Familiarity and name recognition matter most for many car buyers. Like that morning cup of coffee from a chain store, you know what you’re going to get every time. But popularity isn’t always a perfect indicator that something is better. When you’re on the lot it can be easy to get wrapped up in the best-selling sedans, SUVs, and crossovers when there are plenty of other cars and trucks that go above and beyond in terms of quality, economy, style, and value.
With that in mind, we’ve rounded up 10 hidden gems that deserve a second look at the dealership.
You knew we had to start with everyone’s favorite automotive underdog. Mazda will never have the sales power of Honda or Toyota, but that sure doesn’t mean cars, such as the handsome Mazda6, fall short against the mighty Accord and Camry. For starters, this family sedan is flat out sexy. It’s like a Tesla Model S, except with more curves and a price that’s only a fraction of the Tesla’s. A 184-horsepower four-cylinder provides plenty of punch, and the EPA estimated highway mileage of 35 miles per gallon is easy on your wallet. The polished ride and crisp handling are where this Mazda really shines — it’s a sport sedan masquerading as a sensible family car.
2. Cadillac CTS-V
Take a Buick Lacrosse, and strap a missile onto the back. The result would be something similar to the Cadillac CTS-V, a 640-horsepower performance monster that eats BMWs and Mercedes for breakfast. No really, it does. Except when you’re not gunning it, this American luxury car is an absolute kitten to drive. The ride won’t rattle you to pieces, and the 6.2-liter V8 is happy to hum along at polite legal speeds. However, anyone who knows better will understand this is a Corvette with four doors, plain and simple. Too bad BMW M and Mercedes AMG products get all the glory and attention.
3. Chevrolet Cruze Hatchback
To be fair, it’s too early to say whether the Cruze Hatchback is going to make a sizable impact on sales charts. Brand new for 2017, the five-door Cruze shares the same front-wheel drive, four cylinder-powered mechanics with its sedan sibling. But the Hatchback looks classy and elegantly European from some angles, and that cargo hold accommodates a massive amount of stuff. Fold the rear seats down, and throw a baby grand piano in the back — well, maybe that’s being optimistic. Chevy proves that smart, budget-friendly cars are something it can do well (when it tries). Will anyone notice? We hope so.
4. Volkswagen CC
OK, the CC is overdue for an update. But this German sedan reminds us of how good Volkswagen can be when it doesn’t try to be all things to all people. In VW’s rush to be a German equivalent to Toyota, the brand lost a lot of what made its affordable range so endearing. The Jetta and Passat became anonymous in design and driving manners. The Golf is still great, but Americans aren’t so keen on hatchbacks (see Chevy Cruze above). The CC has loads of style, enough room for four adults, and that Germanic feel in its driving controls that used to make VW products the working man’s Audi or BMW.
5. Fiat 500 Abarth
Don’t let its small size fool you. The Fiat 500 Abarth is a city car that loves to rip and snort its way down the road. With the exception of much more expensive sports cars, you’re not going to find an exhaust note that comes close to the sound you get in this Abarth. Not even Fiat’s own 124 Spyder sounds this good. The 160-horsepower, 1.4-liter engine is a riot, snarling and spitting like a Ferrari in tadpole form. The manual gearbox isn’t as precise as we’d like it to be, and the ride isn’t going to make a 500 Abarth your first choice for cross-country driving comfort. But for shorter thrills in a tiny wheelbase, this Fiat is ridiculously fun.
6. Porsche 718 Boxster
It’s true Porsche’s best-sellers are all SUVs or sedans. The Macan and Cayenne are far and away the firm’s most popular models, followed closely by the Panamera and, finally, the iconic 911 sports car. Way down at the bottom of the sales chart, you’ll find the Boxster and its hardtop mechanical twin, the Cayman coupe. Either one is a lesson in superb engineering, with the Cayman getting the slight nod if you’re after the ultimate in performance. Yet, we’d recommend all those Cayenne and Macan buyers give the Boxster a chance because, after all, who doesn’t love a convertible? New turbocharged four-cylinders give the Boxster/Cayman combo even more straight-line urge than ever before.
7. Toyota 86 Coupe
You’re going to miss this one when it’s gone. The Toyota 86 Coupe was developed in cooperation with Subaru, and when it first came out, it arrived as the Scion FR-S. With the Scion brand being jettisoned, the FR-S has been lumped into the Toyota stable. Many bemoan that the flat-four-cylinder engine (a Subaru creation) only musters about 200 horsepower. Yes, the 86 feels like it can handle double that output. But this sport coupe has handling that is matched only by the world’s best sports cars. It reminds us of the Porsche Cayman, except it’s half the price.
8. BMW 3 Series Wagon
BMW has a full stable of SUVs and crossovers, and people buy them by the truckload (pun intended). The real BMW fan-boys — those with lots of people and stuff to haul — are savvier. The 3 Series Wagon has German sports sedan driving manners and timeless good looks, along with a cargo hold that shames many so-called “utility” vehicles. Sure, you don’t have the higher center of gravity you get with an SUV. You also don’t have all that unnecessary mass, simply because you wanted to pretend someday you’re going to tackle the Rubicon. Fitted with all-wheel drive — or for the ultimate car unicorn, a diesel engine — the 3 Series Wagon is an all-weather champ.
9. Mazda MX-5 Miata
There are few things you can do on four wheels — legally — that are more fun than the Mazda MX-5 Miata. The combination of a lightweight, two-passenger roadster body and taut rear-wheel-drive chassis, the Miata has always been a blast. Of course, if you’re especially tall you might not fit. Sorry to the long-limbed out there. For anyone else, the Miata handles like a dream, has a precise manual shifter that shames those found in many exotic cars, and it’s inexpensive to buy and maintain. Because it’s cute, the Miata isn’t taken seriously by many people. That’s too bad because this little Mazda is outrageously good.
10. Ford Flex
This is an oddball choice, even for us. Is it a wagon? Is it a truck? Maybe it’s a crossover, of some sort. We don’t know what to call the boxy Flex, but its spacious cabin, look-at-me design, and turbocharged, 365-horsepower V6 give this Ford some serious attitude. It reminds us of a surfer van, albeit one that could double as a grocery-getter. The Explorer and Escape snag all the sales glory, but the Flex is the one that truly stands out in a crowd.