5 Most-Improved Car Models for 2014

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- The Boston Red Sox won the 2013 World Series after finishing last in their division in 2012, and the Chevrolet Impala has arguably made a similar "worst-to-first" move in the auto world this year.

"The new Impala is a really, really strong car that replaced a pretty badly outdated one," says Joe Wiesenfelder of auto-buying site Cars.com, which recently included the sedan on a list of the industry's Most Improved Cars of the Past 15 Years.

The editor says automakers often make only minor changes to a car from year to year, but sometimes vehicles undergo revolutionary transformations.

Wiesenfelder says that's because smart manufacturers know they've got to make redesigned vehicles really stand out from the crowd, as automakers only heavily revamp a given model every six years or so.

"They can't just redesign a car and make it competitive with other models," he says. "They need to leapfrog it ahead of the competition."

Still, standouts don't account for all of the models on Cars.com's rundown.

Wiesenfelder says that while he and other Cars.com experts called out some models from great redesigns, "some winners were just a case of the older car being terrible and the newer one being good."

Read on to check out the five vehicles at the top of Cars.com's rankings.

All price figures for used cars refer to Kelley Blue Book estimates for each vehicle's various trim lines. Used-car prices also assume you'll buy the vehicle from a dealer rather than from a private seller, and that the dealership will have "fully reconditioned" the auto before sale.

Price figures for new cars refer to manufacturer's suggested retail pricing for a range of models from the base version to the top trim line, excluding any extra options.

Fifth-most-improved car: 2011 Hyundai Elantra sedan
Estimated price:
$13,450 to $15,400

Wiesenfelder says this compact sedan has long been a good choice for consumers, but that Hyundai made it even better when the South Korean automaker rolled out the current generation in the 2011 model year.

"The 2010 Elantra was a good affordable car, but the 2011 was definitely a standout," he says. "It's got a high-quality interior, good fuel efficiency and good crash-test results. And I personally think it's one of the best-looking vehicles on the road."

In fact, Wiesenfelder and his colleagues liked the 2011 Elantra so much that they named the car as that year's best small sedan.

The Elantra comes standard with a 148-horsepower four-cylinder engine and a six-speed manual transmission the team up to produce an impressive 28 mpg/city and 38 mpg/highway. Automatic-transmission versions are also available.

Fourth-most-improved car: 2014 Chevrolet Impala
Estimated price:
$26,860 to $35,905 Completely redesigned for the current model year, the 2014 Impala recently took first place in a combined Cars.com/USA Today/MotorWeek analysis of 2014's best full-sized sedan under $38,000.

That's pretty impressive given that the revamped model replaced a lackluster ninth-generation Impala known mostly for its ubiquity in car-rental fleets.

Wiesenfelder says the redesigned Impala -- the only 2014 on Cars.com's rundown -- combines a roomy interior with a quiet ride, impressive build quality and a "really good" multimedia system.

"It's a great example of what General Motors can do when it makes the effort," he says.

A base Impala comes standard with a 195-horsepower four-cylinder engine and a six-speed automatic transmission rated at 21 mpg/city and 31 mpg/highway. GM also makes a hybrid Impala and a 305-horsepower V-6 edition.

Third-most-improved car: 2011 Chevrolet Cruze
Estimated price:
$13,100 to $15,650

General Motors killed off the lackluster Chevy Cobalt after the 2010 model year and replaced it with the 2011 Cruze, a compact sedan that Wiesenfelder calls "possibly the first highly competitive small car ever from GM."

He says the 2011 Cruze offers "a high level of comfort, ride quality, quietness and interior design."

A base Cruze comes with a 136-horsepower four-cylinder engine and manual transmission that produce 26 mpg/city and 36 mpg/highway. Automatic transmission is also available, as are turbocharged and diesel Cruzes.

And while the 2014 Cruze is similar to the 2011 edition, GM plans to unveil a major upgrade to the line in the next few weeks. Wiesenfelder says the improved Cruze could hit showrooms later this year as a 2015 model.

Second-most-improved car: 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee
Estimated price:
$24,100 to $32,100

Wiesenfelder always viewed the 2010 Grand Cherokee as a pretty good sport utility vehicle, but says the model's 2011 redesign really took the midsized SUV to a whole new level.

"The Grand Cherokee became a much, much more refined vehicle beginning in 2011," he says. "The ride became better and the interior quality jumped a lot."

He particularly likes a four-wheel independent suspension that Chrysler gave the Grand Cherokee beginning in 2011, not to mention an eight-speed automatic transmission that the automaker added more recently. "The Grand Cherokee just keeps getting better and better," Wiesenfelder says.

The 2011 version comes standard with a 390-horsepower V-6 engine, rear-wheel drive and a five-speed automatic transmission that offers 16 mpg/city and 23 mpg/highway. Options include a 360-horsepower V-8 engine and three different four-wheel-drive systems.

Most-improved car: 2013 Dodge Dart
Estimated price:
$15,995 to $19,995 (if bought new)

The legendary Dodge Dart returned to Chrysler's lineup in 2013 for the first time in decades, but Wiesenfelder says it took the No. 1 spot in Cars.com's rundown largely because the Dodge Caliber it replaced stank.

"The Dart is a competitive compact car, but the reason it's on top of our list is partly because the Caliber was such a weak entry," he says.

The editor says the Caliber tried -- but failed -- to offer consumers a good cross between a traditional sedan and a small SUV. "It wasn't enough like an SUV to make it a success, but it wasn't really a car, either," Wiesenfelder says.

By contrast, he says the Dart -- the first car Chrysler developed jointly with new parent Fiat -- "is definitely worth looking at" if you're car shopping, although it's "perhaps not the most-competitive compact sedan on the market."

The 2013 model, which you still might find available on dealers' lots as a new car, comes standard with a 160-horsepower four-cylinder engine and a six-speed manual transmission that produce 25 mpg/city and 36 mpg/highway. Automatic transmission, a turbocharged 160-horsepower engine and a 184-horsepower Dart GT edition are also available.

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