published Saturday, December 28th, 2013

Test Drive: Top 10 — 2013's most notable new vehicles

The all-new Mazda 3 has a distinctive grille and aggressive sheet metal.
The all-new Mazda 3 has a distinctive grille and aggressive sheet metal.
Staff photo by Mark Kennedy

Others in the Top 10

If you missed last week's report, the vehicles features were:

Car of the Year: Tesla Model S

Best Luxury Car: Mercedes S Class

Best Sports Car: Jaguar F-Type

Best Full-size Car: Buick LaCrosse

Best Mid-size Car: Mazda 6

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series featuring Test Drive columnist Mark Kennedy's list of 10 most notable new vehicles of 2013. Go to timesfreepress.com to see the full report. This article contains excerpts from previous columns.

If last week's report on some of the best new rides of 2013 was too rich for your blood -- three of the five vehicles featured start at more $70,000 -- this week we highlight uncommon cars and trucks for the common man.

For most of us value is more important than luxury. Still, the "value" calculus involves getting cutting-edge performance, styling and comfort at a price we can afford.

And for many of us shopping for transportation means thinking about our work and family lives, as well. That means shopping for trucks and SUVs.

But today let's start small. For many first-time car-buyers, compact cars are key. Compared to the econoboxes of a generation ago, today's small cars are flame-throwing pocket rockets, offering great fuel economy wrapped in fun-to-drive packages.

BEST SMALL CAR: The Mazda 3

Poll
Did you, or will you, buy a car in 2013?

Among car enthusiasts, the arrival of the new Mazda 3 is a much-anticipated event. In a nutshell, the completely redesigned 2014 model is roomier and zoomier than before. To produce an economical compact car that makes your accelerator-foot itch is quite an accomplishment, and Mazda has done it.

The new 3 is infused with Mazda's new Skyactive suite of design features, which results in a longer, faster, more efficient automobile. Mazda is banking on its breakthrough, four-cylinder engine technology to push the boundaries of performance and economy. The result is a lively little car that returns 40 mpg highway (30 mpg city) while delivering sporty performance -- a nearly irresistible combination. Different trim levels of the Mazda 3 range in price from $16,700 to $26,790.

The Mazda 3 should be on every compact car-buyer's must-drive list. Our area's mountain roads practically beg for a small, economical driver's car like this.

BEST TRUCK: Dodge Ram 1500

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    This Dodge Ram 1500 test truck from Crown Dodge has a host of improvements for 2013.
    Photo by Staff photo by Mark Kennedy
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When automotive journalists voted on the North American Truck of the Year early in 2013, the retooled Ram 1500 took top honors. And after a test drive, we can see why.

An analysis of the Ram 1500's upgrades starts with an innovative air-suspension system (a $1,595 option) which actually allows the driver to lower the truck at highway speeds to improve fuel consumption. Upgraded materials give the improved Ram 1500 a more car-like cabin.

Our Ram 1500 tester was equipped with a Hemi V-8 engine that males 395 horsepower and can tow up to 11,500 pounds. Fuel economy with the V-8 option is 20 mpg highway and 14 mpg city. This best-in-class fuel economy is accomplished with cylinder shut-off technology which drops to four-cylinder power during highway cruising.

If you're looking for a full-size work truck that you can also drive to church and take on family vacations, the Ram 1500 Crew Cab hits the bull's-eye. Its combination of brawn and luxury cuts across several segments.

The Ram 1500's nine trim levels range in price from $24,385 to $48,265.

BEST HYBRID: Vokswagen Jetta Hybrid

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    Side badges mark the new 2013 Jetta Hybrid as a green machine.
    Photo by Staff photo by Mark Kennedy
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The 2013 Jetta Hybrid could be the official pace car of the Millennial Generation. If ever a car embodied the values of an entire age cohort, the new Jetta Hybrid is it. Fun, hip, economical and environmentally friendly, the new Jetta Hybrid makes your wonder why VW waited so long to get the hybrid party started.

The new Jetta Hybrid fuses a 1.4-liter, four-cylinder gas engine with a small electric motor to yield 170 combined horsepower, and -- importantly -- 40-plus miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving.

The bane of many hybrid sedans is the mind-numbing driving dynamics that accompany CVT transmissions and whisper-quiet drive-trains. The Jetta Hybrid, on the other hand, comes with VW's slick, seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. You can actually feel and hear the gear shifts, so all the fun is not sucked out of your drive home.

The base Jetta Hybrid starts at $25,000. There are cheaper hybrids to be had, but few, if any, have the cache and build-quality of the Jetta.

BEST SMALL SUV: Buick Encore

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    The new Buick Encore is a small SUV with a big assortment of amenities.
    Photo by Staff photo by Mark Kennedy
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Buick's new Encore small SUV is a jewel box. That's the trend today: full-featured SUVs on small wheelbases, witness the popular BMW X1 and VW Tiguan.

The Encore is a show-stopper when it comes to styling. On a sunny day, our shimmering black test car was bouncing light around like an onyx disco ball.

There are nice touches everywhere on the Encore's exterior; smoothly integrated roof rails, chrome embellished door handles, and gleaming seven-spoke chrome rims.

The Encore is powered by a 1.4 liter, four-cylinder, turbocharged engine, which squeezes 138 horsepower out of its tiny displacement.

With a price range of $24,200 to $29,690, the encore is a good value. It's one of those cars you really need to see in person to appreciate and it offers incredible bang for the buck.

BEST FAMILY SUV: Nissan Pathfinder

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    The 2013 Nissan Pathfinder has clean exterior lines and seating for seven.
    Photo by Staff photo by Mark Kennedy
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Nissan's redesigned 2013 Pathfinder is remarkably different than the outgoing model. The old Pathfinder was one of the last body-on-frame SUVS in the midsize segment. The new model is built on a unibody platform shared with the excellent new Infiniti JX. The result is a quiet, composed SUV that is, frankly, a screaming value.

The spacious new Pathfinder is functional for large families. The rear seats can be adjusted back and forth more than five inches and the third-row seat will accommodate adult passengers.

The Pathfinder's drive-train might be the vehicle's best selling point, mating a silky, 3.6-liter V-6 to a continuously variable transmission generally acknowledged to be the best in the industry.

Coupled with great cabin isolation and a soft-sprung ride, the 2013 Pathfinder feels like it would be near perfect on long trips with children.

Prices for the Pathfinder range from $28,950 to $42,050. Both the Infiniti JX and the Nissan Pathfinder are assembled up the road in Smyrna, Tenn., so Chattanooga-area buyers can feel good about keeping their dollars circulating in region.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...

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