It’s That Time Again!
By Ron Amadon
DAMASCUS, MD – The ball will drop again in Times Square, champagne will flow freely from coast to coast, old songs will be sung, and friends both living and dead will be toasted as millions ring in a new year that ends in the lucky 13.
All that means that it is time for my annual column that recaps some of the top cars that were road tested in the past calendar year. That allows the inclusion of some 2013 models just as the rumor mill starts to heat up about the 2014s. No one said this had to make sense.
For better or worse, and feel free to comment on this, here are my top picks of the year. As usual, in all categories, the fun to drive factor is of utmost importance.
Sports Car of the Year
Sweeping through the Roadrunner cartoon like twists and turns in California’s San Bernardino National Forest in this irresistible, nearly hand-made, lightning fast, Ferrari/Lambo challenger my passenger surprised me. “You could go a little faster,” said the company rep. I thought I was doing pretty well passing everything in sight on the twisty mountain road yet my brain was tuned to a song lyric – “I turned around and there we were at Deadman’s Curve.” As a result, I forgot McLaren’s exalted history. It is the only brand to have captured Indy, Can-AM, Le Mans and Formula One championships. So I exercised its 592 horsepower, 443 lb-ft of torque and near race car handling still further, especially on my host’s favorite back road out of the mountains and back to base camp – a race track. OMG, it made the GT with the strange name a runaway pick for sports car of the year. Yet it was a car one would drive every day. Now here comes the McLaren 12C Spider convertible and the fantastic P1 concept first displayed at the Paris show. As if 0-60 in 3 seconds was not enough!
Buick Regal GS
A Buick you might ask? Has he lost his mind? Nope! The Regal GS proved that GM is serious about changing perceptions of the Buick line as well as Cadillac. Take a 2.0-liter four, add in a turbo for 270 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque, tweak the suspension in all the right directions and you have a car that forces you to forget all about your Uncle Mort’s 60’s era LaSabre. “Imagine,” said the Buick rep riding with me, “you can now get something on a Buick that you can’t get on a Lamborghini” referring to the stick shift! Around Michigan’s Upper Peninsula the Regal GS was a great drive and a colossal surprise.
Kia Optima SX
The Optima is Kia’s best seller on just a bang for buck basis if nothing else. Kia’s standard equipment list is generous and there is a 10-year, 100,000 mile limited powertrain warranty and 5-year, 50,000 mile basic coverage. Step up to the SX model and you get a turbocharged 274 horsepower 4 matched with a nifty 6-speed automatic with paddle shifts. A firm suspension helped out in the handling department and turned it into a smile-making machine. You can easily fit two six-footers in the back seat and check options for such things as Nappa leather seating, 18-inch chrome wheels, rear camera, and on and on. It is a well-built, attractive, economical sedan that is happy on country roads and interstates and very worthy of being on this list.
Best Gas Sipper
When you start looking over the field of economy cars, one thing that often slips away is the silly grin on the face of approaching owners – as if the car were saying “Let’s go play.” That is not the case in this Kia full of Soul. An EPA estimated 26-34 mpg may not be the best mileage on record these days and 164 horsepower with a zero to 60 run in 9 seconds may not stir your personal soul. But it is the way this Kia goes about its business that makes it a fun car. Small, easy to park, with ample space for people and their goodies, the Soul does a lot of things right for a base of $14k and change. Hmmm. Take this platform, add a turbo and a couple of seats, and you just might have a dandy sports car!
Best Uber Alles Car
Porsche 911 Carrera S
Some might want to convince you that the Cayman is equal to or better than the 911. Don’t believe them. The Cayman is a great engineering feat – no doubt. But there is NOTHING like a 911. It just keeps getting better year after year. The Carrera S was a perfect blend of speed, handling, luxury and exquisite sounds from the 400 horsepower rear mounted six with a hefty 7,600 rpm redline. In the words of Carly Simon – “Nobody Does It Better” among production sports cars.
I said there was no confusion with this Fusion. With its head-turning Aston Martin-like styling, rock solid build, and luxury touches on upscale models, Ford has announced it is damn serious about playing with the big boys in the hotly contested mid-sized sedan market. In a day long drive to Western Maryland the Fusion was very comfortable, the 1.6 four sipped gas, and I was able to program in my favorite satellite channels. However, the Sync/My Ford system stinks in an overly complex manner. Despite that there is so much to like in the rest of the vehicle that it would be a crime to not include it on the year end list.
Fun Cars Not To Be Forgotten
2013 Shelby Mustang GT500. The deep blue paint with white stripes, plus the Cobra on the grille tell you this is not your ordinary Mustang. It is in fact one that the late Carroll Shelby would give two thumbs up. Six-hundred-sixty-two horsepower and 631 lb-ft of torque, a six speed manual tranny and brisk three second ride to 60 mph. Bottom line? Hotter than Shelby’s chili!
If your bank account won’t swing the GT500 one should really test drive the Focus ST. A joy on country roads, a neat 2.0 liter turbo 4 worth 252 horsepower and a price tag of $28,990 explains why this car has been praised from Los Angeles to London.
The Cadillac ATS proved that it is more than worthy of being on the same soccer field with BMW. Sized nearly the same as the BMW 3-series, the ATS test car was powered by a 3.6 liter V6 cranking out 321 hp and 275 lb-ft of torque. Just 5.5 seconds to get to 60 from a dead stop helped out in no small amount by a responsive 6-speed automatic. Brembo brakes were installed for those times when a quick stop was the order of the day. While the CUE system had its moments, it was not always as responsive as it could be and made too many simple tasks more complex. Those seeking a performance sedan would do well to reject old stereotypes and actually enter a Cadillac showroom and test-drive the ATS. It came within a whisker of being my yearly winner.
Car Of The Year
In a close race with the ATS, the Audi won me over with its outstanding power, handling and style. So sure of its product was Audi that it let me loose on the twisting roads of the Colorado Rockies. Around hairpin curves, up steep grades and passing slow moving trucks the S5 felt like a slightly more complete package than the ATS. While styling is a rather subjective thing, I preferred the less in your face approach of the Audi. It even looked good in front of a saloon in the old mining town of Leadville. Power wise there was plenty: a 3.0-liter, Eaton-supercharged 3.0 liter V6 tied to a slick shifting six speed manual will propel the S5 to 60 in 4.9 seconds and a top speed of 155 mph. Comfortable and quiet on the interstates, almost sweat inducing fun in the mountains, with a high quality interior, car buffs will be richly rewarded if they add an S5 to their garage. Don’t overlook it!
Cars I Want To Drive
Triumph TR-4, McLaren P1 and Roadster, Jaguar F-Type, Ferrari F40, Pagani Huayra if it ever comes to the States, Porsche 918, and just for an afternoon, three cars. My first new car which was a new ’69 black VW Beetle with narrow whitewalls and iffy heat, my first car, a Peugeot 504 and my very much loved 914 (VW) Porsche.