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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Best New Cars of 2009

1. Cadillac CTS-V

2009 Cadillac CTS-VPhoto © Aaron Gold
The hot-rod Caddy isn't just one of the best new cars of 2009, it's one of the best cars I've ever driven. Its handling is laser-fine and remarkably unflappable, while the power from its supercharged V8 (556 hp/551 lb-ft) is the stuff Bible stories are written about. Remember, this is the car that beat the BMW M5 around Germany's grueling 17.5-mile Nürburgring race track. The CTS-V runs 0-60 in 3.9 seconds, yet it's posh and genteel enough to ferry your fickle mother-in-law to high tea with the Ladies' Aid Society. With a pricing starting just over $60k, the CTS-V delivers a bang-for-the-buck quotient of nuclear proportions. All this, plus it was conceived, designed and built right here in the US of A. Take that, Germany!

2. Chevrolet Corvette ZR1

2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1Photo © Aaron Gold
No question, the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 is the most thrilling car I have ever driven. The acceleration produced by the 638 hp supercharged V8 is almost beyond the scope of human comprehension, while the handling is supercar-sharp yet incredibly forgiving. With styling that looks nearly identical to the base-model Corvette, it's easy to forget how much engineering intelligence is packed into the ZR1, or what an incredible bargain it is -- $105,000 is a heck of a deal for a supercar that goes 0-60 in 3.5 seconds and on to 200 MPH, let alone one that includes a lightweight aluminum skeleton, magnetic-fluid shocks and carbon-ceramic brakes. Mark my words: History will remember the Corvette ZR1 as one of the all-time great cars.

3. Dodge Challenger

2009 Dodge Challenger R/TPhoto © Aaron Gold
Technically, the Challenger was introduced in 2008, but only in limited-run automatic SRT8 form. 2009 sees the introduction of the full lineup -- SE, R/T, and manual-trans SRT-8. I love that the base-model SE looks every bit as mean and nasty as the big-dog SRT8, while the R/T delivers 95% of the SRT8's thrills for 75% of the price. And the six-speed manual transmission with its modern-day pistol grip shifter is the best thing to happen to the Challenger SRT8 since... well, since last year. Sure, the Challenger has flaws -- plenty of 'em, in fact -- but I don't think I'll ever grow tired of driving it...or of seeing it parked in my driveway.

4. Honda Fit

2009 Honda FitPhoto © Aaron Gold
The second-generation Honda Fit is on this list for the same reason the first-gen Fit made the list in 2007: It's a brilliant example of space and fuel efficiency. Tiny as the Fit is, it's still the only subcompact that can accommodate four adults and their luggage in comfort. Leave at least two of those adults at home, and the Fit can accommodate all manner of cargo, thanks to a trick back seat that flips and folds nine ways to Sunday. The Honda Fit is reasonably priced, nicely equipped, and has a zippy little engine that returns great fuel economy -- plus it's a right handsome little devil.

5. Hyundai Genesis

2009 Hyundai GenesisPhoto © Aaron Gold
If you still have any lingering doubts that Hyundai can produce a decent car, you need to check out the Genesis, a full-size luxury sedan that comes frighteningly close to out-Lexusing the Lexus LS460. The Genesis is big, beautiful, quiet and smooth, and since it's a Hyundai at heart, it's a great deal -- $33,000 for starters and $42,000 with goodies like a leather-covered dash, dial-operated navigation system, a 17-speaker stereo by Lexicon (the folks that make sound systems for Rolls-Royce), and a fantastic 375 hp V8. Frankly, this car would make the Best Of list no matter who built it -- but I just love the fact that it's a Hyundai.

6. Mazda6

2009 Mazda 6Photo © Aaron Gold
The 2009 Mazda6 is my new favorite mid-size family sedan. Why? First of all, it does family-sedan stuff brilliantly well. It's roomy and fuel-efficient with a great cabin and a very reasonable price tag. Second, it makes safety a priority, with six airbags and electronic stability control standard in all models, even the cheapest one. And third, it's brilliant to drive. The standard four-cylinder engine delivers plenty of power (the optional V6 delivers tons more) and the road manners are fantastic -- the Mazda6 is amazingly fun in the curves, yet it has a smooth, quiet ride that makes it a pleasure to live with on a day-to-day basis. If there's a downside to this car, I haven't found it yet.

7. Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG

2009 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMGPhoto © Aaron Gold
I'll admit it -- I'm a sucker for the AMG-designed 6.2 liter V8 that powers all of Mercedes' 63-series AMG cars. The engine is strong as an ox and makes fantastic noises whether it's running full-bore up a freeway onramp or just idling at the curb. Take all that motoriffic goodness and pack it into a rich man's tin-top convertible, and, well, that's the Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG. Fast, loud and beautiful -- what's not to love?

8. Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart

2009 Mitsubishi Lancer RalliartPhoto © Aaron Gold
The Lancer Ralliart is Mitsubishi's first attempt to take on Subaru's mid-level WRX, and it's a good 'un. With a two-liter turbo engine, all-wheel-drive, and twin-clutch automatic transmission (an interesting and somewhat controversial choice), the Ralliart fits in between the happy-go-lucky Lancer GTS and the take-no-prisoners Lancer Evolution -- but it feels more like a toned-down Evolution than a tuned-up GTS. The Ralliart delivers big-time thrills in a sensible, family-friendly package -- that's my kind of car!

9. Pontiac Vibe

2009 Pontiac Vibe AWDPhoto © Aaron Gold
There are a lot of reasons to love the Pontiac Vibe. First, it's versatile, with a tall, roomy interior, mini-wagon body, and a hard-plastic-lined cargo bay. Second, it's safe -- all versions of the Vibe have electronic stability control as standard, and all-wheel-drive is optional. And third, it's a Toyota. Okay, it's not actually a Toyota -- the Pontiac Vibe is a joint collaboration between Toyota and General Motors, but the mechanical bits are Toyota-sourced and the car is built at the joint GM-Toyota NUMMI plant in California, which has been turning out high-quality cars (including the Toyota Corolla and Tacoma pickup) for over twenty years. Toyota has their own version -- the also-new-for-2009 Matrix -- but the Pontiac Vibe is better.

10. Volkswagen Jetta TDI

2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDIPhoto © Aaron Gold
The diesel-powered car is one of those great ideas that Americans just haven't latched onto yet -- but the VW Jetta TDI is certainly doing its part to help. Its all-new 2-liter turbodiesel engine produces near-hybrid fuel economy with stronger acceleration and less electro-mechanical complexity, plus it runs on low-sulfur "clean" diesel fuel and meets 50-state emissions standards without the need for any sort of AdBlue-type fluid. VW has wrapped this engine it in the Jetta, one of my favorite family sedans. Thanks to a $1,300 federal tax credit, the Jetta TDI actually costs less than a comparably-equipped gasoline-powered Jetta -- and it gets double the fuel economy.

11. Honorable mention: Porsche 911 Carrera

2009 Porsche 911 CarreraPhoto © Aaron Gold
The 911 Carrera isn't all-new for 2009, though it has been significantly updated: Revised styling, new engines and a new twin-clutch automatic transmission. It's the last item -- which Porsche calls PDK -- that brings it to this list. PDK is what a twin-clutch transmission ought to be. It provides near-instant upshifts and downshifts with absolutely no interruption in power, and I mean none -- PDK can downshift from 7th gear directly to 2nd without even the slightest jolt. It's a truly amazing transmission -- and the 911 has the power and the handling to really put it to good use. I still prefer my Porsches with three pedals, but the 911 PDK is the best automatic-transmission-equipped sports car I've ever driven.

12. Honorable mention: Subaru Impreza WRX

2009 Subaru Impreza WRXPhoto © Aaron Gold
The Subaru Impreza WRX gets our Most Improved Player Award for 2009. The WRX was actually all-new for 2008 -- and it was good enough to earn a spot on the 2008 list -- but the reception from the public at large was lukewarm. As a result, Subaru has fortified the '09 WRX with a serious power boost (41 horsepower and 18 lb-ft of torque), a stiffer suspension, and new summer performance tires. End result: The WRX is more fun than ever, especially in the curves. The WRX is a loveable car that's gotten a whole lot more loveable for 2009.
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