2008 Maserati Quattroporte - Marc Noordeloos
There I sat, looking over the giant list of cars that buyers can choose from when it comes time to pony up for new transportation. I had to pick ten cars from the pot that are better than the rest, not an easy task. Logic told me that I should balance the list with a mix-include a truck, an economy car, and some sort of SUV or crossover thing. As the lead in my pencil dulled and the eraser approached the level where the metal housing risked ripping my notepad I said screw it. I am going to pick ten cars that I love, that I want to own because they are fabulous.
Last year, senior web editor Jason Cammisa voted for the Maserati Quattroporte and most of the staff laughed at him. The last time the Italian sedan visited our office, its fiddly and temperamental sequential manual gearbox nearly forced copy editor Rusty Blackwell to abort his honeymoon road trip with his new bride. For the record, I was not one of the staff members who mocked our fearless web guy. I was actually angry that I didn't second his vote.
You see, in early 2007, the Quattroporte gained something that American cars have featured for ages, a proper automatic transmission. The rest of the car was already wonderful. It's graced with a stunning exterior design with aggressive tumblehome, an interior that looks like an Italian designer named Antonio ordered a leather bomb to be exploded in each car before it left the factory, and a glorious Italian V-8 engine that all result in a character that other luxury cars can only dream of. Yes, the Mercedes S-class is a better, more reasonable car. I even included it on my list All-Stars because, when the Maserati inevitably breaks down (they have not been known to be Honda-like in this regard), you need another car to motor on down to the country club. But the German lacks the exotic flare, the sonorous power plant, and the light, tactile handling of the Quattroporte. And that is why my heart ordered me to include the fabulous Italian luxury sedan on my list of All-Stars. Anyone know where I can pick up a good used example with a very long warranty?
2008 Mazda 3 - Jen Misaros
The Mazda 3 is in its fifth model year and, despite having only minor engine and transmission changes since its debut, is still one of the best small cars on the market. When it comes to the small car market, there are always compromises to be made. The cars in this category generally lack one or more of the things that make a car attractive: style, quality, affordability, and, most importantly, fun. The Mazda 3 has all of these in spades. Add the fact that Mazda offers the 3 in a hatch, and you've got a winner.
2008 Nissan Versa - Jamie Kitman
The Nissan Versa may have been an Automobile Magazine All-Star loser this time around, but it's the winner among losers in my Losers' Winners Circle, for it ably answers the question, "Hey, wait a second. Renault is French and they bought Nissan and they cross-pollinated to get themselves both back on their feet, but where did all that Frenchiness go?"
You don't normally think French when you drive a Nissan. But sharing a chassis with the French-designed Renault Clio (and Nissan's European Micra,) and bits with Renault's defiantly French Megane, the Versa is clearly different; it doesn't really fit logically in the Nissan "Japanese modern" sedan progression (Sentra to Altima to Maxima.) Instead, the Versa all but shrieks "Bonjours!," admirably showcasing the uniquely French side of the merged companies and the venerable Gallic habit of elevating one's humblest products by giving them not just a decent ride, but a great ride, thanks to the classical expedient of providing substantial amounts of wheel travel.
Once you get past the big-car smooth and vast accommodation for what appears to be a small car, you are left with the safety and plushness of the Versa's interior as well as its ridiculously low price ... a hair over $13,000. Making it an excellent value in a 35 mile per gallon, five-seater with loads of space. The Versa looks like the avant garde Renault Megane, with which it also shares some of its design elements and chassis pieces. The five-door hatchback is the definitive model in our view, though it is also available as a sedan, with a trunk, looking even more wackadoodle than the oddball Versa hatch despite the nod to convention.
So here, we've discovered, is where the French character in Nissan went. Overstuffed seating for driver and passenger, arm chairs, practically, ring more French bells than Notre Dame, and remind one of nothing so much as an old Citroen or Peugeot.
The Versa handles well and it holds the road like the French hoofer it is. Like many Gallic predecessors, it could stand livelier steering, with more feel. We could also imagine a version sportif with some sporty Michelins, a little more je ne sais quoi under the hood, and a special paintjob -- Gordini blue with the stripes in French racing white -- but now we're just dreaming.
This is as close as French car fans in America can get to a new, French car, and, as a bonus, it's not even French. The really important stuff is Japanese. C'est bon!
2008 Toyota Tundra - Preston Lerner
Maybe it's escaped the attention of the college-town weenies living in Ann Arbor and its effete environs, but Americans love trucks, the bigger and brawnier, the better. The irony, of course, is that the best full-size pickup on the market comes not from Detroit but from Japan - the all-new Toyota Tundra.
What we're talking about here is a half-ton truck that's able to administer simultaneous beatdowns to several our of All-Stars. Equipped with an optional 5.7-liter V-8 that makes 381 horsepower and tows more than 10,000 pounds, the Tundra can go monster-trucking over an Elise while ferrying a C30 across its bed. It carries more passengers than a Corvette and a Boxster put together, and it hauls from 0 to 60 mph faster than a GTI or a Malibu.
You want utility? Don't talk to me about the CX-9. Mazda calls it a crossover vehicle. I say it's a minivan in stealth mode, and minivans don't pass the no-boring-cars test. Pickups, on the other hand, are loaded with character, and they're equally adept at work and play. I'm the first to admit that the full-size trucks from Ford, Chevy and Dodge are damn fine vehicles, but none of them embody more All-American virtues than the Tundra.
It's big, honest, robust, ingenious, bulletproof, trustworthy and fully capable of opening a can of whup ass on anything that gets in its way. If that's not All-Stars material, then I don't know what is.