After a year of driving lots of different cars, I’ve decided to cobble together a list of highs and lows. Rather than sticking just with new models, which would likely create a roster much like other Best lists, I thought of this instead as a recounting of cars that surprised me—either to the upside or the downside—in the past twelve months. I was aiming for 10 and 10 but ended up with 11 and 9, but that’s the kind of year it’s been.
Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG coupe – A reminder of just how good the C63 is, the coupe body style seemed to amplify this car’s sportiness. The big V-8 is awesome, the balanced chassis is a delight. The fact that I drove this one on a fast racetrack surely helped.
Audi A5 – Turbocharged, direct-injection four-cylinders are definitely the coming thing, and Audi’s 2.0T is a stellar example. There’s nowhere better to enjoy it than in this shapely coupe, paired with the standard six-speed manual—which also happens to be the least expensive A5/S5 variant.
Range Rover Evoque – Range Rover fabulousness distills quite nicely into a much smaller, more economical package. Don’t expect a bargain price, however.
Acura RL – Objectively, this sedan makes absolutely no sense (Acura’s own TL is cheaper and more powerful), which explains its moribund sales. But the aged RL simply reeks of old-school Japanese quality, from back in the day when Asian luxury cars first arrived on the scene and blew everybody’s mind.
Acura TSX wagon – Stood out in a sea of faceless crossovers, the TSX wagon is a far more friendly and fun-to-drive family machine, even if Acura isn’t giving it the sedan’s most interesting powertrain options (AWD and a six-speed stick).
Kia Optima – An excellent choice in the segment, it took me by surprise even though I had driven its Hyundai counterpart
Mercedes-Benz CLS – The new design works for me, providing the style and exclusivity that used to be a given in this price range. The cozier interior (compared to an E-class) is a sacrifice worth making.
Chevrolet Volt – Electric car and real car all in one. The sticker is a shocker, but the lease price isn’t bad.
Ford Mustang Boss 302 – The muscle car with finesse. The Boss 302 is like the star running back that’s also an honor student.
Audi TT-RS – Finally, a TT that’s as great to drive as it is to look at. Okay, so it may not be as perfectly fluid around a track as a Porsche Cayman, but it’s damned good, and its turbocharged five-cylinder has more character than any other engine in the national motor pool.
Dodge Charger – In its shocking transformation from homely to handsome, the Charger also dramatically upped its inside game, and polished its road manners as well. The classic V-8, rear-wheel-drive American sedan as it should be, and the happiest surprise of 2011.
Chevrolet Camaro SS convertible – Opening up the roof shines perhaps too much light on the cheap interior materials, although it does improve the outward visibility at least somewhat. But the chin-high beltline and steeply raked windshield diminish the open-air feeling, and the huge V-8 doesn’t make this car anywhere near as lively as its horsepower figure would suggest.
Honda Civic – Perhaps the least-changed totally redesigned car for 2011. It’s still good, but the competition is moving at double-speed.
Infiniti G37 convertible – The attraction of retractable hardtops continues to escape me, and the appeal further diminishes as their size increases. When up, the big tin top on this Infiniti creaks and groans over all but the smoothest roads, and when lowered, it eats up all the trunk space. Make my convertible a soft top, please.
Hyundai Elantra – Posts great numbers, and has a nice interior for the price, but its dynamics (grabby brakes, dead clutch pedal, overboosted steering, choppy ride) disappoint.
Porsche Cayman R – The racing bucket seat by the Marquis de Sade either fits you or it doesn’t—me, it doesn’t. But I’ll take a regular Cayman any time.
Subaru WRX/STi – A difficult clutch pedal and a not-so-great shifter are fatal flaws in funsters like these.
Hyundai Genesis R-Spec 5.0 – As a special edition, the R-Spec 5.0 is nothing special although Genesis itself is an undeniable value—even if it doesn’t drive as well as the Germans.
Chevrolet Silverado HD – A clattering diesel engine and its supertanker size make this a hardworking beast best left to the commercial trade.
Toyota Corolla – Okay, it’s a six-year-old car, but it feels older. The steering is utterly dead, and the Corolla is a grim piece inside and out. The new version has a lot of ground to make up.