Auto writers are constantly exposed to carmakers' latest offerings, and the blistering pace of new-model introductions can cause yesterday's hot new entry to be quickly forgotten. But despite fast-moving competition, some cars retain their appeal even years after their initial fanfare has faded.
Cars that offer something unique in the marketplace can have real staying power, and even those that aren't especially unique can endure if they were particularly well executed to begin with. Both scenarios are represented in our list of five vehicles that still push our hot buttons after years on the market.
1. Honda S2000 (first introduced: 2000)
The S2000 was Honda's belated (by ten years) riposte to the Mazda Miata. Compared with the Miata, Honda's two-seat roadster is an edgier, racier machine, with a high-revving VTEC four and an oversteer-happy chassis. Changes over the years have been limited to massaging of the cabin and the suspension plus minor equipment additions. The engine has grown from 2.0 to 2.2 liters, but output is essentially unchanged. Still, the S2000's 237 hp--at a lofty 7800 rpm--is enough to zip this flyweight roadster to 60 mph in less than 6 seconds.
The biggest news in the S2000's eight-year history was the addition last fall of the track-focused CR (Club Racer) model. The CR has a retuned suspension, a stiffened body structure, and racier interior trim. The CR is also lighter than the standard S2000, largely because air conditioning and a radio have been relegated to the options list, and because Honda substitutes a lift-off hard top in place of the power soft top.
The CR highlights the S2000's singleness of purpose, a quality that has allowed the wee Honda to inspire devotion in its small but fervid owner base. S2000 owners are so fervid, in fact, that a group of nearly 500 recently gathered for an S2000 "Homecoming" at Honda's Southern California headquarters, where the guest of honor was S2000 chief engineer Shigeru Uehara. Not bad for an eight-year-old car.
Buy new: $34,935/$36,935 (S2000/S2000 CR)
Buy used ('00 model): $14,000
2. Mazda 3 (first introduced: 2003 as an '04 model)
It's not often that one car is a perfect choice for avid driving enthusiasts and flinty-eyed consumers alike, but any car that can pull off that winning combo is bound to remain popular deep into its life cycle. The Mazda 3 has accomplished that feat.
It's been a favorite of Automobile Magazine, and the enthusiast press in general, since its launch at the tail end of 2003. Sharing its sophisticated and sporting platform with the European-market Ford Focus and the Volvo S40, the Mazda 3 is a standout drivers' machine in the econocar set. At the same time, its fuel economy, reliability, maneuverability, and versatility (with that last one we're thinking of the four-door hatchback in particular) make the Mazda 3 an excellent choice for those who concern themselves only with a car's more practical virtues.
The latter group might be tempted by the Mazda 3 i, but we'd pass up that base model, with its 2.0-liter engine, in favor of the Mazda 3 s, which comes with a more potent 2.3-liter and also can be had in the more useful and cooler-looking hatchback body style. Serious speed freaks will head straight for the Mazdaspeed 3, whose turbocharged engine ladles on an extra 100-plus horsepower. In America, many small cars are sold as loss leaders with heavy incentives, but the Mazda 3 has enjoyed strong demand ever since its introduction. We expect the Mazda 3 will undergo a redesign next year, but the car's long-running popularity should help it retain a good measure of its value even after a new version comes along.
Buy new: $14,645 - $23,090
Buy used ('04 model): $12,000 - $14,300
3. Chrysler 300C (first introduced: 2004 as an '05 model)
The fanfare that greeted the Chrysler 300C was considerable. The car was embraced by hip-hop celebrities--to the great surprise of Chrysler executives--and it won plaudits from the press, including Automobile Magazine's Automobile of the Year award. The 300C, with its Hemi V-8, was in short supply for a while, an extremely rare circumstance for an American sedan.
Four years later, the excitement has passed. Sky-high gas prices have made the idea of a big, rear-wheel-drive, V-8-powered sedan less attractive. But for those who can get past EPA fuel economy estimates of 15/23 mpg, the 300C is still a pretty sweet car. (And for those who couldn't care less about fuel economy, the 300C SRT8, with its 6.1-liter V-8, is a rocket ship, albeit a thirsty one, with ratings of 13/18 mpg.)
The 300 has an old-school American flavor but with European finishing school manners. That's thanks to one-time sugar daddy Mercedes-Benz, which supplies the polished five-speed automatic transmission and whose E-class provided the basis for the 300's independent rear suspension. Cabin materials are the 300's real weakness, but the space inside is generous. The car looks big, but its overall dimensions are in fact rather tidy. Credit the imposing styling, which was so perfectly executed that the company's designers are having a hard time figuring out how to update it. That's what happens when you get something right the first time.
Buy new: $36,415/$44,705 (300C/300C SRT8)
Buy used ('05 model): $23,700/$29,500 (300C/300C SRT8)
4. Nissan 350Z (first introduced: 2002 as an '03 model)
Maybe the 350Z seems more than six years old because it took so long getting here. Nissan gave the new Z one of the most tortuous roll-outs since the glacial launch of the Ford Thunderbird--one that the company has now repeated with the new GT-R. The 350Z may have been slow in coming, but it's far from slow.
After its debut, Automobile Magazine clocked the 350Z at 5.5 seconds from 0 to 60 mph and in 14.2 seconds @ 101 mph in the quarter mile. Top speed is electronically limited to 150 mph. And unlike the previous decade's much-loved Nissan 300ZX, which came in twin-turbo and standard form, the 350Z gives every buyer the same potent performance. When the 350Z came out in the summer of 2002, we said it offered near-Corvette performance for $15,000 less--a proposition that is no less compelling six years on. Of course, the Corvette has upped its game in the intervening years, and the Z has too, albeit not as dramatically. The '06 model saw several changes, including a new 3.5-liter V-6 that boosted power from 287 hp to 306 hp.
That same year saw a much-needed upgrade in cabin materials, as the 350Z, like the Corvette, uses too much low-grade plastic. In lieu of a long options list, Nissan offers the 350Z in a panoply of models, and last year the company added the NISMO, which includes a high-visibility body kit, a revised suspension, Brembo brakes, a new exhaust, and special wheels. A more significant addition to the lineup took place in 2003 with the arrival of the roadster model. The roadster is fine for dedicated fans of open-air driving, but we prefer the lighter, sharper coupe. The return of the Z car was an eagerly awaited event, and with the perspective of the passing years, we can safely say that the car has lived up to the anticipation. The sports car market can be faddish, but a car as fast, fun, and affordable as the 350Z is unlikely to go out of style.
Buy new: $28,510 - $36,740 (coupe); $36,280 - $40,980 (convertible)
Buy used ('03 model): $18,500 - $20,900
5. Jaguar XJ (first introduced: 2003 as an '04 model)
These days, all the talk at Jaguar is about the newly introduced XF sedan, with little said about that car's bigger brother, the XJ, which is getting on in years. But the XJ still has charms of its own. Design-wise, the XJ is the last of the old-school Jaguars, a situation for which it was roundly criticized at its debut, but which might be preferable for those luxury sedan buyers who like to travel discreetly.
The dated cabin decor is for confirmed traditionalists only, but the XJ--particularly in long-wheelbase form--has stretch-out roominess that the smaller XF can only dream about. The XJ's old-fashioned elements are really not the source of its continued appeal, however; the car's desirability is due to the advanced aluminum architecture that hides under its traditional-looking skin. The resultant lighter weight (the XJ is hundreds of pounds more svelte than most of its rivals) pays dividends in every area of dynamic performance.
Jaguar makes the most of that advantage with its typically skillful blend of athletic handling--abetted by near-perfect steering--and a plush ride. The weight savings also pays off in the newly relevant arena of fuel economy, where the XJ, with its standard V-8, posts better numbers than any of its competitors. Even the thirstier supercharged V-8 easily outpaces the Germans' V-12s and matches the highway figure for the LS600h hybrid. (In city driving, though, the hybrid Lexus beats all comers.) The XJ might have been styled with an eye to the past, but the car's engineering was forward-looking indeed.
Buy new: $64,500 - $94,750
Buy used: ('04 model) $24,900/$33,200 (XJ8/XJR)