Writing about cars can be both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, you get to climb behind the wheel of some really cool rides, most of which are beyond your current (and future) bank account balances. On the flip side, you don’t get to pick and choose which cars you drive, and manufacturers build a whole lot more minivans and crossovers than they do entertaining sports cars. Still, I’d be in the wrong line of work if I didn’t love to drive, and all cars, no matter how bland, have some redeeming qualities. Looking back on the last 12 months, I drove around 50 different vehicles. Some were truly memorable, while others I can only remember because I photographed them. The one constant across all the different vehicles I drove in 2010 was this: no one builds a bad car anymore. The days of paring costs back to the bone and less than motivated line workers appear to be behind us, and that’s a very good thing.
With that many cars to choose from, you’d think picking my top ten would be easy. Select the 10 fastest, or the 10 best handling, or even the 10 most expensive, write a few witty lines about each and call it a day, right? The truth is, it’s not that easy. My favorites weren’t necessarily the fastest or the best handling or the most comfortable; instead, my favorites were the cars that impressed me the most with their balance between capabilities, price and comfort. Below are ten cars, from seven manufacturers, that I would buy in a heartbeat if I had the need and the money. More importantly, I’d also recommend them to friends and relatives, so feel free to do the same.
2011 Ford Mustang GT
Without a doubt, the Ford Mustang GT was my favorite car of 2010. It’s easy to see why: 412 horsepower, amazingly predictable handling, all day long comfort and the sound of the 5.0 liter Coyote V8. Ford has nailed the balance between performance and cost, and as soon as I’m in a financial position to snap one up, I won’t hesitate for a second. Doubters still decry the Mustang’s live axle, but chances are good they’re basing their opinion on earlier Mustangs. Drive a 2011, and the whole “live axle” thing becomes a non-issue. Bravo, Ford, and I’ll be in to order up a Kona Blue GT Premium just as soon as I can figure out how to make money in automotive journalism.
2010 Cadillac CTS-V Sedan
If money were no object, it would be a tough call between the Cadillac CTS-V Sedan and the Mustang. The Caddy is faster and is a far better choice to haul four adults in comfort, but the Mustang is more fun on a racetrack. Still, it’s hard not to fall in love with a sedan that delivers 556 horsepower, but could still be driven by your grandmother. In the rain. The CTS-V series again establishes Cadillac as a serious competitor in the luxury sport sedan segment, and even the $63,000 price of admission looks like a bargain when you compare it to its German rivals.
2011 Infiniti G37 Sport Sedan
No other car combined performance, comfort and value as well as the 2010 Infiniti G37 Sport Sedan. It’s not as fast as either the Mustang or the Caddy, but it earns points for comfort, handling and value for the money. You wouldn’t be disappointed using it for the occasional track day (as long as your expectations were reasonable), yet you could still drive it out to a nice restaurant afterward. It’s equally at home strafing canyon roads or driving the rush hour commute, and it sells for a whole lot less than the Cadillac.
2011 Hyundai Sonata Turbo
By far, this was the biggest surprise of 2010. The four cylinder Sonata was nice enough, but the Sonata Turbo is a truly impressive car. The engine puts out a seamless 274 horsepower, and the car is deceptively quick. It never feels like you’re going particularly fast, until you look down at the speedometer. Even the chassis feels reasonably capable in stock form, but I can’t help wonder how much better it would be with stickier tires, short springs and stiffer shocks. Please, Hyundai, build a Type R version of this car; I think it would be an out-of-the-park home run.
2011 Ford Shelby GT500
The Shelby GT500 is loud, crude and a handful to drive at the limit. It doesn’t understand finesse, it understands brute force, and that’s what makes it so good. In this day and age of electronic wizardry and floppy paddle shift transmissions, it’s good to know there are still cars that make you earn fast lap times. The Shelby is out of my price range, but as soon as I hit the lottery I’ll be in to place my order.
2010 Dodge Viper SRT Coupe
Forget everything you’ve ever heard about the Viper. Sure, early cars were happy to kill you if you made the slightest mistake behind the wheel, but the final generation (of this body style, at least) is much more forgiving. Professional racer Bill Adam summed it up best: “The Viper feels like a really big Miata.” That’s serious praise, since there are few cars on the planet as predictable or forgiving as the Mazda Miata. I couldn’t see owning a Viper as a daily driver, and $92,000 is a bit steep for a weekend toy, but the Viper is a truly impressive car on the track. I can only hope that the next generation is as good as this one was.
2010 Honda Civic Si
The Civic Si proves that fun cars don’t need to be expensive. If you haven’t ever driven one, go visit a Honda dealer. If you love to drive, you won’t find a better car for the price, and the Civic Si will have you matching revs on the downshift in no time. Wind it out to redline as you bring it up through the gears, and you’ll soon be reminded why you love to drive in the first place.
2010 Dodge Charger R/T
What’s not to like about a big, comfortable American sedan with a 5.7 liter Hemi engine under the hood? The Charger can be civilized when you need it to be, but it’ll also lay serious rubber when you’re tired of being a respectable member of the community.
2011 Ford Explorer Limited
The new Explorer seems to have polarized the buying public. The vast majority love the new trucks styling, and there’s no denying that the interior is far better than the truck it replaces. A vocal minority claims to hate the styling of the new Explorer, or its switch to unibody construction, or its loss of towing capability. Ford did their homework before launching the new Explorer, and in my opinion it’s better in every regard for the average Explorer buyer. It’s still competent off-road, thanks to Ford’s Terrain Management System, but it’s a much better truck on road than the Explorer it replaces.
2011 Chevy Volt
No car in the history of mankind has ever received as much false press as the Chevy Volt. The far right hates it, and takes every opportunity to spread disinformation about it. “It’ll only go 35 miles on a charge,” they say, or, “it gets worse fuel economy than a Toyota Prius.” Both statements are partially true, but the Volt will go over 350 miles on a combination of battery and gasoline generator power, and the mileage is far better than a Prius under the right circumstances. All the rhetoric misses the point entirely: the Volt is the very first mass produced serial hybrid vehicle, and for that it’s revolutionary. The fact that it’s damn comfortable to drive and even somewhat entertaining is icing on the cake. I’m not sure I’d buy one, only because no one knows what the depreciation on an entirely new class of vehicles is likely to be, but I’d sure as hell lease one. If you need a commuter car, and the Volt is available in your market, go test drive one. Ignore the propaganda and form your own opinion; I’ll bet you come away surprised.