battery pack didn’t consume that much trunk space

    3) Chevy Sonic – had an LT with the 1.4T and auto in New Orleans about 4 years ago. Was brand new so still in the trial for 4G LTE Wifi and SiriusXM – a really, REALLY, underrated econobox – good highway manners, interior space that defies exterior dimensions – tossable urban runabout – this would have been really fun with a manual tranny

    4) Pontiac G8 – had one as a V6 rental in 2008 – it was brand new – 40 miles – they couldn’t find the keys and I waited 45 minutes while they looked – I was so impressed that I bought a G8 GT a year later

    5) Buick LaCrosse Premium FWD – had one in 2017 and we put about 1,500 miles on it over 5 days, including driving from Kansas City to Paducah, Paducah to St. Louis, St. Louis to Omaha, and Omaha back to Kansas City. Tossed in those trips was some urban stop and go and sitting in construction traffic. Quiet as a tomb, comfortable as a couch, 34 MPG, gobs of power

    6) Toyota Corolla S – had one in 2018 as a rental while I had my Avalanche in the body shop. To say I was less than pleased for this to be my…replacement…would be an understatement. CVT mimics gears better than any other CVT I’ve driven, more power than I expected, interior materials were nice (mostly) for the price point, best headlights I’ve had in a car in the last 10 years – HUGE trunk – surprising value for the money

    7) Mercedes GLK350 – this grew on me. It has some flaws including a shallow cargo area and a shifter arrangement that makes the Buick seem logical – those two aside this drove like a car, one could almost call it – sporty – great visibility for the era compared to competition – great looking – ya fine – it’s a “chick’s” CUV – I could live with one

    8) Nissan Maxima – had one in 2017 as an “apology” for the disaster $h1t box Malibu I had to return 36 hours after picking up – this is “buy/drive/burn” defined and a solid “drive.” The CVT is pretty much invisible, it feels faster than it is (the LaCrosse feels smooth, the Maxima has a velvet hammer feel, shockingly the LaCrosse is faster even though the butt dyno disagrees) interior materials are one class up from mainstream – I have a “premium” rental setup for next week and I’m hoping…hoping…

  • avatar
    neatnick79

    I was pleasantly surprised by a late-model rental Nissan Versa; it was well suited to LA traffic-good fuel economy, comfortable, not too loud since speeds were pretty low. In the past, I needed a new car on the cheap and bought a (well) used Ford Escort, in the ‘Pony’ trim (4-speed manual, manual steering, etc.). I loved that car despite its utter lack of content!

  • avatar
    threeer

    1st gen Cruze. Bought it used (was a 2013 that we bought in 2015). 2LT with leather, sunroof and RS appearance package. Man, shockingly nice car. Passed on to my son and his fiancé when our family-famous 1997 Tercel ran afoul with a semi and lost. We bought a 2017 Cruze hatch as a replacement. THAT turd has been detailed in depth on these pages. What a waste of resources.

    Dodge Grand Caravan. Needed a van to accommodate our adopted daughter’s budding passion for showing dogs. Found a 2016 last winter in R/T trim. The box may not be sexy, but dang if I don’t love driving it. Plenty of power, comfortable and holds a stupid amount of stuff (bought specifically for the stow and go).

  • avatar
    dividebytube

    Gee I rarely get to drive newer cars; last rental I had was long enough ago that it was a 2012 Mustang V6 convertible. I liked it but it certainly didn’t feel like 305hp. 6-speed auto? Weight? FordKey power-limited? It was, however, still a very nice ride and perfect for bombing around the beaches of Isle of Palms in South Carolina.

    I ended up buying a used 2014 V6 Mustang hardtop with a manual – and the engine (and transmission) feels a lot more powerful than my convertible memory.

    Got to drive the old man’s 2015 Buick Enclave and uh – it was okay for what it is supposed to do; but certainly nothing I would ever buy for myself. Same with his 2018 Equinox; which has a waaay cheaper interior and feel than the Enclave.

  • avatar
    slavuta

    Mazda6 – unbelievable interior quality even in base Sport trim. In fact, 2 days ago drove base trim of Santa Fe, it is $5K more but $5K cheaper than base Mazda inside.
    Jeep Renegade – nice interior in somewhat basic trim. All switch-gear feels pleasant
    Jeep Grand Cherokee – what a nice ride in that thing. I thought it is going to be truck-like
    Old Mazda929 – what a machine! Give me that square car back today. Silky engine. Just nice

  • avatar
    jatz

    First drive of an Aztek.

    So much haulage, so easy to drive.

  • avatar
    tankinbeans

    Several years ago, I had an Enterprise edition Accent as a loaner while my Grand Prix was being repaired (ate both of its front bearings and something related to the traction control system). I was expecting slow, hateful, loud motoring. While certainly not fast, I was able to give it enough beans to get into local freeways, once in front of a semi travelling exuberantly in the right lane. I met every degree of the tach. The car was slower and louder than was my preference, but it wasn’t hateful. In fact, it was that car which allowed my to give Hyundai/Kia a chance a few years later. The Accent felt cheap and cheerful.

    The Kia was slightly disappointing because of its wonky transmission, but that’s not the topic at hand.

  • avatar
    WallMeerkat

    The Cruze was part of the withdrawal of Chevrolet from Europe.

    When you can buy a good car (Cruze) based on the same platform and mostly same parts as a Vauxhall-Opel Astra for a lot cheaper, then why buy an Astra?

    I even thought that the sedan looked better than the 5 door Astra.

    GM had 2 mainstream brands competing amongst themselves, rather than complementing each other (as Renault and Dacia do in Europe). Even VW were starting to find Skoda stepping on the toes of their main brand, and clipped their wings a little in terms of pricing competitiveness.

  • avatar
    kenwood

    I’ll second the motion on the previous gen big Ford SUVs. I had been a Suburban guy for many years but I got a chance to test drive a Lincoln Navigator a few years back and was lulled by the extremely comfy ride. What a terrific cruiser.
    The thing rode smoother than my recent Cadillac does. Sadly, GM did something to their recipe for their big SUVs and they don’t ride like they used to. Nor are the seats as comfortable as they once were. Glad that Lincoln is embracing Traditional American Luxury.

  • avatar
    Pete Zaitcev

    I was surprised that my Wrangler never broke down in 8 years and 130,000 miles. One time a transmission cooler line started leaking. That was it. No electrical or software problems, no creaks or rattles, not even a hardtop leak! It seen the trail regularly, and one time I managed to overheat the transmission, by going over Imogene pass. I was lazy and stayed in high. Dropped it into low, and no problem. So much for union-made bailoutmobile. It was quality.

  • avatar
    Funky D

    The 2 truly pleasant surprises I’ve had are both currently in my garage.

    2011 Toyota RAV4. I’ve never been a Toyota (or any Asian brand) fan up until we got the RAV4. While certainly not an enthusiast vehicle by any means, it does the job it was made for as well or better than anything else on the road. The 2.5L 4 is surprisingly torquey and delivers good mileage. It eats up cargo and miles with ease.

    The other one is the 2012 VW Eos that I bought to succeed the 2006 GTO after GM dried up the parts supply. While not a fire-breathing monster like the Goat, the 2.0L is sufficiently fast, and the DSG grew on me. I like the European driving feel and the hardtop convertible roof makes for any open or closed driving experience you want.

  • avatar
    CincyDavid

    I’ll chime in not one, but TWO rental Nissans. I would no more buy a Nissan than fly to the moon, but I had positive experiences with a Versa sedan: huge back seat, larger than expected trunk, great little commuter car. And a new-bodystyle Altima. Doors sounded terrible, closed with a metallic “clank” noise, but when I picked it up at TPA, the trunk was open so I couldn’t see the badge…I could only see the c-pillar shape and thought I had lucked into a Maxima, in a sea of Kia Optimas. Overall a very competent car and the CVT wasn’t obnoxious at all.
    I don’t know if it’s dumb luck or what, but I have tended to get REALLY low mileage rentals from Alamo at Tampa Int’l…including a Cadillac XTS with 4 miles on it. The Altima had something like 900 miles on it. Perhaps a higher-mileage car would have been less impressive. I am scheduled to pick up a Ford Expedition (or similar) for a family trip in May, no telling what I’ll wind up with…


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