Joe Lorio: 2012 Year In Review

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Best drive: The Route Napoleon

Rising up from Cannes on the French Riviera and crossing into the Maritime Alps, the Route Napoleon starts out busy and unspectacular, but empties out completely just as the visual wattage is turned up. It crosses wide valleys, clings to rocky cliffs, and shoots through numerous tunnels, alternately straight and fast then sinuous and fun. The drive along this road, from Cannes to the picturesque mountain village of Digne-les-Bains, was the best one I did all year. The fact that I was at the wheel of the new Subaru BRZ also might have had something to do with it. Oh, and one’s traveling companion makes a difference as well; shout out to Motor Trend’s ever-mellow Ron Kiino.

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Favorite engine: Volkswagen’s 1.4-liter turbo four (in the seventh-generation Golf)

There are lots of great engines these days, but the one that made the biggest impression on me was one of the smallest that I drove: VW’s 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. It enlivens the seventh-generation Golf with its hearty 138 hp and 184 pound-feet of torque, and I found it to be extremely responsive and tractable throughout the rev range—an absolute delight for such a mighty mite. Too bad it’s not coming here.

Runner up: Mercedes-Benz’s 3.0-liter V-6 turbodiesel.

This polished oil-burner—or, more accurately, oil-sipper—transforms the all-wheel-drive S-class into an economy car, at least on the highway. (I got 33 mpg on a trip to Massachusetts.) And it does so with perfect manners and plenty of punch.

Best day I spent sweating profusely: Mercedes 280SL photo shoot

It was about 100 degrees and humid the day we shot the pictures for our Collectible Classic on the Mercedes-Benz 230/250/280SL. My 1969 280SL, a loaner from the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center, actually had working Kuhlmeister A/C, but its feeble output was no match for the broiling sun streaming in through the SL’s ample greenhouse. And once we took the top off, there was no point to it at all. Still, the beautiful silver roadster proved utterly charming in a day of driving two-lane roads in the Hudson Valley.

Coolest detail: Light-up exterior door handles (Cadillac XTS)

With LEDs appearing both outside and inside new cars, side-mirror-mounted down lights casting unique shadows on the pavement, and illuminated door sills becoming common, lighting has become an arena for automakers to wow buyers. The neatest example, however, may well be the door handles on the Cadillac XTS (and ATS), which light up when you hit the remote’s unlock button. Not only do they look cool, but they’re practical too.

Most surprising find: Vintage Mercedes taxicabs in Provincetown

Out on the very tip of Cape Cod, there’s a taxicab company that runs a fleet of W123-body vintage Mercedes-Benz sedans and wagons. The aptly named Mercedes Cab was started in 1983, with a single, fintail 1966 Mercedes-Benz 250S. The well-used Mercs have way more character than any Crown Vic.

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Closest call: Superstorm Sandy and the Lexus ES300h

We were among the lucky ones here in the New York area when Superstorm Sandy hit—we never even lost power. Stepping outside the next morning, however, I was momentarily alarmed to see my Lexus ES300h test car completely covered by a downed tree. Upon closer examination, however, I saw that the fallen tree had been caught by another one next to it, so it wasn’t really resting on the car and hadn’t caused any damage. A few snips with some pruners and I was able to extricate the Lexus.It’s estimated, however, that Sandy destroyed some 250,000 cars.

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