2014 Motor Trend Car of the Year: Contenders and Finalists

The Strong Thrive: The 65th Anniversary of our Signature Award Finds the Automotive Industry Stronger Than Ever

The Strong Thrive: The 65th Anniversary of our Signature Award Finds the Automotive Industry Stronger Than Ever

Welcome to the 65th running of Motor Trend‘s Car of the Year award. Our blue sapphire anniversary marks a significant moment in the timeline of automotive history because cars, it seems, are back. This is not our biggest field of competitors, but it’s most certainly our strongest. As you’ll see from our finalists, there were at least seven other cars we took long, hard glances at before awarding the coveted Golden Calipers to the 2014 Cadillac CTS.

Why is this year significant? Please turn your mind back to the dark and stormy early days of the Great Recession, mid-2008 or so, right when this year’s crop of contenders was being planned and sketched out. The notion that so very many excellent motor vehicles could exist in 10 years’ time would have seemed like pure fantasy. In just five? An impossibility.

Yet here they are. From impressively built economy cars such as the Kia Forte and Mazda3 to swashbuckling sportsters such as the BMW 4 Series and Lexus IS, to no fewer than 11 vehicles that hit 60 mph in less than 5 seconds — and six that could do it in less than 4! — as a whole, these cars are better than cars have ever been.

Our mission was to determine exactly which of this year’s 22 new or significantly refreshed contenders is in fact the best. To accomplish this task, Motor Trend once again invaded the massive, sun-kissed, and wind-stripped Hyundai California Proving Grounds near Mojave, California.

It took 11 judges and a 29-person support staff more than a week to photograph, film, test, drive, and then fight about all 38 vehicles on hand. Many tires were harmed in the making of this year’s award, and a champion did rise. Keep reading to find out precisely why.

The Criteria


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.


How well the vehicle does the job its designers and product planners intended.


Edward Loh


Angus MacKenzie

Editor at Large

Tom Gale

Guest Judge, Design

Chris Theodore

Guest Judge, Engineering

Ron Kiino

Executive Editor

Mike Floyd

Digital Director

Frank Markus

Technical Director

Kim Reynolds

Testing Director

Jonny Lieberman

Senior Features Editor

Scott Burgess

Detroit Editor
Scott Evans Associate Editor

Phase 1

Testing, limit handling, and the high-speed oval

This marks the eighth year in a row we’ve executed our Car of the Year program at the Hyundai Motor Group California Proving Grounds, and we’re glad to have their support. The 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. Vehicle Dynamics Area

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 lateral grip numbers.

Best figure eight: SRT Viper GTS, 23.1 sec at 0.90 g

Worst figure eight: Fiat 500L Lounge, 28.5 sec @ 0.58 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.

Quickest: (tie) Mercedes-Benz
E63 S AMG/Jaguar F-Type V8 S/SRT Viper GTS, 0-60 mph 3.4 sec; SRT Viper GTS, quarter mile 11.5 sec @ 127.8 mph

Slowest: Toyota Corolla S, 0-60 mph 9.5 sec; quarter mile 17.3 sec @ 82.6 mph

3. High-Speed Oval

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.

Fastest: [CENSORED]

4. Freeway Surfaces

One lane; 1.25 miles. Sectioned into replicas of L.A.’s notorious 710, 10, and 5 freeways. When taken at a steady 65 mph, this section allows evaluation of ride quality, tire noise, and suspension thump.

5. Winding Track

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.

Exciting: Porsche Cayman, Ford Fiesta ST

Chilling: BMW M5 Competition, Jaguar F-Type V8 S

Snoring: Kia Cadenza, Lincoln MKZ 2.0H

Phase 2

Real-world road loops

We took 11 vehicles forward this year — eight models plus a couple of variants — to tackle the real-world road loop in Tehachapi, California. This 28.5-mile mix of highway, city, and tight canyon roads starts in the parking lot of our hotel and heads west for a bit on California Highway 58. We double back through Tehachapi before climbing the 4000-plus-foot pass in the Tehachapi Mountains between Bakersfield and Edwards Air Force Base. The route snakes back toward Highway 58 via a tight, two-lane country road.

We focus 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 2014 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, about 5000 feet

A sustained climb from 4014 feet, then a 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

Sharp bump at 10 mph tests effectiveness of suspension noise and impact harshness suppression.

6. Freeway

Patched and broken concrete induces tire noise and high-frequency vibrations.

7. Freeway

Smooth asphalt tests ride quality in a typical commuting situation, as well as wind noise and effectiveness of the audio system. Also allows for testing of cruise control, both passive and active safety systems such as lane departure, and semi-autonomous driving modes. Also tests passing power.

Contender: Acura RLX

By: Edward Loh

We Like: Roomy rear seat, predictable road manners.

We Don’t Like: Bug-eye headlights, meh-smerizing styling, and an inscrutable all-wheel-steering system.

Acura‘s flagship took a beating in two of our award’s key criteria: Advancement in Design and Engineering Excellence. Regarding the former: “Not much adventure here with design elements or functional attributes. The grille graphics continue with a theme that is remarkably unsuccessful after several attempts,” noted Gale. Others were not so kind: “If you’re the head of Acura, and this is your current flagship, how do you sleep at night? The car is ugly,” quipped Lieberman. Yeah, ouch.

Markus called the RLX a “nice, quiet cruiser” around the highway oval, and Burgess also used the word “quiet” to describe its behavior on the special surfaces section, but “on the winding road, the back end seemed to randomly kick out.” The Precision All Wheel Steer (P-AWS) system seems to create more problems than it solves. Reynolds explained that “transition from braking to cornering is really inelegant. The RLX either wants to go straight or turn. Sure, it does transition, but there’s reluctance about it. Generally understeers a fair amount; then, for no apparent reason, it oversteers.” Our chief tester did caution against judging the full merit of the vehicle on its limit handling. “The way most people drive cars (particularly ones like this), the RLX is a good choice.”

The RLX has a few things to recommend, including a smooth-spinning, sweet-sounding 3.5-liter direct-injection V-6; a responsive, reasonably sporty transmission; and a well-appointed, airy-feeling interior. But easy smartphone pairing and a spacious rear seat were marred by a twin-screen center stack that many found fussy and non-intuitive.

MacKenzie summed it up best: “Design is lackluster and chassis engineering is poor. Price and technology are reasonable, but even so it’s simply not a competitive product in the luxury segment.”

2014 Acura RLX P-AWS
BASE PRICE $49,345
POWER (SAE NET) 310 hp @ 6500 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 272 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm
ACCEL 0-60, MPH 5.8 sec
QUARTER MILE 14.3 sec @ 97.8 mph
BRAKING 60-0, MPH 119 ft
LATERAL ACCEL 0.80 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 27.3 sec @ 0.64 g (avg)
EPA ECON (CITY/HWY) 20/31 mpg

Finalist: BMW 4 Series

By: Frank Markus

We Like: Baby 6 Series style, buttoned-down suspenders, smoother start/stop.

We Don’t Like: Filene’s Basement frills at Prada prices, clunky connectivity.

“It’s a two-door 3 Series, a variant with a very light refresh,” declared Evans during Saturday morning’s welcome walk-around by way of questioning the 4 Series’ legitimacy as a contender. But by Sunday night, the 428i and 435i had proven themselves to be much more. Theodore proclaimed the 4 “the first BMW I’d consider buying in a long time,” citing its smoother, better-balanced handling and greatly improved interior relative to the 3 Series. Lieberman lauded upgrades to the 3’s “bouncy suspension and paint-shaker start/stop system.” And of the widened, lowered bodywork, design guru Gale said, “If I had to pick the top two or three cars, this car would be one of them. It’s that good.”

On the winding track, the downshift paddle often provided just enough retardation to instigate a lovely neutral drift through the tighter sweepers, though our testing crew reported more difficulty managing the transition from incipient oversteer to terminal understeer on the figure-eight course. Theodore declared, “The ride/handling balance is the best in the industry,” while noting that “both models could use a little more grip and roll control.” MacKenzie spoke for the group: “The 428i feels the sweeter of the two. You’re aware of the extra weight of the six-cylinder engine over the front wheels. The 435i pushes more at the limit, and the steering feels a tad heavier.”

The 4 Series nails our performance-of-intended-function criteria better than any other car here. It ranks relatively strong in most other criteria, with the exception of value. Neither coupe had navigation, parking sensors, or even a rearview camera, and the 428i had vinyl seats! The telematics and Bluetooth integration felt about 10 years old, recognizing no apps and refusing to stream song info from smartphone audio apps. Niggles, to be sure, but sufficient to cost BMW the calipers in an exceptionally strong field.

  2014 BMW 428i 2014 BMW 435i
BASE PRICE $41,425 $46,925
PRICE AS TESTED $47,125 $55,325
POWER (SAE NET) 241 hp @ 5000 rpm 302 hp @ 5800 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 258 lb-ft @ 1250 rpm 295 lb-ft @ 1200 rpm
ACCEL 0-60, MPH 5.2 sec 4.8 sec
QUARTER MILE 13.9 sec @ 98.7 mph 13.5 sec @ 103.3 mph
BRAKING 60-0, MPH 109 ft 109 ft
LATERAL ACCEL 0.90 g (avg) 0.89 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 25.6 sec @ 0.72 g (avg) 25.5 sec @ 0.75 g (avg)
EPA ECON (CITY/HWY) 23/35 mpg 22/32 mpg
REAL MPG (CITY/HWY) 22/35 mpg N/A

Contender: BMW 5 Series

By: Jonny Lieberman

We Like: Abusive amounts of power result in skull-cracking acceleration.

We Don’t Like: Hefty, complex, and surprisingly numb.

We were quite excited to get our hands on the updated 528i and the new 535d. We’d had a not-very-loved long-term 528i, and hoped the refresh would fix some of what we didn’t like (i.e., stop/start). And we’re cuckoo for diesels. Sad to say, BMW couldn’t get us either car in time for Car of the Year. It did, however, happen to have the new M5 Competition lying around. For $7300 over the $95,125 base price, you get an additional 15 hp; a new, sportier-sounding exhaust system; 10mm-lower ride height from a revised suspension; and 20-inch lightweight alloy wheels. If that seems a little for a lot, it is. Especially considering that you still have to pay an additional $9250 for the carbon-ceramic brakes.

However, said Evans, “It’s definitely better than the last M5 I drove.” Loh liked this uprated M5, too: “I can say I’d rather have this over the M6.” And it’s handsome. Said Kiino, “Looks the part. Bulging fenders set over big wheels and huge carbon brakes give it a menacing, powerful look.” While the Competition version of the M5 does help the car scoot along better, the old flaws are there. Chiefly, it feels as if you’re driving a bank vault with a speedometer that constantly reads 100 mph. Said Theodore, “Deceptively quick, which can get you into trouble. Every time I looked down, I was doing over 100 mph.” But the issue isn’t speed, which we like. It’s that you’re way too isolated from said speed.

Then there’s the whole programmability problem. Kiino put it rather harshly: “Just give me a sport mode or two, but not the 50 million combinations of throttle, steering, transmission, and suspension. Ridiculous and overwhelming.” (243 for those who are counting.)

The Competition package definitely raises the M5’s game, but for the F10 5 Series, it’s a case of too little too late.

2014 BMW M5
BASE PRICE $93,125
POWER (SAE NET) 575 hp @ 6000 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 500 lb-ft @ 1500 rpm
ACCEL 0-60, MPH 3.7 sec
QUARTER MILE 11.9 sec @ 122.2 mph
BRAKING 60-0, MPH 106 ft
LATERAL ACCEL 0.95 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 24.3 sec @ 0.82 g (avg)
EPA ECON (CITY/HWY) 14/20 mpg

Finalist: Chevrolet Corvette

By: Angus MacKenzie

We Like: Impressive performance and incisive handling.

We Don’t Like: Fussy exterior surfaces.

America’s own sports car has always had an easygoing, barrel-chested swagger that turned a little clumsy when the roads turned a little twisty. No more. The C7 Corvette is a real sports car. Fast, fun to drive, and laden with technology, it’s the best Corvette in history. At least until the Z06 and ZR1 versions arrive.

In pure engineering terms, the C7 is an evolution of familiar hardware and a familiar formula. But there’s excellence everywhere, from the lightweight aluminum frame that’s now used on all models, to the direct-injection V-8 that can switch between eight and four cylinders, to the clever driver aids that include an electronically controlled differential that considers rear tire temperatures and pressures when calculating the precise percentage of lockup required in various stability and traction control modes.

Using cylinder deactivation to improve the Corvette’s fuel efficiency instead of relying on the Neanderthal skip-shift is just one detail example of the new C7’s sophistication. So, too, is the TFT-screen instrument panel that offers three different visual themes — Touring, Sport, and Track — and the opportunity to access a plethora of data from the C7’s on-board computers.

The C7’s striking exterior is polarizing. The basic proportion and stance is dramatic, and the new greenhouse has echoes of Ferrari. But the surfacing is riven with a few too many sharp creases, and the height of the tail is not disguised well enough. Inside is the best Corvette interior since the original Stingray. Materials and fit are vastly improved.

The C7 offers incredible bang for the buck in performance and style — with one big difference. We used to excuse Corvettes their many faults because of their low price. Now the price is the icing on the cake. This is a world-class sports car for real-world money.

2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray (Z51)
BASE PRICE $54,795
POWER (SAE NET) 460 hp @ 6000 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 465 lb-ft @ 4600 rpm
ACCEL 0-60, MPH 3.8 sec
QUARTER MILE 12.1 sec @ 117.7 mph
BRAKING 60-0, MPH 95 ft
LATERAL ACCEL 1.02 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 23.7 sec @ 0.83 g (avg)
EPA ECON (CITY/HWY) 17/29 mpg
REAL MPG (CITY/HWY) 19/26 mpg

Contender: Chevrolet Impala

By: Scott Burgess

We Like: Its big-car ride.

We Don’t Like: Interior shortcuts cheapen it.

Big cars might be losing favor with consumers who are searching for leaner and greener machines, but a big sedan can still provide a great ride for five adults. The made-over Chevrolet Impala impressed many COTY judges with its supple ride and ability to smooth out even the roughest surfaces. “What a sweet ride, literally,” said Lieberman. “[It] ate up every single thing the special surfaces could throw at it.”

Chevy engineers changed many of the suspension parts, including adding a front strut towerbrace, a new isolated engine and transmission cradle, and a hydraulic ride bushing to help quiet the ride. The wheelbase was stretched another inch to provide more interior space. But the judges were mixed on the Impala’s interior. “I don’t get this car,” said Reynolds. “Its styling inside and out is hokey heartland America again, [and it] looks like it was designed by Disney cartoonists.” Others appreciated the interior changes, connectivity, and cabin space. “I like this interior,” Markus said. “There’s a minimal use of fake wood, nice tan contrast stitching, and suede inserts.”

The Chevrolet MyLink telematics system also impressed many staffers with its intuitive operation on the 8-inch touch screen and its ability to integrate apps from a smartphone. And when you press a button on the base of the touch screen, the entire screen lifts up to expose a secure storage space with a USB plug, perfect for a phone.

Most judges were impressed with the performance of the optional 305-hp, 3.6-liter V-6, though some worried about the (absent) base 2.5-liter’s potency. The six-speed automatic transmission also responded well to aggressive driving, where judges said they appreciated its handling. In the context of big sedans, the Impala performed well, but not quite well enough to obviously dominate the shrinking large-sedan segment.

2014 Chevrolet Impala LT
BASE PRICE $29,920
POWER (SAE NET) 305 hp @ 6800 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 264 lb-ft @ 5300 rpm
ACCEL 0-60, MPH 6.2 sec
QUARTER MILE 14.8 sec @ 96.5 mph
BRAKING 60-0, MPH 119 ft
LATERAL ACCEL 0.83 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 26.7 sec @ 0.67 g (avg)
EPA ECON (CITY/HWY) 19/29 mpg

Contender: Fiat 500L

By: Scott Burgess

We Like: Quirky performance.

We Don’t Like: Quirky interior.

No vehicle left editors scratching their heads or using the word “bizarre” more often than the Fiat 500L. It performed better than most expected, but that might be because expectations were exceedingly low for this European microvan with a quirky interior. Quirky can mean special in a good way, and sometimes it’s a nice way to say something doesn’t make sense. In the case of the 500L, quirky means both. “What an odd meatball Fiat has made from the 500,” said Loh. “Bigger, some interesting flavor, but mostly odd cuts and gristle.”

The 500L weebled and wobbled but didn’t fall down as editors pushed it through the ride and handling course. “Drives like it looks — top-heavy, wallowing at times, but also surprisingly stable at higher speeds,” said Floyd.

The three-piece windshield makes for both good and confusing visibility, as it’s difficult to judge where the front end of the vehicle is. The emergency brake hides under the driver’s armrest, and the gearshift knob on the manual model is the size of a baseball. The second row folds forward and up to create a useless storage space. The upright driving position and the lack of bolstering make it easy for the driver to slide around the seat.

However, many editors liked the pep of the 160-hp, 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged four-cylinder engine, and the 500L maintained a relatively quiet and smooth ride. There are some nice features, such as the 500L’s telematics setup and even a cool box in the glovebox. The 500L is driver-friendly and ergonomically sound. But does this Eurocentric van have a future in America?

“Attempting to sell the 500L here on its practical merits is a waste of energy, just as it would be trying to sell Ram pickups to Europeans,” said MacKenzie.

  2014 Fiat 500L (Lounge) 2014 Fiat 500L (Trekking)
BASE PRICE $25,195 $22,195
PRICE AS TESTED $28,245 $24,095
POWER (SAE NET) 160 hp @ 5500 rpm 160 hp @ 5500 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 184 lb-ft @ 2500 rpm 184 lb-ft @ 2500 rpm
ACCEL 0-60, MPH 8.8 sec 8.6 sec
QUARTER MILE 16.8 sec @ 84.3 mph 16.4 sec @ 85.3 mph
BRAKING 60-0, MPH 123 ft 121 ft
LATERAL ACCEL 0.77 g (avg) 0.79 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 28.5 sec @ 0.58 g (avg) 28.2 sec @ 0.58 g (avg)
EPA ECON (CITY/HWY) 24/33 mpg 25/33 mpg

Contender: Ford Fiesta ST

By: Mike Floyd

We Like: Absolute blast to drive hard.

We Don’t Like: Um, er, uh, hmmm. Notchy shifter.

“The ST has no right to be this fun.” “Great handling and riotously revvy powertrain.” “One of the best front-drive chassis in history.” “Super big hairy fun on the track!” Those are just a few of the slobbering, stream-of-consciousness histrionics in virtually every judge’s notebook about the 2014 Ford Fiesta ST that came out to play at this year’s COTY. The juiced up, subcompact four-door hatch that brought out the kid in all of us. Well, just about all of us. “Yes, yes, fun — but extremely juvenile, too. I’m surprised to hear so many of my similar-age coworkers saying they’d get one. Really?” Yes, Kim Reynolds, really.

Featuring an EcoBoosted 1.6-liter turbo-four with as much as 197 hp on overboost bolted to a six-speed manual (one editor found the box slightly notchy), aggressive ST suspension hardware and exterior package, Recaro seats, and the MyFord Touch suite, the frisky Ford is a pretty dynamite little package at $25,580, and that’s before you get behind the wheel. Once you do, it’s pure, unadulterated — and, yes, Kim, juvenile — fun. The ST received high marks for its steering feel, controllable nature under hard cornering, and punchy powertrain. This is a car better suited to our Best Driver’s Car competition. There was nary a judge among us who didn’t love flinging the ST around the winding track.

Alas, this is Car of the Year, and a performance variant of the lineup does not a lineup make. We asked Ford for other examples of the 2014 Fiesta family, particularly a version featuring Ford’s new 1.0-liter EcoBoost turbocharged three-cylinder. Ford was not able to provide us either that car or a Fiesta with the 1.6-liter naturally aspirated four. It’s too bad, too, because if the 1.0-liter car is as good an entry-level subcompact as the Fiesta ST is a hot hatch, the Fiesta may well have ended up hoisting the Golden Calipers.

2014 Ford Fiesta ST
BASE PRICE $22,195
POWER (SAE NET) 197 hp @ 6350 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 202 lb-ft @ 4200 rpm
ACCEL 0-60, MPH 6.7 sec
QUARTER MILE 15.0 sec @ 94.0 mph
BRAKING 60-0, MPH 108 ft
LATERAL ACCEL 0.93 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 26.0 sec @ 0.68 g (avg)
EPA ECON (CITY/HWY) 26/35 mpg

Contender: Infiniti Q50

By: Christian Seabaugh

We Like: Sharp styling and classy new interior.

We Don’t Like: Steer-by-wire, touchy brakes.

Infiniti should’ve paid attention to the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” No, we’re not talking about the decision to rename the G37 the Q50. We’re talking about what’s connected to the front wheels — or rather, what isn’t. The Q50 marks the debut of Direct Adaptive Steering, or, more simply, steer-by-wire. Though Infiniti touts this system as capable of giving the driver the ultimate smooth ride, we found it detrimental to performance driving. “Weirdest steering ever,” said Markus. “It almost feels like I’m in a classroom simulator, and the instructor is constantly modifying my steering inputs.” They got harsher from there, with Lieberman summing up, “Steer-by-wire needs a serious rethink to be viable.”

The brakes also were an issue. “Their crazy initial bite renders the car unacceptable,” said Reynolds. “I’d hate to be a passenger in this car in city traffic.” The Q50S Hybrid’s brakes were the biggest offender, with an abrupt first-generation hybrid feel.

Many judges noted that the Q50S Hybrid has a mixed personality. Sure, it’s EPA-rated at an impressive 31 mpg combined, but it doesn’t live up to the performance intentions promised by the trim’s sport suspension or brakes. The Q50’s base 328-hp, 3.7-liter V-6 is unchanged from the G37’s, though it is more refined than before, and will be sold alongside the existing Q50 for at least another year. The new Q50 Hybrid has a 360-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 and electric motor combo.

From a design standpoint, the car fared well. “I was personally impressed by its exterior duds,” said Floyd. The Q50’s new interior, with its fancy new dual-screen infotainment system, also received high marks. Ultimately, Infiniti has a solid foundation on which to build, but in fixing what wasn’t broken, it put the Q50 out of contention this year.

  2014 Infiniti Q50S 3.7 2014 Infiniti Q50S Hybrid
BASE PRICE $44,105 $47,255
PRICE AS TESTED $51,805 $53,655
POWER (SAE NET) 328 hp @ 7000 rpm 360 hp (comb)
TORQUE (SAE NET) 269 lb-ft @ 5200 rpm 258 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm (engine only)
ACCEL 0-60, MPH 5.4 sec 4.9 sec
QUARTER MILE 13.9 sec @ 102.1 mph 13.6 sec @ 103.6 mph
BRAKING 60-0, MPH 115 ft 115 ft
LATERAL ACCEL 0.89 g (avg) 0.89 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 25.8 sec @ 0.71 g (avg) 25.8 sec @ 0.70 g (avg)
EPA ECON (CITY/HWY) 20/29 mpg 29/36 mpg

Finalist: Jaguar F-Type

By: Scott Evans

We Like: Incredible sound, beautiful body, great handling.

We Don’t Like: Tiny trunk, poor fuel economy.

At first glance, the Jaguar F-Type seemed a bit of a one-trick pony. After all, how much range could a drop-top sports car really have? Indeed, many would have trouble arguing it’s anything but a niche vehicle. When it came time to narrow down the finalists, and then time to vote on a winner, the Jaguar revealed the depth of its charm. The judges had barely a harsh word for it, whether viewed against their own preferences or the criteria. Let there be no doubt: This is a well-loved car.

“The Jag is like a Shelby Cobra that’s been to finishing school,” MacKenzie would tell anyone who’d listen. It’s an appropriate analogy. The F-Type V8 S (neither V-6 model was available for this competition) was, as Loh put it, “stonking fast,” easily outdragging the Corvette. With the computer nannies handcuffed, the Jag would gleefully turn sideways with minimal provocation — riotous fun, especially when accompanied by open exhaust baffles.

That predisposition to oversteer gave some judges pause, but less so than the Jag’s stumbling on the Value and Efficiency criteria. At $69,895 to start, it skates between the Corvette and 911 in price without offering the total performance of the former or the resale value of the latter. Moreover, the Jag’s voracious thirst for gasoline made it difficult to defend on efficiency grounds. The miniscule trunk space found no friends, either.

Were we to be able to overlook those criteria, the F-Type would’ve had no trouble walking away with our hearts. “The exterior of this car is special,” wrote Floyd. “Few cars I’ve driven during 13 years in this business have elicited the amount of looks and excited thumbs-up from other drivers this car did.”

Though it had our hearts, our heads couldn’t dismiss its shortcomings on our key criteria. Pity.

2014 Jaguar F-Type V8 S
BASE PRICE $92,895
POWER (SAE NET) 488 hp @ 6500 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 461 lb-ft @ 2500 rpm
ACCEL 0-60, MPH 3.4 sec
QUARTER MILE 11.6 sec @ 122.0 mph
BRAKING 60-0, MPH 103 ft
LATERAL ACCEL 0.98 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 24.0 sec @ 0.83 g (avg)
EPA ECON (CITY/HWY) 16/23 mpg
REAL MPG (CITY/HWY) 19/26 mpg

Contender: Kia Cadenza

By: Chris Clonts

We Like: Looks expensive, extraordinary value, lively.

We Don’t Like: Unsupportive seats, mediocre-to-disappointing handling.

The judges absolutely loved the exterior of the Cadenza, which won our big-car Big Test last July. The wheels and sheetmetal were widely praised. But were the Cadenza’s looks overshadowed by evidence of the brand’s less-than-luxe past?

MacKenzie said the Cadenza “looks expensive, but sounds cheap — from the hollow door-opening noise to the V-6 engine drone.” Though the color of the interior — white — was a bit polarizing, most judges lauded the cabin’s fit and finish and materials. They loved the seemingly enormous proportions. A huge rear seat actually fit for adults and a huge trunk were highlights.

We all joined Burgess in saying Kia‘s infotainment system “is intuitive and elegant in its simplicity,” a notch above many competitors’. But Floyd didn’t like the center stack and wished the Cadenza had the Forte’s updated instrument panel. Theodore may have fingered why: “The cluster looks like it is missing a gauge; either put one in or rearrange so it doesn’t look like something is missing,” he said.

When judges drove the Cadenza the consensus became a little, well, mushy, with comments ranging from calling the handling solid to disappointing. Theodore said handling on the winding road track revealed “terminal understeer.” Other judges agreed the cornering left a lot to be desired. In two words, it was “floppy” (MacKenzie) and “sloppy” (Kiino).

We liked the lively, direct-injection, 293-hp engine and the six-speed automatic (with paddles that “do what you want them to,” Reynolds said).

The verdict was clear: The Cadenza shouldn’t be skipped by those looking for a big sedan with a ton of value. But to keep improving, Kia needs to tackle its driving dynamics with the same fervor that led to the Cadenza’s striking looks.

2014 Kia Cadenza
BASE PRICE $35,900
POWER (SAE NET) 293 hp @ 6400 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 255 lb-ft @ 5200 rpm
ACCEL 0-60, MPH 6.2 sec
QUARTER MILE 14.8 sec @ 95.2 mph
BRAKING 60-0, MPH 116 ft
LATERAL ACCEL 0.80 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 27.5 sec @ 0.59 g (avg)
EPA ECON (CITY/HWY) 19/28 mpg

Finalist: Kia Forte

By: Frank Markus

We Like: Grown-up style, maturing chassis tuning, sophisticated infotainment, bargain feature content.

We Don’t Like: Three steering settings, none great.

These sharp little Kia Fortes muscled their way into the finals by rivaling our perennial compact favorite Mazda3 for segment supremacy. In terms of design, Gale declared, “These cars stand out from their peers as terrific exercises in surface development and restraint.” The Forte’s proportions enhance the interior packaging and sense of spaciousness, where Mazda‘s fetching long-hood/cab-rear look detracts slightly, giving Kia an edge in performance of intended function. “Love the big back seat — way roomier than Mazda3’s,” noted Kiino.

Value has long been a Korean car strong suit, and our loaded EX sedan boasted a heated steering wheel, heated front and rear seats, a cooled driver seat, auto-folding side mirrors, and Kia’s UVO telematics/infotainment system, about which Loh gushed, “I would die to have that system in the BMW.” (Our 4 Series coupes lacked most of the above amenities.)

The ergonomically sublime touch-screen-and-buttons user interface and the direct-injected and (in the Koup SX T-GDI’s case) downsized and turbocharged engines earned engineering excellence points. EPA fuel economy in the 24/35-36 range and Real MPG ratings of 25/44 and 27/37 mpg also impressed us on the efficiency front. In the negative column, driving dynamics and steering feel — while improved greatly from previous Fortes — lack the lithe, natural feel one gets in a Mazda3 or VW Golf. MacKenzie declared, “The three-position-switchable [steering] weighting is a waste of electrons. There’s no discernible benefit to any setting, with feel being discernibly absent from all.” And despite having been designed with knowledge of the new IIHS small-offset crash test, this pair ranked “poor” in that test, costing points in our safety category. These missteps kept the Golden Calipers out of reach.

  2014 Kia Forte EX GDI 2014 Kia Forte Koup SX T-GDI
BASE PRICE $20,200 $19,575
PRICE AS TESTED $25,515 $24,590
POWER (SAE NET) 173 hp @ 6500 rpm 201 hp @ 6000 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 154 lb-ft @ 4700 rpm 195 lb-ft @ 1750 rpm
ACCEL 0-60, MPH 8.3 sec 6.8 sec
QUARTER MILE 16.4 sec @ 85.5 mph 15.1 sec @ 93.9 mph
BRAKING 60-0, MPH 120 ft 114 ft
LATERAL ACCEL 0.81 g (avg) 0.85 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 27.5 sec @ 0.61 g (avg) 26.4 sec @ 0.67 g (avg)
EPA ECON (CITY/HWY) 24/36 mpg 24/35 mpg (est)
REAL MPG (CITY/HWY) 25/44 mpg 27/37 mpg

Contender: Lexus IS

By: Christian Seabaugh

We Like: LFA-inspired interior, sporty chassis.

We Don’t Like: Looking at it.

Lexus’ credo of creating cars that are luxurious, practical, and quiet was important for the 2014 IS, but fun was the automaker’s main priority. In that respect, the new IS is mostly successful, with the IS 250 AWD and especially the IS 350 F Sport shining on the winding track. “F Sport is reasonably quick, responsive, smooth, and predictable,” said Loh. But we don’t think Lexus went far enough in the fun department. Loh continued: “Driving dynamics are everything the Q50 is not. Predictable, not boring, but not super-thrilling, either.” MacKenzie was more frank: “If luxury is out, and sportiness is in, then the IS isn’t top of the class.”

In focusing on fun, Lexus seems to have dropped the ball when it comes to the rest of our Car of the Year criteria. Its GS-based bones and the IS 350’s IS F-derived eight-speed automatic may have helped its Engineering Excellence case, but the carryover V-6 engines and the IS 250’s six-speed auto sure didn’t. “The little V-6 is underpowered and outdated, and provides no advantage compared with a turbocharged I-4,” said Lieberman.

And then there’s the tricky issue of Advancement in Design. Though most editors dug the new LFA-inspired cabin, the IS’ exterior styling was a different story. “Man, what a mug,” opined Evans. “Predator grille and front end are super-crazy weirdo,” added Floyd. MacKenzie: “The front end is a mess. The grille is massive, ugly, and overwhelming, while the detailing around the headlights is overwrought.” Gale summed it up quite well: “Overall, the design would have been far stronger if there had been restraint with the details.”

While the Lexus IS may be more fun to drive than before, the warmed-over engines, questionable styling details, and the fact that the segment heavyweights are still a step ahead dynamically put the Golden Calipers out of its grasp.

  2014 Lexus IS 250 AWD 2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport
BASE PRICE $39,395 $40,375
PRICE AS TESTED $47,940 $48,220
POWER (SAE NET) 204 hp @ 6400 rpm 306 hp @ 6400 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 185 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm 277 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm
ACCEL 0-60, MPH 7.9 sec 5.5 sec
QUARTER MILE 16.0 sec @ 86.9 mph 13.9 sec @ 102.2 mph
BRAKING 60-0, MPH 118 ft 128 ft
LATERAL ACCEL 0.89 g (avg) 0.83 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 26.4 sec @ 0.74 g (avg) 26.3 sec @ 0.69 g (avg)
EPA ECON (CITY/HWY) 20/27 mpg 19/28 mpg

Contender: Lincoln MKZ

By: Scott Evans

We Like: Handsome looks, surprisingly solid handling.

We Don’t Like: Too much Ford left in it. And it costs how much?

Lincoln‘s been promising a rebirth for some time, and with the new MKZ, we finally have the start of one. This Lincoln doesn’t look like a Ford or an exercise in cost savings. It offers a range of models, a few class-exclusive tricks, and a nice aesthetic, but for all the surface work, it’s still a Ford Fusion underneath. The Hybrid model in particular didn’t seem to do anything differently from the Ford version. The presence of base-model Ford switchgear in the cabin further tarnished its luxury credibility.

The judges also found functional issues. The massive sunroof looked neat until we realized it doesn’t quite open all the way, and when it is open, it obscures the top half of the already small rear window. Rear headroom is compromised as well, even without that sunroof.

It wasn’t all bad, though. The ride was generally smooth and the interiors generally quiet. Judges were surprised to find that, when pressed on the winding track, the MKZ was neither sloppy nor unresponsive. The body rolls a bit, but the motions and reactions are controlled and the grip is plenty adequate for the car. It may not be trying to be sporty, but it’s no barge. Inside the car, judges rather liked the style, if not the materials. The push-button transmission received compliments as an elegant compromise of functionality and style, and it saves space. MyLincoln Touch garnered a kind word or two for functionality.

In all, the MKZ struck us as a positive step for Lincoln, but an incomplete car. With a sizeable price tag for the segment and an underwhelming total package, it struggled on Value and Performance of Intended function. Markus summed it up succinctly: “Lincoln has attempted to check a lot of boxes here, with insufficient attention to detail in each box.”

  2013 Lincoln MKZ 2.0H 2013 Lincoln MKZ 2.0 AWD EcoBoost 2013 Lincoln MKZ 3.7 AWD
BASE PRICE $36,820 $38,710 $39,940
PRICE AS TESTED $42,460 $45,550 $51,205
POWER (SAE NET) 188 hp (comb) @ 6000 rpm 240 hp @ 5500 rpm 300 hp @ 6500 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 129 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm (engine only) 270 lb-ft @ 3000 rpm 277 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
ACCEL 0-60, MPH 8.8 sec 7.2 sec 6.4 sec
QUARTER MILE 16.7 sec @ 84.9 mph 15.5 sec @ 89.4 mph 14.7 sec @ 95.9 mph
BRAKING 60-0, MPH 119 ft 115 ft 115 ft
LATERAL ACCEL 0.84 g (avg) 0.85 g (avg) 0.83 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 27.6 sec @ 0.60 g (avg) 27.3 sec @ 0.63 g (avg) 27.4 sec @ 0.63 g (avg)
EPA ECON (CITY/HWY) 45/45 mpg 22/31 mpg 18/26 mpg

Finalist: Mazda3

By: Scott Burgess

We Like: Flogging this car around every corner.

We Don’t Like: The cramped second row.

If the Mazda3 is the future of green machines, count MT‘s editors as eco-enthusiasts. The redesigned ‘3 features many of the Skyactiv attributes Mazda has created to lighten its top-selling car and make it more efficient. Whether the ‘3 is in hatchback or sedan guise, the more powerful engine makes it an absolute hoot to toss around and accelerate through turns. The steering is tight, the chassis is stiff, and the car’s performance remains excellent. “It dynamically reminds me of the Focus ST,” said Seabaugh.

Indeed, judge after judge praised Mazda’s 184-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed automatic that includes paddle shifters on the hatch and the 2.0-liter, 155-horsepower four-banger with a six-speed manual. In both cases, the shifts were crisp, quick, and exhilarating. The Mazda3 will reward any driver on a long, twisty road. However, it would be less appealing on long highway drives, where the car tends to let in a lot of wind noise.

Some judges like the optional head-up display, which uses a small piece of plastic to show the car’s speed on the top of the dash. Others thought it was more gimmick and less substance. Although the driver ergonomics and comfortable front seats won praise, the second row was disparaged for not offering enough space. And while Mazda uses a very clean center stack with a iPad-like screen mounted in the dash, the instrument cluster was knocked for its cheap look and the marginal legibility of the digital side displays.

It’s easy to understand how the Mazda3 moved on to the second round of judging, but it still fell short with a price tag approaching $30,000 in a segment where people are more accustomed to paying one-third less. “A fine automobile, but it hasn’t moved the needle enough,” said Kiino. “If it had a bigger back seat and cost a bit less, it’d be a different story.”

  2014 Mazda3 (2.0 i Grand Touring) 2014 Mazda3 (2.5 s Grand Touring)
BASE PRICE $23,540 $27,290
PRICE AS TESTED $24,035 $29,485
POWER (SAE NET) 155 hp @ 6000 rpm 184 hp @ 5700 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 150 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm 185 lb-ft @ 3250 rpm
ACCEL 0-60, MPH 7.8 sec 7.4 sec
QUARTER MILE 16.1 sec @ 87.6 mph 15.6 sec @ 91.0 mph
BRAKING 60-0, MPH 120 ft 119 ft
LATERAL ACCEL 0.83 g (avg) 0.86 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 27.5 sec @ 0.62 g (avg) 27.0 sec @ 0.64 g (avg)
EPA ECON (CITY/HWY) 29/41 mpg 28/38 mpg
REAL MPG (CITY/HWY) 33/41 mpg 27/37 mpg

Finalist: Mazda6

By: Ron Kiino

We Like: Skyactiv powertrain, Kodo design, sporty dynamics.

We Don’t Like: Back-seat space, dated infotainment.

Of the two Mazdas in this year’s competition, the newer ‘3 seemed to have the greater chance to win. After all, it offered both sedan and hatchback body styles; a base 155-hp, 2.0-liter that nets 41 mpg highway; an uplevel 184-hp, 2.5-liter (the same engine as in the bigger ‘6) in a lighter package (around 250 pounds less than a comparable ‘6); and a spanking-new, beautiful infotainment display. But the ‘6 garnered more praise and a podium vote.

Much of the ‘6’s superior showing stemmed from its enhanced design execution. Both the ‘3 and ‘6 don Mazda’s Kodo-infused sheetmetal, but as Gale said, “The signature theme elements for the Mazda3 seem to work better on the ‘6, due to having the real estate to draw out and finesse the balance of forms.” We also found the ‘6’s dynamics and manual transmission to be more refined. Said Theodore, “I felt more comfortable driving faster than in the Mazda3. Steering was lighter, and the ‘6 felt nimbler. Sweetest shifter and clutch among the test cars (except perhaps the Cayman).” Further, the ‘6 GT’s radar cruise control and groundbreaking i-ELOOP regenerative braking system performed flawlessly.

The downsides were few, but enough to keep the ‘6 from receiving more podium love. The handsome proportions give the ‘6 the dash-to-axle look of a RWD car, but constrain back-seat room to levels that barely supersede those of a compact Jetta. Then there was the old-school infotainment display, which Markus described as “low-res, with chintzy graphics.” If only the ‘6 had had the 3’s infotainment. And if only Mazda had gotten us the ‘6’s upcoming 2.2-liter diesel.

Big ifs, yes, but in the end we still admire much about the ‘6. As Burgess put it: “This is the midsize car I would buy.”

  2014 Mazda6 Touring 2014 Mazda6 Grand Touring
BASE PRICE $24,440 $30,490
PRICE AS TESTED $24,910 $32,845
POWER (SAE NET) 184 hp @ 5700 rpm 184 hp @ 5700 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 185 lb-ft @ 3250 rpm 185 lb-ft @ 3250 rpm
ACCEL 0-60, MPH 8.0 sec 7.3 sec
QUARTER MILE 16.2 sec @ 86.6 mph 15.6 sec @ 90.6 mph
BRAKING 60-0, MPH 123 ft 123 ft
LATERAL ACCEL 0.84 g (avg) 0.82 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 27.3 sec @ 0.62 g (avg) 27.3 sec @ 0.62 g (avg)
EPA ECON (CITY/HWY) 25/37 mpg 28/40 mpg
REAL MPG (CITY/HWY) N/A 22/34 mpg

Contender: Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class

By: Ron Kiino

We Like: Fun to drive, 250 fuel economy, $31K opening bid.

We Don’t Like: Tight back seat, AMG bottom line, polarizing lines.

Every year, as we’re going into the COTY competition, there are perceived favorites and long shots. For 2014, the CLA was most definitely a favorite, what with an un-Benz-esque starting price of $30,825, mini-CLS coupe styling, a fuel-efficient (26/38 mpg city/hwy) 208-hp 2.0-liter base turbo, and a hot-rod 355-hp all-wheel-drive AMG variant that boasts 177.5 horsepower/liter. What’s not to like? Well, after our 11 judges drove and scrutinized the baby Benz, we disliked just enough to keep it from round two.

I say “just” because it was a contentious discussion on whether to advance the CLA to the finals. Many judges, mostly younger, advocated in favor of the CLA. Said Lieberman: “The base car is a solid alternative to the VW GTI. Rides extremely well, loads of torque, strong brakes, and excellent dual-clutch transmission.” Our $36,545 CLA250, which rocked the $500 18-inch wheels with summer tires, zipped from 0-60 mph in 6.2 seconds, halted from 60 in only 112 feet, and clawed the skidpad for 0.92 g. You can see why Lieberman and others liked it. Then there was the ridiculous CLA45 AMG. Think your Evo or STI is quick? Try 0-60 mph in 4.2 seconds, the quarter in 12.7 seconds at 108.3 mph, and lateral grip of 0.96 g. Whoa. Also whoa: the $58,945 as-tested price, which was almost as ridiculous as said numbers.

AMG sticker shock aside, our judges struggled to praise the back seat — “Only shorties back here and getting in requires head contortion” — and the exterior styling. Said Gale, “The design from the B-pillar forward seems consistent and well-gestured, however, from the B-pillar rearward it looks as if the vehicle were left in an oven and melted to the point where all the line work and surfaces droop.” The CLA drives like it was fully baked; it’s just unfortunate it also looks like it was fully baked.

  2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG
BASE PRICE $30,805 $48,355
PRICE AS TESTED $36,545 $58,945
POWER (SAE NET) 208 hp @ 5500 rpm 355 hp @ 6000 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 258 lb-ft @ 1250 rpm 332 lb-ft @ 2250 rpm
ACCEL 0-60, MPH 6.2 sec 4.2 sec
QUARTER MILE 14.7 sec @ 95.5 mph 12.7 sec @ 108.3 mph
BRAKING 60-0, MPH 112.16 ft 109 ft
LATERAL ACCEL 0.92 g (avg) 0.96 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 26.2 sec @ 0.69 g (avg) 24.9 sec @ 0.79 g (avg)
EPA ECON (CITY/HWY) 26/38 mpg 22/32 mpg (est)

Contender: Mercedes-Benz E-Class

By: Jonny Lieberman

We Like: Sweetheart diesel power, station wagon body, Herculean E63.

We Don’t Like: Retrograde looks, dull interiors, Bridgestone Turanzas.

Do two things and do them well. That could be Mercedes’ motto. According to MacKenzie, the Mercedes E-Class “defines the midsize luxury sedan segment.” The same is true for the S-Class and the full-size luxury segment. Sure, Mercedes builds a big stable of great vehicles. But if you get back to fundamentals, Mercedes is defined by two cars: the E and the S. While the S is all-new, the 2014 E-Class is a refresh of a vehicle that’s just three years old. Pity? Keep reading.

We had three E-Classes present, and according to Burgess, the trio represented “one of the more complete lineups presented this year.” In ascending price order, they were the E250 Bluetec, the E350 4Matic Wagon, and the snarling 577-hp E63 S AMG. Just to underline it, the E63 hit 60 mph in 3.4 seconds. So did the Viper. “Really don’t need much more than this,” said Loh after flinging the E350 Wagon around Hyundai’s winding track. One gripe is that, aside from the $100K-plus E63 Wagon, the station wagon body is available with only one engine: the 3.5-liter gasoline V-6. Not the brilliant new twin-turbodiesel 2.1-liter inline-four found on the new entry-level E250 Bluetec. Floyd called the new base engine and its 369 lb-ft of torque a “master stroke by Mercedes.” The rest of us agreed.

The E-Class isn’t Car of the Year for two reasons. One is that it feels toned down. Said Theodore, “Gone are the rear arches, making the car even more nondescript.” Gale agreed: “Overall, once you get past the front end, the body side and rear do not have much to distinguish them from vehicles priced far south of a Mercedes-Benz.” I’ll let Markus tell you the other reason why not: “The E-Class’ problem is the Cadillac CTS, which offers legitimate competition for the first time, and does so at far less weight and with superior dynamics.” You heard the man.

  2014 Mercedes-Benz E250 Bluetec 4Matic 2014 Mercedes-Benz E350 4Matic 2014 Mercedes-Benz E63 S AMG (4Matic)
BASE PRICE $54,825 $59,525 $100,695
PRICE AS TESTED $64,295 $71,785 $106,825
POWER (SAE NET) 195 hp @ 3800 rpm 302 hp @ 6500 rpm 577 hp @ 5500 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 369 lb-ft @ 1600 rpm 273 lb-ft @ 3500 rpm 590 lb-ft @ 1750 rpm
ACCEL 0-60, MPH 7.5 sec 6.3 sec 3.4 sec
QUARTER MILE 15.7 sec @ 86.1 mph 14.8 sec @ 95.5 mph 11.6 sec @ 121.8 mph
BRAKING 60-0, MPH 114 ft 110 ft 106 ft
LATERAL ACCEL 0.85 g (avg) 0.89 g (avg) 0.95 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 27.1 sec @ 0.63 g (avg) 26.2 sec @ 0.70 g (avg) 24.3 sec @ 0.83 g (avg)
EPA ECON (CITY/HWY) 27/42 mpg 19/26 mpg 16/23 mpg

Finalist: Mercedes-Benz S-Class

By: Angus MacKenzie

We Like: Smooth, quiet, and beautifully built; it’s a true luxury car.

We Don’t Like: Run-flat tires highlight road imperfections.

The 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class is a technophile’s delight. Some of the technology — the rainbow of interior lighting hues, the heated armrests on the doors, the aromatherapy in the air conditioning — is pure driveway theater, but with adaptive cruise control that works brilliantly in stop-start traffic and a steering assist system that can be fooled into actually keeping the car on line through a turn without the driver working the wheel, this new S-Class is smart enough to almost drive itself.

Magic Body Control is a cheesy name for a semi-active suspension that really works. You’re aware of the stiff-sidewall run-flat tires niggling over road acne at low speeds, and larger lumps and bumps are still felt. There still is body movement, but the motions are caught like a baseball flung into a vat of honey. The result is a car that probably has the best ride in the world, yet remains remarkably composed when flung through the twisty bits.

The 4.7-liter V-8 that powers the S550 is smooth and punchy, with impressive top-end bite for a turbocharged engine. Nail the gas, and you’ll be rewarded with a muted snarl that quickly subsides as you ease off and settle into cruise mode. On the highway, the new S-Class wafts with the serenity of a Rolls-Royce Phantom.

The exterior styling is blessedly free from the smorgasbord of surface entertainment that blights too many current Mercedes-Benzes. The new S-Class looks timeless and expensive, the prominent grille conveying a quietly powerful gravitas. The interior is tastefully extravagant, a stunning combination of expressive design, high technology, and beautiful materials that shades even Audi’s elegant A8 cabin.

With the new S-Class, Mercedes-Benz is back at the top of its game. It’s the benchmark luxury car.

2014 Mercedes-Benz S550
BASE PRICE $93,825
POWER (SAE NET) 455 hp @ 5250 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 516 lb-ft @ 1800 rpm
ACCEL 0-60, MPH 4.7 sec
QUARTER MILE 13.2 sec @ 107.7 mph
BRAKING 60-0, MPH 119 ft
LATERAL ACCEL 0.83 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 26.5 sec @ 0.70 g (avg)
EPA ECON (CITY/HWY) 17/25 mpg
REAL MPG (CITY/HWY) 19/29 mpg

Contender: Porsche Cayman and Cayman S

By: Kim Reynolds

We Like: Fabulous, only-a-mid-engine-can-do-this handling.

We Don’t Like: Base price, price as tested, everything with a price attached to it.

Er, haven’t we been here before? If belting into the Cayman and reaching left past its fat, leather-wrapped steering wheel to fire up either of its two flat-six engines seems familiar, it’s because it emphatically is. For all intents and purposes, this more masculine-looking (and measurably faster) Cayman is basically last year’s more masculine-looking (and measurably faster) Boxster and Boxster S — with a well-groomed lid on top. This lack of significant newness continually weighed again the pint-size Porsche: If the Boxster couldn’t grab the prize last year, how could the Cayman manage it this go ’round?

Well, its fabulous performance made a good argument. The Cayman is simply a sublime driving machine. The S model’s PDK transmission is as good as gear-swapping gets, and both are crazy-great handlers. In fact, a few of us prefer it over the vaunted 911. “I like its more compact dimensions,” said Floyd. “It’s hard to explain, but I feel more in tune with it for some reason.” Yet no car is above Lago’s critical eye: “I don’t want any more power from the S. I want shorter gearing and more tire. It isn’t power deficient; the gearing just seems too long.” Whatever. Our engineering expert, Theodore, did note a curious issue: “The Cayman exhibited wind boom with the windows down that I’ve never experienced on a coupe — it’s normally the rear window on a sedan.”

If the Cayman’s marginal percentage of genuine newness was a problem, a bigger one was its eye-watering price. Our attention subsequently gravitated to the $53,550 base Cayman, though Loh noted, “If you don’t check most of the option boxes, you’ll face an array of pitiful blank buttons on the dash. A silent reminder of your cheapness.” This really weak value proposition ultimately ousted the Cayman.

  2014 Porsche Cayman 2014 Porsche Cayman S
BASE PRICE $53,550 $64,750
PRICE AS TESTED $70,160 $101,200
POWER (SAE NET) 275 hp @ 7400 rpm 325 hp @ 7400 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 213 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm 273 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm
ACCEL 0-60, MPH 5.6 sec 3.9 sec
QUARTER MILE 13.9 sec @ 102.7 mph 12.4 sec @ 112.1 mph
BRAKING 60-0, MPH 101 ft 101 ft
LATERAL ACCEL 1.06 g (avg) 1.04 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 24.3 sec @ 0.80 g (avg) 24.2 sec @ 0.82 g (avg)
EPA ECON (CITY/HWY) 20/30 mpg 21/30 mpg

Contender: SRT Viper

By: Carlos Lago

We Like: Supercar styling, Laguna Leather interior package.

We Don’t Like: Compromised ergonomics and driving dynamics, interminable freeway drone.

The Viper still looks poster-ready for the wall of a teenager’s bedroom. Our black GTS tester carried with it an awe-inducing swagger, urging you to hop in, dump the clutch, and leave two long stripes of 355 rubber.

“This new model does an amazing job of celebrating Viper roots from the first GTS coupe, but transforms them in a way that looks sensational. It is low, wide, connected to the ground, and avoids schoolboy surface gimmicks,” said Gale. Still, “…you can tell where the design staff was handcuffed by the old vehicle’s hardpoints,” said Theodore. This trend continues inside with the lovely $7500 Laguna Leather package. “The interior on the GTS is the best ever seen on a Viper, but the old architecture means ergonomics remain compromised,” noted MacKenzie.

Specifically, the wonky pedal placement turns heel-toeing into an act of faith; a narrow door opening makes ingress and egress difficult even for limber staffers; a nasty exhaust drone permeates the cabin at freeway speeds; and this six-figure car lacks a telescoping steering wheel.

But a Viper doesn’t care about that stuff, right? It’s all about going fast. Yet aside from the hugely potent powertrain and ample traction supplied by P Zero Corsa tires, the Viper driving dynamics disappointed the staff. “Small jouncing motions on the winding track induce side-to-side motions I haven’t felt in other sports cars,” logged Markus. Others noted similar handling traits that make the car feel nervous, despite its surprisingly safe handling setup and balance.

Chrysler has done an amazing job with the new Viper, but there’s no hiding this is an old car under the skin,” added MacKenzie. Despite SRT’s herculean modernization efforts, the Viper doesn’t advance its segment.

2014 SRT Viper GTS
BASE PRICE $126,980
POWER (SAE NET) 640 hp @ 6200 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 600 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
ACCEL 0-60, MPH 3.4 sec
QUARTER MILE 11.5 sec @ 127.8 mph
BRAKING 60-0, MPH 101 ft
LATERAL ACCEL 1.06 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 23.1 sec @ 0.90 g (avg)
EPA ECON (CITY/HWY) 12/19 mpg

Contender: Toyota Corolla

By: Kim Reynolds

We Like: Gutsier styling and relatively giant rear seat.

We Don’t Like: Dead steering feel and minimalist driving experience.

“The automotive equivalent of the Big Mac — ubiquitous, affordable, and does the job” is how MacKenzie coolly summed up the all-new Corolla. To that we’d add that Toyota‘s revamped mega-seller is now uncomfortably sharing the lunch counter with a couple of alluring In-N-Out and Five Guys burgers.

Few would disagree that the new, angular Corolla is gutsier-shaped than its wallflower predecessor. The boldness has seeped inside as well, but it’s more polarizing. “Its interior is functionally OK, but looks dated and a bit cheap. They over-tried for modern,” said design expert Kiino. Added Markus, “Interesting dash. I’m picking up a vaguely retro vibe — like the main form echoes a shape from the ’60s Corolla. But there’s too much piano black in a car that can’t pull it off.” Loh noted the Corolla’s chief peculiarity, its super-high dash. At least it isn’t bland. But if there’s secret sauce here, it’s the car’s remarkably large back seat — guess where most of the Corolla’s 2.6 inches in gained length went? Burger-fed teenagers will luxuriate in its kneeroom.

Unfortunately, the Big Mac aroma returns as you drive away in it. And while most of us found the Corolla’s Eco version a solid, if drama-drained, proposition, Floyd had questions: “You want eco? Toyota’s got not one, but two eco indicators in the Eco model! Please, just one of them. Thanks! Signed, everyone.” The S variant, almost intrinsically, made less sense: “Paddle shifters? Sport mode? Really?” said Floyd, “Sort of silly in a car with 132 hp.” That said, Floyd continued, “The CVT wasn’t half bad, its ‘shifts’ at redline being a good idea. But the engine is as buzzy and loud as any car we tested.”

Don’t get us wrong: Toyota has solidly upped the Corolla’s game. It’s just that there are two others here serving better burgers.

  2014 Toyota Corolla LE Eco 2014 Toyota Corolla S
BASE PRICE $19,510 $21,210
PRICE AS TESTED $23,694 $22,534
POWER (SAE NET) 140 hp @ 6100 rpm 132 hp @ 6000 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 126 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm 128 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm
ACCEL 0-60, MPH 9.2 sec 9.5 sec
QUARTER MILE 17.1 sec @ 83.2 mph 17.3 sec @ 82.6 mph
BRAKING 60-0, MPH 121 ft 123 ft
LATERAL ACCEL 0.81 g (avg) 0.82 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 28.3 sec @ 0.58 g (avg) 28.3 sec @ 0.58 g (avg)
EPA ECON (CITY/HWY) 30/40 mpg 29/37 mpg