Plenty of new cars debut in twelve months’ time, and 2011 was no exception. While economic uncertainties and fears of high gas prices brought scads of new economy and hybrid cars to showrooms, 2011 also saw more powerful supercars and more thrilling sports coupes hit the market. Among this year’s new-car debuts were some outstanding models, some duds, and some that fall somewhere in between. Here, in alphabetical order, are our ten favorite new production cars launched in 2011.
The idea for the 1 Series M was simple: take the regular BMW 1 Series coupe, and make it an even more potent performance machine. The recipe for success is a combination of brutal turbocharged acceleration and upgraded chassis components from the M3 GTS. BMW’s twin-turbo 3.0-liter inline-six produces a stout 335 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque, enough to send the 1 Series M hurtling to 60 mph in less than five seconds. Yet the 1M’s virtue is its compact size: smaller and lighter than the BMW M3, the 1M enchanted us with a more direct, responsive driving feel and stellar performance.
Long one of our favorite cars, we had high hopes for the newest generation of the BMW 3 Series. Fortunately, we were not disappointed. Though the new model is slightly longer and wider than the outgoing 3 Series sedan, the new BMW is actually marginally lighter than before thanks to the use of aluminum components. A new, 240-hp turbocharged four-cylinder engine powers the 328i, while the 335i continues to use BMW’s tried-and-true turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six. To sate driving enthusiasts, a six-speed manual transmission remains the standard choice; to sate connoisseurs, the 3 Series gains gadgets like a color head-up display and camera-based collision warning system. A hybrid model and xDrive all-wheel-drive versions of the new 3er will debut in 2012.
Cadillac has rapidly reinvented itself in the past few years, selling SUVs and crossovers that star in music videos, as well as sports cars that can keep up with the best from Europe on a race track. The next volley from Cadillac’s new-car arsenal is the XTS, a full-size luxury sedan that is poised to compete with the best from Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz. Long overhangs, chrome trim, and curved sheetmetal provide an elegant look for the new XTS, while leather, brushed metal, and wood trim adorn the commodious interior. Unlike the DTS and STS full-size sedans that it replaces, the XTS is primarily a front-wheel-drive vehicle, albeit with al-wheel-drive optional. Power will come not from a burly V-8, but from a refined, direct-injection 3.6-liter V-6 paired with a silky six-speed automatic transmission.
The Chevrolet Sonic is not simply a replacement for the unloved Aveo, but rather a leap forward for Chevrolet small cars. With roots in both Korean- and European-market cars, the Sonic is offered either as a smart sedan or a practical four-door hatchback. Not only does its design and interior fittings greatly surpass anything offered by the erstwhile Aveo, but the Sonic proves to have a competent chassis and willing powertrains. A 1.8-liter inline-four is the standard engine, but most models will be fitted with a torquey and efficient 1.4-liter turbo-four than can return as much as 40 mpg highway. The Sonic is an impressive new car in its own right, and even more impressive when compared to prior Chevrolet economy cars.
The fact that a Kia Rio appears on a list of our favorite new production cars speaks volumes: the new Rio is seriously impressive. Transformed by Kia’s mature, European-inspired styling language, the new Rio hatchback and sedan look more appealing and expensive than earlier versions. The interior features cool toggle switches for some controls, and has a pleasant mix of attractive soft-touch materials. Best of all, the driving experience has also evolved from forgettable to enviable. A smooth automatic transmission, strong four-cylinder engine, and well-damped suspension make the Rio an admirable choice in the burgeoning compact-car segment.
What cannot be expressed in superlatives can be told in raw numbers: a 6.5-liter V-10 engine with 690 hp and an 8250-rpm redline. The Aventador LP700-4 continues Lamborghini’s heritage of twelve-cylinder supercars in an astonishing manner, with its on-road potential foretold by menacing, angular styling. A specially designed single-clutch automated manual transmission helps deliver power to all four wheels, while carbon-fiber construction helps keep weight down to a relatively svelte 3472 pounds. At full bore on a track, the Aventador provides mind-scrambling acceleration and seemingly limitless amounts of cornering grip, all accompanied by a bellowing V-12 soundtrack.
It’s no secret that car enthusiasts all over the world love the current Porsche 911, giving us heady expectations for the new 991-generation of Stuttgart’s venerable sports car. Fortunately, the 2012 Porsche 911 improves on automotive excellence. The 991 911 is lighter, more powerful, and more dynamically capable than its forbears. The slightly elongated body may have altered the car’s silhouette, and a raised center console has brought interior styling more in keeping with the four-door Panamera, but perfectly accurate steering and responsive flat-six engines remain. We even got used to Porsche’s unique seven-speed manual transmission. So far we’ve only sampled the 911 Carrera and Carrera S, but we can’t wait to try even more potent varieties in the future.
Call it love at first sight: the clean, sharp lines of Range Rover’s newest model drew us in at once. Whether with two doors or four, the striking crossover manages to compress regal Range Rover style into a smaller vehicle. The sloping roofline, blacked-out pillars, and narrow lights add up to perhaps the coolest, most enticing Range Rover model. Coupled to the good looks are an excellent turbocharged 2.0-liter engine, decent off-road performance, and a fabulously finished cabin. While it’s not quite a luxury car, the Evoque has caught our collective interest and may even steal a few sales away from its big brother, the glitzy Range Rover Sport.
These two cars are the fruits of an almost interminably long gestation period in which Subaru and Toyota sought to build a fun, affordable, rear-wheel-drive sports coupe. Amazingly, the Toyota 86 aka. Scion FR-S aka. Subaru BRZ meets its goals, providing handling and thrills that rival much pricier European sports coupes. Mechanically identical, the Subaru and Toyota/Scion employ a 2.0-liter boxer-four engine that develops 197 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque, channeled to the rear wheels via a manual or automatic transmission with six gear ratios. The companies proudly compare their new 2+2 to the Porsche Cayman, and indeed the Subaru/Toyota’s low center of gravity and nimble dynamics are nearly as fun as Stuttgart’s hardtop. The best news yet: pricing for either version should start in the mid-$20K range, making fun rear-drive antics available to enthusiasts on nearly any budget.
The tiny, cute Volkswagen Up! got our attention when it arrived at the Frankfurt Motor Show. Designed primarily for Europeans driving around cramped cities, the Up! is about the same size as a Fiat 500 and seats four. It will be powered by a variety of three-cylinder engines designed to eke out as many miles per gallon of fuel as possible; there also will eventually be an all-electric version. Small city cars are nothing new, especially in European, but Up!’s stylish body and mature, upscale interior prove that small, efficient cars need not be boring. Long overhands, big windows, and a clear dashboard layout all lend the Up! an elegant simplicity that we find refreshing in a world of similar small cars.