Favorite Road/Favorite Photoshoot: My favorite road of 2012 isn’t a road. It is a track. At sunup one late September morning, I was standing on the front-straight of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as Wes Allison set up his camera to shoot the Speedway museum’s freshly restored 1966 Ford GT Mark II for a Motor Trend Classic cover feature. An hour later, the IMS’s restorer gave taxi rides around the 2.5-mile oval to myself and the Ford employees who built a new seven-liter engine for the car and had it repainted its original Mustang factory Amber Mist paint, with Day-Glo green moustache. That afternoon, it was my turn at the wheel. I drove the same Holman Moody GT40 that Paul Hawkins and Mark Donohue drove for about 12 laps of the ’66 Le Mans, around turns 1-3 of the old IMS Formula 1 circuit.
Favorite Group of Drivers I Normally Wouldn’t Hang Out With: Lt. Jim Flagel, Sgt. Matt Rogers and Sgt. Ron Gromak of the Michigan State Police’s Precision Driving Unit. They’ve never taken any racing courses, yet they’re among the best drivers I’ve encountered. I’m going to make sure next summer that my niece, and then my nephew, when he’s old enough, attend their one-day defensive driving course for young students at the MSP’s test circuit in Lansing, Michigan.
Favorite Production Car: That would be, officially, the Porsche Cayman, though the new model doesn’t launch until 2013. The convertible version on which it is based was all-new in 2012, the much maligned Boxster/Boxster S. Who maligns it? Mostly 911 purists, the same Porschephiles who prevent the company from giving the Boxster/Cayman the same power as the rear-engine icon. The 911 is immensely rewarding to good drivers, though it’s simply no mid-engine car. While I would never buy a 911 cabrio or even Targa, if I had the money, I would be fine with the Boxster as a Cayman alternative. No matter what the 911 purists say, it’s not at all a “hairdresser’s car.”
Most Disappointing Production Car: Lots of competition for this one. The Dodge Dart leads off, because on California’s Highway One near Healdsburg, where Chrysler held the media first drive, I found the car reasonably entertaining, at least when equipped with the 1.4-liter MultiAir turbo and manual transmission. Once I got to drive mainstream MultiAir and 2.0-liter version with automatics or the high fuel-mileage dual-clutch, the Dart revealed itself as more of a rental car, but with bright paint options. While far better than the Dodge Caliber it replaces, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta-based Dart is not the breakout compact it could have been. The coming SRT Barracuda’s rear-drive platform can’t come quickly enough for new, bigger Alfa Romeo models.
Most Rewarding Scoop: Breaking news of Ralph Gilles’ SRT Barracuda at January’s North American International Auto Show (Detroit). The car will be on a smaller rear-wheel-drive platform than the full-size Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger/Challenger, and Alfa Romeo will use it to develop a more affordable BMW 3 Series competitor. After breaking the story, a former Chrysler exec confirmed it, saying “Ralph has always wanted to do a Barracuda.” Then it appeared very briefly in a segment with Gilles in the “60 Minutes” interview with Sergio Marchionne. Finally, Marchionne gave me some details of the Alfa in a November interview.
Best Proof that Too Few Consumers Read Enthusiast Magazines: The Ford Explorer, which has been almost universally panned in the auto enthusiast press. It shares its platform and a couple of its powertrains with the Flex, which most of us like. But the Flex has a boxy, space-efficient body, so there’s lots of interior space, while the Explorer has the same big-on-the-outside, small-on-the-inside problem as another platform sibling, the Taurus. What’s more, thanks to the Firestone tire debacle that nearly sunk the old, body-on-frame Explorer a decade ago, the new, unibody Explorer sports the undefeatable Curve Control feature. The Flex ought to be far outselling the Explorer, but because of the latter’s off-road reputation, it’s the other way around.
Favorite Concept: Peugeot’s Onyx supercar concept at the Paris auto show in late September. Onyx is more than a 600-horsepower supercar, though. The supercar was part of a trio that included a scooter and a bicycle, all built in a combination of flat black carbon fiber and copper. All three are gorgeously ridiculous, the kinds of conveyances only a French automaker could, or would build.