Most of the auto world is in high cotton (sorry, Volvo). Whether you’re gunning for pure speed, green innovation, new technology or cheap thrills, there’s a fine new machine out there for you. In the biz, Chrysler is saving its savior, keeping floundering Fiat from failure. Toyota and Honda are roaring back. Hyundai and Kia are kicking ass. Detroit is dynamite, producing some of the best cars in its history. Gasoline prices (as we go to press) are hovering around $4.50, so though electric cars have continued to improve, they haven’t yet sparked a revolution. Porsche, Benz, BMW and Audi still set the standards, while a slim 25 grand will get you a spirited, rear-drive Japanese sports coupe. And then there’s all that new exotic metal—McLaren, Ferrari, Jaguar. We drove ’em all hard and put ’em away wet. Here are the best of the best for the new model year.
Since the Sl’s debut in 1956, not every generation has won our hearts. But the latest SL550 is a trim bolide with an all-aluminum body, tons of power and tire-melting torque. The car constantly reminds you how fast and smart it is. Corner at speed and your seat curls to cup you against the g-force. The headrests’ Airscarf feature keeps your neck warm, and the “magic sky” hard-top roof changes from clear to dark tint with the touch of a button. And the speed! Hold on to your driver’s license. When you purchase an SL, you instantly inherit more than 100 years of Mercedes-Benz development. If you have endless millions, go for the 45th anniversary SL65 AMG version (pictured)—630 horsepower!
Engine: 4.6-liter twin-turbo V8
Zero to 60: 4.1 seconds
MPG: 16 city, 25 highway
The best just got better. The fourth-gen Range Rover is completely revamped, with an SUV-first all-aluminum body that saves 700 pounds, its panels bonded (not bolted or welded) like on aircraft. Snow? Mountain roads? Commute? The Rover’s computer automatically selects the optimum all-wheel-drive setup so you can put horsepower to the ground. More refinement, a larger interior, an eight-speed automatic. We’re out of room: It’s the ultimate SUV.
Engine: five-liter V8
Zero to 60: 6.5 seconds
MPG: 13 city, 18 highway
The car you see above is highly anticipated. Like the Yankee who fills Derek Jeter’s cleats at shortstop, this thing better be good. The M5 is the standard-bearer for asphalt-devouring, full-size sport sedans, a machine that can chariot you to the office in a style worthy of your Yurman watch and then outclass just about anything on the track on Sunday. The all-new M5 fulfills. So much thought went into this automobile, from its uniquely crafted twin-turbo V8 (which looks like some wildly imagined atom splitter) to its highly intuitive nav system (a child could figure it out). Of course the M in M5 stands for BMW’s legendary motorsport division. You have 560 horsepower, crisp steering, killer braking power, a standard seven-speed paddle shifter and—for a car that weighs well over 4,000 pounds—remarkable agility. The autorati quibbled about how the engine noise gets piped through the stereo speakers. Who the hell cares? The mighty M5 strikes again.
Engine: 4.4-liter twin-turbo V8
Zero to 60: 3.7 seconds
MPG: 15 city, 22 highway
By now you’ve seen the Cadillac ATS commercials that kicked off during the Olympics, showing former pro racer Derek Hill tearing it up in GM’s new $33,095 tire-roasting sport sedan. So, Derek, tell us about it. “It was the ultimate test drive,” he says. “We put the ATS through conditions most people don’t think about, such as the high crosswinds of Patagonia, daunting switchbacks in the Atlas Mountains, the formidable racetrack at Monaco and a road surface of bumpy rock carved into a cliff in China.” And why, we ask? “To display how confident the new ATS is.” Beautifully put. We couldn’t resist giving the new Caddy a shout-out.
Leave it to Honda to solve the conundrum of the small electric car. The plug-in, all-electric Fit EV is a curiously stylish little thing. Honda claims an 82-mile combined city-highway-range equivalent. (Its EPA rating is 132 mpge in the city.) A superquick three-hour 240-volt charging time means you can go from an empty to a full battery faster than you can watch The Godfather: Part II. The battery pack under the floor adds a few hundred pounds, but hey, it helps cornering stability. We’ve driven rivals such as the Mitsubishi MiEV, the Nissan Leaf and the China-sourced CODA (which beats them all with its achievable 125-mile driving range but looks like a 1980s throwback). The Fit still comes up trumps. Limited availability in 2013 may keep it out of your hands for now, but look for it down the road.
Engine: electric motor
Zero to 60: 8.4 seconds
MPGe: 118 combined city-highway
Hotter than the Olsen twins! More agile than the Barber brothers! Subaru and Toyota have teamed up to offer a pair of virtually identical sports coupes, saving each company a bundle on development and giving enthusiasts a pair of affordable, stylish rear-drive Japanese GTs. It’s like the Dodgers and Giants sharing a catcher. Weird, right? Both cars feature a Subaru four-cylinder, front-mounted amidships for near-perfect weight distribution. Differences in suspension tuning and trim are noticeable. So is the sticker. The Subie is a tad more expensive because its nav system, Bluetooth and upmarket interior are standard. Either way, these are pure fun, like Japanese sports coupes of yore. Flick off stability control and you’re in drift heaven. Take your pick; we dig ’em both.
Engine: two-liter flat four
Zero to 60: 6.4 seconds BRZ; 6.2 seconds FR-S
MPG: 22 city, 30 highway
The pony car war is the auto industry’s answer to the Cold War. For decades Chevy’s Camaro and Ford’s Mustang have stockpiled horsepower and battled for all-American muscle car supremacy. Both companies released their most extreme examples ever in recent months. Like the Mustang, this Camaro pulls its moniker, ZL1, from a 1960s legend. Like the Mustang, its numbers boggle the mind: 580 horsepower, 556 foot-pounds of torque. What sets them apart from each other? Styling, for one. The Ford is old-school badass. The Chevy looks like the Batmobile out of the next caped-crusader blockbuster. And then there’s performance. Both deliver direct injections of adrenaline through your breastplate, but for us, the Camaro offers a slightly more compliant ride in city traffic—with less chance of getting to work with your nerves shredded on the floor mat.
Engine: 6.2-liter supercharged V8
Zero to 60: 3.9 seconds
MPG: 14 city, 19 highway
Ford’s most powerful Mustang carries the badge of Carroll Shelby, who died in 2012. Check these numbers: 662 horsepower, 202 mph top speed. As one reviewer put it, “It is…absolutely insane that Ford is setting this car loose on the American public.” It turns out, however, this Shelby is drivable, refined even, on city streets. Compared with the Camaro at left, the Shelby feels like more of a hard charger—blistering speed matched with precision cornering. You can break most highway speed limits in first gear. Plus: better gas mileage. For us, this Mustang trumps its Chevy rival. No doubt Mr. Shelby is looking down and smiling.
Engine: 5.8-liter supercharged V8
Zero to 60: 3.5 seconds
MPG: 15 city, 24 highway
Hit the trail, the mountains, the boulevard. Audi’s new Allroad could probably spirit you across the scarred face of the moon while coddling you in luxury as you tap your thumbs to the 505-watt Bang & Olufsen audio system. The Allroad replaces Audi’s A4 Avant wagon with a butch-looking package kitted out with fender flares, aluminum roof rails, optional 19-inch wheels, 1.5 inches more ground clearance and, of course, Quattro all-wheel drive. Enjoy Audi’s brilliant Google Earth nav system; a 3G connection gets you instant weather updates through your own Wi-Fi hot spot. The top-shelf interior rivals Mercedes-Benz’s to set the industry benchmark. Yes, it’s a station wagon—as rare as a rolling watermelon on the streets these days. But it’s a looker, and no road is too rough.
Engine: two-liter turbo I-4
Zero to 60: 6.5 seconds
MPG: 20 city, 27 highway
In an ideal world, we’d have a garage (and a wallet) big enough for all this machinery. For those in need of a snappy hatchback that’s quick on its feet, has room for five and sports a price tag that doesn’t read like a long-distance phone number, this ride’s for you. Mazda has tossed it all in: 18-inch wheels, 280 foot-pounds of torque, 42.8 cubic feet of hauling space, great braking with ABS and a slick-shifting six-speed. Niceties include a 10-speaker Bose surround-sound audio system. Honorable mention: Ford’s new European-developed Focus ST.
Engine: 2.3-liter turbo I-4
Zero to 60: 6.5 seconds
MPG: 18 city, 25 highway
McLaren has taken its decades of Formula One–winning experience to build a racer for the street that’s truly the easiest car to drive scary-fast we’ve ever experienced. It’s close to docile in traffic but transforms into an animal on a racetrack. Time to geek out: A strong carbon-fiber tub forms a stiff foundation to support a semi-active hydraulic suspension system, a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission and a low-mid-mounted V8 that performs almost like an electric motor in its smooth power delivery. Bonus: electronic launch control. The car feels like an extension of your mind. You will it to perform, and it responds faster than you thought possible.
Engine: 3.8-liter twin-turbo V8
Zero to 60: 3.1 seconds
MPG: 15 city, 24 highway
Imagine a girlfriend who will be whatever you want, whenever you want—sexy, chill, an Olympian who can outpace Usain Bolt—and always exquisite. That’s the new seventh-generation 911. Porsche engineers have continued to improve this car since its debut in 1963. The latest has an impossibly sexy figure (two inches longer, two inches wider, a perfectly balanced roofline). But the real key is its remarkable electronic voodoo. In comfort mode, the ride is buttery smooth, the mileage impressive, the leather ultraluxe. All that’s missing is a dozen oysters on a bed of ice. Switch drive mode to sport plus, stiffen the suspension, lift the spoiler and open the exhaust (all in seconds with a few buttons), and you have a 179-mph racing car that will take all you can give it. We hammered lap after lap at Autobahn Country Club’s twisty track outside Chicago. The 911’s lightning-quick PDK transmission crackles like an F1 car’s, the tight steering railroads you through corners, and your feet stay planted. Could any other car be more elegant, so racy—and still cost under a hundred grand? Considering its entire oeuvre, the Porsche 911 is the greatest sports car of all time, and its new iteration is Playboy’s 2013 Car of the Year.
Engine: 3.4-liter flat six
Zero to 60: 4.6 seconds
MPG: 19 city, 27 highway