Top Ten Drives of 2012

2012 proved to be a great year for testing new cars.  A disproportionate number of high priced vehicles unexpectedly came our way this year, and that’s reflected in this year’s Top Ten Drives list.  If you’re a driving enthusiast, it’s no surprise German manufacturers take the top three spots, but our list includes a performance value leader, family vehicles, and a surprise – a hybrid vehicle finally impresses us.  (Prices are ‘as-tested’ and include options, freight and PDI unless otherwise noted.)

My Top Ten Drives for 2012 are:

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1.  2012 Audi R8 GT, $231,695.  The Audi R8 GT is the definition of ‘exotic’.  Just three hundred thirty three were built for the world.  The Lamborghini-assembled 5.2-litre V10 engine pounds out a massive 560 horsepower through Audi’s Quattro all-wheel-drive system – a combination potent enough to give any Corvette driver morning sickness in a drag race.  Full throttle acceleration – without warning– whacks your surprised passenger’s head hard against the seat, followed by a string of cuss words.  Our bright metallic orange test vehicle attracted more attention than any other car we’ve ever tested.  As for the price, the Audi R8 GT is the perfect example of the old saying, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”

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2.  2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S, $146,000.  Porsche’s iconic body style wraps around a new chassis for 2012.  The 400 horsepower naturally-aspirated 3.8-litre rear-mounted engine and Tiptronic transmission is mechanical nirvana and the perfect choice for Canadian driving conditions.  Quick, lively and a pure bliss to drive, after five decades of evolution, the Porsche 911 Carrera S remains the world class benchmark of sports cars.

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3.  2012 Audi TT RS, $77,845.  Part pro rally car, part track demon, Audi’s 5-cylinder turbocharged all-wheel-drive snub-nosed bullet is my choice for the driver who wants an all-weather streetfighter.  This sports coupe is at home on the race track in the summer, comfortable enough to be driven daily on pot-holed city streets, and with Quattro all-wheel-drive, a shockingly impressive winter driver.  Comparable in price and performance to the track-ready Cayman R, the Audi TT RS handily beats the Porsche with superior creature comforts and a suspension that’s much more livable in daily driving.

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4.  2013 Scion FR-S, $26,999.  If the stratospheric price tags of my top three picks leave you gasping for air, take heart.  The Scion FR-S is my No. 1 choice in the Real World Affordable category.  With its classic front engine, rear wheel drive sports car layout, this is the sports enthusiasts’ dream.  It seats four in a pinch, making it more practical than the Mazda MX-5, and pricing is very affordable.  For hard core enthusiasts, this is the biggest performance bang you can get for your buck.  You’ll have to spend more than $38-$39,000 dollars (Subaru WRX STi/Mustang GT) to get any more fun for the dollar.

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5.  2013 Volkswagen Jetta GLI 2.0 TSI, $32,760.  The new GLI has the practicality of a family sedan and the heart of a European sport sedan.  The Jetta GLI is an affordable substitute for a 3-Series BMW or Audi A4.  Its interior has been vastly upgraded for 2013, and unlike lower version Jettas comes with a sophisticated mult-link rear suspension and 4-wheel disc brakes. Handling ranks with the best in class and the 200 horsepower turbocharged 2.0-litre engine is powerful and impressively fuel efficient.

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6.  2012 Honda CR-V Touring, $37,864.  Honda got everything just ‘right’ on the new CR-V.  Everything flat works, from the one-action release handles that flip down the second row seat sections to heated front seats and multi-view rearview camera,  all standard equipment even the lowest priced model.  With the best driver-focused ergonomic layout in class and very good fuel economy, the CR-V is my favourite of the compact utility vehicle class.

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7.  2013 Ford Escape Titanium, $43,349.  More horsepower (240) than the CR-V and with best in class handling (and control during emergency maneuvers from Ford’s Curve Control technology that we tested at a race track), the new Escape sports slick sheetmetal and a price range to fit every budget.

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8.  2012 Toyota Camry LE, $27,710.  Few things are as safe a bet as recommending the Toyota Camry.  Affordable, roomy and fuel efficient, the Camry has also earned a reputation for having anvil-like longevity.  The new Camry impresses with its sheer competence at being a practical and affordable family sedan.  The driving experience focuses on function rather than fun, but when your kids head off to college in ten or fifteen years, you can hand them the keys with confidence; chances are the Camry will still be running strong.

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9.  2012 Mazda CX-9, $48,270.  The CX-9 is a roomy SUV that’s got Mazda’s trademark ‘Zoom-Zoom’ sporting DNA and punches well above its weight.  It drives much smaller than it is and handles with surprising sharpness.  You’ve got to move waaay upscale to SUVs from BMW (X5) or Audi (Q7) to get comparable performance.

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10. 2012 Mercedes-Benz E300 4Matic, $63,825.  The E-Class sedan is the car most people associate with the Mercedes-Benz brand.  The ‘base’ model with 248 horsepower 3.5-litre V6 engine and 4Matic all-wheel-drive system has a competitive starting price of $58,300, yet offers all the luxury of the more expensive versions.

Honourable Mentions

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  • 2013 Lexus ES300h Hybrid, $45,995.  If you’re willing to pony up the $4,400 dollar premium over the gasoline engine ES350 for fuel savings that will take four plus years to recoup, this Lexus hybrid is attractive.  Comfortable, serenely quiet and sipping fuel at an impressive 7.5l/100 km in frigid, minus 16 Celsius city driving, the ES300h is one of the few hybrid cars I could actually live with.

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  • 2012 Moto Guzzi Stelvio NTX, $16,190 (MSRP).  I’m a dyed-in-the-wool motorcycle guy and have long held a soft spot for this 91 year old Italian motorcycle company.  The NTX is Guzzi’s latest entry in the go-anywhere adventure-touring segment – motorcycling’s equivalent to SUVs.  It has a long list of standard equipment, including shaft-drive, a massive 32-litre fuel tank, aluminum panniers, adjustable windscreen/saddle, cylinder/sump guards, ABS/traction control, and auxiliary lights.  The Stelvio NTX rings in thousands of dollars less than the BMW R1200GS, Triumph Tiger Explorer and Yamaha Super Tenere, and the Guzzi’s booming 1200 c.c. V-twin engine oozes with character and sounds like nothing else in motorcycling.

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