Automobiles occupy an outsized chunk of my time. When you drive as many as three new cars a week, every week, slamming doors, pinching leather, evaluating gas mileage and figuring out how the radio works, the small stuff matters. I love the smart, outrageous and practical; and am exasperated by the wrongheaded, timid and abstruse.
Looking back on the past year, I rarely remember what happened in any given month. Instead I recall the first time I stepped inside the Tesla Model S (good) or tried to use Cadillac’s Cue infotainment system (not so good). Here are a few of the cars and features that I liked, and some I didn’t.
Breakout of the Year: The Tesla Model S.
An all-electric sedan with good range, it’s fast and handles well, even on a racetrack. It seats five adults comfortably and has a gorgeous cabin.
The well-optioned model I tested came to $102,000, about the same as a decently-optioned Porsche Panamera. For that you get a suite of gee-whiz electronics, including the most advanced touch-screen system I’ve ever experienced.
You can faultlessly operate the screen even while driving, proving that Silicon Valley does have something to teach Detroit.
The Model S easily could have qualified as my green pick of the year, or executive sedan, or perhaps even my favorite sports car. Instead, I’ll simply say it rates high in all of those categories.
Biggest Headache: Poorly Designed Infotainment Systems.
Want to turn up the air conditioner or change the radio station? You’ll first need to acquaint yourself with the non- intuitive systems from Ford and Cadillac.
Ford released its MyFord Touch some time ago, and the technology has almost single-handedly torpedoed the company’s rankings in the J.D. Power Initial Quality Study.
Cadillac didn’t learn from Ford, this year releasing the Cue system, a touch-screen that is needlessly over-thought and extremely finicky.
The more the company tries to justify Cue, the less I like it. Their answer to consumers? Check out the iPad tutorial — the last thing you want to do before taking a long drive.
Engine of the Year: BMW’s turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder.
This is the first Bimmer four-banger available in the U.S. in more than a decade, optional on both the 3 and 5 series and standard on the Z4 Roadster. It’s fun, fast and efficient and I prefer it over the 300-hp six-cylinder. The little engine that could.
Most Desirable Ride: Porsche Boxster S.
The new incarnation of the two-door roadster is about the most fun you can have driving with the top down.
Most Overpriced Ride: Porsche Boxster S.
Our as-tested model came to $88,870. See the problem?
Bang for the Tire-Screaming Buck: Ford Focus ST.
There’s something special about a light, small and relatively inexpensive sports car. The ST version of Ford’s chic hatchback has 252 horsepower and makes easy, controlled drifts, so you can feel like a race-track hero. And it starts at $23,700.
Niftiest Amenity: Kick-activated Tailgate.
Approach the rear of a Ford Escape with an armful of groceries and you won’t have juggle to open the tailgate. Simply kick the underside of the bumper and it’ll pop open (provided the key fob is in your pocket).
Comeback Company: Chrysler.
The long-beleaguered carmaker, in tandem with Fiat, has reworked its interiors and infotainment systems. It has improved underperforming engines and creaky transmissions.
For instance, the standard-issue, primeval five-speed automatic, which always seemed to be hunting for the correct gear, is now being replaced by a slick and fast eight-speed.
Most enticing of all is the all-new, super cool, SRT Viper, with 640 hp. Bad to the bone and unabashedly American.
Cars I Want to Drive Again:
Chrysler may have renamed the Sebring, but the 200 sedan is still a really lousy car. Avoid it at the rental lot.
Cadillac released a fantastic car this year, the ATS compact sports sedan. And it also released the XTS, a full-size sedan which plows down the road like a tractor. The company seems to be biding its time until it makes a really worthy full- size car. It the meantime, we deserve better.
The Fisker Karma, a brand-new electric hybrid I really wanted to like. But the meshing of electric motors and gas engine is loud, uncomfortable, and the car isn’t particularly fast or powerful. The interior is cramped. It just doesn’t do any one
thing particular well.
Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.