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Sedans get an extreme makeover

by Courtney Caldwell

When the minivan launched in the mid-80s, automakers made a big mistake. In an effort to reach young families they marketed the minivan to women with kids, labeling young, vibrant women as "soccer moms." And although the minivan was conducive to family lifestyles it was soon resented by women across America because of the image it represented. Owning a minivan was like wearing a T-shirt that said, "I'm a mom with kids and no longer sexy." The resentment led to a drop in minivan sales, an increase in SUV sales, and the subsequent birth of the crossover vehicle, a buff version of the station wagon.

It seems some automakers are learning from their past mistakes with the launch of the 2004 sedans. Once upon a time, the sedan was known as middle America's boxy boring blimp. Sedans, the most common of cars purchased, made a statement too. They said, "Hey, look at me, I drive a sedan because it's practical and I can't afford much else."

Is there some reason a sedan can't be beautiful instead of boring? What rules are there that say a sedan can't look elegant instead of practical? Who says sedans can't be stylish and safety conscious? With a price tag of $15,000 to $24,000 for the average sedan today, there's no reason why sedans can't deliver these things and more. Finally, automakers agree.

The Toyota Camry and Honda Accord have been the market leaders for years when it comes to sedans. Why? Because they're so darn dependable and for that reason, have a great deal of customer loyalty. However, after testing the competition, our friends at Toyota and Honda might have something to worry about.

2004 Chevy Malibu Maxx
'04 Chevy Malibu Maxx

The Chevy Malibu has had a facelift for 2004 with all-new styling and much-improved quality. But it's the more than 60 new safety features that rocked my world. The Malibu Maxx offers adjustable pedals and steering wheel so people of all sizes can drive comfortably. Airbags, positioned front and rear, will deploy in rollover accidents. And my personal favorite, remote start, which means a Malibu can be started from a living room or office on hot or cold days. While these offerings are groovy, the one safety feature that no driver should live without, which now comes standard with Malibu Maxx, is OnStar, a concierge service that is as good as having your own personal bodyguard and secretary while on the road.

2004 Suzuki Verona
'04 Suzuki Verona

Verona. Just the word alone sounds elegant. That's the name Suzuki selected for its new entry into the sedan market, and what a sedan it is. This car feels more like a luxury car than it does a sedan. Style, elegance and performance all wrapped up into a price that knocked my sox off, under $18,000. A sultry subtle wood grain interior compliments the supple leather seats giving the Verona a quiet elegance that is found in the likes of a Jaguar or Lexus. We liked this car so much that we've requested it for a one-year long-term evaluation. If you've never thought of Suzuki as a car company contender then think again.

Mitsubishi Galant. Mitsubishi is a car company that drove itself into the ground over the past few years with a marketing campaign aimed at young buyers who couldn't afford car payments. As a result the Japanese automaker forecasted a net loss of $674 million in the first half of 2003 ending September 30. The American CEO left abruptly "to pursue other opportunities" leaving Mitsubishi in a self-inflicted tailspin. So much for the launch of their newly designed 2004 Galant, now overshadowed by company woes. While the car is attractive, it may be wise to stay clear of buying any Mitsubishi until its new CEO, Finnbar O'Neill, rescues the company from its near-death experience, and cleans house of those who contributed to its downfall, starting with those who head Mitsubishi's public relations department. It wouldn't be fun to buy a new Mitsubishi now only to find out later you can't get parts or service.

These are the latest sedan offerings for 2004. But they're not the only ones. In 2003 others entered the market with re-designs or new entries altogether.

2004 Nissan Altima
'04 Nissan Altima

Nissan Altima. Now here's a car company that knows how to make cars and knows the secret to success. Their newly designed Altima shines with the best of them in not only the sedan market but in the luxury market as well. It's hard to believe that a car built this well and looks this rich is even called a sedan.

The Hyundai Sonata is sharp and classy easily competing on a level playing field with all competitors in its field. Its softly stated classic lines and elegant styling have made it a huge hit with consumers. Just check out the freeways to see for yourself.

Can you really buy a luxury car for a starting price of just $15,500? Kia seems to think so. The Optima is their entry into the high society of well-appointed sedans. The Optima looks the part with its distinctive lines, clear-lens halogen headlamps and chrome accents. It's also loaded with safety features.

2004 Kia Altima
Kia Optima

Sedans are no longer made in the image of our grandparents. They're also no longer made or marketed to make buyers' feel like they're driving an inferior vehicle. Style and elegance can be had at affordable prices -- and still provide the practicality and dependability one needs. Sedans are back in style in every sense of the word.