2012 Automobile Magazine All-Stars
Choosing The Winners
What's the best car? Everybody wants to know. It's a difficult question, really. There is no single best car. But when you drive as many different new vehicles as we do, people expect you to have an answer, and we do. The best new car introduced in the past year is our Automobile of the Year. For 2012, the winner is the Audi A7.
As for our All-Stars, any car on sale in America in the current model year -- whether an existing or all-new model -- is eligible to be selected to our prestigious list of ten winners. When we choose our All-Stars, we look for greatness wherever it might be: sports cars, small cars, family cars, luxury cars, utility vehicles. Whatever their category, the All-Stars stand above the crowd, which isn't easy to do in these times of keen competition. The 2012 Automobile of the Year and All-Stars are our answers to the question: What's the best car? Read on to learn why.
Audi TT RS
All Grown Up
The sporty TT coupe has been on our list of delightful cars since the day we drove it through the Italian countryside and sharp-eyed grandmothers walking along the roadside yelled, "Che bella macchina!" as we passed. Beautiful it most definitely was, a stunner from the fertile pen of Freeman Thomas (now in charge of Ford's dream-car studio), who had just delivered the Volkswagen Concept 1. But the luscious TT lacked the sizzle promised by its charismatic shape.
O, precious day! It seems that Audi can do it all now. Today's TT RS -- freshened with a more sinister face -- lives and breathes R8 from every pore. It is Audi's very own Porsche Cayman -- close, personal, fiery, rewarding, and cosseting all at once. The soul-stirring sound of its turbocharged five-cylinder engine (magnified by an optional sport exhaust) is so stunning as it roars to its 7000-rpm redline that you want to jump out and make someone else drive it past you, just to hear that killer soundtrack from the great outdoors.
Along with twice as much horsepower as the original 2000 TT produced comes virtually twice as much torque -- a massive 343 lb-ft -- fully delivered by 1650 rpm and managed with a six-speed manual transmission that is a quintessential component of this TT's perfection. The TT RS is a brilliant road car with none of the petulance of its hot-dog, bully-boy track competitors. Its superior Quattro traction had us spoiling for a rainstorm. Or a wide, gravel rally road. Nirvana!
The TT RS doesn't cost twice as much as the original TT, but it is very close to twice as much car -- not just a beautiful machine inside and out but a soul-stirring one, the epitome of everything that Audi means to us. It's a perfect tool for driving perfectionists, worthy of a choice parking spot in your dream garage.
-- Jean Jennings
BASE PRICE: $57,725
ENGINE: 2.5L turbocharged I-5, 360 hp, 343 lb-ft
The car guy's car.
How good is the 3-series? If it had been eligible, it would have received serious consideration for Automobile of the Year even though the current E90-chassis edition is about to be replaced by an all-new 3-series sedan. In fact, the current 3-series was named AOY when it debuted in 2006, and it's been an All-Star ever since.
This past year, the car came in eighteen distinct models of coupes, sedans, convertibles, and station wagons powered by five engines ranging from a 36-highway-miles-per-gallon diesel to the 414-hp V-8 screamer in the M3. But all 3-series, whether targeted at hausfraus or would-be racers, share two characteristics: they're rewarding to drive, and they're happy to be driven hard. It's as if a car guy is always in the room when a 3-series is being designed, engineered, and built. How else can you explain why features such as seating position, pedal placement, steering feedback, brake feel, and engine sound always seem just right? Still, if we had to pick one 3-series, we'd choose the 335is coupe for its unparalleled blend of performance, panache, and practicality. The creamy 3.0-liter in-line six generates 320 hp, and the twin turbos spool up so willingly -- making maximum torque of 332 lb-ft at 1500 rpm -- that the car seems almost as quick as the M3, which is priced $8000 higher.
Meanwhile, the sport-tuned suspension ensures that the admirably balanced chassis performs with elan no matter how hard it's pushed, and the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic is so good that it renders the six-speed manual nearly superfluous.
The current coupe, convertible, and station wagon will remain in production into 2012. And the 3-series may well make yet another appearance -- its twenty-third -- on our All-Stars list. Unless, that is, the all-new F30-chassis 3-series sedan is named Automobile of the Year.
-- Preston Lerner
BASE PRICE RANGE: $35,475-$69,425
ENGINES: 3.0L I-6, 230 hp, 200 lb-ft; 3.0L twin-turbocharged diesel I-6, 265 hp, 425 lb-ft; 3.0L turbocharged I-6, 300 hp, 300 lb-ft; 3.0L twin-turbocharged I-6, 320 hp, 332 lb-ft; 4.0L V-8, 414 hp, 295 lb-ft
Last man standing
We had some issues with the old Charger: It had an interior made of recycled sporks, and firing up the base 2.7-liter V-6 was like lighting a giant sign that said, "I got the full-size upgrade at Enterprise!" Also, its styling was akin to a giant hood ornament in the shape of a middle finger.
The new Charger is more polished in style and execution, but it's like a reformed criminal or an Australian -- beneath the dapper duds, you know it's capable of some mayhem. Just because the Charger is now available with highfalutin options like an eight-speed automatic transmission and a Nappa leather interior doesn't mean that it has forgotten its role as the quintessential un-front-wheel-drive mainstream American sedan.
The Charger is a big car for big people who like big power. With the new Pentastar V-6 as the base engine, you're getting 292 hp. Hooked to the optional eight-speed automatic, the V-6 shoves this battleship to a 31-mpg highway rating. Want all-wheel drive? You can get it. Want 0 to 60 mph in less than five seconds? You can have that, too, with the SRT8. But at $30,820, the 370-hp R/T is the sweet spot. You know you're getting a lot of car for the money when the closest competition is a two-year-old Hyundai Genesis.
You can't even complain about the interior anymore. That big piece of aluminum-looking trim around the gauges is an actual hunk of aluminum. Another telling detail: the A-, B-, and C-pillars are upholstered in fabric, which doesn't sound like a big deal but is one of the many small signifiers that Chrysler cared about getting this car right.
Chargers are all over the place. We're used to them. But every now and then -- like now -- we need to take a step back and celebrate the fact that Dodge still makes a car like this. Because nobody else does.
-- Ezra Dyer
BASE PRICE RANGE: $26,220-$46,620
ENGINES: 3.6L V-6, 292 hp, 260 lb-ft; 5.7L V-8, 370 hp, 395 lb-ft; 6.4L V-8, 470 hp, 470 lb-ft
Ferrari 458 Italia & Spider
Rationalizing a no-brainer
You might think naming a Ferrari an All-Star is a no-brainer. It's not. We drive dozens of high-performance, high-style, high-dollar machines that, at the end of the day, aren't much more than a regular car wrapped in a svelte body and stuffed with oversize machinery. The 458, the first Ferrari on our All-Stars list since 2004, is nothing like this.
The 458 isn't built of enlarged versions of parts that are found in economy cars. Instead, it's a roadgoing interpretation of everything that Ferrari has learned in Formula 1 racing. Part of what makes the 458 so alluring is that it's not trying to be sexy: its sultry sheetmetal looks as good as it does because it achieved the correct aerodynamic function in a wind tunnel.
The F355 existed for its sex appeal, with a mezzo-soprano forty-valve V-8 and the feminine looks to match. The 360 Modena's V-8 matured into a tenor, but the car introduced awkward technology that wasn't quite ready for street use. The F430, although no work of art, was brilliant to drive, and, frankly, we didn't think a supercar could ever outdo its baritone V-8 and its single-clutch automated manual.
Then came the 458. The trademark Ferrari flat-plane V-8's vocal chords have once again deepened, but at 9000 rpm, the thundering bass exhaust note is no less intoxicating than before. The technology that held back previous Ferraris now only serves to make this one faster: a computer-controlled differential, a dual-clutch automatic transmission, and stability control that ushers a 458 around a racetrack as if guided by the hand of a supreme being.
Add a perfectly tailored cabin stuffed with rich materials and endowed with genuine usability, and the 458 marks a genuine departure for Ferrari. In graduating from finicky objet d'art to engineering masterpiece, this 458 has become one of the most desirable cars of the modern era.
-- Jason Cammisa
BASE PRICE RANGE: $236, 182-$263,350 (est. )
ENGINE: 4.5L V-8, 562 hp, 398 lb-ft
Worth the wait
When the Focus debuted in late 1999, it was immediately a hit with both critics and consumers. We proudly named it our Automobile of the Year for 2000, and it received four subsequent All-Star awards. As time went on, though, Ford neglected the American-market Focus, even as it gave European buyers a new generation and numerous racy variants of the model.
A decade is a long time to wait for anything, but Ford hit another home run with the all-new 2012 Focus. It easily triumphed over five other top compact cars, most of which were equally new, in a recent Automobile Magazine comparison test ["The Small Car 6-pack," July 2011] and continues to impress us every time we drive one.
The Focus sedan starts at $17,295, and a very appealing, more useful hatchback costs as little as $18,995. If you think that seems expensive for a lowly Focus, dear enthusiast, you just need to spend some time behind the wheel to experience the car's impeccable ride-and-handling balance, flexible powertrain, comfortable seats, and abundant available luxury features.
The manual transmission is only a five-speed, but the gearshifter feels fantastic in your hand and the pedals beg for heel-and-toe action. Most buyers will choose the sluggish $1095 dual-clutch automatic, and they'll have no idea what they're missing. Pity. Fuel economy with either gearbox is very good but comes up slightly short of the 40-mpg landmark unless you opt for the SFE model. Even better mileage can be had with the Focus Electric that goes on sale in the spring. But we're way more excited about the pending Focus ST, which will arrive in time for summer and will feature a 247-hp, turbocharged four-cylinder engine, a six-speed manual, and other performance-oriented upgrades.
Let's hope that Ford is relentless about improving its excellent Focus this time around, as the company has proven adept at doing with cars such as the Mustang, which also happens to be a member of this year's All-Star team.
-- Rusty Blackwell
BASE PRICE RANGE: $17,295-$23,495
ENGINE: 2.0L I-4, 160 hp, 146 lb-ft
Ford Mustang Boss 302
The best of the bunch
The Boss 302 is the best Mustang ever, but that's merely a footnote to the real story. The big news is that Ford's newest bad boy not only puts an epic whupping on its traditional rivals -- we're talking to you, Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger -- but also stands tall against perennial bullies like the BMW M3.
The 5.0-liter V-8 found in the Mustang GT has been upgraded with a new intake manifold, forged rods and pistons, high-lift cams, and other hot-rod hocus-pocus to produce 444 hp at a free-revving 7400 rpm. Straight-line enthusiasts will geek over 0-to-60-mph times near four seconds flat and quarter-mile blasts in the mid-twelves. But even more impressive is how well the Boss handles despite a live rear axle seemingly designed when Henry Ford was a young punk. The standard model benefits from stiffer springs, a beefier rear antiroll bar, and five-position manually adjustable dampers. Or you can upgrade to the Laguna Seca package, which includes rear seats replaced by an X-brace to improve structural rigidity, snug-fitting Recaro seats, grippy nineteen-inch R-compound PZero Corsa tires, a serious front splitter, a hefty rear wing, brake-cooling ducts, and a Torsen differential. Although the $7000 premium sounds pricey, this gives you a $48,000 track-day car that can crush competitors costing twice as much.
Yet the Boss manages this feat without overwhelming the driver. On the contrary, everything about it just feels right -- the Alcantara steering wheel; the confidence-inspiring Brembo brakes; the close-ratio, short-throw six-speed manual with the throwback ball shift knob. Oh, and it also looks pretty sweet and sounds positively wicked -- and that's before getting rid of the easily removable exhaust baffles. The new Boss many not ever be worth as much as the original 302 sold in 1969 and 1970, but it might make you king of the hill in 2012.
-- Preston Lerner
BASE PRICE RANGE: $41,105-$48,100
ENGINE: 5.0L V-8, 444 hp, 380 lb-ft
Ask it to do anything
No matter how much pleasure we derive from sporty cars, there's no denying the usefulness of a utility vehicle. Having lived with an Odyssey -- an All-Star winner last year -- in our Four Seasons fleet for eight months, we've had plenty of time to examine the minivan's finer points. We've also had plenty of time to confirm our initial impressions. No surprise, then, that this minivan earns another All-Star award for 2012.
Power sliding doors, a power tailgate, and rear-seat entertainment systems are widely available in the minivan set, but the Odyssey shines in the details. The interior is flexible enough to haul four-by-eight-foot sheets of plywood or move up to eight people -- many vans seat only seven. Honda was first to offer a DVD entertainment system in a minivan back in 2002. Now, the Odyssey's 16.2-inch screen raises the standard with an HDMI input and split-screen viewing, so siblings have one less thing to fight about on a long trip. Premium materials in top-spec models elevate the Odyssey to luxury-car levels of comfort.
However, what really makes the Honda Odyssey stand out from the rest of the minivan segment is how well it drives while executing the usual chores. Steering weight and feel are about as good as it gets for a van, as are ride and handling. Honda's Variable Cylinder Management system enables the 3.5-liter V-6 to run on as few as three cylinders, resulting in an EPA rating of up to 28 mpg on the highway.
One of our drivers called our Four Seasons Odyssey "the best family road-trip vehicle" in the fleet, but that's just one of the many hats this Honda can wear, including cargo van, soccer shuttle, pulse accelerator, and sensible commuter. Capability, capacity, comfort, and efficiency in the same package? An All-Star, indeed.
-- Phil Floraday
BASE PRICE RANGE: $29,035-$44,485
ENGINE: 3.5L V-6, 248 hp, 250 lb-ft
Range Rover Evoque
Staking a claim
are you old enough to remember when new cars weren't intended to become and weren't regularly identified as iconic -- that is, being emblematic of a whole time or movement? Cars like the original Volkswagen Beetle, the gull-wing Mercedes-Benz, and the Lamborghini Countach were admired, but only time could tell us that these were machines that would stake eternal claims on our consciousness. Today we are impatient, and when not copying and cribbing shamelessly from the past, we often prematurely pronounce iconic status for new cars. Then again, we've seen enough icons by now -- real and pretend -- that we've grown pretty good at calling them on arrival.
That's why we dare broach the dreaded I-word in connection with the new Range Rover Evoque. For one thing, icons are something Land Rover has specialized in. From the earliest mud-pluggers to the latest third-generation Range Rover and the Range Rover Sport, the company has demonstrated an uncanny ability to find increasingly small, sometimes tiny, holes in the market and fill them with capable off-roaders whose style expertly complements their serious substance.
Like the Range Rovers that -- image-wise, at least -- tend to make high-priced BMW and Mercedes SUVs seem second-place swanky, the Evoque has arrived out of nowhere to create its own sub-sub-genre in the "compact" SUV class. It makes similarly priced X3s and GLKs look like yesterday's gruel. Welcome, then, the luxury four-cylinder SUV that delivers 28 mpg and rides as well as many cars yet has considerable off-road skill and timeless looks. Possibly iconic looks, even.
The Evoque is first and foremost a design triumph. Easily the best work credited to designer Gerry McGovern's studio, it telegraphs the new truck's off-road chops while carrying a heavy load of aspirational snob appeal. Only time will tell if the Evoque becomes a real member of the enduring line of icons, but right now we're saying to this All-Star, welcome to the family.
-- Jamie Kitman
BASE PRICE RANGE: $43,995-$52,895
ENGINE: 2.0L turbocharged I-4, 240 hp, 251 lb-ft
Porsche Boxster & Cayman
The stuff of supercars
Earlier, you'll find our celebration of Ferrari's divine 458 Italia. Can't muster the $236,000 it takes to own one? You're in the right place, because the Boxster and Cayman are your ticket to the 458 Italia experience at three-quarters the speed and one-quarter the price.
Credit the Boxster and Cayman's transcendence to a basic architecture that's the stuff of supercars -- a howling, normally aspirated engine set behind the driver and powering the rear wheels. Instead of pretentious styling and unusable power, the Boxster and the Cayman boast a measured restraint that entices you to drive with absolutely no restraint at all. The flat-six engines sound tantalizing at full throttle and are just powerful enough to move the chassis around at will. The steering is precise, body control is confident, and grip is tenacious. At the limit, the mid-engine Porsches possess the unflappable balance of a trapezist, the assuring forgiveness of the ordained, and the unfiltered communication of a psychic.
In fifteen years, the Boxster and the Cayman have accrued nine All-Star awards and one Automobile of the Year honor. As they head out for their final lap, the 987-series cars recapitulate the Porsche tradition of unlocking more power and more performance. Last year saw the introduction of the Boxster Spyder, a hardened, minimalist model with a striking manually operated rag top. For 2012, the fixed-roof Cayman R repeats the formula with a stiffer suspension, ten more horsepower, and a 121-pound diet that cuts out the radio, the air-conditioning, and the door handles (which are replaced by fabric pulls). Overkill? Absolutely. The base Boxter and Cayman embody the core virtues just as well, but with a lineup this engaging and rewarding, we can't help but love every model.
-- Eric Tingwall
BASE PRICE RANGE: $49,050-$68,450
ENGINES: 2.9L flat-6, 255/265 hp, 214/221 lb-ft; 3.4L flat-6, 310/320/330 hp, 266/273 lb-ft
Volkswagen GTI & Golf TDI
Long before Ford brought us the globally developed Focus that also graces these pages, Volkswagen was, with little fanfare, offering Americans its own quintessentially European small cars in undiluted form. Two years removed from its last redesign, the Golf remains a good choice in any form for its well-appointed interior and well-tuned suspension. However, it's a truly accomplished car in its sportiest (GTI) and most efficient (TDI) variants.
The GTI requires little explanation -- it has earned four All-Star awards and two Automobile of the Year honors from this magazine in the last six years. As always, we love the punch and growl of its 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, its tossable yet poised suspension, and its Audi-quality interior. The fact that in our recent Four Seasons test the GTI proved reliable (requiring one minor warranty repair in 30,650 miles) and cheap to own (thanks to VW's free maintenance plan) only enhances our enthusiasm. The Golf TDI earns mention here for sharing much of the GTI's appeal while achieving a politically correct 42-mpg EPA rating on the highway. No, its 140-hp diesel four-cylinder can't quite keep up with its gasoline-powered counterpart, but the TDI is still engaging to drive and uncommonly refined, especially when paired with the optional six-speed dual-clutch automatic (also offered in the GTI).
The compact-car segment in the United States has greatly improved in the last few years, but the TDI and the GTI, which both start at about $25,000, stand apart for the fact that they're not simply nice, fuel-sipping compact cars. They're German enthusiasts' cars that just happen to be compact and efficient.
-- David Zenlea
BASE PRICE RANGE: $24,465-$26,565
ENGINES: 2.0L turbocharged I-4, 200 hp, 207 lb-ft; 2.0L turbo-diesel I-4, 140 hp, 236 lb-ft