Cars of the Year 2014

By A.J. Baime, Ken Gross, Editors of Playboy

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Cars of the Year 2014:

Years from now, people will look back on 2013 as a historic time for gearheads. It was the year of the sports car. Among the machines unleashed on our roads: the all-new seventh-generation Corvette, the first new Jaguar two-seat sports car in more than 50 years, a new Euro-styled Viper, a slick 12-cylinder Aston Martin, two Porsches (including the German firm’s first-ever hybrid supercar) and a pair of seven-figure hybrid Batmobiles from Ferrari and McLaren, each thumping well over 900 horsepower. Even if you’re not in the market for one of these rolling monuments to testosterone, there’s still something cool and cutting-edge for you out there. To suss out the best of the best in every category, we prowled the earth’s byways, from twisty roads in China to hilly thoroughfares in the south of France to the clogged intersections of Los Angeles and Chicago. Herewith, our annual pick of the top new automobiles.

CHEVROLET CORVETTE STINGRAY

For the seventh (since its debut in 1953) generation of Corvette, Chevy engineers had their work cut out for them. Against a tide of declining sales, how could they convince 20- and 30-somethings that their dad’s idea of a cool car should be theirs too? Chevrolet promised the most performance and mileage out of this new base Stingray, and the company delivered. And the styling? Nuanced yet true to the DNA. All told, this is an unbelievable amount of car for the money. We test-drove it all over California, Illinois and Virginia. People jumped off curbs to snap phone pictures; it’s that striking. Specs include a hydro-formed aluminum frame, carbon-fiber panels, a crisp seven-speed manual and a torque-rich V8 with 460 horsepower. Add the Z51 track package and you’re unstoppable. And Chevy finally listened to the critics and seriously upgraded the interior. Bottom line: the best Vette ever.

ENGINE: 6.2-LITER V8 HORSEPOWER: 455 AUTO, 460 MANUAL 0-60: 3.8 SECONDS MPG: 17 CITY, 29 HIGHWAY

ASTON MARTIN V12 VANTAGE S

Priced less than a comparable Ferrari, the 565-horsepower Vantage S delivers a blazing 3.7-second sprint to 60 mph and a 205 mph top speed. With new electronically controlled suspension, it tackles corners like a sure-footed athlete. And it’s an Aston, so it’s fantastically beautiful in that 007, just-understated-enough style. Slap some Union Jack livery on this six-liter two-seater and you’re licensed to kill. SRT VIPER

They don’t call it a Dodge anymore. After Fiat bought Chrysler, the Detroit firm released a new iteration of its legendary brute under the SRT (Street & Racing Technology) badge. The Italians gave the styling some love inside and out. While the car now has traction control, it’s still a 640-horsepower, 8.4-liter V10 beast. Driving it is like getting in the ring with Mike Tyson—in a good way. Ice packs not included. PORSCHE CAYMAN

Don’t call it a junior 911. The mid-engine, 275-horsepower Cayman is a car all its own, and it’s the best all-around performer for its price in the Stuttgart lineup. During our test drive we adored its neutral road manners, refined agility and deft throttle punch delivered by a 2.7-liter flat six with a glorious song. Naturally, the S model is the car you want (50 more thoroughbreds) if you have the extra $11,000.

MERCEDES-BENZ CLA250

The sell is simple: a Mercedes-Benz for less than $30,000. When we first heard news of the CLA, we found the idea scintillating. Could M-B steal away Chevy and Toyota buyers with a small, affordable sedan? Then we saw the thing. The “predator-like exterior” and “airplane-cockpit-inspired interior” (as the car’s product manager, Heiko Schmidt, puts it) had us at hello. We put the car through its paces in the hills of France’s Côte d’Azur, then tried it out as a commuter at home. The two-liter turbo and seven-speed dual-clutch automatic don’t provide the thrills of more expensive M-B models, but they match anything in the price range. And the standard start-stop and collision-prevention assist are nice touches. In a perfect world we’d go for the AMG version (pictured, $48,375). But the base CLA is a big winner in its class. At that price, you can buy his and hers.

ENGINE: 2-LITER TURBO I-4 HORSEPOWER: 208 0-60: 6.9 SECONDS MPG: 26 CITY, 38 HIGHWAY

CADILLAC CTS

If the luxury-auto biz were a football game, the CTS would be America’s QB against the German juggernauts. Named Motor Trend’s car of the year, the new CTS is visually stunning inside and out. The base two-liter turbo in-line four options up to a $70,000-plus car with a 420-horsepower, 3.6-liter twin-turbo V6. Bottom line? This is an all-star athlete. AUDI RS7

With its “sportback” roofline and the eyes of a comic-book mastermind, the A7 is a design triumph for the ages. The new RS version packs a four-liter twin-turbo V8, making this 560-horsepower lightning bolt the most powerful production Audi ever. It can do zero to 60 in 3.7 seconds (that’s Ferrari territory), tops out at 174 mph and is roomy enough to lug six kegs of Franziskaner Weissbier. Sold! MAZDA 3

The newly imagined Mazda 3—available as either a hatchback or a sedan—is lighter on its toes, longer in its legs and easier on the eyes. You can’t argue with these numbers: 155-horsepower Skyactiv two-liter in-line four, 30 city and 41 highway mpg, and a top speed of 130, all for a base price of less than $18,000. The nav system and rear cross-traffic alert come standard, and with a stiffer chassis, the ride is a blast. Look out, Ford Focus, the competition is heating up.

HONDA ACCORD HYBRID

Underneath that silver sheet metal, this new Accord packs some serious engineering voodoo. It’s basically three cars in one. In EV mode it cruises around at speeds of up to 60 mph without using a single drop of gas—like a purely electric car. Or it can run in hybrid mode using two electric motors, an air-cooled lithium-ion battery pack and a small combustion engine. It also runs in engine mode at highway speeds using a single-gear transmission with just enough punch to let you merge onto the interstate without having to white-knuckle the wheel. Beautifully built in America, it achieves the 50 mpg goal with a price tag under $30,000. It’s the perfect solution for drivers who want comfort in a midsize car, don’t want to spend too much money on gasoline and don’t go for the wonky styling of other top-selling hybrids. It won’t knock your socks off the way a new Vette will, but it will make mincemeat of a Prius when the light changes.

ENGINE: 2-LITER ELECTRIC HYBRID I-4 HORSEPOWER: 141 0-60: 7.7 SECONDS MPG: 50 CITY, 45 HIGHWAY

BMW I3

The all-new plug-in electric i3 combines disco packaging with real BMW roadability. You’ll enjoy about 170 horsepower, a range of 100 miles, a tiny optional range-extender gas engine you’ll probably never need, plus enough torque to scare whoever’s in the passenger seat. Clamshell rear doors and plenty of interior space make it a nice option for green-conscious families. Toss the dogs in and head for the beach! With this car’s quirky looks, be prepared for gawkers. TESLA MODEL S

The Model S is the first automobile this Silicon Valley start-up built in-house from the ground up. (The Tesla Roadster was based on a Lotus chassis.) It’s an all-electric plug-in sedan with gorgeous styling that gets 88 mpg (the electric equivalent) in the city and 90 on the highway. It also gets our nod for the coolest interior on the market, with a 17-inch tablet screen front and center that controls just about everything. This is the car interior of the future, and the future is now. CHEVROLET CRUZE TURBO DIESEL

Clean diesel is the green technology of Europe. Finally, General Motors jumps in with an affordable American turbodiesel (the engines are built in Germany) that puts up 46 mpg and 264 foot-pounds of delicious torque, and spits out far fewer emissions than its gasoline brethren. Sure, an Audi A3 TDI is nicer in every way, but you’ll pay thousands more for one. Specs: two-liter turbo in-line four, room for five passengers and an 8.1-second jaunt to 60.

LAND ROVER RANGE ROVER SPORT

Like the previous generation, the new Range Rover Sport combines refined British luxury with ass-kicking off-road capability. Only now it does both even better. Picture this: On an old U.K. airfield, we drove a Sport up a 45-degree ramp into a derelict 747, crawled around obstacles through the empty cabin, then exited down a steep ramp into a mud bath. Why? To prove this truck can motor over anything. And it will handle like a sure-footed sedan around your town’s twisty roads. The performance upgrade comes via a new aluminum unibody and improved suspension dynamics. With an option of two all-wheel-drive systems you can choose on the go, no terrain can stop you. We love the V6, but the five-liter supercharged V8 (510 horsepower, about $80,000) makes you feel as if you’re packing jet engines. And the cabin? Beautiful leather, polished aluminum and tasteful carbon-fiber accents; the only thing missing is a champagne bucket. This is the truck you want when the world ends.

ENGINE: 3-LITER V6 HORSEPOWER: 340 0-60: 6.9 SECONDS MPG: 17 CITY, 23 HIGHWAY BMW X5

There aren’t a lot of good options for vehicles that can seat seven, especially ones that pack an optional 450-horsepower V8, all-wheel drive, an eight-speed automatic transmission and that certain command of the road that a BMW delivers. Yes, the new X5 is here, 15 years after it first appeared. The base model (three-liter, 300-horsepower V6) will run you $53,725, but we’d opt for the M Sport suspension and the aforementioned V8. SUBARU FORESTER

The new Forester doesn’t look much different from the old one, nor does it drive all that differently. Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken, right? Subaru of America had a fifth straight record year for sales in 2013. A few reasons why: The Forester is easy on the wallet, has room enough for five plus golf bags, gets decent mileage (24 city, 32 highway) and has an all-wheel-drive 2.5-liter flat four that will probably still be kicking long after you’re gone.

Folks who can afford supercars don’t worry about the cost of a gallon of gas. But that hasn’t stopped the world’s brightest engineers from inventing hybrid dream machines. These debuted last year, proof that it’s a wild time for car fans.

JAGUAR F-TYPE

The first all-new Jaguar sports car in more than 50 years, this is the direct descendant of the C-, D- and E-Types, icons of the golden age of motoring both on the racetrack and in the driveways of the world’s most glamorous people. Yes, the new F-Type has a lot to live up to. From the moment we got behind the wheel and felt the engine’s throb as it crackled like an F1 car rolling onto a Grand Prix circuit, we were sold. It’s the Jaguar we’ve waited decades to drive. You have a choice of engine packages: a 340-horsepower supercharged V6 ($65K for the coupe, $69K for the roadster), a 380-horsepower supercharged V6 ($77K coupe, $81K roadster) or a five-liter V8 that gives this monster muscle-car power with sports-car handling ($99K coupe, $92K roadster). As a daily drive, the car is elegant and refined, its interior impeccable and distinctly British. But throw this Jag into track mode and it’s a different cat. We let it loose on racetracks outside Chicago and Seattle, and the superb hydraulic steering was knife sharp and perfect to the touch. As we snap-shifted the eight-speed transmission, the car danced through corners, its stiff chassis slaloming smoothly through abrupt directional changes. It achieves what all of today’s high-end sports cars try to, in spades: It’s a wonderful everyday drive and a thriller when you want to put your foot down. After all these years, Jaguar is still the real deal. Welcome back, mate: You’re our choice for Playboy’s 2014 Car of the Year.

F-TYPE R (above) ENGINE: 5-LITER SUPERCHARGED V8 HORSEPOWER: 550 0-60: 4.0 SECONDS MPG: 16 CITY, 23 HIGHWAY

F-TYPE V8 S (below) ENGINE: 5-LITER SUPERCHARGED V8 HORSEPOWER: 495 0-60: 4.2 SECONDS MPG: 16 CITY, 23 HIGHWAY


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