Test Drive: Ford notches two spots on Best of the Year list

Test Drive: Ford notches two spots on Best of the Year list

January 5th, 2013 by Mark Kennedy in Business Diary

Editor's note: Second of two parts.

This week we continue on our quest to highlight some of the best new vehicles of the last 12 months. Today we round out our Top 10 picks with a look at five more cars and trucks.

Segments featured are: full-size truck, compact car, family sedan, luxury sedan and hybrid vehicle.

(The following are capsules from the archives of Chattanooga Times Free Press Test Drive columns that have appeared in these pages in the last year.)

A Ford F-150 is on display at the Washington Auto Show last year.

Full-size truck - Ford F-150

The thought of averaging 28 mpg in a full-size pickup seems almost like science fiction.

If you haven't driven a full-size American truck in a while, the F-150 is a wonderful example of mass in motion. The EcoBoost engine, a turbo-charged V-6, results in a 20 percent gain in fuel efficiency over larger-displacement V-8 engines, according to Ford.

On our test drive the F-150 delivered as advertised. Acceleration was quick and steering fairly nimble. The cabin is nicely isolated with little road or wind noise.

The amenities and engineering in today's trucks is amazing, and Ford is leading the way. Our test drive confirmed F-150 buyers are on the right track.

Also noteworthy: - Toyota Tundra.

2013 Honda Civic Staff photo by Mark Kennedy

Compact car - Honda Civic

With its 2013 Honda Civic, the Japanese automaker has proven that even a middesign-cycle "refreshening" can translate to significant quality improvements.

From 20 feet, the Civic cuts a sporty profile, with a roofline that allows for an expansive windshield and great inside-out visibility. Our test car came a one-touch moonroof, a 160-watt stereo, steering-wheel mounted radio and phone controls and automatic climate control.

A 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine makes 140 horsepower and gives the Civic plenty of pickup in normal driving. The engine only labors under hard acceleration. The musical hum of a Honda four-cylinder engine is one of life's pleasures.

We may be entering an era when cars -- like smartphones -- get major improvements once a year. If that's the case, the 2013 Civic may be enshrined as an early example of what is possible.

At $21,605, our test car nudged the bottom rung of the midsize segment, but its high content and ample interior dimensions may make it a perfect alternative for those Honda lovers who don't quite need to step up to the impressive new Accord.

Also noteworthy: Ford Focus.

Nissan Altima Staff photo by Mark Kennedy

Mid-size family sedan - Nissan Altima

Nissan's brand new 2013 Altima packs a powerful punch. Time will tell if it has the right stuff to dethrone the Toyota Camry as America's best-selling car, but I wouldn't bet against it. In 2011, Toyota sold 309,000 Camrys and Nissan sold 267,000 Altimas.

Often sedan redesigns are mostly hype, a bit of new sheet metal and a few upgrades in horsepower and standard equipment. The 2013 Altima, however, is a quantum leap in quality, refinement and styling.

Some of the Altimas will be made up Interstate 24 in Smyrna, Tenn., although our test car was assembled in Canton, Miss.

The 2013 Altima cuts a dramatic profile. Like the larger Nissan Maxima, the new Altima has athletic shoulders which frame the midsection of the car from the hood to the trunk. The result is a muscular, planted look.

Our test car was the four-cylinder version (2.5 liter, 182 horsepower), although a six-cylinder making 270 horsepower is also available. Our SL test car felt nimble and perfectly capable of passing and merging on the freeway. The robust exhaust note is a nice surprise.

Our tester stickered for $29,910, and compares favorably with top-trim Toyotas, Hondas and VWs.

Also noteworthy: Volkswagen Passat TDI.

Ford C-Max Hybrid Staff photo by Mark Kennedy

Hybrid vehicle - Ford C-Max

The new Ford C-Max Hybrid, a compact wagon that gets 47 miles per gallon in the city, is sneaky cool.

Like the Toyota Prius, the five-passenger C-Max is powered by a small gasoline engine supplemented with battery power that the car recovers from the braking process. Although it shares some components with the popular new Ford Focus, the C-Max is considerably more spacious.

The first thing you notice driving the C-Max is the huge windshield that makes it feel as if you are piloting an ultralight aircraft. The sensation has been compared to cresting a big hill in a roller coaster, and it's a blast.

Reviews have noted that the C-Max can launch 0-60 mph in about 8.1 seconds, but midrange acceleration is where the car really shines. The sprint from 40 mph to 60 mph is impressive. The switch from electric to gas engine power is exceptionally smooth and almost imperceptible.

Ford estimates the C-Max will get 47 miles to the gallon in both city and highway driving.

The interior of the C-Max is upscale and features a panoramic sunroof that spans the front and back seats. There's a roomy storage area behind the back seat that makes the C-Max a great family vehicle.

Our $33,555 test car came with just about every conceivable option, which may seem strange in a car built around fuel economy. Still, saving the planet doesn't mean you don't deserve a nice car. (In SE trim the C-Max Hybrid starts at $25,995.)

Also notable: Lexus ES Hybrid.

Cadillac XTS Staff photo by Mark Kennedy

Luxury Sedan - Cadillac XTS

If cars were movie characters, the new Cadillac XTS would be James Bond -- smart, sinewy and sophisticated.

The new XTS is the Cadillac flagship, the top-of-the-line cruiser for discerning buyers.

The Caddy announces itself with the brand's familiar wreath and crest emblem anchoring the design of an oversized grill. The swept-back headlamp treatment and the sheer girth of the front fascia are typical of modern Cadillac design. The vertical, finlike taillights are a nod to Cadillac's past and will resonate with mature drivers.

Inside, the XTS tries to capture some Apple magic with a center stack built for the tablet-computer generation. (Fittingly, every new XTS comes with a complimentary iPad.) Switches and dials have been replaced with touch-screen images that pinch, scroll and expand like apps on an iPad.

On the safety side, the car can be set so the driver's seat vibrates when you inadvertently cross the center line. Or, if you prefer, an audio alarm can be activated instead. The ubiquitous backup camera is souped up with a 360-degree hazard alarm that radiates around the XTS like a force field.

Driving purists may be surprised to discover the new Caddy flagship is a front-wheel drive sedan with a six-cylinder engine. You should know that the 306-horsepower 3.6-liter V-6 is sneaky quick, thanks to the magic of direct injection.

The XTS competes with the big boys, where much is expected and little expense is spared. Our test car stickered for $56,653 and has respectable fuel economy numbers, included a healthy 28 miles per gallon on the highway.

Assembled in Canada, the XTS has a North American pedigree and delivers solid value when measured against its Asian and European import competitors.

Also noteworthy: Audi A6.