Most Memorable Trip: Mini Takes The States
Had I been allowed to choose from my entire automotive career, my 36-hour trip to the Austrian Alps to drive a prototype of the 2013 Mini John Cooper Works Countryman would have taken the cake; however, that was last year. Luckily for the cheeky German-owned British carmaker, I took it up on an invitation to join on its bi-annual owner rally, Mini Takes the States. Not only was the crew of Mini owners one of the quirkiest, most fun, and diverse groups of people I've ever met, the drive itself lead our parade of cute Coopers from the Capitol, twisting through the infamous Tail of the Dragon in Tennessee, and introducing me to one of my new favorite cities – Nashville.
Biggest Surprise: Jaguar XJ 3.0
The last time I was behind the wheel of a Jaguar is was an XJ Supersport. One evening with its supercharged, 510-hp 5.0-liter V-8 and it took serious resolve to pry myself from the driver's seat. I was only able to speak of that car using superlatives, so it was with trepidation that I slid behind the wheel of the 2013 XJ 3.0, powered by a supercharged V-6. Essentially the V-8 with two cylinders lopped off, the new six is just as fantastic as the eight. There is still a deep well of power at any speed; however, it lost the ferocious exhaust note from the V-8 in exchange for something a little more sweet. Better yet, the new V-6 returns much better gas mileage than the V-8 (21 versus 18 mpg combined) and adds a buttery-smooth eight-speed automatic. It's a more sensible XJ that still thrills the senses? I didn't see that coming, but I'm so grateful we have it.
Biggest Disappointment: Ford Fusion
The world oohed and aahhed when the 2013 Ford Fusion debuted – the Blue Oval's all-new midsizer promised to bring dashing Aston-Martin-esque style to an otherwise milquetoast segment. With Ford's reputation for some of the most dynamically competent cars in recent years, all signs were promising. Then I drove the Fusion. The high sills were expected, but the towering dashboard, bleak interior color scheme, and overall coffin-like atmosphere were not. Nor was the sluggish 1.6-liter turbo four, that strains under the weight of the family sedan. The 2.0-liter is the engine of choice, but costs a pretty penny at $26,745. While it may be fashionable, the Fusion fell short of my expectations, especially when stacked up against the Honda Accord and Volkswagen Passat.