If the idea of walking onto a new-car lot reminds you of going into battle, you're not alone. The salesmen can be trickier than a Taliban ambush. But there may not be a better time to buy. "If you look at the industry numbers, they're down, so dealers are willing to deal, and there are a lot of incentives out in the market," says USAA vice president Tom Ferries, a former Army infantryman.
Interest rates are among the lowest ever, and military credit unions can arm you with some of the best new-car loans available.
Some lenders, including USAA, Navy Federal Credit Union and others, offer 100 percent financing with a 2.99 percent annual rate. That brings your monthly payment on a 60-month loan for a new Ford Mustang G-6 to just under $400. Some intel straight from the front to help you get started on your hunt after the photo gallery. (The gallery features cars in the order they're mentioned in this story.)
One thing that's mostly missing from the American SUV market is a diesel-powered SUV, and one thing that's completely missing is an affordable diesel SUV. That's the niche India's Mahindra Motors is hoping to fill with its Scorpio, a medium-compact-sized four-door/five-passenger four-wheel-drive SUV with a 2.6-liter turbo-diesel four-cylinder engine. The Scorpio produces torque comparable to the output of a large V-6 or small V-8 while delivering consistent 20-something mpg average fuel economy. The very high torque output at low engine speed is ideal for serious off-roading or fording heavy snow and gives the Scorpio a best-in-class tow rating of 5,000 pounds. But Mahindra is a new face in the U.S., and dealers will be few and far between for the first few years.
• Estimated base price: $19,500.
Kia enjoyed an unexpected monster hit last year with its "attitude" crossover SUV, the Soul. This year, Nissan's hitting back with the 2011 Juke. It'll be hard to miss with its aggressive pontoon-style fender flares, hood-mounted projector-beam headlights, "shaved" rear door handles and a swooped-back roofline like a '50s greaser. It will back up its tough-guy looks with a standard 180-horsepower, turbocharged, 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine with direct injection teamed with either a CVT automatic or six-speed manual transmission. All-wheel-drive versions will be available. Expect the Juke to start showing up at Nissan dealerships around September.
• Estimated base price: $18,500.
Minivans are out — at least traditional full-size minivans. But the people-carrying functionality of a minivan-like vehicle is still very much in. Orlando will arrive at dealers sometime in the spring or summer of 2011. Look for tight packaging on the outside with three rows of adult-friendly seats on the inside and room for seven passengers using a system Chevy calls Flex-7, with a fold-flat third row and second row seats that slide forward and backward to maximize cargo capacity or legroom. The concept car Chevy displayed for the media had a neat, full-length panorama glass roof. All-wheel drive may be available later in the production run.
• Estimated base price: $22,000.
Land Rover Evoque
The Evoque will be Land Rover's first two-door model in many years; it will also be more street-oriented than the off-road-intended Land Rovers of the recent past. This is a bow to practicality and reality. As capable off road as Land Rovers have always been, few of them ever see much real off-road use. The Evoque will be the smallest, lightest and most fuel-efficient Land Rover model the company has ever produced. It will be slightly smaller than the current Land Rover LR2 and set up to seat only four people in a more intimate, sports coupe-like layout. The rear area will be mostly for cargo, though fold-away jumpseats may be offered. Scheduled launch is late 2010 or early 2011.
• Base price: $37,000.
The name is the same, but that's about all that carries over. Explorer changes from a truck-based, heavy-duty frame and chassis with a rear-drive-based four-wheel-drive system to a car-based, light-duty unibody chassis and front-wheel drive (with all-wheel-drive available optionally). The really huge news, though, is under the hood, where there's a 2.0-liter, 230-horsepower turbo four in place of the formerly optional V-8, which has been retired for good. A 3.5-liter, 290-hp V-6 is standard. Equipped with these engines, Ford says the '11 Explorer's fuel economy should be up to 30 percent better than the previous model. The '11 Explorer will also feature an advanced form of stability control called Curve Control designed to automatically correct for driver error. The optional all-wheel-drive system will feature driver-selectable terrain sensing.
• Estimated base price: $29,500.
Chevy hopes the Cruze will meet segment leaders Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla on equal terms — unlike previous efforts such as the so-so Cobalt. The Cruze is an all-new "premium" compact economy sedan equipped with standout features including 10 (count 'em — 10) air bags, a six-speed manual transmission and 40 mpg highway fuel economy potential — if you choose the Eco version, which comes with low-rolling-resistance tires and a 1.4-liter turbocharged engine designed for maximum economy. The only obvious downside to this car is the fact that, at least for now, the Cruze is only available in sedan form while many of its competitors are also available as coupes or hatchback wagons.
• Base price: $16,275.
Can hybrids be fun and fuel-efficient? That's the question Honda hopes it can answer with the new CR-Z coupe. The compact two-seater has a drivetrain similar to the late '90s Insight hybrid, but it's set up to do more than just get really good gas mileage. A slightly larger, significantly stronger 1.5-liter gas engine supplemented by an electric motor and battery pack together produce 125 horsepower. The available six-speed manual transmission is a rare, sporty feature for a hybrid. Honda claims the CR-Z will be capable of 40 mpg on the highway and close to that in city driving, where its electric-assist drivetrain is most efficient. The only potential downside is the two-seater layout.
• Base price: $19,200.
We will likely be seeing more European-style, value-priced subcompacts like the new Mazda2 on American roads. It weighs just 2,300 pounds and is only about 12 feet long. Small outside, the Mazda2 still manages to be reasonably roomy with a five-person capacity and more front-seat head and legroom — 39.1 inches and 42.1 inches, respectively — than a physically larger compact sedan such as the Toyota Corolla. Back-seat legroom is tighter but still works for carrying most average-sized adults. The car's 28 cubic feet of trunk space is more than twice that of the best-selling Corolla's 12.3 cubic feet. The one downside to the flyweight Mazda2 may be that it'll feel a bit outsized on American highways.
• Base price: $13,980.
While the new Fiesta is inexpensive, it's far from being low-rent. Build quality is better than the best mid-priced cars of yesteryear, and equipment that wasn't even available on high-end cars back then — capless fuel filler system, electric-assist power steering, push-button ignition, dual-clutch six-speed automatic — is either standard in the '11 Fiesta or optional. You can even get seat heaters in this thing. Another plus is the Fiesta's two available body styles, sedan and five-door hatchback wagon. Ford says it'll get 40 mpg on the highway. The only fly in the pie is that GPS isn't available. Ford may have decided aftermarket units are becoming more popular than factory-installed systems.
• Base price: $13,320.
Just 10 feet long, the iQ could be the ideal city transport module. It seats four, but still fits into motorcycle-sized parking spots and tucks into tight alleys and other places no other car — even a "compact" — could hope to negotiate. The similar-looking Smart Car could do all that, too, but it barely had enough room inside for the driver and one passenger. The iQ may not be a family hauler, but with a pair of rear seats, you can carry more than one passenger or groceries. Toyota is talking high-30s in city driving, so highway mileage should be well into the mid-40s. It arrives in dealerships in late 2010.
• Base price: $14,215.
The '11 Regal is about the same size as a Camry or Accord but has a larger trunk and delivers excellent gas mileage — 30-plus mpg on the highway — courtesy of a 2.4-liter, 182-horsepower engine with direct fuel injection. A six-speed automatic is standard, but later in the model year, Buick will offer an optional six-speed manual transmission to make the '11 Regal the first stick-shift Buick in decades. Overall, this is the most engaging-to-drive Regal since the '80s-era rear-wheel-drive muscle coupes that also bore the Regal name. It comes standard with 18-inch rims and performance tires.
• Base price: $26,245.
The Malibu has been an American family car favorite for decades, even as the underlying chassis has evolved from rear-wheel-drive ('70s and '80s) to the current front-wheel-drive layout. While some things have changed, much remains familiar — most notably the Malibu's easygoing nature. Even the V-6 version, among the quickest cars in this segment, has a relaxed, big-car feel to it — because of the Malibu's relatively long wheelbase, for one. Its looks, meanwhile, are conservative and very American ... a squared-off, masculine lug of a car.
• Base price: $21,975.
Suzuki Kizashi Sport
The Kizashi is a brand-new model for Suzuki and the automaker's first serious attempt to compete head-on against established players in the midpriced, family-sedan segment. It comes standard with a high level of luxury and convenience features, including keyless ignition, projector beam headlights, a premium stereo with USB port and nine speakers, and dual zone climate control. The Sport version adds standard 18-inch wheels, a more macho front-end treatment and firmer suspension settings. Suzuki also offers reassuringly long-lived 100,000-mile powertrain warranties. Obvious potential downsides are the lack of an optional V-6 and the "generic brand" status of Suzuki, at least when it comes to cars.
• Base price: $18,999.
This all-new mid-sized sedan looks as slick as George Clooney in a tux. Its standard 198-horsepower, four-cylinder engine puts out close to V-6 power, too. Its chief virtue, though, is its limousine-like cabin. Compare its astounding 45.5 inches of front-seat legroom to Camry's 41.7 inches and Malibu's 42.2 inches. But that living-large front-seat roominess comes at the expense of backseat passengers. The Sonata has noticeably less rear legroom than either the Malibu or the Camry. But the room in back is still in line with the competition — adequate for all but the tallest adults.
• Base price: $19,195.
As Toyota evolved into a family and economy car brand, it began to lose ground to Honda and others when it came to younger buyers looking for more curb appeal and personality. Enter Scion, Toyota's youth-targeted spin-off. The tC coupe gets a full makeover for 2011, centered around a brand-new 2.5-liter, 180-horsepower engine. The engine features electrically driven power steering to cut parasitic drag and boost performance and economy. Eighteen-inch wheels and a six-speed manual transmission will be standard, along with a large, panorama-style sunroof.
• Base price: $18,800.
Ford Mustang V-6
Pony cars like the Mustang used to come two ways: the V-8 performance version and the "Rental Car Special" version. That's changed some. The '11 Mustang's standard 3.7-liter V-6 puts out an almost unbelievable 305 horsepower — 100 horsepower stronger than the "high output" 5.0-liter V-8 used in '80s-era Mustang GTs. It also gets 31 mpg on the highway. The standard Mustang also comes fitted with 17-inch wheels and performance tires, limited-slip axle and the same basic suspension setup as the even hairier V-8 GT. More power is always good, but with the '11 Mustang, it's no longer necessary. The base car runs as hard as the V-8 versions used to, gets much better gas mileage and costs a lot less to buy and insure.
• Base price: $22,145.
VW Golf R
Everyone likes the VW GTI, but its 200-horsepower rating just doesn't seem like all that much. The new Golf R — now only available in the European market — leapfrogs the current GTI with a 265 horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter engine, dual-clutch Direct-Shift Gearbox or conventional six-speed manual, and permanent all-wheel-drive. With 15 more horsepower than the old R32, the Golf R should be significantly quicker. With an updated chassis and "active" suspension with multi-mode settings, it should ride and handle even better, too.
• Estimated base price: $34,500.