Ben Timmins: 2012 Year In Review

Best Accidental Find (Road): Race Track Road/Silvis Farm Road/Baltzer Meyer Pike, Greensburg, PA

Like all good roads, I found this one completely by accident. I had driven halfway to my parent's house near Philadelphia on a last-minute Mother's Day trip, and stayed at a cheap hotel just off the Turnpike. When I woke up the next morning, I set off in search of breakfast at a nearby Panera and--hoping to avoid paying tolls to buy a bagel and some Earl Grey--instructed the Mazda CX-5's TomTom navigation to avoid highways.

Thank goodness I did. The roads--which connect New Stanton and Greensburg, PA, two smallish farm/suburb towns outside of Pittsburgh--have plenty of tight curves and quick elevation changes. The speed limit is set at 35, but as is typical with Pennsylvania farm-country roads, the fun happens at about 50 mph--but even then you're well within your car's limits of adhesion. The road is tailor-made for cars that value handling prowess over outright speed. I drove enthusiastically, with my luggage rolling around the cargo area of our Mazda CX-5, both surprised and pleased at what I had found.

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Class Loudmouth (Stereo): Meridian Audio Surround Sound System, Range Rover Evoque

Our Four Seasons Audi A7 Prestige had a dirty secret: its Bang and Olufsen stereo system was hugely overpriced. Despite costing about $6000, the fancy stereo lacked crispness, customization, and all-out power, and was really not much better than the stock Audi/Bose system it replaces in cars like the A6, 7, and 8. (BMW’s B&O systems, for some reason, fare better)

The Meridian Sound System for Land Rover, on the other hand, costs $4,000 (as part of the Premium Package, which also includes goodies like adaptive xenon headlights, passive entry/ignition, and a hard drive-based GPS navigation system that also has space for mp3 files), and delivers performance quite unlike any of its competitors. The system has no intricate graphic equalizer, but it makes up for this by offering three different surround sound modes--Dolby Digital, DTS, and Meridian's own special sauce. Thanks to 16 speakers, one subwoofer, and 825 maximum watts, you won't need to spend any time messing with settings, either, because the system delivers huge punch with great balance, no matter what type of music you throw at it. I spent my first evening with the Four Seasons Evoque (equipped with the system) listening to a new song featuring Dr. Dre and came away thinking that Dre, who made part of his fortune selling powerful Beats headphones to the masses, would be proud of this Meridian setup.

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"Most Likely to Succeed" (Engine): Volkswagen 2.0T

Keen VW fans will recognize that, while we've seen VWs and Audis badged with "2.0T" for years now, the engine itself isn't that old: VW quietly replaced the old engine (codename EA113) with the new engine (codename EA888) in 2009, which used a clean-sheet block design and a handful of new technologies to increase efficiencies.

Whatever VW and Audi did, it worked: the 2.0T is still one of the most versatile, refined, admirably powerful engines I regularly drive. Under the hood of the Volkswagen Tiguan it makes that car energetic and playful; in the GTI it helps the car accelerate far quicker than a 200-hp rating would suggest; in the Audi TT (which uses a transversely mounted EA888 with Audi's valvelift system, increasing torque to 258 lb-ft) it turns a pretty sporty coupe into a muscular sports car. Even the "old" engine, stuffed into the VW Golf R and tuned up to 255 hp, amazes with power and flexibility. The 2.0T lacks the power of newcomers like Ford's 2.0-liter EcoBoost and BMW's N20 turbocharged I-4, but I love it all the same thanks to its blend of efficiency, sensory experience, and outright thrill.

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