published Saturday, December 21st, 2013

Test Drive: 2013's most notable new vehicles

California-made electric car Tesla
California-made electric car Tesla
Staff photo by Mark Kennedy

EDITOR'S NOTE: Today and next Saturday, Times Free Press "Test Drive" columnist Mark Kennedy will highlight 10 of the best vehicles of the year. This article contains excerpts from his previous columns.

If I could whisper one wish to Santa it would be this: Big Guy, please bring me a gleaming new Tesla S. Black. With the long-life battery and the special wheel package.

Alas, even though I've been a good boy, Santa probably doesn't have $70,000 budgeted for my gift. Still, the ground-breaking electric-powered Tesla was easily the best new vehicle I drove in 2013 -- but more on that later.

Today and next Saturday I'll revisit some of my favorite new cars, trucks and SUVs of 2013.

But before I get to the list, I'd like to thank all the Chattanooga-area dealerships that allow me to test drive new vehicles almost as soon as they hit the ground. I talk to automotive journalists in other towns who must wait in line for factory-issued test cars. Meanwhile, Chattanooga's car store owners let me drive their new products right out of the showroom.

Because the Saturday Test Drive column spotlights brand-new and significantly redesigned cars and trucks, this report is weighted in that direction. And just because a vehicle is listed as a favorite here, doesn't mean it would be judged best-in-class in a side-by-side comparison test. It does mean, however, that in our view these vehicles represent major achievements by their manufacturers.

Now, onto the winners.

Car of the Year: The Tesla S

The Tesla S was Motor Trend's 2013 Car of the Year, following on the bumper of the Chattanooga-made VW Passat in 2012. Consumer Reports called the Tesla one of the best cars it has ever tested.

I just know that the car's other-worldly torque, which propels it zero-to-60 mph in about five seconds, feels like the hand of God. Several Chattanooga-area Tesla owners have ordered their cars online and rave about the performance. Even recent stories about a couple of accident-related Tesla fires haven't dimmed my enthusiasm for the car. Listen, all car brands can catch on fire, and if a fire occurs -- which is exceedingly rare -- I'd much rather be in car without a gas tank.

In a test drive on East Brainerd Road, I was astonished at the combination of whisper-quiet operation -- all you can hear is the tire and wind noise -- and enormous bursts of acceleration made possible by depressing your right foot. The ear searches for the familiar symphony of a V-8 engine under full throttle, but it never happens. Tesla S prices range from $69,000 to $94,900. Judging from the trajectory of Tesla stock, this is the first important new car brand of the 21st century. Once the price comes down within reach of middle-class buyers, watch out.

Best Sports Car: Jaguar F-Type

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    The new F-type is the first new two-seater from Jaguar in more than 50 years.
    Photo by Staff photo by Mark Kennedy
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This was easy. The first new two-seater from Jaguar in over 50 years was named World Car Design of the Year by an international jury of design experts. On a test drive on Interstate-75, the F-Type drew a crowd. I found myself surrounded by drivers ogling for a peek. It was a bit like being strapped to the world's most fashionable bullet.

Accelerate the supercharged engine and you'd swear there is a trombone band in the trunk. There's something primal and masculine about the F-Type that makes it truly an instant classic. The near-perfect 50-50 front-to-rear weight ratio of the F-Type and its short wheel base make it a blast to drive. The mission to get the weight distribution just right was so precise that Jaguar engineers ended up putting the windshield-washer fluid tank in the trunk.

The hearty exhaust note signals your brain to release dopamine, the chemical pleasure transmitter. It's the neuroscience equivalent of direct injection. Our test car stickered for $94,470, and it's worth every penny.

Best Full-Size Sedan: Buick LaCrosse

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    2014 Buick LaCrosse
    Photo by Staff photo by Mark Kennedy
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If you're upset that the government bailed out General Motors, please know that the recent turn-around in the product quality at GM is nothing short of amazing. All of GM's full-size sedans, including the Chevrolet Impala, Cadillac CTS and my favorite, the Buick LaCrosse, may be the best-driving mainstream cars ever built in the U.S.

Although the LaCrosse shares a platform with the highly-regarded Impala, the body work is much more buttoned down. A large waterfall grille gives the LaCrosse presence and a nice focal point.

LaCrosse buyers have two engine options. The mild-hybrid eAssist option features a gas-sipping 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a small electric motor. And there's a more muscular 3.6-liter V-6 that tops 300 horsepower.

About once a year I develop a crush on a car. At the moment, I have an eye for the LaCrosse. Our highly optioned test car stickered for $46,340.

Best Mid-Size Car: Mazda 6

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    Mazda says the new 6's new, back-weighted body style looks like an animal waiting to pounce.
    Photo by Staff photo by Mark Kennedy
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The redesigned, 2014 Mazda 6 -- which competes in the same class as the Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry, and Passat -- needed an update to stand out from the crowd. Indeed, the new Mazda 6 has a rear-weighted design that moves away from the cab-forward, cookie-cutter style of most modern cars. Mazda says the new look is inspired by the movement of wild animals, and it actually looks like a big cat coiled and ready to pounce.

The new Mazda 6 is being touted by members of the automotive press as the best-handling sedan in its class, adding an enthusiast-oriented option to a segment best known for "appliance" cars. All newer Mazdas benefit from the company's highly-touted Skyactiv design theories, which work together to enhance the driving experience and to squeeze every penny out of your fuel dollar. How does 38 mpg highway sound?

The Mazda 6 is truly a car to get excited about. It looks great and drives like a dream. Our well-optioned test car had a sticker price of just over $31,190.

Best Luxury Car: Mercedes-Benz S-Class

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    Mercedes S class
    Photo by Staff photo by Mark Kennedy
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For those looking for bragging rights at the country club, the S-Class delivers about three tons of serious status. Owners of the previous generation S-Class -- a fine car in its own right -- may nonetheless be tempted to trade up because of all the revolutionary mechanical and aesthetic upgrades in the new flagship sedan.

With its burl walnut inlays, heated arm-rests and available reclining back seats, the S-Class makes a case for itself as the most comfortable mass production passenger car in the world.

There's also a "hot stone" massage feature, and even an aromatherapy system that transforms a canister of fragrance in the glove compartment into an energizing cabin experience.

Still, the essence of the S-Class is that it's the perfect blend of power and luxury. Our test car featured a 4.7-liter, eight-cylinder, bi-turbo engine that makes 455 horsepower. With a bevvy of options the S-Class we tested had a sticker price of $123,575.

(Next week: Best Family Vehicle, Best Hybrid Vehicle, Best Small SUV, Best Small Car and Best Truck.)

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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