Ten of the Best
10. Honda Accord
I’d passionately lent my voice to that of the mob, crying that Honda had through the years morphed the right-sized Accord (along with everything else they built) into something too big and ponderous. I’m not sure that the criticism doesn’t still hold true, in general terms, but if so the new Accord is leaning against the trend – because in its new-for-2013 iteration it has regained a good measure of its former nimbleness and once again sets a new bar for creamy smoothness in a trusty, relatively inexpensive sedan.
9. BMW 328d
Previous examples of the latest Three Series – the sixth generation F30 – left me cold, so much that I was moved to modify the Bavarian’s venerable tag line and start calling their cars the Penultimate Driving Machines. Steering that once seemed so positive now seemed numb and disconnected, and the additional girth was unsightly and undeniable. But no sooner had I started grumbling loudly than I got to drive the new four-cylinder turbo diesel version. In case you haven’t been following the news, diesel has gotten so good that the appropriate thing to do now is kind of like it, not hate it. Not only has the 328d shown me a creditable 34mpg around town, it somehow feels like it's reacquired the tight, buttoned-up feeling BMWs of yore. Not wild about the $47,000 as-tested price of this stout and strong, diesel-sipping sedan, but enter one serious quality automobile.
8. Caterham Seven 160
Caterham has been building fairly accurate replicas of Lotus founder Colin Chapman’s seminal Lotus 7 since 1973. An uncompromising, incredibly lightweight two-seat British sports machine with 1930s creature comforts and an emphasis on handling, the Seven first launched in 1957. Still selling strongly today, it has developed a considerable cult while following a nearly identical formula. With modest nods to safety and modernity, most revisions have tended to the “put a bigger engine in it” school. Until now. A 660cc: three-cylinder turbo from a Suzuki microcar, built for crowded Japanese streets, finds a creative new home in the Seven 160, the lightest (1100 lbs.) Caterham in decades, quite capable with 80 horsepower of taking on the world – especially if that world is a leafy, English lane.
7. Mazda 3/6
We’re naturally inclined to root for underdogs, so have been delighted in the past few months to discover that Mazda’s new mainstream cars, the compact 3 and the larger 6 sedan, extend the success of Mazda’s CX-5 crossover by being just plain fine cars for not a lot of money. Since major stakeholder and technical partner Ford cut it loose at the height of the fiscal meltdown, the Hiroshima firm has been one of the smallest independents out there, and despite its lack of volume-sharing opportunities anymore has managed to prove that volume alone does not equal excellence – both these cars are well-made, fun to drive and economical – and they’re competitively priced. Playing in metaphorical bottom of the ninth in the international automobile industry’s World Series, Mazda could not afford to strike out. Instead they’ve come through with two solid base hits. Go team.
6. Jaguar XJ AWD
While Land Rover’s amazing sale success worldwide has made its purchaser, India’s Tata, look like geniuses, we predict that what will make them look even smarter is the imminent resurgence of sister brand Jaguar, purchased from Ford at the same time, but selling poorly – until now. Jaguar has since Tata's purchase not just delivered some of our favorite sedans, proving, like Mazda, that you needn’t sell in wild bulk to make great cars. But it has also improved quality and it has spent huge sums on engineering, the latest example of which is the all-wheel-drive system now optionally gracing its sedans. This is a key selling point in the all-important Northeastern sales region, and now we can say in good conscience that there ought to be nothing standing between you and that XJ or XF lease.
5. Jaguar F-Type
While not a true mass-market offering, the F-Type should wow them everywhere, as it is very simply the best of the personal-sized sportscars on sale today. All the solidity and magic-carpet-ride qualities of larger Jaguars, yet considerably less bulk, this (still heavy) car manages to be, we’re thinking, the best-driving Jaguar ever – serious competition for Porsche’s Boxster/Cayman, its most obvious challenger in the $70,000 and up sports car field. If you ever thought of buying a Jaguar, folks, it's definitely worth checking back in now.
4. Fiat 500L
Sure it’s kind of homely and isn’t as cheap as it ought to be to really get the sales job done – I don’t care; I like the Fiat 500L. It’s good to drive, still relatively inexpensive, and fills the rarely played part of the funky bus, the car for that person who doesn’t mind a weird looking, upright machine that’s high on function, low on conformity. I’m one who believes that we are all god’s children, including the cars, and the world is a better place for the type of diversity offered by the otherly-abled 500L.
3. Tesla Model S
Lauded by owners and the likes of Automobile Magazine, Motor Trend and Consumer Reports, the Tesla S has lived life in a goldfish bowl, as Tesla’s stock has soared and, with news of battery fires following accidents, sunk. The press has fixated on the uniquely proactive messaging of company founder Elon Musk, and generally wrung its hands about electric cars, their batteries, range anxiety and fickle consumer behaviors, but everyone forgets a few things: 1. This is a great-driving car. 2. Tesla owners really feel good about themselves for buying it. 3. Sometimes annoyingly so. Discuss. 4. The money behind Tesla does not just belong to Musk, Uncle Sam and some wide-eyed shareholders. It’s big time carmakers like Toyota and Daimler, too. They improve its odds of long-time survival considerably.
2. Cadillac CTS
Bigger than the model it replaces, ordinarily a no-no in our book, but because it’s essentially making room for the smaller and refreshingly lightweight new Cadillac ATS, the CTS earns an immediate place in our heart. Then, when we drove it, the larger mid-sized Cadillac warmed that place up because it’s actually a fine drive, a larger car of superior build quality, distinct luxury and excellent road manners, especially by the low traditional American standard. Just when you thought the Germans and the Japanese were walking away with it, the General fights back.
1. Lotus Evora S
In the world of high- but not highest-end sports cars, the competition is all good. There are cars that do many things better, but there’s nothing that tops the Evora S for steering feel, which is extra-sensory, and heroic handling. The new S denotes supercharging and, it's worth mentioning, that makes the Evora incredibly fast in the bargain. A slender dealer network and a woeful lack of marketing funds has rendered it a footnote of a car from a footnote of a company, but cognoscenti will know that Lotus has been for over sixty years one of the main strains of truth in the world of driving. The Evora is one of its greatest expressions.
HOLIDAY BONUS NO.11
11. Volkswagen XL1
The concept of the mid- or rear-engined diesel hybrid is pretty much the same one the auto industry came up with in the 90s when charged by the Clinton administration, in yet another taxpayer-funded attempt at associative government, to build a 80mpg car. Each of the Big Three carmakers came close, but when George W. Bush was elected, he canceled the program at the industry’s behest. The vehicles which resulted -- diesel hybrid, that came close to 80mpg -- for some reason couldn’t be built, and then were forgotten faster than Texas W’s childhood as a Connecticut brahmin. But Volkswagen didn’t forget and now they’re up to 261 mpg. Amazing what industry can do when it feels like it.