Test Drive: Top cars and trucks of the year

Test Drive: Top cars and trucks of the year

December 29th, 2012 in Business Diary

Editor's note: First of two parts.

When it comes to cars and trucks, anybody who says "they don't build them like they used to," is right. They build them much better than they used to.

Every Saturday for the past year, we've introduced readers to a new vehicle. In most cases, it has been an all-new or substantially improved model.

People often ask, "What is your favorite ride?" And my answer is always, "It depends."

It's not fair, for example, to compare the raw performance of a Honda Civic with a Porsche 911. Still, the truly great vehicles are the ones that deliver more than customers have grown to reasonably expect within an automotive segment.

With that in mind, today and next Saturday, I'd like to share my picks for "top 10 vehicles of the 2012." (Most of them are technically 2013 models.) Keep in mind these are subjective choices (vehicles that surprised and delighted me during my weekly test drives), and are limited to new and redesigned models.

Today we'll name the best: small SUV, sports sedan, sports car, mid-size SUV and mini-car.

Next week we'll follow-up with the best: full-size truck, compact car, family sedan, luxury car and hybrid vehicle.

(The following are capsules from previous Test Drive columns).

2013 Ford Escape

Best small SUV - Ford Escape

In almost every way -- styling, performance, safety, space-age gadgetry, fuel economy -- the 2013 Escape offers vast improvements over the already popular outgoing model.

Available on the Escape is an optional 2.0 liter, turbocharged motor (Ford calls it Ecoboost) which makes 231 horsepower. This is the same motor as in the luxury Range Rover Evoque, which sells for about $22,000 more than our $34,750 test Escape, comparably equipped.

Top to bottom, the 2013 Escape is an amazing value and a completely satisfying vehicle. If you can stretch for the Titanium trim level, you won't be disappointed, but the base and mid-line trims also represent compelling values.

Also noteworthy: Honda CR-V.

BMW 328i

Best sport sedan - BMW 3-series

If the BMW 3-series sedan were an article of clothing, it would be a blue blazer. Cashmere. Two-button front.

Meanwhile, BMW enthusiasts eager to trade for a new 3-series will have an interesting choice to make: Opt for the new turbocharged, four-cylinder version, the 328i, or step up to the 335i, equipped with the company's unbeatable inline six.

The new 2013 3-series is a bit longer, giving it a stance that resembles the existing 5-series. Character lines in the side panels are carved a bit deeper than before, giving the 3-series a more ripped physique, as well.

There's a secret back road in Brainerd where all the car guys go. I call it the Goldilocks road. It's not too curvy, not too straight, but just right for a test drive. In Sport Mode, the 328i danced through a series of S-curves with plenty of steering response. Meanwhile, in Comfort Mode, the sedan relaxes into a softer ride.

Our test car turned in a stunning 36 miles per gallon highway (24 city). That's not bad for a car that can sprint 0-60 mph in 5.6 seconds. With nearly every available option, our tester stickered for $50,340.

Also noteworthy: Audi S6

Dodge Challenger R/T

Best Sports Car - Dodge Challenger

There is something about the full-throated howl of the Dodge Challenger R/T's Hemi engine that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up and dance.

The Challenger is a pure boy-toy: a throwback to the long-hooded, rear-tire smoking, adrenaline inducing muscle car coupes of the 1960s and 1970s.

Dodge makes a base, six-cylinder Challenger, called the SXT, for those who want muscle-car looks without the actual muscle. There's also the SRT8 trim level with a monstrous 6.4-liter V-8 engine for speed freaks. Our mid-trim V-8 Challenger R/T was a good compromise, as it can hit 60 mph in 5.8 seconds, according to the automotive website edmunds.com.

More that one auto journalist has noted that the Challenger looks like something off a Hot Wheels track, which is meant as a complement. Our Stinger Yellow tester had dual white side stripes, a design cue straight from the early 1970s.

The Challenger R/T bases for just under $30,000, and our highly-optioned test car carried a sticker price of $36,785. For the true, muscle-car experience opt for the V-8 versions, the R/T or the SRT8.

Also noteworthy: Porsche 911.

2013 Infiniti JX

Best mid-size SUV - Infiniti JX

The new Infiniti JX is the first luxury vehicle ever built in Tennessee. It's assembled two hours away in Smyrna.

The JX, which has three-row seating that accommodates seven passengers, handles like a smaller SUV while setting new safety benchmarks for the segment. Don't be surprised to see the JX gobble up market share from competitors such as the Audi Q7 and Acura MDX, two other family friendly luxury SUVs.

The JX is chock-full of cutting-edge technology, including several innovative safety features. Back-up collision intervention (the first of its kind in the auto industry) detects crossing traffic and large stationary objects behind the JX.

The JX is powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 engine that makes 265 horsepower. During our test drive on Highway 153, the JX flashed bursts of speed through an impressively wide power band.

Importantly for Infiniti, the JX will provide a mid-sized option for bigger families who need third-row seating. Get ready to see a ton of them on the road. If this isn't the best vehicle ever assembled in a Tennessee auto plant, it's certainly close. Our tester listed for $48,515.

Also noteworthy: Nissan Pathfinder.

Scion iQ

Best mini-car - Scion iQ

Five minutes into my Interstate 75 test drive of the new iQ, the driver of an equally diminutive Fiat 500 with Atlanta license plates closed to within inches of my back bumper. The sensation was as if Aunt Martha was moving in for the kill on the bumper-car ride at Lake Winnepesaukah.

Both cars are so new to the road that this was a one-in-a-million encounter. But with mini-cars gaining popularity this may foreshadow the future of highway driving.

With a city rating of 36 miles per gallon, the Scion iQ is a great little urban commuter car. If you live in a condo and most of your daily driving involves a pit stop at a health food store and a trip to yoga class, this is the car for you.

At 10 feet long and just over 5 feet wide, the iQ has a whimsical exterior design that makes people stop and stare. The fun continues when you slip behind the wheel, and your mind starts chanting: "Doughnut! Doughnut!"

Incredibly, shoulder and knee room in the font seat of the iQ is more than ample. Using some ingenious asymmetrical designs, Scion engineers were able to carve out knee room on the front passenger side and push the seat rails forward, resulting in more comfortable leg room for at least one back-seat passenger. From the outside looking in, it seems to be an optical illusion that the iQ even has a back seat.

The iQ is powered by a 1.3-liter, four-cylinder engine that peaks at 94 horsepower. The engine is mated to a low-maintenance, continuously variable transmission.

Our Hot Lava colored test car (think University of Texas orange) turned lots of heads on our afternoon test drive. There are cheaper sub-compact cars (our tester listed for $17,364) but few that combine so many interesting virtues. If you're looking for a car with tons of style, nimble handling and great fuel economy, the Scion iQ might just be your baby.

Also Noteworthy: Fiat 500.