For the past twenty-three years, Automobile Magazine editors have selected one significant, entertaining, or benchmark vehicle and proclaimed it as our “Automobile of the Year.” We’re about to do just that for 2013 (tune in tomorrow morning to see which of our 10 finalists takes the crown) but we figured it’s time for a quick look back. Here’s a retrospective on what cars won Automobile’s hearts – and why – since 1990.
1990: Mazda MX-5 Miata
“The MX-5 is a wonderfully nimble device that doesn’t rattle your teeth with stiff springing or suffer the massive tire roar and bump-thump of mighty treads to go around corners with the appropriate, ah, élan. It is so light and so graced with helpful suspension attitudes, that it flicks into bends in instant response to the wheel. If ever the virtues of low mass and its intelligent distribution need reviewing, the Miata willingly demonstrates them. Compared with contemporary supercars, the Miata’s limber agility is a pleasant contrast.
“All the same, the Miata is not pure frivolity; it’s a seriously considered entity. In many ways, the Miata has an exclusive, personal feel, something like the private indulgence of a Porsche 911. For $15,530, it’s a sweet reward.”
1991: Acura NSX
“In twenty-five years we have seen Honda rise to the very top rank of the world’s automobile manufactures. During that same period we have seen them utterly dominate Grand Prix racing in both motorcycles and automobiles. In any kind of automotive contest – commercial or sporting – anywhere in the automotive universe, Honda emerges as the car company most to be feared, no matter who the other players are, no matter what their pedigree. In this new car, the Acura NSX, Honda has distilled all the engineering experience and anecdotal lore of those twenty-five years of burgeoning success and victories piled upon victories. With this one car, the rolling representative of every Acura, they said ‘This is what we know. Here is how it works.’
“Doubters need only do two things to two things to become believers. First, they should run their eyes and fingertips over the contours of any one of this car’s exquisitely forged aluminum suspension components. The NSX chassis is considerably more beautiful than the NSX body, and the NSX body is pretty nice. If doubts still exist, they need only drive the car on the most challenging road they know, be that a twisting, diving stretch of two-lane through northern California or central Tennessee or a favorite racing circuit. The NSX will be happy to answer all their questions.”
-David E. Davis, Jr.
1992: Cadillac STS
“Who’d have thought – a few years ago when Cadillac was trying to flog Cimarrons and V-8-6-4 engines and defective diesels to a disappointed public—that a national magazine devoted to enthusiast-oriented cars would be calling a new Cadillac Seville the Automobile of the Year? The times they are a-changing, and Cadillac has become a very different business organism than it was ten years ago.
The new Seville was developed at a time when German companies were still calling the tune in luxury-car circles, and its driving profile turns out to be sort of American-German, while the STS is decidedly German American. The STS is robust and direct. All of its control responses are quick and aggressive, and its ride is very much in the German tradition, with only just enough tire slap and impact to remind you that it is a machine, not a mobile chaise. The base Seville is for the traditional American luxury car buyer. It has a stand-up hood ornament, and its entire personality is tuned and massaged to make it softer and less aggressive than the STS. As you might imagine, the STS was our favorite.”
1993: Chrysler LH Cars – Chrysler Concorde, Dodge Intrepid, Eagle Vision
“The three innovative new products – Chrysler Concorde, Dodge Intrepid, Eagle Vision – that we celebrate here will be recognized first for their dramatic cab-forward body design. But function follows form, in this case, and the real magic is in the details. By lengthening the wheelbase and pushing the wheels clear out to the corners of the vehicle, then going to the cab-forward format, Chrysler’s designers have created cars with huge interior volume. They are roomy and comfortable in the manner of American land yachts of yore, but they ride, handle, and hold the road like the best of the contemporary imports.
“There are no second-class cars in the LH lineup. The Dodge Intrepid is all things for all buyers. It features the most radical (Viperlike) styling and the widest array of options from base to bomb. The Eagle Vision is aimed right at the imports: more European, more subtle than the Dodge, with no base version. The Chrysler Concorde is the most traditional of the three, available with both engines but only base and touring suspensions. All of Chrysler’s new LH cars are barn burners – handsome, roomy, comfortable, fast, and safe. Uncle Sam needed a home run, and he got one.”
1994: Dodge/ Plymouth Neon
“Emblazoned with either a Dodge ram’s head on the hood or a new Plymouth badge depending on what showroom it graces, the Neon is the car we have been waiting for Detroit to build. It’s the car we thought Saturn would build but didn’t. The Neon is a small car with big room and an even bigger heart. Its less-than-$10,000 price is right, its looks are eye-catching, and it’s a lead-pipe cinch to boost showroom traffic across the land.
“It has become clear that you don’t build boring cars for guys like Bob Lutz and chief engineer Francois Castaing. Several members of the Neon team have racing experience, and they put it to work to imbue the Neon with a surprising level of driving fun. The Neon’s primary controls are first-rate for an economy car. The five-speed is so good that Chrysler believes sales could double the usual 25 percent of the mix. We were most impressed with the Neon’s razor-sharp steering and instant turn-in. Engineers attribute much of their success to developing an exceptionally stiff steering column and to use the magnesium in the steering wheel rim to bring weight down and quiet vibration.
“Chrysler’s strategy – building cars that people want cheaply and quickly – has turned the industry, both domestic and foreign, on its ear. At the rate Chrysler is going, the swift just might eat the large.”
1995: BMW M3
“The decision to import the M3 didn’t come as easily as you might expect. In fact, in January of 1993, BMW of North America was ready to trash the entire project. Price was the problem. In Europe, the M3 was nudging up against the $50,000 barrier, and, as one BMW official said: ‘At that price, we didn’t see the point. The volume would be so small.’
“BMW AG is smarter than that, though, for when it realized BMW of North America wasn’t interested in a $50,000 M3, the sleeves were rolled up and a mutually agreeable alternative was found. Money was sucked from the Euro M3 in any way possible. Expensive and over-engineered pieces were scrapped – most notably the costly cylinder head and the fancy injection system that features an individual throttle for each cylinder. When the engineers finished, what they had was an M3 right for the US market, a well-planned balance of performance and price, and a true value.
“We spoke to our local BMW dealer not long ago, and he told us he currently receives one M3 a month. He sells it the very day it arrives. Equal parts marketing masterpiece and banzai automobile, the BMW M3. Is it the one car we most want in our driveway. Damn right. Is it good enough to be the 1995 Automobile Magazine Automobile of the Year? Without a doubt.”
-Mark H. Schirmer
1996: Honda Civic
“What we have here is a fuel-sipping, low-emissions vehicle that looks like a real car, drives like a real car, and costs about $14,000. Who needs futuristic atomic toasters when you can drive a Civic?
“The Civic proves that the best way to entice people into cleaner, greener transportation is to simply build a better car. The Civic sedan is practical and space efficient, yet dramatically quieter and more refined than ever, the world’s best small car for real life. The Civic coupe makes a strong statement of style, handles like an Acura Integra, and also comes in a CVT-equipped model that makes excellent fuel economy a painless experience. The Civic hatchback delivers squeaky-clean air emissions, but it is not a $100,000 atomic toaster. In short, the Honda Civic can be everything the car of the future is supposed to be and a real car besides.
“We’ve heard a lot of big talk about the coming automotive millennium, but Honda has cut to the chase. The Honda Civic is here today, four years before the beginning of a new century, and it is affordable, practical, and ethical. Even better, it is a delight to the spirit. The Civic is our Automobile of the Year because it underscores Honda’s ability not only to sell cars but also to invent them.”
1997: Toyota RAV4
“The RAV4 is our 1997 Automobile of the Year because it is fun to drive, fun to ride in, and fun to contemplate, and because it is already, in less than a full year in the American marketplace, bringing about a sea change in the way the automobile industry and its customers perceive sport-utility vehicles.
“So what’s the big deal? The big deal is that the RAV4 seems to ring a bell with everyone who sees it. Its jaunty, off-beat appearance says ‘Buy me’ to an amazing cross section of Japanese, European, and American new-car prospects, but most especially to the youngest generation of consumers. The RAV4 is not cheap, but it reeks of friendliness and accessibility. Its whole personality leads the prospective buyer to look beyond the sticker and happily imagine that he or she could manage one of these little roustabouts.
“When we had completed our test drives through Kentucky and Tennessee, and sat down over dinner in our hotel to hammer out some kind of consensus, it became clear that the RAV4 stirred real passion in the breasts of our enthusiasts/ journalists. We shared the belief that it is an extremely successful answer to the twin SUV problems of rising cost and rising fuel economy, and one with a great deal of entertainment value. It charmed us the way it has charmed the market. It is a real pleasure to name it the 1997 Automobile of the Year.”
1998: Porsche Boxster
“Invariably, anyone who drives a Boxster comes back enchanted. It answers the questions we always raise about driving pleasure. Driving a great sports car should be natural. There shouldn’t be surprises, just revelations. It should stimulate and enthrall. It should be a two-way conversation between driver and car, with the driver talking, the car responding, and the driver reacting. That’s just how it is with the Boxster because the controls are so well weighted and precise. Where some cars are let down by inert steering, spongy brake-pedal response, or clumsy turn-in, the Boxster is perfectly balanced and utterly communicative.
“But the Boxster is more than simply a wonderful sports car and a surprisingly practical one. It is also the car that, for a number of reasons, will determine the success and future of Porsche. First, Porsche needed to get away from the single-model policy it had been relying on lately with the 911, and it had to increase sales volumes. Second, the Boxster and the new 911 had to share componentry in order to reduce development and production costs. Third, because the Boxster is an all-new design, Porsche could take all it has learned from the Japanese about car manufacturing and apply it from ground zero, the most effective way.
“One of the ultimate achievements of the Boxster is that it is a thoroughbred Porsche. Although its styling appears to spit people into those who love it (usually younger) and those who loathe it (older people like my father, who think it’s a blob on wheels), it really does look like a Porsche, if you think the Porsche look is defined by cars like the 356 and 550 RS. It sounds like a Porsche, if you think that the Porsche sound is defined by the wail of a horizontally opposed engine like the 550 RS’ four-cylinder, or the 911’s six, or even the 917’s twelve. It drives just like a Porsche should and feels solid, just like a Porsche should.”
1999: Volkswagen New Beetle
“Volkswagen’s new Beetle is our 1999 Automobile of the Year. By a landslide. Nothing else came close, even though the list of nominees was impressive. The truth is that we probably made up our minds the first time we saw a prototype. Nothing else has so captured the imagination of the car-buying public, and nothing else has so effectively pointed out the current bankruptcy of ideas in new car design. In our June 1998 issue, we published sixteen profile views of contemporary sedans, challenging our readers to identify the individual makes and models. It was virtually impossible to do so. I can promise you that if the New Beetle had been included in that presentation, it would have stood out like a lighthouse.
“The car is a blast to drive. On first boarding, the windshield seems very far away, as in minivans and cab-forward designs, and the A-pillars stretch out before you like the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. The physical act of driving it is virtually identical to that of a Golf, with which it shares all of its basic componentry, and this is not bad, but the real kick is to be sitting in a car with so much sheer chutzpah and style, a car that attracts so much favorable attention from the people around you.
“The New Beetle is a landmark car. It will encourage other manufacturers to look for unusual answers to new-model dilemmas. It will raise the expectations of people in the marketplace because it is a vividly tangy alternative to plain vanilla. We’ve already begun to see modestly customized New Beetles on the road, and when the SEMA show opens in Las Vegas this November, there will be acres of New Beetle aftermarket tweaks. Volkswagen’s New Beetle is that kind of automobile, and with this, our tenth annual Automobile of the Year award, we’re saying in no uncertain terms that it’s also our kind of automobile.”
2000: Ford Focus
“Ford designers have scrapped all the old paradigms about what small cars ought to be. In simple, but highly misleading, terms the Focus replaces the bestselling Escort in Ford’s worldwide lineup. Some mechanical elements are carried over, but there is far more interior space in the Focus, its handling and roadholding are vastly better, and its extreme styling, like it or not, moves well beyond the agreeable banality that characterized small Fords for decades. In fact, it outpoints its next-in-line siblings, the Mondeo/Contour/Mystque “world car,” to the extent that it virtually eliminates them, too. For our market, only V-6 Contours remain, the four-cylinder models being replaced by the Focus.
“If Focus styling is at once interesting and controversial, there is no argument about the car’s dynamics. This is where the Focus really pulls away from the competition. Not by much, you understand; it’s not a world away, as the Mini was forty years ago. We thought the Honda Civic in our test group was a pretty good drive, too, just not as good as the Ford. A huge team worked on the car, of course, but the main impetus for its on-road superiority came from two ostensibly very different men from radically different backgrounds: a California hot rodder and a German university professor. Bear in mind, though, that both are engineers with advanced degrees.
“The harmony the team developed into the Focus is clearly there: Our own evaluation team was in harmonious agreement that the goals set for the Focus were not just met, they were surpassed. By a very long way.”
2001: Chevrolet Corvette Z06
“So it finally comes to this happy conclusion a mere forty-eight years after the initial flame (blue, of course) was lit: The Chevrolet Corvette Z06 is, at long last, a real, 100 percent, no excuses, no explanations, no footnotes American sports car, one that can hold its own with just about anything on the road, even if that anything comes from Zuffenhausen or Maranello, at a price that no other company in the world – not even the one from Hamtramck – can approach, let alone match. How could it not be our 2001 Automobile of the Year?
“There’s more power, of course: 35 strong horses added to the stable to bring the honest net power rating up to 385 horsepower at 6000 rpm, and that power is put to the ground through more rubber via a revised six-speed gearbox that gets you off the line harder and faster than before. The other five gears are better spaced, all but the direct 1:1 fourth being lower than before. And, let it be noted, the all-new LS6 engine is so clean that the car qualifies as a low-emissions vehicle. Oh, yes, and it gets 19 mpg in town and 28 on the highway, EPA certified. And it gets to 60 mph in four – four-point-zero – second. Easily.
“Forthcoming exotic supercars, the McLaren-Mercedes SLR, the Porsche Carrera GT, et al., may move performance benchmarks but at prices that would let you buy a Z06 in every color and still have money left over to pay for the insurance. IN terms of value for money and raw performance, you really can’t do any better than this extremely well-focused design, and in terms of the cars available on the U.S. market, we could not find a better Automobile of the Year.”
2002: Subaru Impreza WRX
“There are those who whine that we still are not getting the most potent WRX. Well, we didn’t listen to that kind of whining in 1995, when we named the BMW M3 the Automobile of the Year despite the existence of a more powerful European model, and we paid no heed to it this year.
“With its potent turbo engine, all-wheel-drive chassis, and rally-car feel the WRX provides a uniquely engaging driving experience, even in the firmament of performance cars. The concept has been years in the making, but it’s new to American drivers, and they’ll find it an absolute blast. With its utter livability and affordability, it democratizes high-performance cars for a whole new class of drivers. It’s this year’s breakthrough car.
“Small cars aren’t supposed to be truly fast, but the WRX is a rocket. Performance cars aren’t supposed to be practical, but the WRX has plenty of room for two adults, two kids, and their gear. Supercars aren’t supposed to be accessible, but the WRX is affordable and easy to drive. America’s hottest performance car isn’t supposed to come from Subaru, but guess what? It does.”
2003: Nissan 350Z
“A real sports car doesn’t come along every day. That’s one reason the Nissan 350Z is an event. And, like every real sports car, it has a kind of purity to it, a dynamic quality that’s beyond the usual empty phrases about good power and good handling.
“It is a terrific car, yet the company also found a way to make it affordable. There are five different models: Z, Performance, Enthusiast, Touring, and Track. Prices range from $26,809 to $34,519, but the power output and suspension calibration are the same throughout the line. The Z is also a fashionable piece. Nissan is using it as the signature of its new outlook on the car business, an approach apparent not just in its ‘Shift’ brand-awareness advertising campaign but also in a series of Z-themed underground concerts held across the country.
“It has all come from the original 1970 240Z, the masterstroke of Yutaka Katayama, who even now, at age ninety-three, is the company’s foremost spokesman for performance and driving pleasure. Mr. K’s Z-car was a kind of promise to everyone who cares about driving, a statement of purpose that will forever define Nissan. The 350Z delivers on the promise, and that might be the best thing about it.”
2004: Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
“There is an undeniable yet welcome coarseness to this car, a sharpness that hasn’t been dulled by the inevitable regulatory processes and focus groups that break the spirit of an automobile. The Evo has survived with its rallying essence intact. There are few competition-bred cars – even production-based ones – that have made the transition from the rally stage to the road as seamlessly as the Evo. Only the aborted Le Mans racer now known as the Porsche Carrera GT and the stealth F1 car called the Ferrari Enzo lay their cubic-dollar racing technology on the street with the same authority. The big difference is that the Mitsubishi is affordable and usable once it gets there.
“That Mitsubishi makes such a car may seem bewildering to those of us who haven’t spent the last few years sautéing our brains in front of Sony PlayStation consoles. To most car enthusiasts, Mitsubishi is primarily a manufacturer of television sets. How has it come to crank out this solo of purest speed metal amid the elevator music of its current lineup? And if the Evo is just a happy fluke of Mitsu’s rally program, why are we giving it our most grandiose prize?
“The Automobile of the Year award honors, variously, the most significant, the most groundbreaking, or simply the most fun-to-drive vehicle of a given model year. Even the craftiest PR flack would have a hard time arguing that the Evo is significant for anyone other than Mitsubishi and the several thousand enthusiasts per year who will buy one. It isn’t all that groundbreaking, either. In fact, Subaru showed far more chutzpah in bringing the rally-born WRX here two years ago than did Mitsubishi, which waited. The Evo’s importance and its daring are contained in its driving dynamics. Indeed, all debate about its significance is silenced by a well-laid piece of road, a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, and a good driver at the controls.”
2005: Chrysler 300C
“At a time when the American auto industry needs heroes, the 300C wins the medal of honor, hands down. Chrysler’s 340-hp, Hemi-headed honey has taken America by storm. To see this four-door behemoth hustling down the highway at triple-digit speeds is to crave desperately a turn at its whimsical faux-tortoiseshell wheel. It’s the sort of big ballsy, luxurious car for which America used to be known – a full-scale, rear-wheel-drive, V-8 powered sedan looking to kick butt – but with a twist provided by its clever German owners. That twist comes in the form of some important engineering elements – front and rear suspension systems, the five-speed manumatic transmission, and optional four-wheel-drive – provided graciously by the Mercedes-Benz E-Class.
“The 300C is Teutonically terrific, but its basic concept and bold design are purely American, one of the few successful Detroit designs outside of those icons of automotive Americana – the Chevrolet Corvette and the Ford Mustang – actually to inspire a little flag waving from sea to shining sea. In this day and age, when it has become as difficult to find an automotive superstar as it has been to find a truly awful car, the 300C shines brightly as our all-American MVP.
2006: BMW 3-Series Sedan
In the process of not screwing it up, BMW has produced a car that is the gold standard for its class, something that all other automakers feel they have to measure up to. Yet, no matter how hard they try, they always come up short.
“Naysayers can criticize the new 3′s styling, both inside and out–the materials aren’t quite as good as the old car’s, and the design has lost the classic beauty of old–but this is still a car that enthusiast drivers can (and do) aspire to. It also hits the sweet spot in the market, because it’s just the right size and has the right performance and the right amount of prestige for the right price. A base 325i is a truly great car for slightly more than $31,000, an automobile that can make the humdrum run to school special and can turn any drive into an event.
“Usually, the most focused car in any auto-maker’s lineup is not its highest-volume model — it’s more likely to be a sports car, say, or a luxury sedan. At Audi, we would argue it’s the A8; at GM, the Corvette; at Mercedes-Benz, the S-class; and at Chrysler, the Jeep Wrangler. The 3-series, though, is both BMW’s volume seller and its most focused car. No one at BMW has lost sight of why the car is so important and why people love driving it.
2007: Volkswagen GTI
“Don’t get us wrong. We’ll never look down our noses at 500-hp screamers with roofs so low you can slip in and out from under semitrailers without a scratch. But if the last year has shown us anything–with its punishing fuel prices and growing recognition of the dire effects of global warming–it’s that what the world really needs now is not cars that are fast, but cars that are practical, fuel-efficient, and fast. And that’s where the new GTI, reborn for the Volkswagen Golf’s–excuse us, Rabbit’s–fifth generation and once again immensely fun to drive, comes in. It’s the right car for our times. Hell, it’s the right car for any time.
“Keys to the reborn GTI’s success are numerous, but the combined effect is to recall the glory of GTIs long gone. First credit goes to VW’s superb 200-hp, 2.0-liter turbo four, a modern case study of successful internal combustion marriage, hitching exemplary, almost lag-free drivability and superior economy–more than 30 mpg on the highway–to ample urge for when the going gets frisky. The well-chosen ratios of its standard six-speed manual suit it well, but we’re here to tell you, for perhaps the first time ever, that you might want to consider the self-shifting option. Volkswagen’s DSG gearbox–an electronically controlled, twin-clutch device–is simply the best automatic-type transmission we’ve ever driven, and it posts better performance and around-town fuel-economy numbers than the manual.
“We marvel, like everyone else, at the excellent fit and finish of the GTI’s Japanese competition. But while Volkswagen reliability has often failed to prove out, this GTI feels like it has more build quality than anything within miles of its price point. It exudes substance in ways that worthy, sometimes faster speed machines from the Far East–the Subaru Impreza WRX, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, and the Mazdaspeed 3, for instance–just don’t. We hope that this feeling of quality is a gift that will keep on giving. Because that would make this super car for our times even superer.”
2008: Audi R8
“Perhaps you could see this one coming, since the R8 has absolutely captivated the automotive world this past year. We’ll admit to being more than a little turned on from the first time we saw it, at the 2006 Paris auto show. Technical editor Don Sherman’s report after his initial drive of the R8 in the Nevada desert last winter confirmed our high expectations. When an R8 arrived in Ann Arbor in the spring, it set the whole office abuzz, such that we barely gave the car a chance to cool down over its four-day visit.
“But the R8 was perhaps most impressive during our Automobile of the Year test drive over the deepest backcountry byways of southeastern Ohio. By turns thrilling, poised, comfortable, fast, fluid, composed, and enormously capable, the R8 absolutely captivated everyone who got behind its flat-bottomed steering wheel. On that drive, the R8 proved itself to be a great real-world sports car, in the vein of the Porsche 911 Turbo. At the same time, it’s also an otherworldly exotic, with every bit as much presence as a Ferrari.
“Audi signaled its intention to build an ultra-high-performance, mid-engine sports car with its Le Mans Quattro concept back in 2003. That car proved to be a dead ringer for today’s R8, and yet how many people took it seriously at the time? It’s safe to say that no one would make that mistake today. The R8 is not only a thrilling new sports car, but it’s a rolling testament to a company that’s stronger than it’s ever been, one that’s entering its golden age right now.”
2009: Nissan GT-R
“Nissan’s newest dream machine is the first Japanese supercar to call out the opposition – we’re talking to you, Porsche – and whip its butt on its home turf at the Nürburgring’s Nordschleife. It’s also the suddenly attainable object of desire for a generation of enthusiasts who drew up driving slammed Honda Civics, watching Video Option, and playing Grand Turismo 2/3/4/5. For decades, previous versions of the GT-R – sold as the Skyline GT-R but known for good reason as Godzilla – have been icons in Japan, but they were never exported to the United States. Now we know what we were missing, and man, are we happy that we’ve been invited to the party.
“In the States, Nissan’s sports car heritage rests primarily on the Datsun 240Z and its follow-ons. But in Japan, Z-Cars are sold as Fairladies, and the GT-R has been the premier high-performance totem since 1969, although it disappeared between 1973 and ’89 and again went away in 2002. The top-of-the-line versions of the R32, R33, and R34 Skylines of the ’90s showcased twin-turbo six-cylinder engines with all-wheel drive and two-plus-two seating. It was only natural that Nissan chose to follow this template with the sixth-generation GT-R. But CEO Carlos Ghosn wanted to make a global statement with the new car, so he gave chief engineer Kazutoshi Mizuno a clean sheet of paper and told him to go crazy.
“All cars are compromises-between comfort and speed, between price and performance, between engineering and marketing. What we love about the GT-R is that it refuses to compromise where it really matters. It’s not pretty. It’s not comfy. It’s not trying to make friends and influence people. It’s not out to change the world. It exists for one reason and one reason only-to kick holy ass. And kick ass it does. You don’t have to like it. You just have to stay the hell out of its way.”
2010: Volkswagen GTI
“Yes, the VW GTI is our Automobile of the Year. Again. The last-generation car got the nod only three years ago and now its successor, the sixth-generation GTI, walks away with the trophy as well. How is it that, for the first time since we started naming an Automobile of the Year exactly twenty years ago, we have deemed a single make and model vehicle worthy of our top award not once, but twice? It’s very simple. Because the Volkswagen GTI continues to burn the affordable-enthusiast-car flame like no other vehicle in the world. Because the new, Mark 6 GTI, although only a mild update to the Mark 5 GTI, made a good thing even better. Because, as we pointed out in our February 2007 issue, the GTI is “the right car for our times. Hell, it’s the right car for any time.” And because, as we also stated three years ago, “what the world really needs now is not cars that are fast, but cars that are practical, fuel-efficient, and fast.” Not to mention affordable and fun. The 2010 VW GTI is all this, and more.
“We’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: It’s one thing for an automaker to create a car for fifty, or seventy-five, or a hundred thousand dollars or more that gets our pulses racing. Cars that cost that much certainly better be exciting to drive, rewarding to own, and well-built, with quality interiors. But it’s another thing entirely, a real achievement, when an automaker creates a car that starts at only $24,239 – well within the reach of most new-car buyers – that is, as one staffer says, “just as much fun to drive and with just as much street cred as cars costing three times as much.” Volkswagen alone has managed to do this, with varying degrees of success, longer than any other automaker: the first GTI reached the U.S. in 1983 and single-handedly created the whole “pocket rocket” genre. Lots of other cars, most recently two successive generations of the Mazdaspeed 3, have attempted to replicate the GTI formula, but none have quite cracked the code.
“At a time when the world’s economy is in shambles and fuel consumption and CO2 emissions are on everyone’s minds, there remains only one car that ticks all the enthusiast boxes without setting off a single wretched-excess alarm. That’s the Volkswagen GTI, and that’s why it is, once again, Automobile Magazine’s Automobile of the Year.”
2011: Chevrolet Volt
“It wasn’t a shoo-in. Quite the opposite, in fact. On its way to becoming Automobile Magazine’s 2011 Automobile of the Year, the Chevrolet Volt endured more scrutiny and skepticism than any of the nine other semifinalists. From the unprecedented levels of publicity, we knew the Volt as a green-as-grass image builder, but we also couldn’t ignore that it’s a car built by a historically inconsistent automaker around unproven technology. The foreign aura is furthered by the fact that the Volt has no obvious competition and no real predecessor. It is genuinely an all-new car, in the most simplistic sense as well as in the greater notion that the Volt is unlike any vehicle we have ever driven. No apologies if we were a bit circumspect.
“Although classifying the Volt as a hybrid or an extended-range electric is a matter of semantics, it is unquestionably an electric car from the driver’s seat. It launches with whisper-quiet, high-pitched whirs, which are exchanged for the subtle din of wind noise as it reaches speed. A power output of 149 hp won’t impress anyone, but 273 lb-ft of torque and a responsive right pedal make it more lively than your typical compact car. Electric propulsion also redefines powertrain refinement. There is no nudge from a transmission swapping cogs or the CVT-induced drone of a strained engine. Power delivery is fluid, acceleration is smooth, and cruising is nearly silent. GM’s official line on range — formerly said to be 40 miles of electric driving — is now hedged as “25 to 50 miles,” due to the profound effect that driving style, exterior temperature, and accessory use have on range. On a suburban route with typical traffic and driving behavior, we covered 40.8 miles in pure electric mode.
“This is the most sophisticated, most important vehicle on the road today. The Volt model could very well be the standard of the future: a smartly sized battery backed by a frugal range extender, whether that’s a diesel, a turbine, or a gas engine. In fact, several automakers already have plans to develop similar plug-ins with usable electric driving range and supplemental fossil-fuel power. For being an automotive pioneer, the Chevrolet Volt is the 2011 Automobile of the Year.”
2012: Audi A7
“Automobile Magazine‘s 2012 Automobile of the Year, the Audi A7, does not represent a dramatic change of pace for its maker. Audi has been building handsome, fast, and rewarding luxury cars for some time now. Anchored by Audi’s Quattro all-wheel drive, bristling with of-the-moment technologies, and surrounding its passengers with an artfully crafted interior, the A7 is exactly in keeping with the cars that this brand has been turning out. As editor-in-chief Jean Jennings said, “It’s the culmination of everything Audi has promised.”
“Still, we will admit that the A7 is a car that snuck up on us. It looks good in pictures, but it’s much more striking in person. The front visage is both sleek and imposing; in the side view, the car appears elongated, as if tapered by the wind. Move around to the rear, and the A7 is simply captivating. Who ever thought a hatchback could be so sexy? The seduction was underway.
“A relaxed, long-legged cruiser, the A7 hoovers up the interstate. It also attacks corners with a verve that the rear-wheel-drive purists on our staff found surprising. At the same time, it proved supple over beat-up pavement despite its high-fashion, twenty-inch wheels and low-profile rubber. It was even surprisingly at home on the racetrack, where all-wheel-drive sedans are usually an uncooperative mess of understeer. As associate editor Eric Tingwall pointed out, “Whether it’s commuting, being driven hard, or touring, the A7 can please any driver.”