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Wednesday, June 8, 2011
2011 Auto excellence awards
Throughout the year, we record the functionality, technology, value and feel of new cars from our test drives. Near the end of the year, we gather and argue for the best cars and trucks of 2011. Here they are, the year's top 10 cars and trucks.
No brand is more deeply rooted in off-road adventure than Jeep. The new Grand Cherokee stands at the top of the lineup with not only a much more luxurious and roomy interior but also more power and, yes, enhanced on- and off-road chops. The new 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 churns out 290 hp and 260 lb ft of torque, delivers 16 mpg city and 23 mpg highway and will tow 5000 pounds. But we’d choose the 360-hp V8 for its muscle-car hustle—and take the modest fuel-economy hit. For the first time, the unibody Jeep uses a four-wheel independent suspension for enhanced steering and suspension precision. Opt for the Quadra-Lift air suspension, and the Jeep will provide five distinct suspension-height levels, with up to an impressive 10.7 inches of ground clearance. During a snow-covered sortie in Moab, Utah, the Jeep rocked and rolled its way over the worst obstacles, taking the most challenging lines without so much as a whimper. Best of all, the Grand Cherokee can lower itself back down and provide a pillow-soft luxury-car ride on the way home from the trailhead.
2011 Lotus Evora
FUN TO DRIVE Base Price: $74,675
What does Lotus know about handling that eludes the rest of the world? It's a question we asked ourselves after an exhilarating mountain-road romp in the new Evora. While this Lotus makes several concessions to practicality, such as a small rear seat and even cruise control, essentially it's a driver's car. And for 2011, there's nothing better on the road. Those with the means will enjoy a connection between the car and the road that borders on telepathic. The steering effort linearly increases as the cornering forces build, and the suspension impeccably keeps the tires squarely planted on the road. The result is a car with high but accessible cornering limits, a sports car that makes even novice drivers feel like heroes. Even better, the Evora smashes the notion that good handling and a supple ride are mutually exclusive—it's cushy enough to drive to work, yet incredibly entertaining on curvy roads and racetracks.
2011 Hyundai Sonata
VALUE Base Price: $19,195
In pro sports, the Most Valuable Player trophy doesn't always go to the player with the best stats; sometimes, intangibles add up to an obvious MVP. Similarly, the Hyundai Sonata was a clear choice for the 2011 PMV—Popular Mechanics's Value—award. What Hyundai has achieved with the redesign of its bread-and-butter sedan is, in a word, astonishing. One glance tells much of the story, as the vehicle looks more like a luxury coupe than a midsize economy sedan. Gone is the V6, replaced with a 200-hp four-cylinder. Or opt for a turbocharged four-banger with 274 hp, which makes you forget about the lack of a V6 in the lineup. There's even a hybrid model that gets over 30 mpg. Options aside, the Sonata's standard safety equipment includes electronic stability control (ESC), traction control and antilock brakes with brake assist. Throw in Hyundai's 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty and it makes you wonder what luxury carmakers will have to do to keep calling themselves luxury carmakers.
2011 Toyota Sienna
VERSATILITY Base Price: $25,270
While minivans are often passed over in favor of crossovers and SUVs, no vehicle is more versatile. Witness the new Toyota Sienna. It's 5 inches shorter than the Toyota Sequoia, yet the Sienna offers 39.1 cubic feet of cargo room behind the third-row seat, 20.2 more than the sport ute. Furthermore, the Sienna's seats adapt to a variety of configurations. The split third row folds flat into the recessed cargo area, and the second row—either singular buckets or a split bench— slides fore and aft and also folds. For 2011, Toyota offers a 2.7-liter four-cylinder and a six-speed automatic that return up to 24 mpg. The company has also aggressively restyled the van in an attempt to drop some of the mommy-mobile stigma. Need more proof that the Sienna can do it all? It tows up to 3500 pounds and is the only minivan that's available with all-wheel drive.
2011 Ford Mustang
PERFORMANCE Base Price: $22,145
Last year, we picked the Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 as the best performance car, and we didn't expect to bestow the honor on the original ponycar again for quite some time. After all, the performance category is brimming with dynamic-handling, powerfully motivated competitors from around the globe—the BMW M3 and the Chevrolet Corvette were recent winners—and they're all improving, all the time. But over the course of the past few months, Ford has re energized the entire Mustang lineup. First, the new GT arrived with an astonishingly versatile V6 engine that developed 305 hp while attaining more than 30 mpg. Alongside that entry-level engine, we witnessed the rebirth of the 5.0, a nostalgic number that represents high performance—by virtue of its 412 hp—like none other. Except, perhaps, for the 302. Ford reincarnated the Boss 302 nameplate for 2011 as a naturally aspirated 440-hp race car you can drive to the racetrack. You can manually tune the adjustable shocks to their hardest settings, win the race, and then revert to the softer street settings and drive home. Finally, the 2011 Shelby GT500 still sits at the extreme side of the spectrum, featuring a new, lighter aluminum block for its supercharged 5.4-liter V8 (which makes 550 hp and 510 lb-ft of torque). Race ya' for pinks?
2011 Ford F-250 Super Duty
WORKHORSE Base Price: $28,020
When there's a heavy load to move—and move quickly— few vehicles will do it better than Ford's new Super Duty pickups. The heart of a truck is its powerplant, and the top choice for these rigs is the new 6.7-liter diesel V8 that cranks out 400 hp and a pavement wrinkling 800 lb-ft of torque. That's more grunt than any other pickup or passenger vehicle sold in North America. Indeed, an F-350 dually can handle over 7000 pounds in its bed and tow more than 22,000 pounds with a fifth-wheel hitch. When the road gets muddy, there's a solid axle at each end of a 4WD Super Duty's chassis—and an optional electronic locking rear differential to split power equally to the rear wheels. The new Super Duty is exceedingly capable on the job site, but it was the truck's docile road manners that helped it win our heavy-duty pickup truck comparison test (Nov. '10). For 2011, the suspension was reconfigured to use fewer leaf springs in the back, which helps these massive trucks soak up the bumps like an F-150, and the light steering effort eases trailer backups. The Super Duty continues Ford's use of pioneering and smart options, like power-extendable towing mirrors, flip-up rear seats and an innovative productivity screen, that make the dirtiest jobs seem almost, well, fun.
2011 Ford Fiesta
FUEL EFFICIENCY Base Price: $13,320
Just about anybody can make a car fuel efficient with the aid of an electric motor, a generator or two and a few hundred lithium batteries. But it takes some real skill to achieve up to 40 mpg—and a 400-mile range—from a good ol'-fashioned internal combustion engine. Not that the Ford Fiesta is exactly old-fashioned. After all, it comes with a dual-clutch transmission and electric power-assisted steering, and its 1.6-liter 16-valve four-cylinder Duratec generates 120 hp with the help of variable-cam timing. In the interest of full disclosure, however, the really remarkable mileage figure is achieved when customers elect to ditch the five-speed manual transmission and spend another $1070 to pair the engine to the optional PowerShift, a six-speed dual-clutch automatic that boosts the car's EPA mileage ratings to 29 mpg city/40 mpg highway. The dual clutch gearbox is a technology that emerged on the $1 million Bugatti Veyron in 2005, then gradually made its way into sporty cars from Audi, BMW, Ferrari, Nissan, Porsche and the like for its responsiveness and seamless gear changes. This is its first appearance in the subcompact sedan and hatchback market. Because there is no fancy hybrid or electric tech to finance, the payoff is immediate: The dual-clutch Fiesta costs thousands less than a Honda Insight or Toyota Prius.
2011 Cadillac CTS Coupe
DESIGN Base Price: $38,165
It would have been less complicated for General Motors to do what car companies usually do when introducing new vehicles to the buying public: trot out a stunningly beautiful concept at an auto show, only to tone down the production version before it makes its way to market. It's the old design-to-reality bait-andswitch. The production version of the CTS Coupe gives Cadillac's “Art and Science” design language a refined accent—the edges are still there, but they're tempered with curves that convey a handcrafted look. Of course, the CTS Coupe owes much of its design to the CTS Sedan, including the entirety of its bold front end. Unlike the sedan, however, the Coupe's profile is perhaps its best angle—with a swept windshield, blacked-out B-pillars and nearly horizontal rear glass that breathes new life into what is usually a banal perspective. Note the lack of exposed door handles, the center-mounted exhaust and the upright taillights that hark back to Cadillac's tail fins from 1948. Now drool.
LUXURY Base Price: $47,125
Every rear-drive Infiniti since the original 2003 G35 has been exceptionally fun to drive— and to its rivals, a formidable competitor. But in terms of polish, the company's cars have lagged behind Europeans. No more. Inside and out, the 2011 Infiniti M could set new benchmarks for design. The sedan retains the taut handling of past models, but thanks to a suspension reboot, it now moves with more finesse. The M also boasts smart technology such as Lane Departure Prevention— which activates the brakes to keep the M in its lane—and the Eco Pedal, an accelerator that resists throttle jabs, reminding the driver how to save fuel. The M37's potent 3.7-liter V6 brings 330 hp, and Infiniti's new 420-hp 5.6-liter V8 is a powerhouse. Next year, the M Hybrid will be about 25 percent more efficient than the current M37—and deliver 40 more lb-ft of torque than the M56.
2011 Chevrolet Volt
TECHNICAL INNOVATION Base Price: $41,000
After more than 300 miles behind the wheel of GM's technical marvel, we remain impressed. GM reps call the Volt an EV with a range extender because its prime motivation comes from a 16-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack that users can charge from an outlet before driving. Once the battery is depleted, a 1.4-liter four-cylinder gas engine spins a generator so drivers never have to worry about being stranded with a flat battery. In practice, the Volt hides its high-tech underpinnings in a refined, smooth and practical everyday machine that's unlike anything else on the road. With a charged battery, the only sounds the car makes are faint electronic hums and buzzes and hushed tire noise. The backup engine fires with a barely perceptible shudder and only gets raucous during hard driving. While GM claims the Volt can travel up to 40 miles on a fully charged battery, we never got farther than 35 before the engine fired. Once the battery was discharged, the Volt returned 31.72 mpg in the city and 36 on the highway—decent but far from stellar results. But as GM works on Volt 2.0, surely those figures will improve. More to the point, it represents a dramatic re-engineering of the automobile that will change the way people think about electric cars.