Winding Road's Top Twelve Cars Of 2009

By Winding Road Staff

January 01, 2006

Over the past twelve months we’ve driven or reviewed (and often both) something on the order of 250 vehicles. Be it on some far-flung and usually stunning road served up by an automaker for a new car launch, or on the slightly more humble highways and byways that surround our Michigan and Texas offices, we’ve had a fair taste of what was on offer in the automotive universe during 2009. We figure the very least we can do is to tell you which ones we liked best.

So we did—with just a couple of rules in place.

For starters, and based on the notion that there are a lot of very good cars in the world today, we excluded the dozen vehicles we picked for recognition when we compiled this list (slightly less formally) last year. If you read our list herein and sense the glaring omission of a car you love, check here first before you email us to tell us what lousy human beings we are. (If you still don’t find it, we look forward to your impassioned counterargument, delivered to

As is our wont, we’ve voted up our list with a premium being placed on driver involvement. However, factors of newness/coolness, affordability, and the always-nebulous “character” were heavily considered, as well. In short, each car here is one that we love a lot, and for many good reasons.

For all of its downside—and man, was there some downside—we had a hell of a good time driving in 2009. Here’s hoping that the 2010 season brings more of the same.

12. Nissan GT-R

The GT-R isn’t the car you think it is. The GT-R isn’t Godzilla. It isn’t ripsnorting, raucous or superficially impressive. It doesn’t have mind-blowing torque, and it isn’t loud. It isn’t the car to scare your friends with (any more than an Accord is, and trust us, we could scare your friends in an Accord).

But it is still great, and one of our favorites from 2009. That’s because the GT-R’s suspension engineers tapped into some magical knowledge base to craft the most dialed-in feel found in any car below the supercar realm. Mated with a quite potent power plant, the GT-R not only feels good, but it is very capable of going fast in the right circumstances.  And some of us are major fans of the form-follows-function design.

Central to the GT-R’s charm is that it must be driven skillfully, with an eye to working with it. The GT-R has a sense of depth beyond most mortal vehicles’, with the driver often knowing there is more grip if needed and more wick to burn. But these tools have to be used artfully for car and driver to feel happy. If you want an incarnation of a point and click video game vehicle, look elsewhere. If you want to learn, if you want to be challenged, and you want to do it while going very fast, look no further.

11. Ford Fusion

The entry-level mid-size sedan market is one of the most researched segments in the entire automotive industry. Thus, having a strong, well-appointed player in this class is key for an automaker to resonate well with consumers. For our money, nobody does it better than Ford with the 2010 Fusion. Whether you’re opting for an entry-level four-banger model, an all-wheel-drive-equipped V-6, or a fuel-sipping hybrid, the Fusion line has you covered with its great mix of style, quality, and overall driving feel.

For consumers, the Fusion has a lot of strong selling points. Ford is quick to trumpet that its mid-size sedan is the most fuel-efficient vehicle in its class (the hybrid model gets up to 41 miles per gallon in the city), and with features like SYNC and an excellent optional navigation interface, the Blue Oval folks have created quite a contender.

But the reason why we love the Fusion is because that, consumer aspects aside, it’s really good to drive. Elsewhere in this issue, we detail our approval of the four-cylinder Fusion SE equipped with a six-speed manual transmission, but we’d be lying if we said we haven’t spent many happy miles behind the wheel of Sport AWD and mid-grade V-6 models.

Great levels of interior refinement, sleek (but not over-the-top) style, and affordable, good packaging make the Fusion a top choice in the most-shopped market segment. Move over, Camry and Accord, the Fusion takes our winning vote each and every time.

10. Volkswagen Jetta TDI

The latest Jetta TDI is a car that is vastly more fun than anything this, well, sensible has any right to be. The six-speed manual will satisfy the old-schoolers among us, but we have to admit that VW’s DSG mates up pretty well with the 2.0-liter diesel, as well.

Very high quality materials are used throughout the interior, with a refreshing (but not overly austere) quality of simplicity that we find very enticing.

Honest and communicative steering, surprisingly good low-end "lunge" (courtesy of big, dirty bags full of diesel torque), firm-ish suspension, plus insanely good fuel mileage, make the argument versus certain popular hybrid vehicles an easy one to win for those who actually enjoy driving. We don’t anticipate a groundswell of popularity for modern diesel cars in the U.S. just yet, which is really too bad, because the current crop has got a mix of performance and practicality that’s pretty unbelievable. With two of Germany’s sweetest oil-sippers on our list of faves from 2009, you can see that we Winding Roaders are drinking the derv-burner Kool Aid, at least. Care for a sip?

9. Mazda MX-5

You know that Queen song, “I’m In Love With My Car?”

It’s hard to talk about the MX-5 without gushing clichéd words of endearment. Apparently designed by Cupid himself, anyone who drives or rides in this car will instantly fall in love. Whether one lazily cruises country roads with the top down, or flogs it through the tight turns of an autocross, a driver will make memories in this little roadster.

Though not the fastest car in the garage, the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine really gets the MX-5 moving, especially with the tach needle pointing northeast. For deftly directing rubberward the modest 167 horsepower, the manual transmission, whether swapping five or six gears, is one of the best to be had. The feel of the shifter is smooth, yet precise.

Perhaps the best feature of the MX-5 is its ability to rotate. This convertible loves to cut tight corners, and always does so with gusto and grip. To hell with A-to-B, this car wants to do the whole alphabet, if it means going lock-to-lock as much as possible. Drivers will find the roadster’s enthusiasm contagious, and may find it a challenge to get out of the car and get some work done.

By the way, the MX-5 does perfectly well as a two-seater; a backseat would only be used for prolonged make-out sessions.

8. Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart

Last year, it was Mitsubishi’s Lancer Evolution X that graced our list of twelve-best. (Had we allowed for repeat winners, the Evo would likely be back again.) But there’s little question that the slightly saner version of the turbocharged Lancer concept deserves some big ups, too.

Like the WRX that just barely beat it out for the seventh spot in our group, the Ralliart makes impressive use of a blown 2.0-liter four, all-wheel grip, and a chuckable chassis. The Mitsu’s SST dual-clutch transmission is undeniably brilliant stuff—as good a DCT application as we’ve yet seen on any car below the Ferrari level of mastery—but there is no doubt that some enthusiasts will always require the manual transmission Mitsubishi doesn’t offer here. That’s a pity, really, as the Ralliart’s SST is as or more involving to use as most anything with three pedals.

The new Ralliart Sportback might very well be the most useful performance car one can buy, too. Adding a huge cargo hold onto the back end of the fetching Lancer body, Mitsubishi has created a turbo-fed hauler that should be sizable enough to meet the needs of even small families, while not sacrificing much in the way of adrenaline pumping potential. (Don’t miss out on the tuning potential here, either. A chipped and slightly lowered Sportback becomes a very serious machine, very quickly.) 

7. Subaru Impreza WRX

The enthusiasm drivers have for the Subaru Impreza WRX is impressive. Behind the wheel, other Subaru drivers wave and smile. Stepping out, BMW drivers will cross the parking lot to compliment the car. In line at the supermarket, people will notice the Subaru key fob, and ask, “Is that your WRX I saw in the parking lot?” Once one has driven a WRX, this behavior comes as no surprise. It’s a car whose personality is big enough to inspire good will from other car-people, and outright adulation from the cultish Subaru faithful.

The WRX, whether in sedan or hatchback form, is unlike any other. Some may say it looks funny but its odd looks are endearing to a lot of people, and hell, it is a Subaru, after all. Anyway, what’s really important is the 265-horsepower boxer engine, turbocharger, sport-tuned suspension, and all-wheel drive. The sum of these technical features equals a truly fantastic and dynamic driving experience, the likes of which aren’t found in any other vehicle. When steering a WRX, you know it’s a WRX.

On roads of all surfaces, it’s nearly impossible not to have fun at the controls of this machine. On dry pavement, the WRX eats corners for breakfast, and holds on with kung-fu grip. On gravel or dirt, it soars, attacking washboard roads with determination. In snow, controlled drifts come willingly and with great poise, as we found out about this time last year. No matter the conditions, the WRX stands by its driver like a trusty steed.

6. Tesla Roadster

To gauge Tesla’s accomplishments with the Roadster, just consider the following. Most people who drive the Lotus Elise come away from the experience knowing, at a basic synaptic level, that they’ve just driven one of the most exhilarating cars on our planet. While blathering about the mind-altering experience of the Lotus, they usually feel a bit self-conscious and mumble something about “maybe it could use more torque.” Well, essentially if simplistically, the Tesla is an Elise with more torque.  A lot more torque, actually, along with serious claims to energy efficiency. 

Pedants will carp about the details, until they drive it, and after that brief pause they’ll go back to being pedants and carping anyway. Drivers will worry that some aspects of involvement have been sacrificed, and they’ll have a point. But they’ll also know that every car involves tradeoffs, and with the Tesla they’ll appreciate that something new has been gained.

A historic milestone, and one worth owning if you can.

5. Porsche 911

Porsche just keeps plugging away at the 911 formula, and to the surprise of practically nobody, the cars just get better and better as the years roll on. Step back, for a moment, from your romantic notions of lightweight, air-cooled, dynamically unpredictable 911s of Porsche past (blasphemous, we know), and notice what the model has become—a truly fast, balanced, and useful sporting machine. Iconoclastic handling and completely original driving experience are intact, but now grip, neutrality, and even reasonable fuel economy can be had, too. Very few sports cars today can combine technical brilliance with real soulfulness like the 911.

There’s also a pretty high cool factor here, too. Sure, your average, newly minted millionaire might prefer the flash mob effect that comes with something like a black R8 (not a horrible choice to be sure), but there’s something a bit more dashing, old money, and self confident about pulling up in a near-timeless machine.

Better still, all of the above can be fairly stated about even the bog-standard 911 Carrera (and its paltry 345-horsepower, 180-mph stats). But let’s not forget that it was the late-2009 drive of the all-conquering new Turbo that helped to secure the Porsche a spot on our list.

Anyone who read Matt Davis’s review of the 997 Turbo isn’t likely to forget that he had no trouble besting Porsche’s estimates on his way to a 3.2-second 0 to 60 blast, or his almost blasé prediction that a sub-3.0-second time was not inconceivable. Far be it from us to get too wound up about that fairly meaningless stat, but damn.

4. Audi R8 5.2

Like a dagger jerked from its scabbard, a quickly executed shift of its manual gearbox brings forth an exquisitely satisfying ring. This metallic aural cue puts a satisfying period on each gear change, making the pilot feel invincibly cool. The Audi R8 5.2's 525-horsepower also helps with a rippingly fine exhaust howl that encourages windows-down driving.

While the three-pedal transmission may seem archaic in this thoroughly modern, all-wheel-drive, directed-injected, magnetic ride controlled, drive-by-wire Germanic supercar, it's not. The gearbox is the perfect bow on an already near-perfect package. The gated shifter looks intimidating, but operates with silky action. By comparison, the R-tronic transmission is a mechanical abomination capable of super-human shift times but incapable of buttery smoothness. Or forethought.

Driven at speed, the Audi sticks to the pavement like a limpet. Driven like (or by) Audi's Le Mans driver Alan McNish, the R8 5.2 shows it can be tossed, manhandled, and whipped up to frighteningly wonderful track speeds with no threat of retribution.

From the vantage of the carbon fiber and leather interior, the V-10's 8750 rpm fuel cutoff arrives blindly fast. As does 60 mph and other speeds that send one to jail with no questions. Figures such as a 3.7-second 0-60 mph time and 196 mph top speed are academic.

The R8 5.2 is an easy match for the 911 Turbo, AMG Mercedes, or (insert your personal dream car here). Even though there are faster cars, one must understand the near overwhelming allure of how the R8 5.2 delivers its performance, always coaxing its driver into thrills.

Not all cars do that. Only the great ones.

3. BMW 335d

If you’re an automotive enthusiast, it’s physically impossible to not love the BMW 335d. We don’t need to tell you about why the BMW 3-Series is a good car—one of the best luxury/sport sedans of all time—but adding that lowercase “d” to the name brings with it a whole slew of new goodness. We love diesels, and you should, too—especially ones that crank out 265 horsepower and 425 pound-feet of torque (yes, four hundred and twenty-five pound-feet of torque!) in a rear-wheel-drive sedan that weighs just a tick over 3800 pounds.

If we had to live with one specific iteration of the 3-Series each and every day, the 335d would easily be our pick. It’s smooth, effortlessly fast, and extremely comfortable. Beyond that, it’s one hell of a performance sedan, too, able to sprint from a stop to 60 miles per hour in just six seconds flat. And if highway cruising is your thing, you can have your cake and eat it, too—the 335d will net you 36 miles per gallon on the highway all of the time, no hypermiling required.

In recent issues of Winding Road, we’ve talked a lot about the idea of Greenformance cars—vehicles that do not sacrifice efficiency for the sake of driver involvement, and the 335d is one of our top picks for this category of vehicles, hands down. The 3-Series sedan hasn’t changed too much over the years, but the addition of this delicious diesel powerplant is the only credential this car needs to be named one of our best cars of the year.

2. Lotus Elise SC + Exige

One of the purest driving experiences is on offer here. The supercharged Lotus, be it the Elise or Exige was born to tackle tracks, but will make regular roads tremble in fear as well. There’s no need for a 300-plus horsepower mill, as the no-nonsense design leaves each car with a curb weight in the neighborhood of 2000 pounds.

A sports car in every sense and detail, there is very little practical value to be found. After getting into the Lotus (which is no mean feat in itself), one finds oneself sitting low in the tub of the car. Occupants are surrounded by raw, unpolished carbon fiber. The engine whines away just behind the ear, with only a wisp of a firewall to dampen the sound.

In motion, every bit of the road is felt through both the steering wheel and the seat. The forgone comfort is not missed, as the connection between man, machine, and road is direct and engaging, and all of one’s attention is focused entirely on the driving. (Or, more precisely, the focus is on keeping the land-bound missile you’re piloting from clipping any of the barely-recognizable, yet more-than-likely solid objects that blur by.) It’s the closest thing to driving as a form of meditation we’ve seen in any production vehicle. Owners of a supercharged Elise or the mildly more potent Exige will likely find that, outside of the car, daily stressors, troubles, and worries are no longer significant.

Yes, it’s that good.

1. Nissan 370Z

The 370Z wins. If you must know, the car wins by an out-and-out landslide. Not one member on our panel that had driven the Nissan didn’t vote for it—most of us put it pretty high up on our respective lists, too. High praise, we think, from a group that runs under the banner, “For Drivers.”

It’s hard not to love Nissan’s Z car. It is immensely attractive, what with its fastback roofline, wide rear hips, and little fangs out front, but that’s just the icing on an already delicious cake. Start with a high-revving, 3.7-liter V-6, and mate it to Nissan’s excellent SynchroRev Match six-speed manual transmission. We instantly feel like racecar drivers whenever we sink into the Z’s cockpit.

What really impresses us about the Z is how fantastic the entire model range is. The base car is nearly perfect, with great overall balance, a very involving steering feel, and sharp handling. From there, the topless Z adds open-air enjoyment without sacrificing any of the coupe’s good-to-drive qualities. It’s hard to create a convertible that is as dynamically sound as its coupe counterpart, but Nissan seems to have nailed it with the 370. Finally, the race-ready Nismo Z adds more power, better aerodynamics, and suspension tweaks that would be a welcomed addition to any track day. It’s a pure beast of a car, and we can’t seem to stop smiling whenever we drive one.

In the $30,000 sports car segment, it’s hard to beat the 370Z’s great mix of performance and style. Even looking outside of that price range, the Z is still a chart-topping sports car. What really drives home the Z’s goodness is how much we like driving it day after day. We never grow tired of this car, and we don’t think any of you really grow tired of hearing about it, either.

And The Runners Up Are…

While we only had room on our Best Of 2009 list for the top twelve, we’re not foolish enough to believe that our dozen are the only great cars around. What follows is a list, in no particular order, of other vehicles that received votes from our panel of editors (just not enough of them). Spreading the love, one good car at a time.

Mercedes-Benz GLK350: Great to drive, stunning to sit in, and a little weird to look at. Two out of three ain’t bad, though.

Buick LaCrosse: Buick shows it can build a competitive car in a very competitive class, and make it less bland than the benchmark brands.

Lamborghini Gallardo: Stupid fast, absurdly expensive, with a 99.99 percent chance of getting you laid.

Smart ForTwo: Forget how you think you look in it, get in and drive to experience arguably the most fun car for urban carving.

Chevrolet Camaro SS: Well-balanced suspension and (more than) ample motor, but also a demonstration that details matter in giving a car a soul.

Ford Flex: Step away from the minivan, madam. Ford has something just a little better to show you.

Porsche Boxster: Completely brilliant “BMW set to 11” feel on the road; in some ways the best Porsche, only familiarity holds it back.

Audi TTS: It’s gorgeous, four-season friendly, and fast. Just don’t mind the turbo lag.

Volkswagen GTI: The people’s hot hatch is better than ever for 2010. Daily driver? Yes, please.

Cadillac SRX: An American-built crossover that can boogie on the road, and tote some kids, err, grandkids.

Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8: Most of the performance of a Porsche Cayenne Turbo, for about half the price. If you’re into that kind of thing.

Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG: Sexy meets fast with this AMG bomber. Luxurious and aurally stimulating, too.

Ford Shelby GT500: The top-rung Pony Car’s power-per-dollar ratio can’t be beat. Burnouts, ho!

Acura TL SH-AWD 6MT: It’s not pretty, but we’d still drive one every day. AWD + 6MT = Awesome.

Volvo XC60: Probably the best-looking crossover in history. Sorry, AMC Eagle, this day was bound to come.

Audi S4: With 333 supercharged horses, the S4 is a potent killer. Love those LEDs, too.

Cadillac CTS-V: The baddest performance sedan America has ever built. Where’s your God now, M5?

Nissan Cube: Truly fun to drive in town, and packs really useful space; you simply have to decide if you’re this stylish.

Pontiac G8 GXP: Perhaps the most communicative and best-tuned GM car ever for open roads; untimely death shows the long-term power/impotence of branding.

Mazdaspeed3: This car will crash your party, eat your cat, and leave rubber on the carpet—but in a good way.

Honda Civic Si: Like a knight with a rapier, it’s quick, nimble, and precise.

Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon: All of the CTS new-Caddy-cool, plus a big ‘ol back porch. If this is a Cadillac wagon, we want more.

Kia Soul: Cool styling and great value set this urban transport apart on the road.

Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport: Balanced not only dynamically, but also within the ‘Vette lineup.

Hyundai Genesis Coupe: A thoroughbred. It begs to be tuned and caned at the track.

Dodge Ram 1500: Dodge asks $2300 for the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8—that won’t even buy you cruise control on your Benz.

Jaguar XF: A wholly satisfying and impressive combination of grace and grunt.

Roush 540RH: Attention all Mustang tuners (that includes you, Shelby), your benchmark is here.

Volkswagen CC: Catch jealous glimpses of passersby as they mouth, “What VW is that?”

Dodge Challenger: Classic muscle, like a drive-in hamburger, with similar handling.