5 Best Cars For Your New Year's Resolutions

NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- New Year's resolutions are just the first step on a long road to fulfillment. Why not drive there instead?

Carmakers may want to resolve themselves to keeping on track in 2012 after more than 10% vehicle sales growth through the first 11 months of the year. That's an improvement of 1.1 million vehicles from the same span in 2010, but not all of those vehicles will be able to help passengers reach their goals for the new year.

A Marist Poll released last week found that 38% of Americans plan to make a New Year's resolution this year. That jumps to 59% for Americans younger than 45 years old and 64% of those under 30. That's down from the 44% of Americans who made similar promises last year, but last year's results bode well for this year's crop. Of those who vowed to make changes after 2010, 67% stuck to their word.

The themes of 2012 New Year's promises are as well-worn as treadmill belts in January or financial planners' floorboards in February. Nearly 40% of next year's resolutions involve losing weight, exercising more or getting healthier in general. Another 9% want to spend less money and save more. The same percentage wants to stop smoking, while 4% just want to be kinder to others or "enjoy life."

For each of those resolutions, there's a car built to get folks to their goal. With a little help from experts at car-pricing sites Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book, we've put together a list of five vehicles ready to get your resolutions rolling:

Get fit (best car for active lifestyle): Subaru Outback
This was the only category on which Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book experts found agreement. The Subaru Outback made it easy.

"It's big, with all wheel drive, great ground clearance, decent efficiency and a nifty roof rack," says Phil Reed, Edmunds' consumer advice editor. "There's a reason the Outback is so popular in Alaska, Colorado and Vermont."

The Outback sits 8.7 inches off the ground and clears bumpy dirt roads and snow-covered trails with ease. It's a big ski-season favorite partly for the roof rails with fold-out crossbars for lugging gear but mostly for its all-weather package of heated seats, heated mirrors and a windshield wiper de-icer.

A bunch of added interior space doesn't exactly hurt the cause when it comes to stowing bikes or boards. Once a short, serviceable legacy wagon, the Outback now has more than 34 cubic feet of storage behind its rear seats and more than 71 cubic feet with those seats knocked down.

A manufacturer's suggested retail price starting at $23,000 may seem a bit adventurous for a cost-conscious customer, but a not-bad combined mileage of 24 miles per gallon for the four-cylinder version and comfortable performance on road and off helped Kelley Blue Book single out the 2012 Outback for its outstanding resale potential.

Save money (best affordable car): Chevrolet Cruze or Honda Fit
A starting price of less than $14,000 is a great start for frugal car buyers, but the Chevrolet Sonic ( GM) caught Edmunds' attention with a comfortable ride, smooth steering and combined mileage of nearly 30 miles per gallon.

"Inexpensive. Fun to drive. Good gas mileage. This is an econo-box, but not a penalty box," Edmunds' Reed says.

It also throws in a lot of toys for the money. The base LS model includes a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, a 60/40-split rear seat, a trip computer, OnStar emergency system and a four-speaker AM/FM stereo with an auxiliary audio jack. The LT upgrade throws in six-speaker audio, heated mirrors, remote starter, full power accessories and a Connectivity Plus package of cruise control, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, an iPod/USB audio interface and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls.

Unfortunately, it does little to improve the hatchback's less than 31 cubic feet of cargo space. That was a big reason Kelley Blue Book chose Honda's ( HMC) Fit as the "most fun and most versatile" subcompact car available. Though its starting price is more than $1,000 higher than the Sonic's, the Fit comes with keyless entry, cruise control and a CD player with iPod/USB jack and interface standard in its base model.

Modular seating, under-seat storage, 57.3 cubic feet of cargo room and a folding front seat that allows Christmas tree-sized cargo of nearly eight feet to fit with ease are also part of great standard features that cost very little upfront. Those features and mileage that can exceed 30 miles per gallon mean car buyers don't have to cross their fingers when their resolve to cut costs.

Quit smoking (low-emissions car): Chevrolet Volt or Nissan Leaf
Smoking's a costly habit, but quitting isn't exactly cheap either. Cutting back on gasoline that's cost more than $4 a gallon in recent years and the emissions produced by burning it comes at a premium.

The Chevrolet Volt charges a $39,000 luxury price for the luxury of visiting the gas station less frequently, though that cost gets knocked down considerably by a $7,500 tax credit. That premium pays for a plug-in hybrid with an all-electric range of 30 to 40 miles and gas-powered mixed-driving mileage of little more than 31 miles per gallon.

"Drive less than 40 miles a day and it's all electric," Reed says. "Beyond that it's basically a hybrid."

But driving a hybrid's basically cutting back on gasoline use and emissions belching. If you want to quit cold turkey, it requires a little bit of risk. Kelley Blue Book recommends the Nissan ( NSANY) Leaf for clearing the air simply because it's the only all-electric car available for less than the cost of a small home -- sorry, Fisker and Tesla.

For just over $35,000 -- which also comes down with the tax credit -- the Leaf's only source of juice is the one it plugs into at your house each night. Being emissions-free has considerably more costs than just the base price, though. The Leaf's at-home charging station costs $2,200. That charger takes four to eight hours to give the vehicle's battery its full spark. Even when it's fully charged, the Leaf's driving range is less than 75 miles at best, and even that varies based on driving conditions.

If you thought it was hard to kick a three-pack-a-day Marlboro habit, try swearing off gasoline only to find you have to drive your Leaf to a job interview exactly 40 miles from home. Pray there's a decent plug in the parking lot.

Enjoy life (best car for long vacations): Ford Flex or Chevrolet Suburban
"Enjoying life" shouldn't involve cramming the family and all its stuff into an undersized car and contending with complaints for the entire ride.

This is why Edmunds recommends the Ford ( F) Flex: a vehicle it drove for 70,000 miles as a test car and enjoyed for the entire ride. Starting at less than $30,000, the Flex's boxy, faux-Mini shape offers a spacious three rows, automatic headlights, fog lights, a 60/40 split second-row seat with power assist for third-row access and a six-speaker sound system. Upgrades include heated mirrors and seats, the Microsoft ( MSFT) Sync entertainment and navigation system, HD radio, a vista sunroof, sliding captain's chairs in the second row and a refrigerator in an optional second-row console.

Unfortunately, getting the Flex's full 83 cubic feet of cargo space -- smaller than that of most minivans and large crossovers -- requires sacrificing that third row. Kelley Blue Book wasn't willing to give away that space and went with the hulking Chevrolet Suburban and its whopping 137 feet of combined cargo space instead.

Weighing three tons, sporting a standard V8 engine with more than 350 horsepower and getting a paltry combined 17 miles per gallon in its base model (and only 12 in the upgrade), the $42,000 base-model Suburban is one of the least-efficient long-vacation vehicles out there. It's also one of the most spacious and comfortable, with room for nine, tri-zone manual climate control, full power accessories, Bluetooth, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, rear-seat audio controls with headphone jacks and an eight-speaker sound system with a CD player, satellite radio, an auxiliary audio jack and an iPod/USB interface. An optional sunroof, power-retracting running boards, twin-screen rear-seat entertainment monitors and heavy-duty towing package for the presidential suite on wheels are a far less subtle way of saying the Andersons are here, they're on vacation and there's not a darned thing you can do about it.

Be kinder to others (cars with best amenities): Mercedes-Benz S-Class or Audi A8
How can you expect to be kind to others without treating yourself well?

If you're going to start actually listening to what people say when they confide in you, stop shoving old ladies out of the way when they're standing in front of your favorite cereal at the grocery store and using your middle finger as a car horn supplement in commuting traffic, you're going to need to relax a bit. Edmunds' Reed says no car helps drivers achieve that centered level of calm quite like a $92,000 to $210,000 Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

"Without a doubt, Mercedes-Benz S-Class wins this category with its ride quality and massaging seats," Reed says. "Not only that, but the available features are endless."

The S-Class' compliant suspension makes each road feel freshly paved. Its cabin has all the ambient noise of a monk's brandy library. Its horsepower in just about every class is enough to force the kid in the candy-painted Subaru Impreza next to you at the stop light into the depths of your rearview mirror should the situation require it.

That doesn't even touch standard features that include dual-zone automatic climate control, 10-way power front seats (with heating, ventilation, four-way lumbar adjustment and memory functions), leather upholstery and extended interior trim, a power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, auto-dimming driver-side and rearview mirrors and a power rear sunshade. The standard electronics alone include Mercedes' Comand electronics interface, Bluetooth, a navigation system, voice controls and a 15-speaker Harman Kardon surround-sound audio system with a six-CD/DVD changer, HD radio, satellite radio and an iPod interface. What do the upgrades look like? Try four-zone automatic climate control; eight-way power rear seats with memory, heating and ventilation; power-operated shades for the rear side windows; a panoramic sunroof; a heated steering wheel; a night-vision warning system; and a 15-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system.

Despite all of this, the S-Class seemed like a pauper's pick to Kelley Blue Book, which chose the Audi A8 instead. With moderately more affordable starting prices of $79,000 to $133,000, the A8 loads up its base model with adaptive air suspension, Audi Drive Select (which adjusts the suspension, steering and engine/transmission response), xenon headlights, a sunroof, Audi's touchpad Multi Media Interface system, a navigation system, cruise control, a power-adjustable steering wheel, leather upholstery, 12-way power front seats, heated front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, a power rear sunshade, Bluetooth and a Bose surround-sound audio system.

If you want to kick it up a notch, the A8's options include parking assist with rearview camera, a night vision camera, solar-powered sunroof, blind-spot monitor, Wi-Fi capability, Google Earth and a 19-speaker Bang and Olufsen audio system. It's tough to call a six-figure car a value, but playing against competition such as the S-Class makes Audi's A8 the Hyundai of the superluxe set.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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