Winding Road Presents The Best Cars Of 2012

By Winding Road Staff

January 17, 2012

If you’re a driving enthusiast, and are considering the purchase of a new car in 2012, the prospect of you being able to find something you truly love is better than ever before. Horsepower and torque are being delivered to the winding roads of our nation in record outputs. Fuel economy is getting better at a faster rate than ever before, while overall luxury, safety, and build quality leaves even the last generation of automobiles in the dust.

It’s an oft-heard statement, and true, that cars are better now than they’ve ever been before.

Better still (we think), if you care about the way in which your new car connects with you as a driver, you now have Winding Road on the job to rate out every new car on the market. We compiled nearly 200 new car reviews and comparison tests over the course of the last year, filmed a slew of video review content, and indexed everything we drove for both driver involvement and overall comfort.

There are now, more than ever, an astonishing number of choices for readers of motoring publications, but not one of those available, be it digital or print, can boast to rate each and every vehicle primarily on driver involvement. Our motto is “For Drivers,” and we do our best to live up to it every time we turn a key (or press a starter button).

It is in that spirit, one of unfettered enthusiasm for driving great cars, on great roads, with great huge smiles on our faces, that we bring you The Best Cars Of 2012. Everyone of these vehicles, sold in segments both stratospheric and attainable, should make you love the driving you do in the year ahead.















Coupe: Mini Cooper S Coupe

So-called “purists” make the argument that a true performance car cannot be front-wheel-drive, and that to truly achieve the highest handling limits, a vehicle must have its engine in the middle. Rather than argue, we’d prefer to simply put the doubters behind the wheel of the Mini Cooper S Coupe, and tell them to drive.

Wait, you haven’t driven a Mini Coupe yet? What are you waiting for? Get to your dealer and try it out, we’ll wait for you. Back? Good. You’ve now experienced the best-handling car in the formidable Mini range. Odds are, the first thing you noticed was the relative lack of body roll. That’s right, the already laterally tight Mini is even tighter. What little body roll there is occurs in a progressive, smooth, and exceptionally communicative manner, too. The same can be said for rotational tendencies. Standard Minis can snap around quickly, but the slightly longer wheelbase and lower center of gravity in the Coupe lessen that tendency, and in the process make it more controllable.

It’s almost like the Mini Coupe rotates around you. To be truthful, we’d feel most comfortable comparing the sensation of driving the Coupe to hustling about in a Mazda MX-5. Like the Miata, you don’t just drive the Mini, you wear it like a glove. Sitting in the driver’s seat, you can feel the entire car rotating and working with you. There is just so much feedback, that at times, it’s difficult to believe you are driving a front-engined, front-wheel-drive vehicle.

The Mini Coupe takes everything we love about the Mini line, and turns it into a more engaging, more enjoyable, and more enlightening experience. Ignore the impracticalities of its two-seat layout, and just take it for a spin. You won’t be disappointed.















Super Coupe: Lotus Evora S

With competitors including even blistering fare from Lamborghini, Ferrari, and Porsche, winning the Super Coupe of the year award means a dogfight. So, while few would argue that the newly supercharged Evora is anything but a purebred sports car, we think its win here is mightily impressive considering the talent in the segment.

The Evora S is fast, blissfully communicative, and more fluid to operate at the limit than any car south of a six-figure price tag ought to be. A fast, direct manual transmission allows for superb modulation of the torque-rich engine, while a nearly pitch-perfect exhaust note encourages us to keep the revs up just for the hell of it. Take this Lotus to the track and it’ll do you proud; drive it hard on the most excellent back road you can find and it’ll blow your mind.

Of course, if one was just looking for speed and handling, Lotus’s own Exige would make a better choice, but the Evora blends in everyday usability that makes it really stand out. The ride will not beat you up; it’s a painless car to drive slowly around the ‘burbs when that type of driving is called for; the interior is stylish, with rich materials, and comfortable seating. The fact that the Evora S is also, frankly, far more exotic looking than certain, more mainstream competitors, is just icing on a really tasty cake. We’re hungry for our second piece.













Under $20,000: Hyundai Veloster

What do we driving enthusiasts routinely beg for from our automakers? How about characterful vehicles, with low curb weights, distinctive styling, affordable performance, and manual gearboxes (preferably really slick ones)? How about some really useful small hatchbacks, loaded up with communication technology and a great audio system? Why not make it get amazing fuel economy in the process? Ladies and gentlemen of the driver’s club, let us present the Hyundai Veloster.

Distinctive choices for less than twenty large are thick on the ground these days, with rising fuel economy standards looming, and expensive gas fundamentally changing the American consumer’s perspective on small cars. Into this mix Hyundai has thrown it’s small-but-mighty Veloster, three-doors-plus-hatchback do-it-all that should appeal to the eminently practical driver, and the closet enthusiast alike.

The 138-horsepower, directly injected 1.6-liter four may not be the stuff of motoring legend (though we wouldn’t easily dismiss the impressive 40 miles per gallon it delivers on the highway), but it really doesn’t struggle to move the lightweight Veloster through space with pep. Better still, the six-speed manual on offer is a fine piece of work, and will allow its user to wring out every drop of horsepower. And, in the tradition of some of our favorite hatchbacks of all time, the suspension tuning goes along with this “momentum car” mindset, being fully willing to play along with an aggressive driver on an outstanding road.

Hyundai has already debuted a turbocharged Veloster, too, and we’ve got high hopes that the larger output makes a great small car even better. But, you don’t need to wait for the forced induction flavored Hyundai to arrive to have a good time—Veloster is ready to be the small car of your dreams right now.















Utility: Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8

We thought the last generation was great, but the new Jeep SRT8 simply blew us away.

The new 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 is a roaring beast, but it’s not as rough as the motor it replaces. It sounds beautiful and pulls very hard at wide-open throttle, but is still very manageable driving at low speeds around town. With 470 horsepower and 465 pound-feet of torque, as well as a really aggressive-looking exterior, we wouldn’t fault you for thinking it would be a bit too raw and intense for a practical daily driver. But, you’d be wrong.

At highway speeds, the Grand Cherokee SRT8 is incredibly smooth and comfortable. It’s a lot quieter inside the cabin than one would expect, and it’s the type of vehicle that you can find yourself totally destroying the speed limit in if you aren’t paying attention. At warp speed, your passengers won’t be screaming in fear; they’ll be stroking the smooth suede on the seats, admiring the tactful use of carbon fiber accents, or playing with the heated rear seats.

The Jeep SRT8 also feels oddly at home on the race track (we first tested it on the very fast corners of Willow Springs, where the air-conditioned front seats were a great asset). Its wide tires hold the vehicle to the track and don’t let go even in hard cornering situations. The all-wheel drive helps keep the car going in the direction you point it, and make slalom-type maneuvers surprisingly easy. Shifting with the steering-wheel-mounted paddles is a joy, and helps you stay in the right gear in performance situations, but the Sport and Track modes can do that, too. Then, when it’s time to prep for a corner, the big Brembo brakes stop the car as though it weighed half as much.

If you want a hot ute that you can use in a sensible way every day, and take to the track on the weekends, look no further.















Minivan: Mazda5

Minivans aren’t really known for their driving dynamics, but somebody forgot to tell that to Mazda, which wittingly infuses a healthy amount of fun into every vehicle it makes. While the pragmatic 5 might not be the sporting riot that some of its other vehicles are, it’s also unlike any other minivan on the market today.

The Mazda5 is available with a six-speed manual transmission, which is something really remarkable for this segment. The do-it-yourself gearbox allows the driver to make excellent use of the 2.5-liter inline-four’s 157 horsepower and 163 pound-feet of torque. It’s not the fastest car in the world, but it doesn’t feel slow either, and the engine has a good amount of punch while still offering 21 miles per gallon in the city and 28 on the highway.

Also, this is a very comfortable minivan, especially for how compact it is. The sliding doors on either side make it very easy to get people and things in and out of the vehicle. The seats are a perfect height, making sitting down and hopping out a cinch. The front seats aren’t too cushy, and offer a decent amount of support. But the suspension is where the magic happens. When turning, even at higher speeds, the Mazda5 rolls very little, and in such a way that it feels as though it is counteracting the g-forces. Therefore, nobody hits their head on the window, nobody spills their drink, and, most importantly, the toddler/dog asleep in the back seat doesn’t wake up and start crying/barking.

All the controls work well together, especially the gas, brakes, and steering, to create an intuitive driving experience that feels natural and effortless, but still somewhat engaging. For this, for being available with a manual transmission, and for all the other reasons we love it, we are happy to honor the Mazda5 as our favorite minivan of the year.















Big Utility: Land Rover LR4

Think of off-roading in style, and the Land Rover LR4 immediately comes to mind. As we found out San Juan Mountains of Colorado, it’s incredibly capable, allowing one to drive places that you’d think a vehicle just shouldn’t go. The LR4 laughs at mud and rocks and snow, taking on any type of rough stuff with its Terrain Response system, four-corner air suspension, and hill descent control. Plus, its slick Camera Surround System (available as part of the Vision Assist package) lets you see what’s going on around you on all sides of the vehicle.

On-road, the LR4 has a very civilized handling nature, creating a comfortable ride for everyone inside. It feels very stable at highway speeds and in the corners. Body roll is kept in check, and the suspension gobbles up potholes and rough road just as you’d expect a mountain-ravaging SUV to be able to.

The LR4 can accommodate up to seven passengers, and the middle two rows of seating are very comfortable. It’s very easy to get in and out of the vehicle, which is nice when you have to make frequent pit stops for your passengers. The large windows and skylights offer a warm and airy feel inside the cabin. Options like the rear-seat entertainment system make those long voyages more bearable for your more impatient traveling companions. Up front, the driver is treated with easy-to-use HVAC and audio controls, as well as simple but useful steering wheel controls.

These are all reasons enough to like the LR4, but its classic style is why we truly love it. It is chock-full of Land Rover heritage, as is apparent at first glance. It evokes admiring looks without drawing too much attention to itself. Also, amazingly, when other motorists see it approaching in their rear-view mirror, they’re generally pretty likely to move out of the way.















Convertible: Mazda MX-5

Although a few cars came close, no convertible we drove this year was quite good enough to beat out the beloved Miata as our very favorite. This small, rear-wheel-drive Japanese roadster is just that good (and has been for over 20 years). Besides being totally attainable, with a starting MSRP of $23,190, it’s incredibly fun to drive.

It may not be the most powerful convertible on the road, with only 167 horsepower (with the manual transmission) and 140 pound-feet of torque, but that’s actually part of the fun. The car challenges you to achieve and maintain speed, and allows for playing close to the dynamic limits without putting anybody’s life in great danger. Besides, most of the fun is in trying to keep the speed up, which is something this little Mazda does very well. With a happy-to-rotate nature, and weighing only 2500 pounds or so, you’ll quickly find the MX-5 willing on nearly every piece of road you love. Bring on The Dragon, Route 2, or Mulholland Drive; the Mazda is ready to drive.

Another thing we love is the manual transmission on offer. The six-speed is so slick, so tactile, and so precise, we can’t help but row through all the gears as much as possible.

Plus, this car’s got a lot of charm. With its roadster looks, just looking out the windshield at the car’s hood is enough to inspire smiles and a desire to take the long way home. Whether it is sporting the soft convertible top, or the power hard top, it’s a breeze to take down. The soft top, being so small and light, can even be stowed without getting up from the driver’s seat.

So, charm, handling prowess, and roadster purity; its no wonder this model has stuck around for so long. We hope we never get sick of Mazda’s best-ever model.


Everyman Sedan: Dodge Charger

When the redesigned Jeep Grand Cherokee was released, we’d be lying if we said we didn’t think it was a bit of a fluke. It had the performance, the looks, and the comfort that a modern SUV should have. Of course, we didn’t think Chrysler could repeat that particular performance. How wrong we were.

The redesigned Dodge Charger is better than the car it replaces in virtually every measureable way. The base V-6, the 3.6-liter Pentastar, is more powerful, economical, and smoother than the old, raspy 3.5-liter V-6. And if you don’t want V-6 power, the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 is still available. Regardless of engine, the Charger has plenty of grunt in most every situation.

As good as the engineering changes were, the interior of the Charger is where things were really improved. If you told people five years ago this was a Dodge interior, they probably wouldn’t believe you. The materials are softer, and far more attractive. A beautiful leather-wrapped steering wheel with plenty of techie buttons (including available adaptive cruise control) just begs to be used, while a massive touchscreen display houses HVAC, radio, and navigation controls.

To top things off, the Charger is quite a comfortable vehicle. The ride is smooth enough, without feeling floaty like the last-generation car. You’ll also have no problem relaxing with the beautiful leather thrones that come with the upmarket models.

With the Charger’s transformation for this model year, it’s gone from an also-ran full-size sedan to a truly compelling, entertaining, and involving vehicle. If you need a big sedan with luxury accouterments, but want something with attitude, performance, value, good looks, and comfort, then look no further than the Dodge Charger, our Everyman Sedan of the year.



Three-Door/Five-Door: Audi A7

Before we talk about how versatile and fun to drive the Audi A7 is, we just want to get the acknowledgment of its utter beauty out of the way. If you don’t want to read what an auto scribe sees in a pretty car, skip to the next paragraph. Still here? Great. This car is gorgeous, completely and totally. The exterior is one of the finest design statements since the original Mercedes-Benz CLS, and the interior looks far pricier than its $60,000 starting price might indicate (really). It has the beautifully sculpted face of Kate Middleton, the curves-in-all-the-right-places profile of Marissa Miller, and the back end of Nicki Minaj. It is an utterly striking piece of design.

It also happens to be damn good to drive. The 3.0-liter supercharged V-6 is strong, linear, and sweet sounding, and the Quattro all-wheel drive provides plenty of stability in all weather conditions without sapping the car’s natural handling ability. Speaking of that natural handling ability, it’s better at dispatching Alpine bends than race track hairpins, but that tradeoff means it’s extremely comfortable over long distances, feeling decidedly more grand tourer than super sedan.

Despite its striking good looks and pleasant driving nature, the A7 is still capable of hauling four adults in comfort, and features a cargo-swallowing lift gate, meaning it’s quite a bit more versatile than your average luxury sedan. That versatility also comes with a ton of tech, including Google Earth built into the navigation system, full LED head- and taillights, and a Bang and Olufson sound system.

If the idea of a luxury SUV doesn’t appeal to you, then you really ought to check out the Audi A7. Its combination of liftback versatility, luxury car tech, all-wheel-drive stability, and outright pleasurable driving is a great alternative to the traditional SUV. Did we mention it looks really good, too?



Over 35 MPG: Ford Focus

It’s not hard to build a car that’ll top 35 miles per gallon these days. What it is hard to do is build a car that’ll top 35 mpg and still be entertaining to drive, enjoyable to live with, and pleasant to look at. That’s what Ford has done with the Focus.

The Focus can be had with a five-speed manual or a six-speed Powershift dual-clutch transmission. Regardless of transmission, you’ll be able to net at least 36 miles per gallon on the freeway, with the Powershift- and SFE-equipped Focus hitting 40 mpg.

The Focus feels a bit more isolated than we’d like (which translates to better comfort in this case), but compared to other fuel misers, it’s an absolute hoot. Steering feel isn’t the greatest, but suspension feedback makes up for it. Unlike other fuel-friendly cars, the Ford can actually get up and move as well. It’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder produces 160 horsepower and 146 pound-feet of torque. The five-speed manual is a smooth operator, with runs through the gears being comically easy.

The great thing about the Focus is that it’s capable of getting great mileage, but it doesn’t sacrifice the sort of comfort expected of a modern car. Touchscreen navigation, Bluetooth, and heated leather seats are just some of the modern luxuries that the Focus can be had with. Ford has seemingly offered up every luxury/tech feature it has in its arsenal to Focus shoppers, making the small car a rolling showcase for just how good high-mpg vehicles can be.

The Focus’ biggest advantage is that, on the outside, it doesn’t look overtly like a common fuel sipper. There are no extra badges (except with the SFE package), or obvious bodywork changes. It’s an attractive design, especially in five-door trim, with big wheels and a sculpted exterior that looks downright premium. Cutting back your weekly gas bill has never been this painless, and is rarely so much fun.



Luxury Sedan: Jaguar XJ

Life at the top is getting harder. Not for drivers, but for luxury carmakers. That’s because less expensive cars (in the case of big sedans, less expensive means those under $60K) are getting so good and so feature laden. A full-size luxury sedan must bring appropriate dynamics together with a sense of occasion, and it turns out that that is still a pretty tall order.

Jaguar, impressively, knows the requirements of the serious luxury car buyer better than any other manufacturer, and it shows in the XJ. The XJ (and here we include the L and Supercharged variants) manages to combine magic carpet ride smoothness, an eager drivetrain and a willingness to respond to the helm. Those desirable qualities rarely travel together in big cars, with BMW being too aloof and edgy, and Audi, Mercedes, and Lexus too fluffy.

Porsche serves up a pretty nice recipe along these lines in the Panamera, but Jaguar’s trump card is design. Where some people are confused by the five-door Porsche, others are repelled, which are reactions you just don’t get with the XJ. Inside and out, the XJ brilliantly manages to be both fresh and familiar, making it the most attractive large sedan on the market.

Finally, we appreciate that the Jaguar is not the high-priced spread. Base pricing is within reason at a tick over $70K, but Jag adds two other elements to the value mix. First, the options list is relatively short, so you don’t end up with a configured vehicle priced 50-percent above base. And, the “base” V-8 is really all you need, so the added expense of supercharging is easy to avoid with minimal net penalty (what the accelerator gives, the steering wheel takes away).



Sports Sedan: Audi S4

Historically, the maximum supreme level of competition in these annual roundups has been reserved for the sports sedan category. In reality, there’s as much tough competition in the supercar world, but that rarefied air is inhaled by very few. And, anyway, the sport sedan category has the makings of a good story, what with the villain being played perennially by the BMW 3-Series, and the challenger always seeming to fall just short of vanquishing the evil king.

We think Audi, with the S4, has well and truly ascended to the top of this category, though its victory isn’t total and BMW is about to anoint a new would-be king. But let that take nothing away from the S4, which is a real achievement.

Interestingly, the S4 wins this battle largely on BMW’s terms. The S4 is supple and willing and responsive, a combination that BMW has been winning hearts and minds with for 25 years. We love the S4 because, while BMW still does those things, BMW does them with reservation and inertness that is the opposite of the direction we’d like for real involvement in the driving process. It is worth noting the Audi pulls this off without getting too buzzy or nervous in the way of the otherwise brilliant Mitsubishi Evo. And the Audi delivers responsiveness with polish and gravity that the Subaru WRX STi or the Infiniti G37S can only dream of.

We’re also mindful of the fact that the S4 packages its dynamic goodness with all wheel drive and an engine that pays at least some heed to fuel economy. These practical factors fit well with the sports sedan ideal. Sure, you can get these capabilities in other worthy sedans, but the result often feels like a bolt-on in the luxury brands that are the real competitors here.

The S4 isn’t the ideal track tool, nor is it the prettiest car in the room, but as a good all-rounder it rings the bell.