The Best and Worst Cars I’ve Driven This Year
2013 has been a monumentally wonderful year for cars; we’ve been behind the wheel of some truly epic machinery. Between Zack and myself, we’ve road tested over 100 cars this year for different purposes. And, as 2013 comes to a close, it’s time to do exactly what every other web site in the universe does and recall some of our favorites, as well as a few we wouldn’t mind driving off a cliff. It’s very, very true what people say now, about how there are very few “truly bad” cars; most anything you buy off the lot will get you where you need to go in safety, relative comfort, and relatively efficiently. That’s not to say every car is perfect, but based on a few of the “old” cars I’ve driven this year, we certainly have it easy today. And me, most of all.
Three Lamborghini’s, two Ferrari’s, two Aston Martin’s, three Range Rover’s, two Bentleys, a Rolls, and the list goes on from there. There are so many cars that I simply can’t just choose the best of the bunch, there must be categories. So, here goes:
Best Supercar: Koenigsegg Agera R
The Agera R isn’t just the most expensive car I drove this year; it was hands down the best. 1140 horsepower, under 3,200 lbs, a top speed somewhere north of 240 mph, and a completely unique construction using no recognizable parts from any other car. Its master, Christian Von Koenigsegg, is the closest we will ever get to a real world Lex Luthor, and the car is, in person, as awe-inspiring as they come. The speed was expected; after all, I’ve driven 1,000 HP GTR’s and the Hennessey Venom GT, but what was not expected was the unbelievable braking and stability control, which proved to me that, if you crash a Koenigsegg, you have done something catastrophically stupid. I STOOD on the brake pedal at 200 mph, and you know what happened? The Agera R came to a fully controlled stop, with no drama, in 6 seconds. The Venom GT may be a bit faster in pure acceleration, but I have a very hard time believing there is a production road car on Earth that will take an Agera R around a road course. Plus, at a certain point, you have to look past the machinery itself and focus on the people building it. As much as I love Porsche, Ferrari, and McLaren, in order to really get behind something that pushes the limits so far, you want a lightly crazy – yet – astonishingly brilliant creator. Sure, it’s possible I may change my tune if someone throws me the keys to a Pagani Huayara, but the Koenigsegg Agera R was the most impressive supercar I drove in 2013.
Best Sports Car Over $60,000: Corvette C7 Stingray Z51
Just before Pebble Beach weekend in Monterey, I got two days with the C7 Corvette, a car that is being described as a game-changer, which isn’t exactly accurate. A more important description would be “the first Corvette designed after the bailout, so it better be good, because we’re smart enough not to put up with your crappy interiors any more.” In that respect, they absolutely delivered. For the first time, GM has presented us with a Corvette that I’d actually like to spend real time in, not just one that puts up high numbers on skidpads and slaloms. It’s fast, it sounds wonderful, it does wicked burnouts, and it looks great in person, much better so than in photographs. I can’t wait to see what they throw at us for the Z06/ZR1 versions. Just make sure to get a manual with Z51 and magnetic ride! (you’ll see why).
Best Sports Car Under $60,000: Porsche Cayman
I’ll probably get flamed for this, but originally the over/under number was $50,000, but I moved it up to $60k so I could include the Cayman. The base Cayman makes 265 hp and 221 lb/ft from its 2.9L flat six, which doesn’t sound like much because it isn’t much. But there aren’t many cars out there that feel more balanced, lighter on their feet, or sing a better song while sailing up to 8,000 RPM. Is it fast? No, not really, not in the traditional sense, but get it going and you can carry crazy speeds through corners, huck it in too hot and drift the speed off, and just mat the throttle to power out. No need for modulation or subtlety with the right foot here. This is what a sports car chassis should be, and if you swapped the 4-liter out of the GT3, you’d have the best car in the world, bar none. Porsche will never do that, thanks to the Cayman Complex, whereby Cayman’s must always be less powerful than 911′s, or else they would murder 911 sales numbers.
The best part? Even in base trim, Porsche’s build quality shines through. Is the interior of a $144,000 911 Carrera S that much better than of a $53,000 base Cayman? No, not really. It’s got more colorful trim, but the build quality is standardized to “solid as can be.” And, if you want a stick Porsche, you really should get the Cayman, since Porsche is clearly trying to push people away from the manual in the 911 by forgetting how to make a 7-speed shifter that feels right. The six-swapper in the Cayman is as good a manual gearbox as you’ll find anywhere in the world. Is the Cayman S even better than the base Cayman? Yes, I’m sure of it. The Cayman could use a bit more grunt. But I didn’t drive the S version, and the basic car was still absolutely sublime.
Best Luxury Car over $60,000: Tesla Model S
Yes, we know, you all saw this one coming. The Model S is wonderful in nearly every way. No, it’s not a road-tripper, but thanks to Tesla’s ever-growing Supercharger network, it soon will be. It’s stupidly quick, it’s gorgeous, practical, safe, it’s the most refined car in the world, even compared to the much more expensive Rolls Royce Phantom, and it doesn’t use gas. It has no maintenance in the traditional sense, because it has fewer than 20 moving parts (compared to, say, 1,000 in a traditional car). There is very little to say about the Model S that hasn’t already been said by like, everyone, ever, but we absolutely love it and the only reason I don’t have one right now is because automotive journalism doesn’t buy $100,000 daily driver’s (even if it does buy Deloreans!)
Best Sport Sedan Under $60,000: Lexus IS350 F-Sport
It’s hard to look at the Lexus IS350 on its own and call it great. It’s got a V6, which we know isn’t the most sporting engine configuration. It’s got an automatic gearbox, which isn’t the most sporting transmission option. On paper, it doesn’t seem to lead its class in anything. Except what you want in a proper sports sedan is a really well rounded package that is dynamically very good, while stylish, livable, and interesting on a daily basis. While Lexus was busy dragging the last IS into showrooms well past its prime, Audi decided to make its A4 boring, and BMW decided to make its 3-series fat and sloppy. All of a sudden, the Lexus is the sportiest of the bunch, almost by default. The V6 may not be interesting, but Lexus found a way to make it sound good, something Cadillac forgot to do with the ATS. It’s seats are brilliant, its gauge cluster is gimmicky but awesome and highly functional, it has the most interesting dashboard layout in its class, and it has a traction control system that shuts the hell up. Even though there is no option for a third pedal, the automatic gearbox is excellent
thanks to ZF (correction, the 8-speed in the IS is built in house), the brakes never seem to fade, and when you get off the race track and it’s time to drive home, it’s just a good, solid car. While yes, the Cadillac ATS will take the IS dynamically with its fantastic chassis, the ATS’s interior with it’s vast expanse of chrome was a big turnoff for us.
Best Hatchback: Ford Fiesta ST
Last year, my favorite hatchback, hands down, was the new Focus ST, and the Fiesta ST is like, more of that goodness in a smaller, and even more raw package. It’s quick in a straight line, making great power all over the RPM range, you can throw it into corners at unreal speeds, lifting off throttle to about-face the back end faster than the Cracker Barrel once they realize that, “Wait, we can’t say ‘We side with equality’ because our entire customer base is homophobic as shit!”
The Fiesta lifts wheels in corners, carrying as much speed as cars costing three times as much, and could easily walk away from JF’s E46 M3 out of tight bends in the canyons. Most importantly, it’s fun as all hell. Everyone who drives the ST loves it. The most telling indicator that it belongs on this list is that we’ve just bought one. That’s right, the Fiesta ST is the new, official camera car of The Smoking Tire. Yay us!
There is a video coming of the Fiesta ST, promise
Best Truck/SUV: Range Rover HSE
It’s been so long since I made this film, I actually had to go back and make sure it was in 2013 and not 2012. (It was. The video came out in February, to be exact). The full size Range Rover, no matter which trim you choose, may just be the best vehicle on the planet. It’s interior and build quality is so close to a Rolls Royce that it would take a microscope, a botanist, a metallurgist, and a livestock specialist to tell them apart. It’s wickedly quick in Supercharged trim, and still pretty sprightly with my preferred engine, the HSE’s 5.0L N/A V8. It has the best stereo ever fitted to a road car, Meridian’s 29-speaker, 1900-watt home theater on wheels. Oh, and it can rock crawl, ford a meter of water, handle mud, snow, and sand just as well as it handle’s tarmac. Though it’s quick, it’s not pretending to be a sports car like the Cayenne or X5, and though it can go basically anywhere, it’s not apologizing to Wrangler Rubicon fanatics. It’s got the world’s most advanced traction control system, proper thrones for seats, and, frankly, anything that a human being would possibly want out of a car. In certain situations, it even drives itself. What’s not to love?
Best Tuned Car: Kameron Baker’s Turbocharged BMW E30
This has been a great season on /TUNED, with the focus, honestly, on variety. We’ve had Mustangs you can buy at a Ford Dealer, $200,000 Aston Martin race cars, and coming January 6th, street racing school buses in Panama. But nothing was so wonderful to drive as this well-preserved and lovingly upgraded BMW E30. Kameron got it from his dad as a 16th birthday present and immediately went to work. 7 years later, it makes a healthy 385 horsepower thanks to Kameron’s custom turbocharger, gets around corners nicely, looks the part, and best of all, despite being completely home built, it works! This thing is easily as fast as a Corvette for under $15,000, and just like a proper manufacturer, Kameron developed the car at the track, on the autocross, in high heat and winter cold, and even at high altitude. Good car, this, and the best modified car I’ve driven all year.
The Worst 3 Cars I’ve Driven This Year:
Jeep Wrangler Dragon Edition: I have nothing against Jeep Wranglers. In fact, I rather like them; always have. Now, thanks to the Pentastar engine, they no longer drive like they have boat anchors behind them, and the last round of interior improvements has made them quite desirable. I’ve gotta give it to Chrysler here, they have managed to evolve the Wrangler over nearly 30 years, upgrading the performance, safety, and style incrementally and in a way that attracts new buyers without alienating the people who made the Wrangler the icon that it now is. Until this. I asked for a Wrangler press car for a week to test, and this is what they sent. Underneath it’s a normal Wrangler Sahara, but what the hell has happened to the outside? OK, on the one hand, I get it. It was a big hit at the Shanghai auto show. In China they like dragons, got it. But do they like dragons so much that they want to be driving around in a Wrangler covered in Dragons? More importantly, if it was such a big hit in China, what’s the press car doing in LA? There’s gold and dragons everywhere from the grille, to the wheels, to the dashboard. There are dragons on the gauge cluster; dragons on the seat bolsters, dragons on the spare tire cover. Who thought this was a good idea? There’s nothing wrong with a Jeep Wrangler, people, but until I saw this, I thought the Call of Duty Edition Jeep was the single most embarrassing vehicle you could be seen driving. I was wrong. This thing was so shameful that for the week I had it, it sat, 90% of the time, undriven in the street in front of my house. I maybe put 100 miles on it the whole week. Also, maybe a Chinese person can weigh in here, but it it kind of racist? I think it’s kind of racist.
Corvette C7 Stingray (Non-Z51, Automatic):
Now, the C7 Corvette is a good car; unequivocally better than the C6 it replaces. And I told Chris Harris that before he came stateside to do a few car reviews, including the C7. But someone at GM screwed up, and sent over a non-Z51, non-magnetic ride, automatic transmission car for him to test. This is basically the car you’re going to start seeing at Hertz lots in the next six months, if not already, I drove it too, and holy hell, was it terrible. The automatic transmission is so hilariously awful for a $50,000+ sports car that even GM agrees; they are swapping it out for an 8-speed after just one year of production. The standard suspension is sloppy and sat way too high, the brakes seemed like they were pre-beat (this could just have been an abused car, but nevertheless), and it was all compounded by the fact that we were comparing the car to a Porsche 911 Carrera S, with the best automatic transmission money can buy: PDK. It wasn’t good. And it’s not that this C7 was a bad car; I’m sure you could drive it for years and, if you didn’t know any better, think it was fine, as long as you went nowhere near a curved road or a race track (So, Florida. I’m saying if you’re old and retired in Florida, it’s fine). But for me, it really showed the difference between what you get with the Z51 + Magnetic Ride cars and the base model, and the gap was about as wide as the Hudson River. People, hear me now. The C7 is a good car, but on all things holy, get a stick, get the Z51 package, and get Magnetic Ride. It’s the difference between a good car and a great one.
Volvo C30 Polestar Edition:
I like Volvo as a company, and I really like Polestar as a company, but these two need to start working better together. Basically, what happens is, Polestar will take a Volvo and turn it into a monster, such as the original C30 Polestar featured on Top Gear or the S60 Polestar that Chris Harris flogged around a snowy airfield. Everyone goes batshit and calls Polestar the new “BMW M” or “AMG.” But then Volvo steps in and sucks the fun right out of it, and says, “OK, you can have a Polestar edition Volvo, but it won’t be nearly as good as those concepts, and will basically be the same as the stock car, only a very loud shade of blue. Everyone will think it’s the concept, and you’ll have to disappoint each and every one of them by telling them it isn’t.”
It’s the same feeling you get when driving a replica Shelby Cobra, a cool car in it’s own right, but it really beats you up when people’s first (and often, only) question about your car must be answered with either a) “No” or b) a lie.
The C30 Polestar is wickedly quick in a straight line, thanks to five cylinders and Polestar’s aggressive tune, but the two things you want out of a hot hatchback are good inputs and front end grip, and the C30 Polestar Edition has neither of those things. It’s a mushy mess of vague inputs, dated styling, and a clutch with less feeling in it than Lindsay Lohan’s nostrils.
And that then, is the best, and the worst, of 2013′s batch of cars. Let’s raise a toast to the fact that the worst cars this year really weren’t all that bad, and to 2014 bringing us some even better ones. (I’m looking at you, Lamborghini Huracan). What were some of your favorites or least favorites from this year? Sound off in the comments.