We make no claim to objectivity.
We're often asked, by readers and automakers alike, what the qualifications are for an All-Star award. It's simple. It has to be a car (or truck) on sale in America at the time of our fall testing exercises. The reigning Automobile of the Year is never an All-Star, which is why you won't read about the Tesla Model S here. We generally, but don't always, exclude exotic metal. We bring no score sheets, just open minds and a desire to recognize the best and most significant vehicles. This year, sixteen editors and contributors voted for some twenty-five brands and forty-four models -- loudly arguing over some of them -- but only eleven vehicles got their names engraved on a 2013 All-Star trophy. And who doesn't like a trophy? This year, we went a step further and took those winners on adventures on three continents.
The Golden Age of Sports Cars
Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 / Porsche Boxster
Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S
This is the golden age of sports cars.
Yeah, we know. Some self-important little guy with a rule book in his hands has been telling you that sports cars are dead, and whatever you might think of the merits of some car that you see on the road, he says it doesn't qualify because it has too many cylinders or not enough camshafts or the wrong number of seats plus electric windows and besides it isn't a Morgan Plus 4 made with wood. It's enough to make you want to stab yourself with a fork, eh?
So let's get this out of the way. The whole sports car thing began simply as a description of a car that could be used for competition on the track as well as for daily use on the road. Today, we celebrate three of the best cars that meet these criteria in ways that you might not have anticipated: the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, the Porsche Boxster, and the Subaru BRZ (and its Scion FR-S twin).
These cars are part of a wave of high-performance sportsters that are coming from automakers in every country, as high performance has become an accepted approach to marketing and selling significant numbers of street cars. Indeed, these days we see badges that evoke the racing spirit of checkered flags on everything from the Fiat 500 Abarth to the Cadillac CTS-V. Certainly anything is possible in a world where the Bentley Continental GT Speed can exist.
In recognition of this trend, we felt obligated to take the 2013 Boxster, 2013 BRZ, and 2013 Camaro ZL1 to the track, since this is pretty much what everyone is doing. There are so many racing series, driving schools, track-day experiences, consumer clinics, corporate team-building events, car-club outings, and track-day competitions that road-racing tracks are being built every day just to stage these entertainments. That's what led us to Chuckwalla Valley Raceway (opening in 2010) in Desert Center, California, a place in the middle of the Mojave Desert -- which makes it one of the most remote racetracks in the United States.
The Subaru BRZ will cause plenty of sports car traditionalists to begin snuffling with self-importance, but we knew from the moment we headed down the road during our traditional All-Stars drive last fall that this is exactly the sort of sporting car that will have enormous influence. To start with, the BRZ has a price tag that won't swallow your wallet in one gulp. As much as car enthusiasts might like to hype the notion of artistic purity, simple affordability is an essential ingredient to sports car success. At a starting price of $26,265, the Subaru gets on a lot more shopping lists than a BMW 128i. The BRZ Limited has all the options, and its price sticker says $28,265.
Only when you see the BRZ in the context of traffic do you realize that it is scaled right down for the driver, even though it has space and functionality for four occupants and their stuff. Measuring 166.7 inches in overall length on a 101.2-inch wheelbase and weighing 2776 pounds in Limited trim with the manual transmission, the BRZ makes us recall the famous simile to horse and rider that has always guided the development of the Mazda Miata.
You feel much the same Miata-style energizing spirit on the track in the BRZ, as the 200-hp, 2.0-liter Subaru boxer four-cylinder responds eagerly at low rpm, and quick work with the short-throw linkage of the six-speed manual transmission transports you into ever-higher portions of the speedometer dial. This car steers much like an all-wheel-drive Subaru Impreza WRX, which is to say that the front tires feel like they're doing a lot of work. We think this makes the BRZ safe and controllable for most drivers, even if it's less lively than the Scion FR-S.
The BRZ's brakes fade quickly on the track, and we could feel the Subaru roll under the sidewalls of its 215/45WR-17 Michelin Primacy HP tires in Chuckwalla's fast, downhill ess combinations. Then again, this is why they call it "driving," not "gaming." You learn to manage with what you've got instead of simply looking up the cheat code for an upgrade to a more track-ready suspension. Moreover, you become aware of the BRZ's merits on the way home, which is an experience that won't destroy your enthusiasm for such a sporting car.
Just as the Subaru BRZ stretches the sports car concept in one direction, so, too, the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 expands it in another. This is a seriously large car, measuring 190.4 inches in overall length on a wheelbase of 112.3 inches. You can feel every one of this car's 4120 pounds as if you had carried them yourself to the ZL1's assembly plant in Oshawa, Ontario.
So what can you say about a 580-hp car? That sometimes 500 hp just isn't enough? As you'd expect, the ZL1 is very quick, as only something capable of tearing through the quarter mile in twelve seconds can be. Yet the miracle of the Camaro ZL1 is your ability to control it. It's not refinement we're talking about (although it indeed is wonderfully refined), but instead the ability to command 580 hp and make use of so much muscle in appropriate circumstances. That is to say that you can look out of the ZL1's windshield at the dragway or racetrack and think to yourself, "I have a dead-solid, 50/50 chance of making it through this without bursting into a ball of flame."
We could go on about the miracle of the supercharged V-8, a powerplant as stout as any crate engine from GM Performance Parts. We could go on about the chassis, which actually rides more comfortably than any lesser Camaro when you dial the mode for the adaptive dampers to the Tour setting. We could say that this car is so drivable even with the six-speed manual transmission and the heavy-effort clutch pedal that the oldest and most feeble of us (yr. obt. svt.) was able to negotiate three hours of bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic in L.A. without harming either himself or anyone else.
But what you really want to know is what it's like to engage launch control and feel the 305/35YR-20 Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar G:2 rear tires hook up at the starting line with barely a scratch, or what it's like to lean on the throttle coming out of a corner and feel the car simply rush forward without a stutter as the electronics modulate engine torque 1000 times per second. Well, this particular Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 carries a sticker price of $59,240. Anyone can buy one.
In comparison to such extreme statements as the Subaru BRZ and the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, the Porsche Boxster seems less than breathtaking, as close to a generic example of the modern sports car as you might find. After all, how many Boxsters have been built since the model was first shown at the 1993 Detroit auto show and then introduced into production in 1997? Roughly 245,000. And yet this third-generation Boxster is remarkable precisely because it has come to define the modern sports car. It's no longer just Porsche Lite, the sports car for those who haven't yet worked up the courage (or bank balance) for a Porsche 911.
First of all, the 2013 Boxster looks great. It has become a little more itself and less an echo of the original Porsche 550 Spyder, although it does seem larger. It measures 172.2 inches in overall length on a wheelbase of 97.4 inches and weighs 2888 pounds with the six-speed manual transmission. And did we mention that it's great to drive in everyday life? You are keenly in touch with the pleasures of operating the machinery, and you're always reminded that this is a device that you are operating, not an algorithm. After all, no algorithm sounds like this 265-hp, 2.7-liter flat six-cylinder.
Even better, you can drive the Boxster quickly without having to take a leap of faith. Of these three cars at Chuckwalla, the Porsche proved the easiest to drive. Its 235/40YR-19 Pirelli PZero front tires found the racing line with unerring precision, although we have to say that the long, double-apex corners that distinguish the Chuckwalla layout reveal the slightly light effort level that's calibrated for the electrically assisted steering. At the same time, the Boxster's easy controllability is backed by an array of safety electronics to enhance stability in cornering and braking, making this a car in which you can face a dark, winding road with confidence.
Compared with the $120,000 price for virtually any new Porsche 911 for sale in the real world, even this heavily optioned $75,615 example of the Boxster seems like a bargain. Yet the Boxster is no one's compromise, no little brother of the 911. This is the car about which little boys will dream, for which young men will save, and which real men and real women will drive in the real world.
Naturally, there will be lots of arguments about what cars best represent the driving machines of these times. We like the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, the Porsche Boxster, and the Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S because they represent doorways into the enjoyment that pure, track-oriented fast driving offers. These cars -- each an All-Star -- can make fast driving a reality for almost everyone and will then let you drive home in comfort and safety when it's time to get back to real life. -- Michael Jordan, photography by Andrew Yeadon
Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
Price: $56,550/$59,240 (base/as tested)
Engine: 6.2L supercharged V-8, 580 hp, 556 lb-ft
EPA mileage: 14/19 mpg, 12/18 mpg (manual, automatic)
Price: $50,450/$63,050/$75,615 (Boxster/Boxster S/as tested)
Engines: 2.7L flat-6, 265 hp, 206 lb-ft; 3.4L flat-6, 315 hp, 266 lb-ft (Boxster; Boxster S)
EPA mileage: 20-22/30-32 mpg, 20-21/28-30 mpg (Boxster, Boxster S)
Subaru BRZ / Scion FR-S
Price: $25,255/$26,265/$28,265 (base FR-S/base BRZ/as tested)
Engine: 2.0L flat-4, 200 hp, 151 lb-ft
EPA mileage: 22/30 mpg, 25/34 mpg (manual, automatic)