The Riche$t Bumper Crop Ever: 25 Contenders. 45 with Variants. In 64 Years, No Field Has Been More Competitive.
While it’s important to emphasize the word “car” in Car of the Year, we can’t forget the “of the Year” part. Cars are better today than ever. Quality is up. Power is up. Efficiency is up. Safety is up. Today’s cars also are more high-tech than ever. Direct injection, turbocharging, variable camshaft timing, and lightweight materials aren’t just for exotic, high-performance cars. What were formerly cutting-edge technologies are finding their way into the most mainstream, utilitarian vehicles. As such, the 2013 bumper crop of Car of the Year contenders was richer than ever.
All told, we had 25 distinct models and 45 total cars counting variants to weed through in two weeks of solid testing. Most segments were well-represented, especially midsize family sedans, with new versions of the Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, and Nissan Altima tossing their hats into the ring. For the first time ever, two electric cars showed up: the Chinese-built, California-assembled CODA and the full-blown luxury cruiser (also made in California) Tesla Model S. Sporty cars abounded, including the new Porsche 911, the new Boxster, and the Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S cousins.
To win our Golden Calipers this year, one car had to be exceptionally good. If not for the eventual winner, at least five finalists would have been worthy of the top honors. But, for the first time since anyone can remember, this year’s winner was a unanimous choice. Not a single judge had any doubts about the 2013 Motor Trend Car of the Year.
ADVANCEMENT IN DESIGN
Quality execution of exterior and interior styling; innovation in vehicle packaging; good selection and use of materials.
Integrity of total vehicle concept and execution, clever solutions to packaging, manufacturing and dynamics issues; use of cost-effective technologies that benefit the consumer.
Low energy consumption and carbon footprint, relative to the vehicle’s competitive set.
Primary safety — the vehicle’s ability to help the driver avoid a crash — as well as secondary safety measures that protect its occupants from harm during a crash.
Price and equipment levels measured against those of vehicles in the same market segment.
PERFORMANCE OF INTENDED FUNCTION
How well the vehicle does the job its designers and product planners intended.
|Editor at Large|
|Senior Features Editor|
|Chris Theodore||Guest Judge|
PHASE 1: Testing, limit handling, and a high-speed oval
This marks the sixth year in a row we’ve executed our Car of the Year program at Hyundai/Kia‘s California Proving Grounds, and we’re glad to have their support. Hyundai/Kia’s state-of-the-art facility near Mojave, California, covers 4300 acres and has 10 test courses, plus more than 30,000 square feet of offices and workshops. Here, we run all the cars through the complete set of Motor Trend tests — acceleration, braking, figure eight — and focus on such qualities as handling ride quality, and refinement. The closed environment enables consistent and repeatable testing at high limits. The aim of this first phase is to eliminate vehicles that do not measure up to the six COTY criteria.
1. Skidpad: 43 acres; length: 2950 feet; width: 1200 feet.
Low elapsed time and high lateral g on our figure-eight course show how a chassis copes with the acceleration, braking, and turning typically experienced on a winding road. The test also provides a maximum lateral g number.
Best: Porsche 911 Carrera,
24.0 sec at 1.03 g
Worst: Chevrolet Spark,
29.5 sec @ 0.75 g
2. Straight/Stability Road: Four lanes 0.75 mile
Standard 0-60-mph and quarter-mile acceleration runs are made in both directions to account for any wind and provide data for incremental acceleration times. Brake tests measure stopping distance from 60 mph.
Fastest: Porsche 911 Carrera S, 0-60 mph 3.8 sec; quarter mile 12.0 sec @ 116.7
Slowest: Chevrolet Spark, 0-60 mph 11.3 sec; quarter mile 18.1 sec @ 76.6 mph
3. High-Speed Loop: Three lanes; 6.4 miles
Smooth surface and long, constant-radius turns enable evaluation of engine noise and transmission shift quality under hard acceleration. High speeds test NVH suppression as well as high-speed steering and stability.
4. Freeway Surfaces: One lane; 1.25 miles
Sectioned into replicas of L.A.’s notorious 710, 10, and 5 freeways, and taken at a steady 65 mph, this section allows evaluation of ride quality, tire noise, and suspension thump.
5. Winding Road: Two lanes; 3.1 miles
A demanding combination of fast sweepers, decreasing-radius hairpins, a tight right-left switchback, and three manmade hills, this course tests power, braking, and chassis balance at the limit. Also good for evaluating stability control and anti-lock brake systems.
Delightful: Porsche Boxster S, Cadillac ATS
Ho-Hum: Chevrolet Malibu, Toyota Prius C
Phase 2: Real-World Road Loops
We took no variants to Phase 2 this year. Only one example of the best 11 cars moved forward to tackle the real-world road loop in Tehachapi, California. This 28.5-mile mixture of highway, city, and tight canyon roads starts in the parking lot of our hotel and heads east for a bit on California Highway 58. We double back through Tehachapi before climbing the 4064-foot pass in the Tehachapi Mountains between Bakersfield and Edwards Air Force Base. The route snakes back towards Highway 58 via a tight, two-lane country road.
The focus is on how the 11 finalists perform on real-world roads. Judges pay attention to road and wind noise, steering response, and ride quality. They test audio, climate, and infotainment systems, including things like navigation, smartphone pairing, and hands-free voice controls. After all the driving, we discuss and choose the 2013 Car of the Year.
1. Tehachapi Boulevard
Low-speed stop-start driving tests transmission calibration smoothness, throttle and brake tip-in, and low-speed ride. Also tests all-around visibility in traffic.
2. Tehachapi-Willow Springs Road
Broken pavement tests whether tire noise is adequately suppressed, and whether noise, vibration, and harshness are transmitted through the suspension into the vehicle’s body structure.
3. Tehachapi-Willow Springs Road summit, 4844 feet
Sustained climb from 4014 feet, then sustained descent to 4147 feet tests engine torque and transmission response under light throttle load while climbing and effectiveness of cruise control on descent.
4. Cameron Road
Challenging canyon road with mid-corner elevation changes induces major transient loads at just 45-55 mph. Ideal for evaluating steering response, chassis balance, body control.
5. Rail crossing 1
Sharp bump at 10 mph tests effectiveness of suspension noise and impact harshness suppression.
Patched and broken concrete induces tire noise and high-frequency vibrations.
7. Cat’s eye
Tests effective suppression of tire slap and steering column vibrations.
8. Rail Crossing 2
Angled crossing induces twisting loads through suspension, plus impact noise, vibration, and harshness.
9. Freeway on-ramp
Patched surface tests high-frequency, low-amplitude bump control while suspension and steering are loaded with cornering forces.
Cadillac was Motor Trend’s first Car of the Year winner back in 1949, when the award was given to brands and not individual models. Sixty-four years later, an American car maker wins again, but it ain’t your Daddy’s Caddy…
Contender: Acura ILX
By: Mike Floyd
We Like: The 2.4-liter, six-speed manual combo; the interior.
We Don’t Like: Base model’s anemic powertrain, faux-luxury feel.
“Drives like what it is — a tarted-up Civic,” said Jurnecka. “Nice interior, but I’d take a loaded Civic and keep the change,” opined Loh. “The Acura ILX is what the Honda Civic should have been, but at a Civic price,” declared Theodore. But the ILX does have its strengths, especially the model with Honda‘s 201-hp, 2.4-liter I-4 and six-speed manual combo also powering — you guessed it — the Civic Si. It drew praise for its swift-shifting manual and peppy nature around the handling track. “A hoot to drive around the winding track! Well-balanced and fun to drive with great shifter and responsive motor,” said Theodore. Others shared similar sentiments. For enthusiasts, this is the ILX to get.
Acura also offers the ILX with two other powertrains, the volume model with a 150-hp, 2.0-liter/five-speed (yes, five) auto and the ILX Hybrid with its 1.5-liter/CVT combo that achieves an impressive 38 mpg combined. No one was blown away by either, especially the weak-feeling 2.0-liter.
There were platitudes for the ILX’s cabin, which has been outfitted with a traditional instrument panel and upscale Acura treatment. Its seats are comfortable and supportive, fit and finish is first-rate, and it has the requisite amount of amenities given its price range. And while no one crowed about the ILX’s exterior looks, no one beat up on them, either.
Perhaps it’s our fond memories of Integras past or visions of Civics present, but in the end, the judges felt this Acura didn’t have enough of its own stuff to make the COTY podium. MacKenzie summed it up: “The ILX underscores the core problem with Acura: It’s very difficult to build a genuine luxury brand simply by reworking mainstream, mass-market products.”
|2013 Acura ILX||2013 Acura ILX 2.4||2013 Acura ILX Hybrid|
|Price (as tested)||$32,295||$30,095||$35,295|
|Power (SAE net)||150 hp||201 hp||111 hp|
|Torque (SAE net)||140 lb-ft||170 lb-ft||127 lb-ft|
|Accel 0-60, mph||9.0 sec||6.2 sec||10.8 sec|
|Quarter Mile||16.9 sec @ 83.9 mph||14.7 sec @ 96.0 mph||18.2 sec @ 74.0 mph|
|Braking 60-0, mph||122.49 ft||121 ft||117 ft|
|MT Figure Eight||28.4 sec @ 0.59 g (avg)||27.8 sec @ 0.62 g (avg)||29.2 sec @ 0.54 g (avg)|
|EPA Econ (city/hwy)||24/35 mpg||22/31 mpg||39/38 mpg|
Finalist: BMW 3 Series
By: Todd Lassa
We Like: Sublime ride-handling balance remains its “secret sauce.”
We Don’t Like: Bland interior, retrograde steering feel and response, layer of isolation.
Auto pundits speak freely of Honda losing its way, and we’re starting to say the same thing about BMW, as its new 3 Series takes a retrograde step from the previous model. Do we blame BMW’s pandering to the aging yuppies who put the brand on the U.S. map? The 3 Series is going after Mercedes customers as Benz tries to make its C-Class more of a 3 Series. To be clear, through sheer competence from decades of experience, the 3 remains near the top of the segment, still best-in-class by some measures, though with a layer of isolation that diminishes driver involvement.
“Chasing Mercedes’ global sales volumes will not serve BMW well if future models continue the diminution of product character on exhibit here,” Hall said. “The 3 Series is supposed to be the embodiment of BMW’s DNA. Now that DNA is being diluted with poorer steering and convoluted interior design made of noticeably compromised materials.”
MacKenzie agreed. “Feels softer, more compliant than the Cadillac ATS, but also more developed and mature. BMW is evolving the 3 Series into a car that is not as overtly sporty as it used to be.” Reynolds’ take was a bit more pro-Bimmer. He remains attracted to what the late marketing exec Jack Pitney called “BMW’s secret sauce.”
“There’s a bit more roll than I’d like, and it’s slow to rotate after throttle application, but gosh, it’s a sublime car, really,” he said of the turbo-four 328i. “Turbo lag time is kind of slow,” in the six-cylinder 335i, “so I was having trouble matching my steering to the power response. All that said, this is a heck of a car.” Markus countered,”Slightly more gut-jiggle over the choppy road (comfort mode) than in Caddy Tour mode. Might have felt busier and less buttoned-down at top speed than the Caddy. Amazing on winding track.”
A heck of a car? Yes, still, and enough to be a finalist. But not the winner.
|2012 BMW 328i (6M)||2012 BMW 328i (8A)||2012 BMW 335i|
|Price (as tested)||$50,845||$52,070||$55,870|
|Power (SAE net)||240 hp||240 hp||300 hp|
|Torque (SAE net)||255 lb-ft||255 lb-ft||300 lb-ft|
|Accel 0-60, mph||5.5 sec||5.5 sec||4.8 sec|
|Quarter Mile||14.1 sec @ 98.2 mph||14.1 sec @ 97.9 mph||13.4 sec @ 103.7 mph|
|Braking 60-0, mph||113 ft||110 ft||108 ft|
|MT Figure Eight||26.3 sec @ 0.70 g (avg)||26.0 sec @ 0.72 g (avg)||25.9 sec @ 0.73 g (avg)|
|EPA Econ (city/hwy)||23/34 mpg||23/33 mpg||23/33 mpg|
|MT Fuel Econ||22.9 mpg||–||–|
Finalist: Cadillac ATS
By: Rory Jurnecka
We Like: Solid, well-balanced chassis, direct steering, strong design.
We Don’t Like: Manual shifter action, too-firm ride.
Cadillac had one target in mind with its new compact, rear-drive sedan: the BMW 3 Series it competed against in our 2013 COTY melee. To that end, it’s a little difficult to talk about the ATS without also mentioning the BMW, and that became obvious when our panel put their notes together on judgement day. “I’m struggling to remember the last car that’s taken this serious a stab at dethroning the 3 Series,” I wrote.
Cadillac sent along two ATS variants: a 2.0T four-cylinder with six-speed manual and a 3.6-liter six with a six-speed automatic. Both cars gave good power from their respective engines, with a strong mid-range in the 2.0-liter turbocharged mill and an aggressive wail from the 3.6’s exhaust tips unlike any we’ve heard from the engine before. GM’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine sits at the bottom of the range, and past experience with the lackluster unit hints at why we weren’t supplied with one for this year’s COTY.
As a sport sedan, the ATS shines with excellent steering, a firm chassis, solid Brembo brakes, and generally well-behaved dynamics. We did have problems with a balky manual transmission (MacKenzie likened the shifter action to “stirring a bucket of bolts”), along with a too-firm Sport setting with the adjustable magnetic-ride dampers that gave excessive up-and-down movement even on smooth roads.
Design was an ATS strong point, and we appreciated sweat being poured out on the small stuff, like the upswept headlights and illuminated door handles. Interior aesthetics were also strong, but functionality was a small letdown. Disappointingly, the rear seat is cramped and hard to enter and exit, and the piano-black center stack and touch controls with haptic feedback are neat, but attract fingerprints and smudges.
In the end, if it hadn’t been for the ATS’ few, but significant, faults, we felt it might have been a new segment leader. As it is, Caddy has a little development work left to do before it earns that honor.
|2013 Cadillac ATS 2.0T||2013 Cadillac ATS 3.6|
|Price (as tested)||$45,910||$49,185|
|Power (SAE net)||272 hp*||321 hp*|
|Torque (SAE net)||260 lb-ft*||275 lb-ft*|
|Accel 0-60, mph||6 sec||5.5 sec|
|Quarter Mile||14.4 sec @ 96.9 mph||14.0 sec @ 101.9 mph|
|Braking 60-0, mph||108 ft||110 ft|
|MT Figure Eight||26.3 sec @ 0.71 g (avg)||26.0 sec @ 0.71 g (avg)|
|EPA Econ (city/hwy)||20/30 mpg (est)||19/28 mpg|
|MT Fuel Econ||–||20.6 mpg|
Contender: Cadillac XTS
By: Todd Lassa
We Like: Expressive styling; expensive-looking, spacious interior; ride-handling balance.
Though it’s not a flagship and it’s not rear drive, the Cadillac XTS was one of the pleasant surprises of the competition.
“This is the one car I regret we didn’t take with us as a finalist,” Lieberman said. “Rides wonderfully, fun to push around the winding track, very good-looking, one of the best interiors not only at COTY but on the market, and a trunk large enough for four golfbags.”
“Exceptionally smooth ride on the choppy road. Stable and not too noisy at 128 mph. Goes around the winding track way better than it needs to,” Markus noted, “One has to wonder what sort of ride penalty that will exert on Michigan roads.”
Maligned as a stopgap big Caddy while also praised for its handsome styling and competitively lush interior, the XTS might have made the finals if its own maker hadn’t help make luxury FWD an anachronism. The XTS simply is not a game-changer like the ATS. The XTS is available with all-wheel drive, though it has no advantage in Southern California but to mask torque-steer. No one accused this car of that.
Hall had some criticism for the XTS’ only engine choice to date, the 3.6-liter V-6 also used in the RWD CTS and ATS as needing refinement (the 2010 Detroit concept boasted a plug-in hybrid drivetrain). “It runs out of grunt above 4800 rpm, where it seemed to do little but convert gasoline into noise,” he said. He also doesn’t like the finicky CUE center console infotainment and some of the interior material choices. “The use of piano black on the center stack is great for seeing fingerprints as well as determining the nature of your recent snacks.”
Overall takeaway is that the Cadillac XTS is a pleasant surprise; calling it one of the best FWD large luxury sedans is not damning with faint praise; and were we rich golfers or livery drivers, we might actually consider buying one.
|2013 Cadillac XTS|
|Price (as tested)||$61,305 (XTS4)|
|Power (SAE net)||304 hp|
|Torque (SAE net)||264 lb-ft|
|Accel 0-60, mph||6.9 sec|
|Quarter Mile||15.3 sec @ 92.6 mph|
|Braking 60-0, mph||116 ft|
|MT Figure Eight||27.6 sec @ 0.63 g (avg)|
|EPA Econ (city/hwy)||17/26 mpg|
Contender: Chevrolet Malibu
By: Carlos Lago
We Like: Clean exterior.
We Don’t Like: Overworked powertrain, numb steering, tight back seat, problematic interior design.
Neither fun to drive nor particularly good with fuel, with a cramped back seat and a questionable interior design, the Malibu was a consistent disappointment. Lieberman even categorized it as “not so much a car as it is a collection of things I hate about rentals.”
The problems? The judges’ notes go on about “lifeless” steering feel and a “thrashy” 2.5-liter inline-four. The automatic six-speed, eager to serve some kind of fuel economy deity, not only shifts to top gear as soon as it can, but also offers a huge gap between second and third gear that “lets the engine torque fall off a cliff,” said Markus. And despite these sacrifices, the Malibu’s 22/34-mpg city/hwy rating is, at best, average in class.
The rear seat was tight for staffers of average height and weight, and it offered “rock hard” leather with “no support at all.” Our LTZ tester came bathed in burnt orange leather that received mixed acceptance, but the swathes of chrome merging with high-gloss woodgrain got no praise. Particularly distasteful was an odd and out-of-place chrome trim surrounding the driver-side power window controls. As a final insult, the small infotainment screen washed out in the sun.
On the road, judges complained about a “nervous” sensation on the oval at freeway speeds, an “overwhelmed” engine, and “weak” brakes. The word “average” was used five times in one judge’s notes. “Average” used to define midsize economy sedans, but in recent years, the Fusion, Accord, and Passat have made large strides in refinement, driver enjoyment, interior space, design, and fuel economy. This Malibu has not.
To be fair, its asking price is modest and its exterior is sharp, though Markus noted, “The decklid is chafing the bumper fascia paint.” Reynolds summed it up: “GM is really in danger if it thinks it can drop back into its old mediocre quality rental car habits. This car is worrying.”
|2013 Chevrolet Malibu|
|Price (as tested)||$32,360 (LTZ)|
|Power (SAE net)||197 hp*|
|Torque (SAE net)||191 lb-ft*|
|Accel 0-60, mph||8.4 sec|
|Quarter Mile||16.5 sec @ 85.3 mph|
|Braking 60-0, mph||115 ft|
|MT Figure Eight||27.8 sec @ 0.57 g (avg)|
|EPA Econ (city/hwy)||22/34 mpg|
Contender: Chevrolet Spark
By: Jonny Lieberman
We Like: Fun to toss around; top speed is an indicated 105 mph.
We Don’t Like: Park bench front seats; unpadded, uncomfortable back seats.
In a competition like Car of the Year, you’d be forgiven for thinking the diminutive Chevrolet Spark is the equivalent of bringing a wet noodle to a knife fight, but you’d also be mistaken. Whatever the little Chevy lacks in grunt (just 84 hp and 83 lb-ft of torque from a 1.2-liter mill), size (93.5-inch wheelbase), and engineering excellence (drum brakes on the back wheels, held in place by a compound crank rear end), it makes up for with a big plate of charisma. As Reynolds noted, “A mildly positive mini-surprise!”
We were pretty polarized by the design, with one judge who shall remain nameless calling it a “gargoyle.” That’s unfair, because the Spark is quite cute and well-sculpted for a high-roof box. The biggest issue is the heavy exterior use of cheap-looking black plastic pieces around the side windows. They make the car look unfinished. The interior, especially up front, is actually “well-appointed,” according to Markus, with some cool touches, like the gauge cluster mounted on top of the steering column and — just as in a Porsche 928(!) — it moves up and down with the wheel.
Speaking of the steering wheel, I think the Spark surprised everyone who turned it. Yes, the limits are as low as your ankles with enough door-handle-scraping body roll to make you seasick, but the Spark is fun to toss around. Maybe it’s just more proof of the old maxim that slow cars are fun to drive fast. And a large part of that fun is helped out by the five-speed manual version Chevy sent us. It made me smile when I pushed it.
The judges admitted that on the choppy road section, the Spark rode like a pogo stick. You can blame the tiny wheelbase and relatively crude rear suspension. Yet, many felt it didn’t ride any worse than cars it directly competes with. Compared with the similarly sized Prius C, the Spark rode like a cloud. The Spark is an inexpensive and charming little guy, but that’s not nearly enough to win Car of the Year.
|2013 Chevrolet Spark|
|Price (as tested)||$15,795 (LT)|
|Power (SAE net)||84 hp*|
|Torque (SAE net)||83 lb-ft*|
|Accel 0-60, mph||11.3 sec|
|Quarter Mile||18.1 sec @ 76.6 mph|
|Braking 60-0, mph||116 ft|
|MT Figure Eight||29.5 sec @ 0.59 g (avg)|
|EPA Econ (city/hwy)||32/38 mpg|
Contender: CODA sedan
By: Kim Reynolds
We Like: Competent, offers solid range in limited-range segment.
We Don’t Like: Obvious age, lack of modern infotainment, considerable price.
Take a look at this CODA. What do you see? Most judges saw a curious throwback to the 1990s when Asian sedans — that is, Japanese sedans — seemed to draw design inspiration from cardboard boxes. Well, the CODA’s bones are indeed boxy, and old, though its shape actually dates to only 2004 (it was sold as a gas car starting in 2005). Moreover, the hand behind its angles was no less than the house of Pininfarina, a concern that knows how to pen gracefully aging cars.
Some judges saw a primitive-looking EV arriving too late in a nascent market segment awash with way too many expensive, sub-100-mile-range BEVs. But the drab-appearing CODA has a subtle but undeniable intelligence all its own. Two of the biggest problems facing EVs are cost and the stability of lithium-ion chemistry. It’s hard to dramatically lower battery cost, but, hmmm, how about fitting them into an already cost-amortized, Chinese-built sedan? That goes a long way to offset the cost of the batteries, and maybe allows a few more of them to be poured into it (here, 31 kW-hrs worth, compared with the Leaf’s 24 and the Fit EV’s 22). In addition, it employs battery chemistry that’s particularly durable and stable. In a backhanded compliment, Theodore opined, “The best thing that can be said about the CODA is that it is perhaps the only green car here that has a positive business case.”
Put through our battery of tests and evaluation surfaces, the CODA overdelivered in performance. “Not bad, actually.” Loh said,”It’s a perfectly reasonable electric car that chirped cheap and cheerful.” Its electric motor happily tugs it out of corners; it’s quiet; and it’s reasonably balanced. On the other hand, the car’s age and gas-to-electric conversion are just too apparent, most notably, its primitive rotary shift selector.
But what most weighed against the CODA is another BEV in the competition shows us a vision for an EV future of uncompromised range, fast charging, performance, high-tech features, and design elegance.
|2012 CODA All-Electric|
|Price (as tested)||$39,640*|
|Power (SAE net)||134 hp|
|Torque (SAE net)||221 lb-ft|
|Accel 0-60, mph||9.6 sec|
|Quarter Mile||17.6 sec @ 78.6 mp|
|Braking 60-0, mph||130 ft|
|MT Figure Eight||28.5 sec @ 0.58 g (avg)|
|EPA Econ (city/hwy)||77/68 mpg-e|
|*Before federal and state tax credits|
Contender: Dodge Dart
By: Frank Markus
We Like: Couture interior design and materials; big package.
We Don’t Like: Nautical body roll, porky poundage, lifeless steering.
We imagine the Dart will sell rings around the odd-duck Caliber it replaces. There are legions of folks who just want to get from here to there, and the Dart has one of the cooler interiors in which to do so. Dodge offers an impressive array of five interior trim styles and three different cluster designs to go with its 11 exterior colors, plus you can get a fancy 8.4-inch touch-screen boasting astute ergonomics for just over $20K. As such, the highly customizable Dart scored high in our value column.
Engine output figures are competitive, but the too-heavy Dart is no rocket ship. The 1.4-liter MultiAir twin-clutch utilizes savvy gear spacing to keep the engine from falling off its power curve as happens in the manual. The stick is also topped by too big a shift knob, and its pedal spacing hampers heel-toe action. Low-speed maneuvering in the twin-clutch evinces none of the shuddering we complained about in early Ford Focus DCTs. Lassa disparaged the Dart’s cornering behavior, declaring it “yaws like an Americas Cup yacht,” and Theodore found the steering to be dead, but ultimate grip is competitive. Loh pined for more power, noting that its chassis is “pointable, but I’d say any shooting is going to have to wait until SRT gets involved.”
In design advancement, we mostly agreed its shape is pleasant, but it struck some as too much next-gen Neon and not enough kissing cousin to a hot Italian Alfa. The Dart offers a lot of car for the money, with plenty of storage space (including under the front passenger-seat cushion), but the rear seat struck many as a penalty box, with insufficient headroom and vastly different armrest heights costing precious points in the Performance of Intended Function tally.
Finally, sure, these are early-build cars, but on one of our Darts the tach went dead during Lago’s drive, and the nav rebooted itself during mine — both confidence-shaking experiences that keep contenders from becoming finalists.
|2013 Dodge Dart||2013 Dodge Dart Rallye Limited||2013 Dodge Dart Limited MultiAir|
|Price (as tested)||$23,560||$24,965||$25,770|
|Power (SAE net)||160 hp||160 hp||160 hp|
|Torque (SAE net)||184 lb-ft||148 lb-ft||184 lb-ft|
|Accel 0-60, mph||8.1 sec||8.9 sec||8.9 sec|
|Quarter Mile||16.2 sec @ 85.1 mph||16.9 sec @ 84.0 mph||16.8 sec @ 84.6 mph|
|Braking 60-0, mph||120 ft||122 ft||121 ft|
|MT Figure Eight||27.9 sec @ 0.60 g (avg)||28.5 sec @ 0.57 g (avg)||28.0 sec @ 0.61 g (avg)|
|EPA Econ (city/hwy)||27/39 mpg||24/34 mpg||27/37 mpg|
Finalist: Ford C-Max Hybrid
By: Jonny Lieberman
We Like: Low price; excellent packaging and efficiency; fun to drive.
We Don’t Like: Some of the cost-cutting measures show up in the interior.
With the possible exception of Toyota‘s excellent new Avalon, the big surprise of this year’s contest was the Ford C-Max Hybrid. Our crew wasn’t expecting a rock-solid hybrid that not only made it to the finals, but received several second- and third-place votes. Seabaugh summed up the C-Max’s attributes thusly: “It’s as if a Ford Focus and Escape had a menage a trois with a Toyota Prius and the best of each made it into the C-Max. It has the Focus’ fun-to-drive bones, the Escape’s utility, and the Prius’ fuel efficiency.”
Let’s start with how well it drives. Said Floyd, “This car glides over the road in EV mode, wonderfully balanced ride for a top-heavy-looking vehicle. Wind noise and other cabin intrusions are kept to a minimum.” MacKenzie added, “Michelin Energy tires mean not much grip, but steering and chassis feel more integrated and controlled than in a Prius.” And as Toyota’s all-star hybrid is the C-Max’s target, the fact that the Ford drives better is a huge selling point. While no barnstormer, the C-Max feels quick.
Then there’s the excellent packaging. Wrote Reynolds, “I liked it a lot more than I expected. Really enjoy tall seating position and goldfish-bowl visibility, as well as tidy dimensions for parking.” While not as big inside as a Prius V, the C-Max is plenty roomy. By removing that third row for its American hybrid duty-cycle, the C-Max can easily fit car seats and groceries.
Then there’s the excellent economy. Unlike every other hybrid I’ve ever driven, the C-Max can run in electric mode up to 62 mph. That’s extremely impressive. Explained Markus, “The car cruises for meaningful distances in EV mode at 45 mph. Over this vehicle’s 2786-mile life, it’s cruised 681.9 miles in electric mode (194.6 miles were spent regenerating energy). For my ride, 12.6 of 27.8 miles were EV.” All in all, a hugely impressive car.
|2013 Ford C-Max|
|Price (as tested)||$30,690 (SEL Hybrid)|
|Power (SAE net)||188 h|
|Torque (SAE net)||129 lb-ft|
|Accel 0-60, mph||8.1 sec|
|Quarter Mile||16.2 sec @ 88.3 mph|
|Braking 60-0, mph||129 ft|
|MT Figure Eight||29.4 sec @ 0.55 g (avg)|
|EPA Econ (city/hwy)||47/47 mpg|
|MT Fuel Econ||36.5 mpg|
Finalist: Ford Fusion
By: Frank Markus
We Like: Steering feel, quiet interior, strong engines, affordable Aston looks.
We Don’t Like: Hybrid brake feel, slight loss of dynamic edge.
Our judges wrote more notes explaining their decision not to grant this Fusion our Golden Calipers than they did weighing the virtues of the Porsche 911. Many struck a defensive tone that spoke to the high expectations for this stylishly redesigned returning champ (2010). How could it lose? On paper, it takes all the things we loved about 2010’s major mid-cycle enhancement and upgrades them with Aston Rapide looks. No other midsizer offers a choice of four engines, four transmissions, front- or all-wheel drive, and regular or plug-in hybrid. Nearly every interior dimension is increased, bringing 5 cubic feet more usable passenger space, and almost everyone noted how well the new car stifles road and wind noise. And of the 1.6-liter manual Sport version Loh gushed that the steering offered “better feel and feedback than the BMW 328’s.” Right there, we have needles pegging in design advancement, engineering, efficiency, and performance of intended function. So what happened?
While many praised it as the most fun to drive of the midsizers present (“If you need to autocross a family sedan, the 1.6-liter Ford Fusion might just be your best bet,” said Lieberman), the test team lamented its handling as a retrograde step. Reynolds: “I swear it has worse dynamics than its predecessor. The front end’s reaction to moderately energetic steering inputs is rubbery and springy. And its response to high-g aggressive maneuvers is positively weird, with a strange steering effort feedback going on that seems artificial and confused at times.” Hall took issue with the six-speed auto’s reluctance to react to paddle-shift inputs. Theodore and Reynolds both noticed an unwelcome “double-bump” in the Hybrid’s brake travel where friction braking kicks in. And all were troubled by the value prospect of a $38,000 Fusion. Theodore’s conclusion: “The Fusion is a world-class car, but because it does not establish a new benchmark. I ranked it fifth.”
|2013 Ford Fusion SE||2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid SE||2013 Ford Fusion Titanium|
|Price (as tested)||$25,290||$35,660||$37,670|
|Power (SAE net)||178 hp||141 hp (engine only)||240 hp|
|Torque (SAE net)||184 lb-ft||129 lb-ft (engine only)||270 lb-ft|
|Accel 0-60, mph||8 sec||8.5 sec||6.8 sec|
|Quarter Mile||16.1 sec @ 88.1 mp||16.4 sec @ 87.8 mph||15.1 sec @ 91.6 mph|
|Braking 60-0, mph||119.54 ft||116 ft||117 ft|
|MT Figure Eight||27.4 sec @ 0.58 g (avg)||28.7 sec @ 0.58 g (avg)||27.2 sec @ 0.64 g (avg)|
|EPA Econ (city/hwy)||25/37 mpg||47/47 mpg||22/31 mpg|
|MT Fuel Econ||25.5 mpg||–||–|
Finalist: Honda Accord
By: Kim Reynolds
We Like: Sleeker styling, quieter interior, more efficient engines.
We Don’t Like: CVT matched with the four-cylinder engine is good, but not great.
Of the 45 cars on hand for the 2013 COTY competition, not a single one was more important in the marketplace than this ninth-generation Honda Accord. And in its last couple of generations, the Accord has become a confused car amid a flurry of rapidly improving or all-new sedans such as the Sonata, Optima, Passat, and Fusion.
The man ultimately in crosshairs is Honda’s CEO, Takanobu Ito. How has he fared? The tip-off that Honda is thinking freshly again is the Accord’s length, which is 3.5 inches shorter. Shorter! That’s not the natural longer-lower-wider course of things (incidentally, it’s because Honda felt the Accord was becoming difficult to fit into garages).
The Accord returns as a sedan and coupe, fitted with an all-new, direct-injection “Earth Dreams” four- and revised six-cylinder engines. But the new hardware that most caught our attention was the four-cylinder’s matching with a CVT in place of a normal automatic. The logic is sound: When designed for each other, an engine matched to a CVT is definitely more efficient. (That’s why the pairing is suddenly appearing everywhere.) But we found its low-speed, on-off throttle response mildly surgey, though, all in all, a bit better than Nissan’s CVT deployments.
At speed, the Accord has lost none of its historically crisp handling, despite adopting struts in place of its long favored control-arm front suspension (a change made for crash testing reasons, we’re told). Lassa: “Honda is returning to form with a light-feeling, slightly more fun-to-drive vanilla-mobile.” And its bigger cabin, improved center-stack button-logic, and noticeably quieter interior pleasantly surprised us. Said associate online editor Christian Seabaugh, “A refreshing change from the pillbox-like interiors of the Fusion and Malibu.” Yes, Mr. Ito did good. More than enough to push the Accord into our finalist category. But unfortunately, the step from finalist to winner is a bigger stride than this solid incremental improvement represents.
|2013 Honda Accord||2013 Honda Accord Sport (EX-L sedan)||2013 Honda Accord V-6 (EX-L coupe)|
|Price (as tested)||$24,180||$30,785||$33,140|
|Power (SAE net)||189 hp||189 hp||278 hp|
|Torque (SAE net)||182 lb-ft||182 lb-ft||252 lb-ft|
|Accel 0-60, mph||6.7 sec||7.7 sec||5.4 sec|
|Quarter Mile||15.2 sec @ 91.9 mph||16.0 sec @ 90.7 mph||13.9 sec @ 101.4 mph|
|Braking 60-0, mph||127 ft||127.7 ft||120 ft|
|MT Figure Eight||27.3 sec @ 0.62 g (avg)||28.4 sec @ 0.54 g (avg)||27.0 sec @ 0.66 g (avg)|
|EPA Econ (city/hwy)||24/34 mpg||27/36 mpg||21/34 mpg|
|MT Fuel Econ||25.2 mpg||–||–|
Contender: Hyundai Azera
By: Edward Loh
We Like: Tech-laden and roomy interior, rich leather surfaces.
We Don’t Like: Polarizing style, lackluster steering feel, freeway tire slap.
Hyundai’s all-new Azera targets the near-luxury D-segment currently occupied by Toyota Avalon and Buick LaCrosse. It received high marks for content and packaging efficiency, but polarized our judges with its interior and exterior styling. Floyd praised the car’s telematics/nav package and “comfortable, first-rate cabin layout,” while guest judge Theodore called out the Azera’s “roomy package, huge trunk” and “luxurious mocha leather interior.” Theodore also found the exterior upscale, “if not adventuresome,” which ran counter to MacKenzie’s findings. “It has dramatic styling that’s trying too hard; interior is Gangnam-style Asian techno-fusion,” he said. “Not the progression the previous Azera was, which shows that the better you get, the harder you have to try.”
One area Hyundai engineers need to address is handling, although a little perspective is required, said Floyd. “For the overwhelming majority of its intended audience, it will be just fine. It’s relatively quiet at speed, goes well in a straight line, and doesn’t smack the bumps hard. That said, steering feel is relatively disconnected, and in any sort of situation where aggressive maneuvers come into play, this car becomes, as Jim Hall put it, ‘Mr. Floppy.'”
Test guru Reynolds called out the “car’s artificial and notchy steering feel,” while Jurnecka wondered, “When’s Hyundai going to learn a thing or two about making a decent steering system? Especially disappointing after driving the Avalon.” Wait, the Avalon?
Yep. The Toyota marshmallow that Azera set out to roast returned fire in its latest iteration (see page 64). Against all six criteria, the Avalon was judged ahead of the Azera. And if a car can’t dominate its own segment, it certainly can’t be COTY. Theodore summed it up best: “The Hyundai Azera is a nice-looking, nicely trimmed, and well-equipped large sedan. It’s well-suited for aging boomers and the quiet generation, but this is a shrinking market segment. It’s a competent vehicle, but not best in class.”
|2013 Hyundai Azera|
|Price (as tested)||$37,260|
|Power (SAE net)||293 hp|
|Torque (SAE net)||255 lb-ft|
|Accel 0-60, mph||6.6 sec|
|Quarter Mile||15.1 sec @ 94.6 mph|
|Braking 60-0, mph||124 ft|
|MT Figure Eight||27.9 sec @ 0.62 g (avg)|
|EPA Econ (city/hwy)||20/30 mpg|
Contender: Lexus ES
By: Christian Seabaugh
We Like: Loads of interior space.
We Don’t Like: Iffy styling, plain interior, poor dynamics, the Avalon question.
If there’s one problem with the new Lexus ES, it’s the Toyota Avalon. A look through our notebooks reveals nothing but ES-Avalon comparisons: “Why would anyone get this over the new Avalon?” wrote Loh. “Not nearly as satisfying a mid-lux cush sedan as the Toyota Avalon,” Lassa said.
Why the Avalon comparison? For 2013, the Lexus ES ditches its Camry connection for a platform related to the reworked Avalon in an effort to achieve LS-levels of comfort. The Lexus gains 1.7 inches of wheelbase and another inch of overall length in switching to the Avalon’s platform, boosting ever-important rear legroom by 4.1 inches. Aside from the additional legroom, Lexus added the clunky Remote Touch Interface to the infotainment system, upscale touches like available bamboo trim (300h only), and high-quality interior materials such as the hand-stitched dashboard.
For the first time ever in the ES, a hybrid drivetrain is available alongside the V-6, which on the ES 350 is a carryover 3.5-liter unit. The ES 300h’s 2.5-liter I-4 and accompanying electric motor (shared with the Avalon Hybrid) are plucked straight out of the Camry Hybrid, and for the most part are unchanged, netting an impressive 40/39 mpg city/highway.
Since Lexus expects younger ES buyers to go for the hybrid, it opted for a sport-tuned suspension. Unfortunately, we found the experience somewhat lacking. Steering feel was light and overly boosted, and the ES 300h’s brakes suffered from sloppy transitions between regenerative and mechanical braking.
Ultimately, sloppy dynamics and a less-than-impressive cabin aren’t enough to ace the Avalon comparisons. When Toyota offers the same practicality and space, but a better interior and driving dynamics for less in the Avalon, what case is there for the ES? Snob appeal and dealer service, sure, but that won’t win Car of the Year.
|2013 Lexus ES 350||2013 Lexus ES 350h|
|Price (as tested)||$41,944||$43,310|
|Power (SAE net)||268 hp||200 hp|
|Torque (SAE net)||248 lb-ft||156 lb-ft|
|Accel 0-60, mph||6.0 sec||7.6 sec|
|Quarter Mile||14.4 sec @ 100.3 mph||15.8 sec @ 90.1 mph|
|Braking 60-0, mph||132 ft||122 ft|
|MT Figure Eight||28.5 sec @ 0.61 g (avg)||28.5 sec @ 0.59 g (avg)|
|EPA Econ (city/hwy)||21/31 mpg||40/39 mpg|
Finalist: Lexus GS
By: Carlos Lago
We Like: Driving fun, interior styling, and functionality.
We Don’t Like: “Predator”-influenced schnoz.
The GS should eliminate any remaining doubt that Lexus can build fun-to-drive cars. Not attractive cars — that still seems an area of some difficulty — but cars that are fun. With the GS, Lexus nailed it, if the two long black marks left around our handling course are any indication. And those were left by the hybrid.
Predictably, the 350 F Sport, the other variant sent to represent the lineup, proved just as enjoyable during customary flogging. But it was how fluently the 450h blended fun, comfort, and fuel economy (29/34 mpg city/hwy) that ushered the GS to the Finalist group.
“This may be the first time in the history of hybrids where a hybrid model arguably drove as well as the standard car,” said Floyd, who was just as enamored with the interior. “If there were an Interior of the Year sub-award, the GS would have won it, hands down.”
The insides of both cars impressed judges not just for their interesting designs, but for their comfort as well. “Love the light-colored bamboo-style wood finish, aluminum, and leather. It’s all very high-quality,” said Jurnecka. Frank Markus added, “This is a proper back seat. Perfect posture, softness, angle, headrest, armrest, and toe room.”
One blemish: The haptic, mouselike controller that operates the infotainment system is a neat idea, providing definite feedback to your hand, but it still requires you to take your eyes off the road to see what you’re about to click on. Nevertheless, the interiors work right, and the 450h’s in particular. But with the inside executed so well, the exterior remains challenged. The GS may feature the best iteration of Lexus’ spindle grille, but the look of it was controversial with the judges. Still, it’s nowhere near as egregious as the LS’ fascia.
Overall, that design wart was the biggest disappointment. The rest of the package? “I prefer this to the already dated LS,” said Loh. “This is the real flagship of the brand.”
|2013 Lexus GS 350 F Sport||2013 Lexus GS 450h|
|Price (as tested)||$57,322||$62,020|
|Power (SAE net)||303 hp||338 hp (comb)|
|Torque (SAE net)||274 lb-ft||254 lb-ft (engine only)|
|Accel 0-60, mph||5.4 sec||5.9 sec|
|Quarter Mile||13.9 sec @ 101.5 mph||14.3 sec @ 102.3 mph|
|Braking 60-0, mph||107 ft||119 ft|
|MT Figure Eight||26.1 sec @ 0.72 g (avg)||26.9 sec @ 0.68 g (avg)|
|EPA Econ (city/hwy)||19/28 mpg||29/34 mpg|
|MT Fuel Econ||–||27.3 mpg|
Contender: Lexus LS
By: Rory Jurnecka
We Like: Still a luxury car through and through — quiet, comfy, quick.
We Don’t Like: No huge advancement over previous car.
It’s been more than two decades since the first Lexus LS was introduced to the U.S. market, bringing with it game-changing dynamics, features, and value. The original LS was significant enough to make the best from Europe stand up and take notice, and that success was echoed in sales volume. We were hoping for another big step up with the 2013 LS. Lexus has the brains, money, and experience to build a car that wows the flagship luxury segment, and the previous generation car didn’t represent the best the brand could do. Unfortunately, we were left feeling the same way about the newest effort.
Revisions for the “all-new” LS include reworked styling (now with spindle grille!), a revamped interior, optional adjustable air suspension, and 6 more horsepower for the LS 460. The subtle changes didn’t fool many staffers, Lieberman concluded: “I just drove the refreshed 7 Series and even that car is more ‘all-new’ than the ‘all-new’ LS.” Even the new F Sport appearance and suspension package didn’t do much to sway opinions.
That said, all staffers thought the LS’ new interior was a step in the right direction and most got along nicely with the joystick-operated infotainment system and its 12-inch display. But the revamped interior wasn’t enough to sway boss-man Loh–especially in light of the truly all-new Lexus GS that also came along to the party. “Just doesn’t feel that special, certainly not in the way the GS does,” Loh scribbled. “Nice shifter and generally pleasant cabin. But its design doesn’t move the needle, except on the tech front.
Still, the Lexus proved a pleasant enough car to spend time in. The bank-vault-solid body structure, comfortable and quiet ride, and decent grunt from the 386-hp V-8 left no one complaining about the LS being a penalty box.
Reynolds summed it up best: “As limousine-impressive as it is dull. It’s as if Lexus didn’t know what to do next here, so just stirred the soup again and said ‘Here you go.'” It takes more than that to clinch the calipers.
|2013 Lexus LS 460 F Sport||2013 Lexus LS 600hL|
|Price (as tested)||$86,265||$134,860|
|Power (SAE net)||386 hp||389 hp (gas only)|
|Torque (SAE net)||367 lb-ft||385 lb-ft (gas only)|
|Accel 0-60, mph||5.6 sec||5.9 sec|
|Quarter Mile||14.1 sec @ 102.0 mph||14.3 sec @ 100.4 mph|
|Braking 60-0, mph||118 ft||121 ft|
|MT Figure Eight||26.7 sec @ 0.67 g (avg)||27.5 sec @ 0.65 g (avg)|
|EPA Econ (city/hwy)||16/24 mp||19/23 mpg|
Contender: Mercedes-Benz SL
By: Kim Reynolds
We Like: Dramatic design, well-constructed, loaded with new features.
We Don’t Like: Ought to handle much, much better than this.
The particular SL Mercedes-Benz provided us was a 550, meaning it was powered by the 4.7-liter, 429-hp V-8. Which, after driving it, darkly reminded us of its ominous 518-hp, SL63 AMG big brother. Dark? Ominous? Why am I using words like that? Ask M-B, which has been building a string of sporting cars with way more horsepower than handling poise (excepting the wonderfully anomalous C63 AMG, which gets it completely right). The SL550 was astonishingly difficult to drive at its limit, a modern-day 1937 W125 Grand Prix car in need of a Rudi Caracciola to hypnotize it around a fast corner. Me? Not being a 1930s German Grand Prix driver, I was struggling to control it around our figure-eight course, with things ultimately getting so out of hand that its sensors and software decided I must be about to crash and automatically cinched the belts and rolled up the side windows. Crazy. It was also crazy quick in a straight line, and granite-stable well into triple-digit speeds. Said Jurnecka: “Super-planted at 120 mph on the straight–totally unflappable.” These are two different cars: the cornering SL and the straight-line SL.
But slow the pace and look around, and you’ll find an impressive chunk of Mercedes-Benz here. The interior is replete with technology so extreme, you wonder if we’re getting to the point where carmakers are coming up with stuff just to startle customers. One example is AirScarf, warm air that bathes your neck on cool top-down evenings. The windshield’s washer fluid is dispensed via laser-cut holes in the wiper arm, with its spray dependent on wiper direction, road speed, and whether the top is up or down. And there’s Magic Sky Control, an “electro-chromatic technology” that changes an ordinary-looking glass roof nearly opaque at the press of a button. In his notes, Loh said, “I think thousands of Orange County-ians will simply appreciate the big star on the long nose.” And that’s about right.
|2013 Mercedes-Benz SL|
|Price (as tested)||$124,490 (SL550)|
|Power (SAE net)||429 hp|
|Torque (SAE net)||516 lb-ft|
|Accel 0-60, mph||4.1 sec|
|Quarter Mile||12.5 sec @ 115.2 mph|
|Braking 60-0, mph||109 ft|
|MT Figure Eight||25.7 sec @ 0.78 g (avg)|
|EPA Econ (city/hwy)||16/24 mpg|
Contender: Nissan Altima
By: Zach Gale
We Like: Quickness, mileage, easy-to-use interior.
We Don’t Like: Still polarizing CVT, insufficient wow factor.
The Nissan Altima burst back onto the midsize sedan scene about 10 years ago with a bolder body and an available 240-hp V-6. Today, the Ford Fusion and Kia Optima are the style leaders, and Nissan isn’t the only game in town for those who want plenty of power. Where does that leave the 2013 Altima sedan?
In a good place, actually. By the numbers, the Altima sedan is a compelling package. The four-cylinder model is quick for the segment, and for now, the car is the class leader for mileage, with EPA ratings at 27/38 mpg city/highway. Unlike the Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, Kia Optima, and Hyundai Sonata, the Altima still offers a traditional V-6 that, as with the I-4, is mated to a new CVT. The new-for-2013 Honda Accord also offers a CVT, and there were votes for each car’s transmission as the superior one.
Of course, the Altima is more than just a bunch of numbers. When you get behind the wheel, the car drives like, well, a midsize sedan. Sure, this sedan has NASA-inspired front seats and comfortable rear seats, plus an instrument cluster info screen that’s raked back 17 degrees from the driver for better visibility, but overall it lacks the wow factor that distinguishes a solid contender from a Car of the Year. As Floyd described, “It’s just kind of there as a competent, honest sedan — nothing more, nothing less.”
Some felt the car could benefit from retuned steering, though the 270-hp V-6 model remains the enthusiast’s choice for those forced to consider a basic midsize sedan, though it’s no sport sedan.
“The V-6 front end is wayward, like a Labrador puppy on linoleum,” MacKenzie noted. “The torque steer pushes the front wide under gas, and dives to apex when lifting off.”
With a four- or six-cylinder powertrain, the Altima is a competent midsize sedan, but it’s not the only one like that in its class, and, ultimately, isn’t Car of the Year material.
|2013 Nissan Altima SV||2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL|
|Price (as tested)||$27,005||$32,135|
|Power (SAE net)||182 hp||270 hp|
|Torque (SAE net)||180 lb-ft||251 lb-ft|
|Accel 0-60, mph||7.7 sec||5.9 sec|
|Quarter Mile||15.9 sec @ 89.3 mph||14.2 sec @ 101.7 mph|
|Braking 60-0, mph||127 ft||123 ft|
|MT Figure Eight||28.0 sec @ 0.56 g (avg)||27.1 sec @ 0.66 g (avg)|
|EPA Econ (city/hwy)||27/38 mpg||22/31 mpg|
Contender: Nissan Sentra
By: Christian Seabaugh
We Like: Baby Altima styling, roomy cabin.
We Don’t Like: The engine moans, and powertrain NVH is awful.
The Nissan Sentra has long been considered an also-ran in the compact sedan segment. Nissan hopes it can turn things around with the 2013 Sentra by ditching its “Fast and Furious” reputation for a more professional character to appeal to the few millennials who can actually afford a new car.
The Sentra targets Gen-Y-ers by focusing on three fronts: styling, space, and efficiency. It gets Nissan’s new signature grille, headlights with LED DRLs standard (a segment first, says Nissan), and LED taillights. The design was generally well-received, with Loh writing, “Making it so similar looking to the Altima is a clever idea (especially after the visual abomination the previous generation was).”
Although the Sentra is narrower and shorter than before, many editors found the interior roomy, thanks to 2.3 inches of extra length. “Legroom is ridiculous,” Loh said, “especially in the rear.” Said Floyd, “Wow, tons of room in the back seat and in the cockpit, very impressive.”
While it fared well on styling and space, the Sentra fell flat when it came time to hit the road. Under the hood is a version of Nissan’s 1.8-liter I-4 making 130 hp and 128 lb-ft of torque, bolted to Nissan’s newest CVT, a combo reportedly good for 39 mpg highway (40 mpg if you opt for one of the eco models). That’s where the problems begin. “Good response at throttle tip-in,” Loh said, “though as revs build it becomes obvious this is quite the moaner. Loud engine noise at WOT.” “The engine has a moan I can even feel vibrating my seat at certain rpm,” Markus noted.
The silver lining to the Sentra’s overwhelming NVH issue was noted by Markus. “Quieter overall than the Dart — way less road noise. Give the Sentra chassis NVH team a raise! Pay for it by docking the powertrain NVH team, as this thing makes a dreadful noise at WOT.” Faint praise, for sure.
|2013 Nissan Sentra|
|Price (as tested)||$23,420 (SL)|
|Power (SAE net)||130 hp|
|Torque (SAE net)||128 lb-ft|
|Accel 0-60, mph||9.6 sec|
|Quarter Mile||17.3 sec @ 81.0 mph|
|Braking 60-0, mph||122 ft|
|MT Figure Eight||28.7 sec @ 0.57 g (avg)|
|EPA Econ (city/hwy)||30/39 mpg|
Finalist: Porsche 911
By: Frank Markus
We Like: Iconic style, Best Driver’s Car dynamics.
We Don’t Like: Sloppy clutch takeup, antique interior, S model
Nearly all COTY participants love the iconic, familiar, wonderful Porsche 911 — always have, always will. They unanimously proclaim it “the best everyday supercar on the market,” and pen love letters like: “I must own one of these” — Lieberman. “The Carrera is the one I want to take home” — Lago. “An amazing tour-de-force” — Hall. Press them for the criticism that is an auto-journo’s stock in trade, and you hear grumbling about a clutch pedal whose effort appears tuned to encourage purchase of the two-pedal PDK, cacophonous rear tire noise, the inevitable corruption of steering feel by electric power assist, and dodgy interior ergonomics. (Cherry: “Column stalks are arranged as if you threw knives and forks in a drawer without dividers.”)
Our 911 fanboys were, however, quick to pick a favorite, and nearly everyone preferred the base 911 to the Carrera S. Our test example of the latter came loaded with every capital letter Porsche can string together (PDCC, PTV, PASM, PDK, etc.), and the test team pointed fingers at the hydraulic active anti-roll bar system (PDCC) for generating excessive understeer even under mild lift-throttle conditions. This behavior tellingly constrained the more powerful S to the base car’s figure-eight lap time. Consider PDCC $3160 smartly saved.
A tiny minority of our number (engineers) regard the 911 as a textbook case of pig-headed Germans clinging stubbornly to an aerodynamically impractical body profile (“A beautiful execution of a stupid shape,” as Theodore put it) and an engine placement consigned to the trash heap for good reason by every other automaker decades ago. We resent the 911 for stunting the evolution of the inherently balanced mid-engine Cayman and Boxster. When the shouting ended, we agreed with Theodore’s sum-up: “Porsche has raised the bar, but it is not a breakthrough.” Hence, not Car of the Year.
|2012 Porsche 911 Carrera||2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S|
|Price (as tested)||$90,190||$124,645|
|Power (SAE net)||350 hp||400 hp|
|Torque (SAE net)||287 lb-ft||325 lb-ft|
|Accel 0-60, mph||4.3 sec||3.8 sec|
|Quarter Mile||12.7 sec @ 112.8 mph||12.0 sec @ 116.7 mph|
|Braking 60-0, mph||98 ft||101 ft|
|MT Figure Eight||24.0 sec @ 0.86 g (avg)||24.0 sec @ 0.85 g (avg)|
|EPA Econ (city/hwy)||19/27 mpg||19/27 mpg|
|MT Fuel Econ||19.1 mpg||–|
Finalist: Porsche Boxster
By: Jonny Lieberman
We Like: The way it drives. The best-handling favorite of this year’s competition.
We Don’t Like: The already high base prices become absurd with options.
There’s much that can be said about Porsche’s all-new mid-engine convertible Boxster, but there’s an introductory comment from Theodore that sums it up best: “Sweet car.” Porsche will, of course, continue its refusal to put a more powerful, 911-rivaling engine into the Boxster, forever relegating the car to second-tier status. And that’s fine. As Lassa pointed out, “The Boxster has really come into its own.”
It’s a funny thing, too, as this new model borrows heavily from the 911 parts bin. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, for as Jurnecka wrote, “Build quality is exceptional.” That wasn’t always the case. But it is interesting to note that while the two Porsches share more DNA than ever, the two-seater convertible’s personality is totally distinct from big brother. Markus says it’s “artfully differentiated.”
We love the way the Boxster drives. From Floyd: “This is simply a magnificent car to drive aggressively; it instantly reacts to any input.” And from Loh, “I loved how at full lean on the winding road, fully horked over, rear wheels spinning, I could still dial in a touch more steering.” Yup, fully horked.
In fact, most judges prefer the Boxster’s charms to the 911. Reynolds said, “This car impressed me more than the 911. It looks like it has more testosterone, and drives like it, too.” Most of that comes from the simply sublime chassis. As MacKenzie noted, “Beautifully balanced and predictable and precise. You want more power, but don’t need it to enjoy the chassis. One of the most delightful and engaging sports cars you can buy, at any price.”
Oh, yeah, price. If the Boxsters had an Achilles’ heel in our six criteria, it was value. There was a lot of eye rolling when we learned the silver Boxster with just 207 lb-ft of torque had a price tag of $77,235. The Boxster S was even dearer at $87,125. Concluded Theodore, “If you can get the base car without all the ridiculously priced options, it’s a great buy. As tested, the value equation is far less attractive.”
|2013 Porsche Boxster (Base)||2013 Porsche Boxster S|
|Price (as tested)||$77,235||$87,125|
|Power (SAE net)||265 hp||315 hp|
|Torque (SAE net)||207 lb-ft||266 lb-ft|
|Accel 0-60, mph||5.6 sec||4.2 sec|
|Quarter Mile||14.0 sec @ 101.7 mph||12.7 sec @ 109.7 mph|
|Braking 60-0, mph||101 ft||102 ft|
|MT Figure Eight||24.9 sec @ 0.77 g (avg)||24.6 sec @ 0.81 g (avg)|
|EPA Econ (city/hwy)||20/30 mpg||21/30 mpg|
|MT Fuel Econ||–||19.1 mpg|
Finalist: Toyota Avalon
By: Todd Lassa
We Like: The unusual combination of big-car spaciousness, comfort, and good road manners.
We Don’t Like: The much less smooth hybrid version.
Buick is building the world’s best Buicks again, so for 2013, the new Toyota Avalon has aimed itself at becoming the world’s best front-drive Lexus. Sounds like a Zen koan. And Toyota seems to be going for a Zen-like atmosphere, or at least some good, old-fashioned feng shui. Avalon is an all-out comfort-mobile with rich interior textures and an expressive (for Toyota) exterior design. Toyota is trying to replace the oldest Avalon buyers with new, sub-Boomer-aged suburbanites.
“What’s this? Paddle shifters and a sport mode? Clearly this thing isn’t being aimed at oldsters anymore,” Markus said. The audio system dates Motor Trend’s Car of the Year soundtrack CD mix — like the Tesla Model S, there’s no compact disc slot.
As for that feng shui, interior designers managed to place the front center armrest on the same plane as the front door armrests, one of many surprise-and-delight features.
“The Limited trim level’s interior is a genuinely special place,” Hall wrote. “The car is comfortable, has great ride and handling, and is appropriately quiet.” “I like the instrument panel better than the ES,’ ” Theodore noted, adding, “there is some odd stitching and ill-formed leather trim.” On the exterior, he doesn’t like the “hideous front fascia with its two incongruent grilles.” Markus noticed more wind noise than from the Azera.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the big car’s chassis won’t embarrass Gen-X buyers. “Dynamically, the Avalon is far superior to the Lexus ES,” Theodore said. “Sliced through Cameron Road at higher speeds than in the midsize sedans. Steering is light and precise, with little feedback, but the car just goes where you point it.” We’re less enthused about the Hybrid version, even with its compact-car fuel efficiency. Hall concluded. “The 3.5-liter V-6 and six-speed auto just worked too well to consider the gas-electric I-4.”
|2013 Toyota Avalon Limited||2013 Toyota Avalon Limited Hybrid|
|Price (as tested)||$42,195||$43,945|
|Power (SAE net)||268 hp||200 hp (comb)|
|Torque (SAE net)||248 lb-ft||156 lb-ft (engine only)|
|Accel 0-60, mph||6.2 sec||7.6 sec|
|Quarter Mile||14.5 sec @ 98.1 mph||15.8 sec @ 89.8 mph|
|Braking 60-0, mph||122 ft||127 ft|
|MT Figure Eight||27.7 sec @0.64 g (avg)||28.6 sec @0.59 g (avg)|
|EPA Econ (city/hwy)||21/31 mpg||40/39 mpg|
|MT Fuel Econ||24.1 mpg||–|
Contender: Toyota Prius C
By: Zach Gale
We Like: Habanero Orange paint, hybrid info screen, 53 mpg city.
We Don’t Like: Noisy, poor ride; questionable value.
Were we judging OCOTY (Orange Car of the Year), the Toyota Prius C would be a front-runner. The Habanero Orange color maximizes the four-door hatchback’s cheap and cheerful appeal. But how cheap is the new compact Prius variant, really? The $20,000 base model doesn’t include cruise control or 60/40 split-folding rear seats with adjustable headrests, but you do get Bluetooth, a USB port, a 3.5-inch customizable information screen, and, of course, an EPA-rated 53 mpg city. That figure is unparalleled by any non-electrified vehicle, though the regular Prius does match the Prius C’s 50 mpg combined.
For better or worse, the Prius C features a wilder interior design. Many testers couldn’t ignore the smaller Prius’ multiple textures and curves. “It looks like someone’s taken a razor blade to the interior of this thing, haphazardly cutting lines on all the surfaces,” Lago said. “I can’t make sense of it.” Loh wasn’t as bothered as most, suggesting that the interior of the entry-level Prius was “actually designed on purpose.”
The Prius C is intended to attract a younger buyer, one we hope never heads to a winding road on purpose. There’s no fun to be had in this car, aside from monitoring the appreciably updated Toyota hybrid graphics package. Like a regular Prius, the compact and cheaper variant is boring to drive, but has extra interior noise. The ride leaves a bit to be desired.
“It just seems every other thing that makes a car a car was sacrificed on the altar of good gas mileage,” Lieberman commented.
But, oh, that mileage. You won’t find anything in the low-$20,000 price range that comes close to the Prius C’s city mileage. Commuters who want a low-emissions, high-mileage car at all costs may appreciate the car for what it is. That cost, though, is too great for us to seriously consider the Prius C as a Car of the Year finalist, no matter how brightly it’s colored.
|2012 Toyota Prius C|
|Price (as tested)||$25,140|
|Power (SAE net)||99 hp|
|Torque (SAE net)||82 lb-ft|
|Accel 0-60, mph||10.2 sec|
|Quarter Mile||17.6 sec @ 78.2 mph|
|Braking 60-0, mph||125 ft|
|MT Figure Eight||29.5 sec @ 0.54 g (avg)|
|EPA Econ (city/hwy)||53/46 mpg|
Contender: Scion FR-S
By: Carlos Lago
We Like: Entry-level price, world-class supplier of fun.
We Don’t Like: Interior styling, exterior styling; where’s the satellite radio?
If fun were a currency, the FR-S’ return on investment would be the equivalent of buying Google stock in 2003. So readily it delivers joy to its driver, urging him (or her) to find excuses to take the long way home, to push harder through that next bend, and to savor every second of it. As a result, the FR-S is an easy car to love.
It’s also an easy one to buy, with a base price of $24,995. “The BRZ/FR-S twins are an obstacle to my future 911 ownership,” said Loh. “I just keep thinking how cheap things like tires and oil changes would be.” The difference in the time it takes the two to reach an apex could be measured with a calendar, but it would take a keen eye to find the difference in the smile on each driver’s face.
But what about the differences between it and the BRZ? As far as driving fast is concerned, it’s a question of preference. Where the BRZ rolls a little more and offers stability in high-speed sweepers, the FR-S is a steady-state, oversteering drift machine. We divided preference among the two. More harmonized were the complaints: The 2.0-liter flat-four doesn’t sound great, and there’s a noticeable torque dip in the middle of the powerband.
The biggest criticisms targeted the styling. The FR-S’ proportions would seem the perfect canvas for a designer, and yet the final product leaves us asking, “What happened?” It’s not ugly by any means, but the FR-S could have been beautiful. Inside, it doesn’t get any better. The dials and materials look and feel cheap, and the strange pattern on the dash found no fans. “This cockpit is intimate and imminently functional, but, man, is it ugly,” said Markus.
The Subaru BRZ offers the same driving fun with a more mature interior and a stronger suite of features (standard navigation and satellite radio) for a base price increase of $1270, a cost the lot of us quickly
|2013 Scion FR-S|
|Price (as tested)||$25,117|
|Power (SAE net)||200 hp|
|Torque (SAE net)||151 lb-ft|
|Accel 0-60, mph||6.3 sec|
|Quarter Mile||14.9 sec @ 93.3 mph|
|Braking 60-0, mph||119 ft|
|MT Figure Eight||26.6 sec @ 0.68 g (avg)|
|EPA Econ (city/hwy)||22/30 mpg|
Finalist: Subaru BRZ
By: Rory Jurnecka
We Like: Fun to drive, affordable, and even somewhat practical.
We Don’t Like: Shortcuts in NVH and design take their toll.
It’s been a long time since a car like the Subaru BRZ (and its Scion sibling) has been offered in the U.S. Sure, there are other “sports cars” out there for under 30-large, but excepting Mazda‘s Miata, they just don’t move the needle in the dynamics segment like these twins do. A car that ranked ahead of the McLaren MP4-12C and Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 in our 2012 Best Driver’s Car competition for less than $30K? In our 2013 COTY competition, the little Subaru also outshone the FR-S by virtue of its superior interior trimmings and less twitchy rear end.
Judges found a lot to love about the BRZ, as MacKenzie summed up: “Terrific chassis; superb balance, steering. Though more mid-corner understeer than the Scion, it’s the better road car.” Though there were inevitable comments wishing for slightly more than the 200 horses that the BRZ’s 2.0-liter boxer-four produces, most felt that a 2700-pound curb weight more than made up for any lack of muscle.
One surprising takeaway was discovered by driving the automatic and manual versions of the BRZ back-to-back. The fun didn’t stop with the slushbox, which gave quick shifts and lower rpm at freeway speeds. Per Loh, “I was able to drift the automatic BRZ easier than the manual. This could be the best automatic transmission available at the price — definitely for a front engine/rear-drive vehicle.”
The BRZ also offers exceptional packaging, with a large trunk for its class and a rear seat with a folding back. It’s enough room and more for a week-long, two-person road trip or a light IKEA run.
In the end, it was the finer points that kept the BRZ a runner-up. Many felt the Subaru’s styling was a missed opportunity (Hall: “What if it looked like an Aston Martin?”), and levels of NVH were a bit more than some found acceptable. Ultimately, the BRZ’s cruder aspects kept it from the top spot. We eagerly await future revisions.
|2013 Subaru BRZ Limited 6M||2013 Subaru BRZ Limited 6A|
|Price (as tested)||$28,265||$29,365|
|Power (SAE net)||200 hp||200 hp|
|Torque (SAE net)||151 lb-ft||151 lb-ft|
|Accel 0-60, mph||6.4 sec||7.7 sec|
|Quarter Mile||15.0 sec @ 93.0 mph||15.9 sec @ 91.5 mph|
|Braking 60-0, mph||120 ft||116 ft|
|MT Figure Eight||26.3 sec @ 0.68 g (avg)||26.6 sec @ 0.67 g (avg)|
|EPA Econ (city/hwy)||22/30 mpg||25/34 mpg|
|MT Fuel Econ||27.4 mpg||–|