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It Is a Very Good Year for the Car Enthusiast

Bona-fide turkeys are increasingly rare

Arthur St. AntoinewriterTim Marrsillustrator Andrew TrahanPhotographer

I vividly remember reviewing automobiles 30 years ago. Sometimes I still have nightmares about it. I mean, back in the mid-'80s I'd actually attempt to write invigorating prose about such four-wheeled emo kids as the Isuzu I-Mark (a hatchback so drab the Reagan administration immediately imposed import quotas just to protect U.S. consumers from buying one), the Mercury Lynx (essentially a Ford Escort econobox without as much animal magnetism), and the Renault Alliance, a Franco-American joint effort every bit as noble as Lafayette allying with Washington—except the end result wasn't a revolution, it was just revolting. Sure, a few times a year the parking lot would alight with, say, a Lamborghini Countach. Staring at its razor wings, chiseled intakes, and scissor doors, my colleagues and I would momentarily agree that the road-testing life was grand indeed. But then we'd actually drive the thing and quickly realize that just sitting in a Countach was like being stuffed into a Maytag washer blindfolded. And its chassis, as I think one of us said, "doesn't actually have handling." That steering wheel wasn't a baton for conducting a magical vehicular symphony on a twisting mountain road, it was simply a means to make the Countach "go someplace else."

Three decades later, how could the average 20-something auto aficionado of 2016 possibly relate? While I was once singing the praises of the 1986 Porsche 944 Turbo—a "rocket ship," thanks to an incredible 217 horsepower—today's Toyota Camry V-6 drivers jolt their heads backward with 268 hp. There's simply no debate: Despite the threats of oil shortages, economic instability, climate change, tightening emissions and safety standards, and the ongoing possibility of somebody making "Smokey and the Bandit IV," the automobile has continuously improved and even flourished—to the point that we now live in a Golden Auto Era. I'd do a handstand if I could.

Bona-fide turkeys are increasingly rare; quality has spread like a Justin Bieber rumor. Yet of all the new 2016 models I've driven thus far, three in particular stand out to me and tie up our collective good fortune with red ribbons. Not surprisingly, all three are 2016 AUTOMOBILE All-Stars. Each makes me tingle with driving ecstasy as I think, "Thank God I didn't abandon automobile journalism to become a billionaire real estate developer."

The Volkswagen Golf R is one of those cars I dreamed about when I wasn't having my mid-1980s nightmares. Back then, the notion of a 292-horsepower turbo-four, a spry all-wheel-drive chassis, a dual-clutch paddle shifter, versatile cabin packaging, a brilliant touchscreen interface, and an EPA rating of 30 mpg highway all appearing in one machine was pure fantasy—about as likely as spying Bigfoot looting UFOs at Area 51. Yet here's the Golf R, available with all of the above, plus much more, and priced not at $50K-plus but starting at $36,470.

Mind you, I was a convert even before driving the R. I own a Mk VI GTI, so I'm well accustomed to DSG shifting, engaging steering, and the practicality of a roomy four-door hatch wrapped in tidy bodywork. But the seventh-generation R raises the Golf experience to near-supercar levels: 0 to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds. It would drop a Countach like a lead balloon. On a racetrack, the R is sensational, with gobs of grip, confidence-inspiring poise, and an eagerness to run so relentlessly it's like hanging on to a steel border collie. Add a gorgeous leather interior with world-class seats and such niceties as available iPhone or Android touch-display interfaces, and you have a car for all seasons and reasons. Frankly, a machine this exemplary should cost tons more—and, indeed, the R embarrasses many far-pricier rides. As my colleague Michael Jordan remarked during our All-Stars competition: "This is the car the Audi TTS tries to be, only the VW is cheaper, better, and way, way more fun."

It's a tad more expensive (base price: $249,150), but the new Ferrari 488 GTB is so preposterously fast, so heart-crushingly gorgeous, I'd almost become a billionaire real-estate developer just so I could buy one, quit, and retire to Le Mans. I drive a lot of seriously quick automobiles, but there's something about this turbo V-8 Ferrari (maybe it's the 660 horsepower) that just makes it feel on another level entirely. While doing hot laps, the thing was crushing my bones into the seat so savagely I wanted to yell "Get off me!" We're talking about 0 to 60 in 2.9 seconds, and the ride only gets wilder from there. Driving the 488 hard is like stepping inside a tornado.

Bona-fide turkeys are increasingly rare; quality has spread like a Justin Bieber rumor.

Yet unlike that ancient Countach the 488 is comfy. Elegant. Well-mannered. It's balletic, too; the steering is alive, the chassis—fortified with an electronic differential, magnetic shocks, and Grand Prix-developed F1-Trac traction control—is both immensely grippy and utterly predictable. Thirty years ago, if you'd told me, "One day you're going to drive a sports car that performs like a race car but feels like a luxury car," I'd have smacked you right in your Rubik's Cube.

Here's another prediction I'd have laughed at decades ago: Ford is going to sell a factory Mustang with an 8,250-rpm redline, a flat-plane crankshaft, a 12.0:1 compression ratio, six-piston Brembo front calipers, magnetorheological shocks, super-sticky Michelins, and dual-zone automatic climate control. Oh, and it'll have an independent rear suspension, too. Really? Hahahahaha!

Forget the now-deceased Shelby GT500. Yes, it was supercharged to a Herculean 662 horsepower, but it was still old-school: solid rear axle, prodigious weight, a straight-line crusher, not an apex predator. The new Shelby GT350 is different. This is the first Mustang that truly steps away from "muscle-ponycar" to "sports car." With 526 horsepower on tap this 'Stang still shells out eye-watering speed, but when a corner swiftly arrives, now you can slam down on exotic brakes and slash through the bend with a chassis that dances like a cutting horse. The GT350 has more in common with a BMW than it does a Dodge Hellcat.

You're not surprised to find a flat-plane crank in a Ferrari, but a Ford? Especially given the naturally aspirated V-8's 5.2-liter size, this is a real feat. By all rights the engine should just shake itself to death. Instead, though, it'll whip you into a quivering frenzy. Much has been made of the "Voodoo" engine's sound—and it's all true. You have to hear its brash barking bellow above 8,000 rpm. In person. Preferably from behind the wheel.

Yes, it's a golden era, and the GT350 really exists. But if I hadn't actually gunned this magnificent Mustang around a track myself, I'd rather have bet on finding Bigfoot.