Automotive photography is an art, and longtime readers will remember that we have presented our annual All-Star winners in all manner of artistically inspired photos over the years. From a series of nighttime shots in 2003, to a sporting focus in 2004, to Hollywood sets in 2005, to Route 66 back in 2007, to last year’s streets-of-San-Francisco theme, we’ve been there and done it all. Our photographers have shrink-wrapped a Mazda Miata, splattered paint on a Ferrari, and stretched the boundaries of Photoshop in search of the perfect image.
This year, wanting to do something different, creative director Kelly Murphy turned to talented young German illustrator Daniel Stolle to portray our ten All-Star recipients for 2011. Inspired by Matchbox toy cars, Stolle presents our diverse dream garage through the eyes of a child. “After all,” he explains, “real cars are more or less toys for grown-ups.” We can’t argue with him on that. And what a toy box we have this year: ten vehicles from ten different manufacturers, with some old favorites and some new surprises. Step into our playroom with us, will you?
Dear sport sedan also-rans: You’re great cars, and we love spending time with you. We’ll never forget the first time we heard the rorty exhaust note of an Infiniti G37, for instance, and we’re amazed every time we savor the luxurious interior of an Audi A4. Alas, we can never truly be together, because we’re in a committed, long-term relationship with the BMW 3-series. How committed? In the past eighteen years, the 3-series has not once fallen from our grace, winning two Automobile of the Year awards, making twenty-one All-Star appearances (more than once, the M3 and the 3-series each won All-Star awards in the same year), and winning a Technology of the Year award for good measure. As the car enters the sixth year in its current form, it still has no equal.
“Fantastic chassis balance, beautiful steering, lovely shift action,” gushes senior editor Joe Lorio. “Add in the phenomenal performance — and surprisingly good fuel economy — and you’ve got the segment’s standard-bearer. Again.”
The cherry on top for 2011 is the new 335is. With a twin-turbo in-line six boosted to 320 hp, a fortified suspension, and the option of either a slick-shifting six-speed manual or one of the best dual-clutch automatics on the market, this $51,025 coupe strikes us as perhaps the perfect middle ground between the 335i and the somewhat precious M3. Not that we wouldn’t love to own an M3. Or a 328i. Or a diesel-fueled 335d, which rivals the acceleration of the M3 that won our Automobile of the Year award in 1995 while attaining 36 mpg on the highway.
The current 3-series is not completely immune to the effects of aging. We tire of its watered-down Chris Bangle styling, and although it is newly available with the fourth generation of iDrive for 2011, it still trails the class leaders when it comes to in-car technology. That said, our primary wish for the next-generation 3-series, coming next year, is that BMW doesn’t ruin it. Somehow, we suspect it won’t. See you next year.
– David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
BASE PRICE RANGE: $34,525-$69,625
ENGINES: 3.0L I-6, 230 hp, 200 lb-ft; 3.0L twin-turbo diesel I-6, 265 hp, 425 lb-ft; 3.0L turbocharged I-6, 300 hp, 300 lb-ft; 3.0L twin-turbo I-6, 320 hp, 332 lb-ft; 4.0L V-8, 414
Cadillac CTS-V Sport Wagon
Imagine you’re enveloped in a deep, supportive Recaro seat, listening to the loping sound track of a big, big V-8. Rev it a little…there, just like that. Hear a faint whine? That’s the supercharger. Now reach over to the center console and wrap your hand around the shift lever. It’s wrapped in suede, just like the steering wheel. Press the meaty clutch and rev that eardrum-shattering V-8 to the limiter, throw it into first, and dump the clutch. Prepare for a serious burnout. Keep it aimed straight, but grab second quickly so you can keep the tire smoke going and the speed coming. Don’t worry about stopping — those are Brembo six-piston calipers up front, fours in the back, and they’ll be ready when the time comes. Now look in the rearview mirror. A limited-slip differential made sure that the black smears of Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 are identical twins. But wait — what’s all that space back there?
Open your eyes, my friend, you’re in a wagon. A wagon with as much cargo room as a giant, silly BMW X6. Or twelve Porsche 911s. The same twelve 911s you just left in a cloud of tire smoke. The CTS-V Sport Wagon is not only far cooler than the sedan and the coupe that share its raucous powertrain and chiseled good looks, it’s also evidence that Cadillac is willing and able to play to the desires of the keenest automotive enthusiasts in America. You know, people like you and me. At a time when other luxury automakers are paring wagons from their lineups, Cadillac not only builds a stunningly good-looking wagon, it equips it with an optional 556-hp V-8 and a six-speed manual. It seems like an impossible scenario, but there’s no need to imagine it: the CTS-V Sport Wagon is very much a reality.
– Jason Cammisa, West Coast Editor
BASE PRICE: $62,990
ENGINE: 6.2L supercharged V-8, 556 hp, 551 lb-ft
Just one year after we gave the 2010 Chevy Camaro an All-Star award, the Ford Mustang brings home the prize for 2011. This is just the latest chapter in the punch-for-punch pony-car battle that has been going on for the better part of forty years. This year’s knockout blow came when Ford brought the 5.0-liter V-8 back from the dead, but even Vanilla Ice knows that the new “five point oh” isn’t the only engine that the frequently revised Mustang has going for it.
The base 2011 Mustang’s very capable, very impressive V-6 makes 305 hp, gets 31 mpg on the highway, and starts at less than $23,000. Although the V-6 is suitable for many buyers, it’s the V-8-powered GT and the supercharged Shelby GT500 that get our enthusiast blood pumping. With 412 hp and 550 hp, respectively, it’s nearly impossible to keep a big, fat grin off your face-and points off your driving record-when you’re behind the wheel of either of these ponies. The GT gallops to 60 mph in just 4.6 seconds-not too shabby for a $30,000 car. The hot-rod GT500 does it about half a second quicker.
Despite all this new performance, the Mustang still uses one of the oldest technologies in the business: a live rear axle. But, honestly, Ford pulls it off just fine. The Mustang’s nimble chassis, lighter weight, and close-ratio transmission give it a clear advantage over the heavier, less fluid Camaro on a curvy road. The Ford’s cabin is much nicer, too, compared with the unattractive plastics that plague the Camaro.
This pony-car fight is certainly not over, and with the Z28 model on its way, the Chevy Camaro isn’t down for the count. But we can definitively say that this round goes to the Mustang and that it is well-deserving of a 2011 Automobile Magazine All-Star award.
– Mike Ofiara, Road Test Coordinator
BASE PRICE RANGE: $22,995-$54,495
ENGINES: 3.7L V-6, 305 hp, 280 lb-ft; 5.0L V-8, 412 hp, 390 lb-ft; 5.4L supercharged V-8, 550 hp, 510 lb-ft
Minivans are the teacher’s pets of the automotive world — so good at so many things that most people despise them. Get over it already! The minivan is as close as you can get to the perfect family vehicle, and the Honda Odyssey is as close as you can get to the perfect minivan.
Dramatically overhauled for 2011, the Odyssey sets class standards for style, utility, and, believe it or not, performance. It’s longer, lower, and wider than its predecessor, giving it the sleeker proportions of a crossover, and a “lightning bolt” styling cue improves third-row visibility while making it easier to pick out in shopping-mall parking lots glutted with look-alike minivans. Inside, the Odyssey is as welcoming as a suite in a high-end hotel, able to accommodate eight full-size occupants in seats that can slide back and forth, shift from side to side, and fold down into the floor. A standard 3.5-liter V-6 rated at 248 hp and 250 lb-ft of torque provides reasonably brisk acceleration, especially when mated to the optional six-speed automatic. (It also gets pretty good city/highway fuel economy in EPA tests: up to 19/28 mpg.)
Thanks to steering that weights up at speed and a rigid chassis that minimizes body roll, the Odyssey is not only pleasant but rewarding to drive. Attention-deficit disorders can be treated with the rear entertainment system’s 16.2-inch screen, a hard drive that stores music and navigation data accessible by voice command, and a minifridge. Safety features range from a multiview rear camera, a blind-spot warning system, and the capacity for five — count ’em, five — child safety seats. Plus, the fourth-generation Odyssey offers the nifty stuff we’ve come to expect from minivans — power sliding doors and tailgate, trizone climate control, side curtain air bags for all three rows, and so on. Sound too good to be true? Hey, somebody’s got to be at the top of the class.
– Preston Lerner, Writer
BASE PRICE RANGE: $28,580-$44,030
ENGINE: 3.5L V-6, 248 hp, 250 lb-ft
The Hyundai Sonata was a serious contender for our 2011 Automobile of the Year award, which went instead to the Chevrolet Volt. But the Sonata is a game changer all the same. In the past two decades, the passenger-car market in America has been ruled by three cars: the Ford Taurus, the Honda Accord, and the Toyota Camry. As we all know, Ford ignored the Taurus after its initial success, so Americans took the hint and ignored it, too, leaving the Accord and the Camry as perennial best-sellers. Only the Nissan Altima managed to make serious inroads into a market utterly dominated by those two household names.
Twelve years ago, we attended the media launch of the then-new Hyundai Sonata, an utterly mediocre car from what had been an utterly mediocre carmaker. But Hyundai used the occasion to announce a brave new campaign. Its ten-year/100,000-mile warranty was an opening salvo in the company’s battle to succeed in the hypercompetitive American marketplace.
And nothing says “we’ve made it” in the hypercompetitive American marketplace better than a hypercompetitive family sedan, which is what Hyundai unveiled at the 2009 Los Angeles auto show. The Sonata has emerged as an unquestioned leader in a segment that’s bursting with excellent automobiles. Painstakingly conceptualized, designed, and engineered by Hyundai Motor America and its parent company in Korea, Hyundai Motor Sales, the Sonata meets and exceeds the varied needs and wishes of demanding American buyers. It also happens to look great inside and out and drive exceptionally well, with a responsive chassis, an efficient and powerful direct-injected four-cylinder engine, and a crispness that heretofore had eluded not just Korean cars in general but most vehicles in this segment. The new turbocharged and hybrid powertrains are icing on the cake; the Sonata would be a shoo-in as an All-Star even without them. Now, the Sonata is a car that sells purely on its merits rather than on its warranty, and increasing numbers of savvy Americans are beating a path to Hyundai’s door.
– Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
BASE PRICE RANGE: $19,915-$27,000 (est.)
ENGINES: 2.4L I-4, 198 hp, 184 lb-ft; 2.4L I-4 electric/hybrid, 206 hp (combined); 2.0L turbocharged I-4, 274 hp, 269 lb-ft
In 2009 and again in 2010, we gave an All-Star award to the Jaguar XF. The XF was the first Jaguar sedan to shed the brand’s stuck-in-the-1960s design language, but even though its styling was a clean break from the past, it was not completely successful. We were, however, completely enamored with the car’s over-the-road dynamics, which masterfully reconcile comfort and athleticism. This year, Jaguar has built a car that expands on the excellence of the XF.
Like the XF, the new XJ has left the neoclassical look behind and embraced a sleek modernity-here with great success. (In fact, the new XJ is this magazine’s 2011 Design of the Year.) The rethink extends to the cabin, where Jaguar has pulled out all the stops to create a unique and luxurious interior environment that doesn’t draw on the past. The look is fresh, and the execution is rich. We only wish the navigation interface, which relies too heavily on the touch screen, were as innovative as the rest of the interior design.
Under the now-modern skin is Jaguar’s advanced aluminum architecture, which makes the XJ uncommonly light and lithe. That makes easy work for the 5.0-liter V-8, which is smooth and potent no matter which of the three versions you choose. The XJ drives with the same astonishing poise and uncommon fluidity as its smaller sibling, high praise indeed for this big cat.
The luxury-sedan field is one in which everyone is competing on a very lofty plain-not too surprising given that the prices of these can easily reach six figures. (Although even here, a close look at the standard equipment list pegs this Jag as a relative bargain.) The toughest part about this class is that it’s very hard for any one car to stand out in the crowd. And yet the XJ manages to do just that, in both its design and its dynamics. Both for the aesthete and the enthusiast, the Jaguar XJ is an All-Star.
– Joe Lorio, Senior Editor
BASE PRICE RANGE: $73,575-$114,075
ENGINES: 5.0L V-8, 385 hp, 380 lb-ft; 5.0L supercharged V-8, 470/510 hp, 424/461 lb-ft
In its rookie season — 1998 — the Porsche Boxster won our coveted Automobile of the Year award; we described it as “utterly communicative” and the “essence of sports car.” The first-generation Boxster went on to make our All-Star team three times, and the current model has now gotten the nod five times in six years. Needless to say, we love this car.
We didn’t think we could possibly adore the Boxster more until Porsche dressed it in a sexy hardtop body, creating the Cayman coupe in 2006. Perhaps the only problem with Porsche’s pair of mid-engine marvels is that it’s hard to pick a favorite. The Boxster is an all-seasons convertible sports car beyond compare; the striking Cayman entices you to pay an extra few thousand dollars to fully immerse yourself in its sweet motor music. We’ve carefully avoided this tough decision by making the Boxster and Cayman share their All-Star awards in recent years.
Since the Cayman’s release, 25 percent more buyers have chosen the coupe than the convertible, although Porsche purists ensure that the archetypal 911 still handily outsells both “entry-level” Porsches. Not that $48,550 (or more than double that if you go wild with options) is chump change. But perfection doesn’t come cheap, as numerous staff members noted after driving a Cayman S at GingerMan Raceway: “All controls are perfection.” “Ride and handling balance is perfect.” “Perfect — don’t change a thing.”
Wherever one drives a mid-engine Porsche, it truly feels as if it’s an extension of your body. The brand-new Boxster Spyder, with its lower curb weight, stiffer suspension, and manual top, enhances that feeling. The spartan treatment isn’t necessary, though. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine that any Boxster or Cayman would still handle superbly with flat, bald winter tires and the two luggage compartments filled with bricks. As worthy competitors such as the Chevrolet Corvette, the Lotus Elise, and the BMW Z4 have come and gone from our All-Stars roster, the Boxster and Cayman have continued to sweep us off our feet.
Ain’t love grand?
– Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
BASE PRICE RANGE: $48,550-$67,250
ENGINES: 2.9L flat-6, 255/265 hp, 214/221 lb-ft; 3.4L flat-6, 310/320/330 hp, 266/273 lb-ft
The Ram 1500 scored its second All-Star award in two years by combining a tough-truck soul with the creature comforts of a large family sedan. Just don’t call it a Dodge. For 2011, the Ram sheds nearly a century of brand baggage to butt heads with competing half-ton haulers on its own.
The 1500’s not-so-secret weapon is the pickup world’s only coil-spring rear suspension. In contrast to traditional semi-elliptic leaf springs forced to provide both resilience and a means of attachment, coils are single-purpose devices. They supply friction-free give over bumps while five suspension links keep the rear wheels pointing in the preferred direction. This results in a supple ride and predictable handling with no loss of hauling or towing capability.
Like most pickup-truck owners, we’ve spent the majority of our miles in Rams without cargo in the bed or a trailer in tow. The beauty of this beast is its ability to fly over tattered pavement without the wonky humping and jumping that plagues leaf-spring trucks. Add the 390-hp, 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 engine, and the Ram performs a superhero routine. The Hemi furloughs four cylinders on the highway to squeeze up to twenty miles out of every gallon.
The Ram’s cabin excels in attention to detail. Instruments are clearly marked, and the cupholders and storage locations are bountiful. Crew cabs have in-floor bins, and the handy RamBox option converts normally wasted bed-sidewall space into secure storage lockers.
Playing to the two-thirds of the customer base that hunts, fishes, or camps, there’s a new Outdoorsman model for 2011 fitted with cloth upholstery and rugged towing and off-road gear. A new holster accessory cradles two long guns or six fishing rods inside each RamBox.
No mere beast of burden, the Ram 1500 has the guts and the goodness to take its second bow as an All-Star in fine standing.
– Don Sherman, Technical Editor
Base Price: $21,510-$43,550
ENGINES: 3.7L V-6, 210 hp, 235 lb-ft; 4.7L V-8, 302 hp, 329 lb-ft; 5.7L V-8, 390 hp, 407 lb-ft
For the fifth year in a row, the Volkswagen GTI is an Automobile Magazine award winner. And while it can’t really make up ground against the perpetually prized BMW 3-series, the GTI seems destined to slide into a similar role. It’s not only a segment standard, it’s also an industry benchmark, a refined and proven formula for driving bliss.
The enduring appeal stems from passionate performance, subtle restraint, and detailed execution that position the GTI as a capable, inviting, and upscale hot hatch. This is a vehicle that often feels like more than it is. The turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder acts like a much more substantial engine, with broad power delivery, smooth revs, and a throaty exhaust note. Approaching but not crossing the handling limits comes easy in the GTI, which bolsters the driver’s confidence with predictable cornering and precise, communicative steering. The manual transmission’s only imperfection is its slightly long throws, and there’s no shame in choosing the automatic, either, as the six-speed dual-clutch gearbox snaps off a rapid, direct shift with each flick of the steering-wheel-mounted paddles.
The GTI’s overarching accessibility and magnetism provoke you to move at full throttle whether you’re streaking past a suburban strip mall or blitzing down a winding riverside road. And when you do mash the accelerator, you can take perverse pleasure in driving the red tach needle through the 6200-rpm redline toward the 7000-rpm fuel cutoff. Starting at $24,460, the GTI is a veritable performance bargain, but that’s not to say this is a car only for young enthusiasts or budget buyers. An atypical maturity sets this sport compact above the competition, and it’s sufficiently engaging and dignified that it makes a compelling argument even against a Bavarian sport sedan costing almost twice as much.
– Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
BASE PRICE RANGE: $24,460-$25,060
ENGINE: 2.0L turbocharged I-4, 200 hp, 207 lb-ft
The Volvo S60 was easily the biggest surprise during this year’s All-Stars test. That’s because, at first glance, the spec sheet looks familiar. With 300 hp and all-wheel drive, you might guess that the new S60 T6 is a rehash of the old S60R, an entertaining car that was never a front-runner in terms of driving dynamics. Despite sharing the old R’s power rating, the off-kilter warble of the old five-cylinder has been replaced by the smooth hum of a 3.0-liter in-line six that’s fortified with a twin-scroll turbocharger. (A 250-hp, turbo five-cylinder is the new S60’s base engine, though.)
The S60 T6’s power is routed through a revised all-wheel-drive system that now employs torque-vectoring technology. In this case, we might have to redefine the term “torque steer.”
Between the smooth ‘n’ punchy straight-six’s 325 lb-ft of torque and that trick all-wheel-drive system, the S60 is so agile it feels as if it’s hinged at the B-pillar — just point the wheel, mash the gas, and you’re off in a copper-hued blur. (Volvo might make this car in other colors, but “vibrant copper metallic” seems to suit it, like silver on a Mercedes-Benz or lime green on a Lamborghini.)
The interior is a Scandinavian masterpiece, like Elin Woods and unlike a Stieg Larsson novel. The S60 provides all the luxe accoutrements you’d expect in this class, from a killer sound system to wood inlays that look like they belong in a Thos Moser catalog. But it’s all a bit softer and more inviting than you’d expect. Novel idea: you don’t need great big bolsters and carbon-fiber trim to remind you that you’re inside a fast car.
With the S60, Volvo has managed to carve out a distinct product in an impossibly crowded field. The S60 retains its Swedish personality (it’ll tow 3307 pounds, for some reason) but now challenges the class leaders on refinement and handling. The R is dead, all hail the T6.
– Ezra Dyer, Writer
BASE PRICE RANGE: $32,300-$38,550
ENGINES: 2.5L turbocharged I-5, 250 hp, 295 lb-ft; 3.0L turbocharged I-6, 300 hp, 325 lb-ft