After years of reviewing cars, I’m still surprised at how often I’m surprised. There’s nothing like getting into an automobile with low expectations and exiting with a grin.
This year was full of happy revelations. My favorite wasn’t a $200,000 supercar, but an innovative, green-mobile from a once ailing-and-flailing U.S. automaker. Likewise I was both bowled over by a slick design that tossed aside mannerly traditions, and a tired old sports car now ablaze with new life.
Here are the best new or substantially revised automobiles that I drove in 2010.
Best Sports Car: 2011 Ford Mustang GT 5.0
The Mustang has reinvented itself more times than Madonna, yet this is the first time I’ve ever truly loved it. I was sure the Ferrari 458 Italia would be my sports car of the year, but after tearing around in the new ‘Stang GT it was clear the democratic $30,000 crowd pleaser will bring more joy to more drivers than the fortunate few in the $225,000 supercar.
Not only does it offer an incredible 412 horsepower from a new 5.0-liter V-8, the old-school suspension has been tweaked to attack winding back routes as well as Route 66. It gets 26 mpg and even the interior is well executed. Power to the people, indeed. From $30,495.
Best Executive Sedan: 2011 Jaguar XJ L
While the executive category is loaded with excellent entrants, the winner was obvious. The Jaguar XJ not only explodes the brand’s design philosophy, it broadsides the classic Mercedes-Benz S-Class and torpedoes the new Audi A8. With a roof that seems to levitate above the long, lean body, it looks unlike any Jaguar before.
The interior design is unique, with details that would fill a high-dollar watchmaker with envy. Arguably the only better perch than the rear passenger seat is the driver’s. The long-wheelbase XJ drives like an elongated muscle car, most especially in the 510-hp Supersport model.
It’s the kind of brash but sophisticated design that tastemakers so deeply desire. From $80,575.
Best Crossover/Family Car: 2011 Kia Sorento
It’s been a lousy year for people-movers, with no absolute standout. The Kia Sorento had the best car commercial of the year and -- after sifting through the rest of the awkward-looking crop -- it’s also the best fit for families struggling to make ends meet. Korean automaking twins Kia Motors Corp. and Hyundai Motor Co. are coming on like gangbusters, releasing innovative autos stuffed with good technology at decent prices.
The seven-passenger Sorento exemplifies that ethos. Easily the best-looking non-luxury SUV on the market, it gets 29 mpg and has a 10-year powertrain warranty. While the handling could still use a heavy dose of refinement, it’s hard to beat the package, especially at the price. It’s even built in the U.S. From $21,000.
Best Convertible: 2011 Audi R8 Spyder 5.2
Sometimes cars should just be fun. The convertible version of Audi’s extraordinary R8 5.2 sports car is the distillation of a good time. Put a 5.2-liter V-10 behind the driver, add in a six-speed manual, convertible soft top and all-wheel drive, and the result is gales of fresh air and absurd acceleration.
The Spyder feels and drives like a brand-new machine rather than a convertible afterthought. Sexier and more exotic-looking than the coupe, it’s even more exhilarating to drive on real roads. A toy, yes, but an extremely cool toy for very lucky grownups. From $162,250.
Best Economy Car: 2011 Ford Fiesta Hatchback
Europeans have been rocking around in Ford’s determined little subcompact for some time. This year we finally get our chance. Just serious enough to avoid being called cute, the five-door hatchback drives solidly with taut steering and a steady chassis. Meaning it’s less a yippy, little pooch and more like a smart and well-behaved terrier.
It makes the most out of its 120-horsepower four-cylinder motor by hustling through city traffic and even manages up to 40 mpg on the highway. With goodies like the available Sync infotainment system, you’ll hardly feel like you’re downsizing. From $15,800.
Best Green and Best Car Overall: 2011 Chevrolet Volt
Talk about timing. General Motors Co. and electric cars have a lot to prove to the general public.
So when I got the chance to drive the Chevrolet Volt, a four-door sedan which uses an electric-drive propulsion system, I got the biggest surprise of the year. Given the realities of our national infrastructure and unwillingness to compromise, the Volt is the right car for right now. It’s a hybrid with an electric motor that can be powered by both a battery pack and a small gasoline engine.
You can plug it in nightly and nearly never buy gas again. Conversely, you can drive it thousands of miles at a stretch as long as there’s a gas station around. It’s a velvet revolution - - quieting a host of pressing issues in a single, bloodless stroke.
While the Volt won’t be the absolute apotheosis of the technology, it is the first car that proves we just may be able to have it all, after all. From $40,280, not including the $7,500 federal tax break.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)