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2014 Chevrolet Corvette is highlight in frenetic year of car releases

The 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray may be the

The 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray may be the most capable modern sports car ever to have come from America. Credit: General Motors

In January I tested the latest, reinvigorated Range Rover sport-utility vehicle. Eleven months later I closed out the year with the Porsche 918 Spyder, the company’s $845,000 hybrid supercar. The days in between brought Ferraris and Hyundais, Jaguars and Mazdas, Aston Martins and Hondas and Bentleys. (Of those, a Jaguar and Mazda made this list.)

Automakers are releasing new and significantly revised cars at an absolutely frantic pace. Most of them are, amazingly, quite good. A few are even better than that, managing to define, change or recharge a segment. These are my picks for the best autos of 2013.

Sports Car: Porsche 918 Spyder

Why? This is the fantasy car of the year, eclipsing the $4 million Lamborghini Veneno and the $1.4 million LaFerrari in terms of want and cultural relevance. The 918 draws on Porsche’s historic racing credentials while remaining a street-legal car. This is Porsche’s first bona fide supercar since the release of the Carrera GT almost a decade ago, and there’s a lot of pent-up desire from brand fanatics. And it delivers: The Spyder is deliriously fast and riotously fun, making it the coolest hybrid in the world.

The experience: Absolute silence when started, then total fury when switched into sport or race settings. It’s a plug-in hybrid, so the choice of green or gangbusters is yours at any given moment.

Power and price: It has two electric motors and a 4.6-liter V-8, for a boggling total of 887 horsepower. The price is both the catch and the cachet. The base car starts at $845,000, and with options could easily brush $1 million.

Killer application: Gliding around town silently in this hypercar, with the top off. Bystanders’ reactions? Priceless.

Edging Out: The fantastic but less sexy McLaren 12C convertible, Jaguar F-Type and Mercedes-Benz SLS Black Series.

Sedan: Mazda 6

Why? High-end sports cars and brash SUVs garner the most attention, but the majority of us get around in four-door sedans. No reason your daily drive should be dead boring, and the Mazda 6 certainly isn’t. With prices between $21,000 and $30,000, it straddles style and efficiency with as much as 38 miles (61 kilometers) per gallon highway. And it’s really fun to drive. The sedan for the smart shopper.

The experience: Easy and spirited around town, it slipstreams through traffic, yet comes most alive on back roads. A car that communicates with the road.

Power and price: The 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 184 horsepower sounds modest, but it proves Goldilocks right. The base model, without a navigation system, came in at $21,675. Go crazy with a Grand Touring model and you’ll see a sticker of just under $33,000.

Killer application: The sense of (slightly smug) self-satisfaction that comes with never getting confused which car is yours in a sea of Corollas and Accords.

Edging out: Cadillac CTS, Kia Cadenza (a nice car with a silly name), and the power-mad Audi RS7.

Convertible: Jaguar F-Type V8S

Why? A convertible is a luxury, a lark aimed at that elusive, idyllic summer day when you aren’t stuck at work. As such, it better earn its slot in the garage by giving maximum fun. The Jaguar F-Type is all id, a two-person, V-8-equipped rocket ship. The sound of the engine and the burst of power light up all of the brain’s pleasure centers. Addictive.

The experience: A vortex of wind buzzing your scalp and sinful sounds coming from the engine bay. The sinking feeling that a speeding ticket is inevitable.

Power and price: The S model with a 5-liter supercharged V-8 (495 horsepower, 460 pound-feet of torque) starts at $92,000. As driven with copious options, mine came to $104,270.

Killer application: The sound of the V-8 burning off excess gas when you take your foot off the accelerator -- better than firecrackers.

Edging out: Audi RS5, Porsche 911 Turbo.

Green Auto: BMW 328d Diesel

Why? BMW is in process of releasing the i3, an all-electric city car. But the i3 may prove less impactful than the brand’s own more humble diesel offerings, long available in Europe. For the first time the U.S. gets the 328d with an economical 2-liter four-cylinder that burns clean diesel. It looks and drives as good as the perennial 3 Series favorite, and gets as much as 45 mpg on the highway. This is the right car for a daily highway commute.

The experience: Bull your way up the longest, highest hill around, and as weaker vehicles wheeze and struggle along, the 328d’s tachometer never even rises to more than 2,000 rpm. Power and price: The turbocharged diesel makes 180 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. Pricing starts at $39,525.

Killer application: Looking down and finding that the trip computer estimates a driving range of more than 550 miles. You’ll run out of gas before it does.

Edging out: Honda Accord Hybrid, Mazda 3.

SUV: Range Rover

Why? Land Rover’s top-of-the-line model, the Range Rover, is like catnip for a certain type of mover and shaker. You don’t want to like it, but then you get in its commanding seating position and touch all the leather. And it really is capable of crazy off-road feats, the kind of SUV to ride out a zombie apocalypse. The new, fourth-generation Range is some 700 pounds (318 kilograms) lighter, owing to an aluminum suspension, and it rides better in every situation.

The experience: Cosseting. The seats are thronelike, your view of the road unrivaled. Compared to last year’s Range, it seems to dance down the highway, quicker, lighter, with less road noise.

Power and price: Depending on how much kick you want out of the 5-liter V-8 (375 or 510 horsepower), price ranges from $83,500 to $100,000.

Killer application: A winter road trip with your three best buddies, headed anywhere.

Edging out: Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT, Acura MDX, Porsche Cayenne Turbo S.

Executive Sedan: Audi A8 diesel/S8

Why? When it comes to the luxury sedan that chief executive officers want to be chauffeured in and then drive themselves on the weekend, Audi’s A8 models are highly compelling. The green-minded executive might opt for the low-end torque of the long-wheelbase diesel, which gets 36 mpg highway. For the power hungry, the S8 is akin to a four-wheel Learjet: smaller, sleeker and really fast.

The experience: Wi-Fi, Google maps on the navigation system, diamond stitching on the superlative leather seats, a kicking stereo, the Audi’s interiors rival a well-appointed home.

Power and price: The $82,500 diesel has a 3-liter six cylinder with 240 horsepower and 407 pound-feet of torque. The S8 is pricier at $112,895, and has a 4-liter twin-turbo V-8 with 520 horsepower and 481 pound-feet of torque.

Killer applications: The diesel’s long range and steady-as-she-goes ride. The S8 blasts to 60 mph in less than four seconds, faster even than Audi’s R8 supercar.

Edging out: The new Mercedes-Benz S-Class, whose engineers were so obsessed with packing in the latest technology that they overlooked the sensation of how the car actually drives.

Car of Year: Chevrolet Corvette Stingray

Why? The car is fantastic. One of the most entertaining two-person sports cars to arrive in many, many years. The design is modern, the cockpit makes you feel like a jet-fighter pilot. It’s easy to drive in traffic and outrageous fun on a racetrack. Smart and clever engineering is found throughout. And that’s the bare-bones analysis when the car is divorced of its 60-year history and General Motors drama. Add in the fact that the Corvette has historically fallen short of its European competitors (usually in the interior), and that this one was engineered under duress, when GM was bankrupt and the Corvette’s future in doubt, and it proves that GM really can make a great product if it just puts its mind to it.

The experience: Explosive. Zinging along curvy roads, the car is planted and safe, yet highly responsive. Stop in a parking lot and crowds gather, peppering you with questions.

Power and price: 6.2-liter V-8 with 455 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque, $52,000 for the base and $63,800 for the top-line model with a sports performance package.

Killer application: Owning the most capable modern sports car that may have ever come from America.

Edging out: All the other cars that did make this list.

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