This is always a tough task for me. I formally reviewed well over 50 new vehicles in calendar year 2011, and drove twice that many for anywhere from a day to several days. It has been an interesting year as I have seen the results of America transitioning to more fuel-efficient vehicles as more become available. That does not mean small necessarily, it just means that if someone trades a two to three year-old car for the same model, the odds are great that the new car will get substantially better fuel economy.
As is tradition, below you will find the Top Five vehicles I drove in 2011. They are the vehicles that had the most dramatic effect on me while I had them. I will also tell you what I remember best about them and why they made this list. They are not ranked by any measure; the list is in random order.
Hyundai Equus: I did not think it was a good idea for Hyundai to get into the luxury car business when they built the Genesis and debuted it in early 2009. They did such a great job with it, that I knew the Equus would a huge hit and a great car. This large sedan can double as a limo, but you would want to drive it yourself. It is a dream to ride in and drive. As always, you get the terrific warranty that all Hyundais come with, but with Equus the dealer will come get your car, leave you a loaner, and bring the Equus back to you. As I said at the time I drove this wonderful machine….you can spend a lot more money to get a comparable car, but why would you?
Audi A7: My love for Audis just can’t be masked. I waited to buy myself an A8 until I had a chance to drive an A7. It was not the car I thought it would be, and bought the A8. However, I knew when I drove the A7 it would be on this list. It is a large hatchback, which took a lot of guts on the part of Audi, but it works and is a joy to drive. I expected more horsepower under the hood of the car that falls between the great A6 and the great A8, but smartly, Audi didn’t just split the difference in size, they made a whole new car. Under the hood they put a supercharged V6 that got almost 30 miles per gallon on the highway.
Ford Explorer: It was blasphemy to even consider moving the Explorer from a truck chassis to a car chassis. Since I drove the first Explorer ever made in 1990, it has been known as tough, capable, dependable, but always a truck. When I finally got around to reviewing the Explorer I did so with reservations. I was afraid I would not like such a radical change. By the time I had driven the Explorer for a week, I knew Ford had a better idea. Their tag line Drive One fit perfectly. In fact, I gushed over the Explorer so much, I racked my brain to try to find something negative to say about it, and failed. For a car reviewer, this is rare and thus the reason Explorer is on this list.
VW Passat: A Volkswagen with Southern roots hit me oddly, but from the minute I got behind the wheel, I knew the good folks in Tennessee had something really special with the 2012 Passat. Its size came as a shock to me, it is much larger than I expected with a massive back seat. I assumed VW engineers decided to put the space in the back seat by robbing it from the trunk space, but I was wrong. The trunk is mammoth. The Passat was full of surprises for me, and the price on the diesel I tested was $7000 less than it was in 2010. Whether diesel or gas, the 2012 Passat deserved to make this list.
Toyota Camry: Some say Toyota played it safe with the new 2012 Camry, but when you have had the best-selling car in America for a decade, you don’t want to screw that up. They changed what they needed to with a much nicer interior, made it ride better and handle better, got it up to 35 miles per gallon highway, and lowered the price. They took a great car and made it better. It is hard to say whether Camry will hold that coveted #1 in America title for 2011 due to the loss of production during the earthquake in Japan. Either way, I think it is a lock for the 2012 calendar year.
The ALMOST made it list: I struggle with this list every year and wanted to list a few vehicles that were in the running right up to the end. Chrysler 300 almost made it, Lexus CT 200 hybrid almost made it, the Toyota Prius V was right there. If the F150 had changed during this year, it would have made it for the Ecoboost engine alone, it’s been a game changer.