The auto industry may be coming off its worst year in recent memory, but you’d never know it from driving a crop of dozens of new cars, as we just did during our annual All-Stars competition. The level of excellence was high, and the competition was keen – so much so that thirty-nine cars [list below, winners in bold] received votes for the ten All-Star spots. In the end, though, our balloting produced a list of true standouts that span a wide range of the automotive spectrum.
Dodge Ram 1500
Ferrari 599GTB Fiorano
Ford Fusion Hybrid
Ford Mustang GT
Hyundai Genesis Coupe
Mazda MX-5 Miata
Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
Jaguar XF/XFR | This cat has claws.
By Eric Tingwall
As a brand-new car, the 2009 Jaguar XF earned an All-Star award for its balance of power, athleticism, and refinement. So when the XF received significant improvements for 2010, we naturally had to reward Jaguar for making a good thing even better. Within fifteen months of launching the car, Jaguar had three new V-8 engines for the XF lineup, all displacing 5.0 liters and injecting fuel directly into the cylinders. In the XF, the new engines make 385 and 470 hp, while the most significant addition is a 510-hp, supercharged version for the new XFR performance model.
Although no one ever complained about a lack of power in our 420-hp Four Seasons 2009 XF Supercharged, the blazing fast XFR is easily our favorite cat. Stiffer springs and active dampers conspire to firm up the handling without damaging the ride quality. With stability control disabled, the XFR is happy to slide its rear end around corners in response to calculated throttle inputs. Even better, no matter how juvenile the driver, the Jag always transitions to oversteer with a predictable, controlled grace. At the track, the XFR’s compliant chassis and quick, positive-feel steering mask the car’s heft and inspire you to drive the 4306-pound sedan like a small sport coupe.
Inside, Jaguar brings a wholly modern style to the cabin yet doesn’t abandon elegance. The aluminum and dark wood accents in the XFR are softened by rich two-tone leather seats and contrasting stitching along the doors and the dash. Although the seats could use a bit more bolstering for hard driving, the cockpit is otherwise perfectly matched to the XFR’s bipolar proficiency of being both a sports car and a luxury touring sedan. It’s that uncompromising practicality and refreshed performance that establish the Jaguar XF, in all its permutations, as an All-Star.
Base price range: $52,000-$80,000
Engines: 4.2L V-8, 300 hp, 303 lb-ft; 5.0L V-8, 385 hp, 380 lb-ft; 5.0L supercharged V-8, 470/510 hp, 424/461 lb-ft
Audi S4 | Less is so much more.
By Jamie Kitman
Having finally cemented its place in the top echelon of the world’s carmakers, Audi shows no signs of letting its guard down. Instead, it’s getting ready for the twenty-first century’s post-scarcity, carbon-averse market with a new-for-2010 S4 that excises the last generation’s 4.2-liter V-8 in favor of a supercharged 3.0-liter V-6. Cheaper than the car it replaces ($46,725 versus $51,085), the sure-footed, all-wheel-drive S4 takes everything we like about the Audi A4 upon which it is based – comfort, safety, and solid build quality – and cranks it up. Although the extroverted body kit is more minimal and it’s two cylinders shy of its antecedent, the losses are merely theoretical. The new S4 is down just 7 hp and coaxes an impressive 333 hp from its modest displacement, yet torque increases from 302 to 325 lb-ft. Shedding half a second in the 0-to-60-mph run (5.2 seconds with a six-speed manual), the S4 also manages to increase fuel economy. Audi’s new seven-speed dual-clutch S tronic gearbox, which offers greater smoothness at the price of some haste off the line, is an appealing option, as is the Sports Rear Differential, which shifts torque from side to side, reducing understeer. The spiffy diff option also buys you Drive Select, a feature that allows the driver to program settings for the suspension and the steering. But our best memories are reserved for the fiery V-6 that pulls to its 7000-rpm redline like there’s no tomorrow. Quicker, cleaner, thriftier, cheaper. We’ll take it.
Base Price: $46,725
Engine: 3.0L supercharged V-6, 333 hp, 325 lb-ft
Chevrolet Camaro | Old-school charm from the new GM.
By David Zenlea
Former General Motors president and CEO Fritz Henderson understated matters last fall when he admitted that “2009, in general . . . , has been a year that I’ll be very glad to have behind us.” In fact, General Motors Company, as it’s now called, has never experienced a darker twelve-month period in its 101-year history. Amid all the turmoil, though, there have been glimmers of hope. Look no further than the Chevrolet Camaro – if you can find one on dealer lots, that is – for proof that GM can build great cars. It’s a smashing sales success and, now, an Automobile Magazine All-Star.
Although the Camaro may appear to be a blast from the past, it actually embodies many of GM’s most promising changes. Australian engineers at Holden have rightly become the company’s global go-to team for rear-wheel-drive cars, and the Camaro is more athletic and sophisticated for it. Another sign of smart thinking is the base Camaro’s direct-injected V-6. It’s nearly as powerful as the last generation’s V-8 but gets almost 30 mpg on the highway. Of course, we don’t mind the 6.2-liter V-8 in the Camaro SS (and neither do customers, most of whom have opted for its extra grunt). “The SS had perhaps the best engine roar of any car we had at the track,” adds Editor-in-Chief Jean Jennings.
On a deeper level, the Camaro proves that a brash, beautiful American car can still hit an emotional chord with the general public. “It still gets plenty of stares,” notes road test coordinator Mike Ofiara.
The Camaro isn’t perfect. Our wish list includes sharper handling, a smaller-diameter steering wheel, and a better-dressed interior (although we absolutely love the well-bolstered front seats). Given that the Ford Mustang is already striking back with more horsepower for 2011, Chevy can hardly afford to rest on its laurels. Nonetheless, we can gladly affirm that the reborn and, yes, very bitchin’ Camaro is one of our favorite rides for 2010.
Base Price Tange: $23,530-$34,595
Engines: 3.6L V-6, 304 hp, 273 lb-ft; 6.2L V-8, 400/426 hp, 410/420 lb-ft
BMW 335d | Our kind of fuel sipper.
By Ezra Dyer
Can we have a bit of fanfare, please? The BMW 335d is the most important car this year to get lost in the crowd. While the 335i and the M3 always show up in comparison tests, the 335d is an outlier – because, really, what would you compare it with? There’s no other car that combines performance and fuel economy at this level. Sure, there are many cars that do 0 to 60 mph in six seconds, but they don’t get 36 mpg on the highway. There are cars that match the 335d’s fuel economy, but they don’t top out at 149 mph. From behind the wheel, the 335d feels even faster than its numbers suggest, because the diesel six cranks out more torque than a 6.2-liter Corvette – 425 lb-ft. And despite the diesel’s weight penalty (220 pounds more than a 335i automatic), the car maintains a 51/49 front/rear weight distribution, which means that the 3-series’ sweet rear-wheel-drive handling survives intact.
Most diesels, even high-output modern ones, dispense their power in a sudden burst of thrust, followed by a pause for an upshift. Not this one. The 335d pulls hard all the way to its 4200-rpm power peak, and its standard automatic transmission grabs the next gear so quickly that an acceleration run is a relentless shove until you let off the gas (er, diesel). So the 335d is game for hard driving when you’re in the mood, but it can also return subcompactlike fuel economy. And, in one of the coolest tax laws ever, the U.S. government will give you a $900 tax credit to buy this twin-turbo BMW.
If BMW built a unique-bodied hybrid that returned the numbers that the 335d does, it would be a huge sensation. But because the 335d looks like a normal 3-series (itself a perennial All-Star, by the way) and doesn’t wear a hybrid badge, we already tend to take its achievements for granted. We shouldn’t.
base price: $44,725
engine: 3.0L twin-turbo diesel I-6, 265 hp, 425 lb-ft
Dodge Ram 1500 | From meathead to egghead.
By Joe Lorio
The pickup market is among the most stagnant and resistant to change of any segment in the automotive arena. So when a new pickup has the fortitude to question established practices, it deserves to be recognized. The new half-ton Dodge Ram is that truck.
Cutting against the unquestioned trend of ever-more-ludicrous towing figures, towering “in-your-face” grilles, and absurdly jacked-up ride heights, Dodge engineers stepped back from the mindless braggadocio to create a vehicle that actually works smarter. Throwing out years of accepted wisdom, they scrapped the antediluvian leaf springs in favor of a well-located coil-sprung rear axle, dramatically improving the pickup’s ride quality. They retreated from the cartoonish styling and instead shaped their truck in the wind tunnel, and consequently it uses less fuel. They also at long last addressed the issue of covered, secure cargo storage – which other makers of full-size trucks had consigned their buyers to add themselves or do without – and created the hugely innovative RamBox in-bedside storage compartments. Apparently also questioning the notion that a noisy truck is somehow acceptable where a noisy car is not, Dodge created a Ram that is astonishingly quiet to drive (although we are glad to still hear the Hemi V-8’s distinct burble at start-up). In the suddenly competitive domain of interiors, the Ram sets the standard by living up to the radical idea that the cabin of a $40,000 truck should be as nice as that of a $40,000 car.
In all these changes, the Ram often had to go not just against its competitors, but also its own history. It surely was not easy. The Dodge Ram has gone from meathead to egghead, adding brains to its brawn. As a result, it surges to the front of the pack as the most livable yet still highly capable big pickup in the land.
Base Price Range: $21,510-$43,550
Engines: 3.7L V-6, 215 hp, 235 lb-ft; 4.7L V-8, 310 hp, 330 lb-ft; 5.7L V-8, 390 hp, 407 lb-ft
Ford Flex | Now with more muscle.
By Jennifer Misaros
In its debut year, we were so taken by the Ford Flex’s classically contemporary style and refined functionality that we named it a 2009 All-Star, calling it a “class act among people movers.” For 2010, Ford has equipped the Flex with its much-anticipated EcoBoost engine, thereby addressing the Flex’s only weakness – power – and effectively transforming it from a well-rounded family hauler into a large sport wagon. The 355-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 uses direct injection and two small turbochargers to provide effortless, V-8-like acceleration while matching the fuel economy of the all-wheel-drive, normally aspirated Flex. Unlike many turbos that are lazy down low, the pair in the Flex spool up quickly – all 350 lb-ft of torque is available at 1500 rpm – making the Flex an adept urban runabout as well as a capable, medium-duty tow vehicle. And because the EcoBoost’s torque curve is flat, a well-timed downshift using the steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles makes quick sprints from 80 to 100 mph only a finger click away. To get the most out of all this muscle, Ford added all-wheel drive and then stiffened the springs, increased the damping rates, and lowered the ride height, making the already-buttoned-down Flex one of the best-handling full-size crossovers on the market. Of course, the addition of the EcoBoost engine does nothing to diminish the Flex’s attractive mutation of modern and traditional styling cues or its knack for handily carrying cargo and transporting up to seven people in supreme comfort. Instead, Ford’s EcoBoost serves only to elevate the Flex’s uniqueness in a market brimming with compromised, look-alike utility vehicles.
Base Price Range: $29,325-$43,635
Engines: 3.5L V-6, 262 hp, 248 lb-ft; 3.5L twin-turbocharged V-6, 355 hp, 350 lb-ft
BMW Z4 | Come see the softer side of the Z4.
By Jason Cammisa
BMW has finally acknowledged what Sears realized two decades ago: sometimes you need to embrace your softer side. Doing so allowed BMW to perform a small miracle on the company’s droptop two-seater. You see, the previous Z4 was a little rough and gruff, a little unsophisticated, and undeniably masculine. The red beauty you see here was treated to a mild testosterone-reduction program after BMW took a good look at its customers’ needs. The Z4 is no longer gunning straight for the Porsche Boxster – and the Bimmer is better for it.
The BMW Z4 was designed by two very talented women, and when compared with the car’s predecessor, the fairer sex’s soft touch is palpable from every angle. Trading racetrack readiness for everyday elegance hasn’t hurt the Z4 one bit. In fact, it’s become a better car in every way. Just as you can still buy hulky power tools at the not-so-softer side of Sears, you can still get your power fix in the Z4: 60 mph is yours in five to six seconds, depending on what powertrain combination you choose. Normally aspirated or turbocharged; stick shift, automatic, or dual-clutch – they’re all smooth, sonorous, and seriously quick.
And they’re best savored with the top down. This time around, rather than offering both coupe and roadster models, the Z4 is available one way: with a retractable hard top. Sure, the racing junkies moaned – this longer, heavier Z4 won’t become a track-day favorite – but we, and we suspect roadster buyers, heaved a sigh of relief. The benefits are a less claustrophobic and more expensive-feeling cabin with a much improved view out, vastly more total trunk space, and better all-weather usability.
The interior design is a marvel of simplicity and elegance and carries with it the first sign of warmth from BMW in quite some time. The sheetmetal is at once sexy, sultry, and supremely muscular – gorgeous enough, in fact, to make it a close contender for our Design of the Year award. The Z4 is expensive, but it finally looks as though it deserves to be. Just as much as it deserves to be a 2010 Automobile Magazine All-Star.
Base Price Range: $46,575-$52,475
Engines: 3.0L I-6, 255 hp, 220 lb-ft; 3.0L twin-turbocharged I-6, 300 hp, 300 lb-ft
Ford Fusion Hybrid | Exceptionally ordinary.
By Robert Cumberford
It’s just a car, an ordinary everyday family driver, nothing special. Except that it is special, very special indeed. Quietly, Ford has put a car on the road that essentially enlists Toyota hybrid technology but uses it more cleverly than the originating company did, giving us a sedan that burns even less fuel than the Camry Hybrid over an identical route. And it does it without obliging drivers, whether they want to or not, to make a statement with special aerodynamic styling like Toyota’s Prius or Honda’s Insight.
With its particularly well-programmed continuously variable transmission, the Fusion steps off smartly. It is definitely not a performance machine, but neither does it feel hobbled or inadequate for daily driving, which is quite impressive when you consider its 3700-pound-plus weight. If you are gentle with your right foot, the car moves off silently, without engaging the 156-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. When the engine does start, the transition from all-electric to mixed drive is as smooth and unobtrusive as anyone could wish.
The Fusion’s party trick is LCD color screens on both sides of the speedometer. With four modes of data presentation selectable by the driver, these reveal all you want to know about how you’re driving and how much fuel you’re using as you go. If you are “good,” i.e., don’t waste fuel, a green vine graphic begins to grow at the extreme right side of the cluster.
Perhaps the best part of the Fusion Hybrid experience is that there isn’t much of anything, apart from those screens, to tell you that you’re in anything other than a nice, comfortable, regular car that anyone can drive without the least reflection. Its very ordinariness is what makes it an Automobile Magazine All-Star.
Base price: $28,350
Engine: 2.5L I-4 electric/hybrid, 191 hp (combined)
Battery: Nickel-metal hydride, 1.4 kWh
Porsche Boxster/Cayman | Twin peaks.
By Preston Lerner
The Porsche Boxster roadster and its hardtop sibling, the Cayman, are as close as you can come to the perfect everyday sports car. Fits like a glove? Check. Drives like a dream? Check. Powerful enough to get you into trouble? Check. Agile enough to get you out of it? Check.
Approaching redline, the flat-six engine howls like a race car screaming through the Fuchsröhre at the Nordschleife. The brakes produce stopping power that stretches your neck more effectively than a chiropractor. The flawlessly weighted steering is so precise that it seems to be laser-guided. In addition to a satisfying six-speed manual, Porsche also offers a splendid seven-speed PDK dual-clutch automatic that swaps cogs seamlessly – a good thing because the counterintuitive steering-wheel shift buttons guarantee that frustrated newcomers will find themselves searching for the correct gear. The lively mid-engine chassis is a marvel of modern engineering, so that droptop Boxsters feel as rigid as coupes and Caymans feel like they’re ready to roll onto pregrid. The power numbers – 255 hp in the base Boxster to 320 ponies for the top-of-the-line Cayman S – don’t sound overwhelming. But that’s the point. This isn’t a beast that’s been toned down for popular consumption or an econobox that’s been tarted up with performance parts. It’s a solid, grown-up, well-thought-out thoroughbred that dances rings around the bloated Cayenne and Panamera, and although this sounds like heresy, it embodies Porsche’s core verities even more authentically than the venerable 911. Prices start at about $50,000, with fully optioned models climbing to $70K and beyond. Cheap? No. A bargain? Well, they say a rich man has to pass through the eye of a needle to enter heaven. But all he’s got to do to achieve sports car nirvana is buy a Cayman S.
Base price range: $48,550-$62,450
Engines: 2.9L flat-6, 255/265 hp, 214/221 lb-ft; 3.4L flat-6, 310/320 hp, 266/273 lb-ft