This year, for the 28th running of our annual 10Best competition, the rules were simple. First, we raised the price cap from $71,000 to $80,000 (roughly three times the average transaction price of a new car) in the belief that 80 grand is the current point of automotive excellence's diminishing returns. Cars get more expensive than that, but they don't get much better. More important, raising the cap makes eligible nominees in two other vital categories: luxo-sport GTs and luxury sedans. Never mind that only two new cars qualified (and one was about to be replaced in a few months, so we left it out).

Second rule: As is the norm, we invited back 2009's 10Best winners and all the new or significantly altered cars for 2010. Every qualifying vehicle must be on sale no later than January 2010, ergo the complete absence of vaporware.

In all, we hosted a total of 58 automobiles at our secret base hidden amid the farm plots of southeast Michigan. We flogged the cars for a week over our long-standing route, which serves up everything from smooth curves to pockmarked apexes to first-gear corners to high-speed straights to elevation changes.

There, we sought answers to the following questions: 1) How well does this car perform its intended mission? Does a given luxury car, for example, ride harshly? Does it sacrifice rear-seat headroom for an aggressive tumblehome? 2) Is this a highly engaging, fun-to-drive vehicle in its category? Does it compel the driver to get in and enjoy it? And 3) What kind of value does it represent? How much goodness does it deliver for its price?

The cars on the following pages max out in all three areas. These are the machines that have cracked the greatness code. The overwhelming consensus in our results, arrived at by a diverse array of drivers and their biases, has convinced us that these are the 10 worthiest cars on the American road. And their average base price of just over $35,000 was far below our $80,000 cap.

The Nominees
Nominees consist of all-new cars, 2009 10Best winners, cars that were not available for the 2009 competition, and those with significant updates. All cars must fall under our base-price cap of $80,000 and be on sale in January 2010.

Acura TL 6-sp manual - Acura ZDX - Audi A5 2.0T - Audi A6 3.0T - Audi S4 - Audi S5 Cabriolet - Audi TTS - BMW Z4 - BMW 3-series/M3 - Buick LaCrosse - Cadillac CTS/CTS-V - Chevrolet Camaro - Chevrolet Corvette/Grand Sport/Z06 - Ford Fusion/Fusion hybrid - Ford Mustang/Shelby GT500 - Ford Taurus/Taurus SHO - Honda Accord - Honda Fit - Honda Insight - Hyundai Genesis coupe - Infiniti G37 - Jaguar XF/XFR - Kia Forte/Forte Koup - Kia Soul - Lexus HS 250h - Lexus IS Convertible - Lincoln MKS EcoBoost - Lotus Evora* - Lotus Exige S 260 Sport - Mazda MX-5 Miata - Mazda 3/Mazdaspeed 3 - Mercedes-Benz E-class - Nissan Cube - Nissan 370Z - Pontiac G8 GXP* - Pontiac Solstice coupe* - Porsche Boxster / Cayman - Porsche 911 Carrera - Subaru Legacy - Subaru Outback - Suzuki Kizashi - Toyota Prius - Toyota Venza - Volkswagen Golf*/GTI

*These cars met our eligibility requirements but were not available for evaluation

2010 Audi S4

Back in 2004, when the S4 introduced the entry-level luxury-car segment to V-8 power, it was named a 10Best Car. Fast-forward six years. The all-new S4 lost a couple of cylinders but packs a silky, 333-hp supercharged V-6 (it makes just seven fewer horses than the old V-8 did) and might be the most controversial car on this year's list.

The purists on staff contend that four-wheel drive has no place in a sports car (or a sedan trying its hardest to be one), and they also believe that the 3-series (including the ass-kicking M3) is a better all-around array when compared with the A4 lineup. They are right on one count: The 3-series is a better all-around array. But the S4 stands apart from the A4 line like a narc at a Dead show, and the rest of our staff can't deny its capabilities. They outnumber the purists.

And capable it is. The S4 recently knocked off the blue-chip BMW 335i in a head-to-head comparison test despite producing practically identical performance numbers and weighing nearly 400 pounds more. The car exhibits a relatively high amount of understeer unless fitted with the optional (and by our standards essential) $1100 torque-vectoring rear differential, which transforms the S4 into an oversteering hoon. Suffice it to say, the fun-to-drive quotient grows, too.

Practicality is also on the S4's side. Exceptional ergonomics, good comfort (especially in the rear seat), and class-leading styling round out its winning package.

  • VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, 4-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
  • BASE PRICE: $46,725
  • ENGINE TYPE: supercharged and intercooled DOHC 24-valve 3.0-liter V-6; Power (SAE net): 333 bhp @ 5500 rpm; Torque (SAE net): 325 lb-ft @ 2900 rpm
  • TRANSMISSIONS: 7-speed dual-clutch automated manual, 6-speed manual
  • DIMENSIONS:Wheelbase: 110.7 in, Length: 185.7 in, Width: 71.9 in, Height: 55.4 in,Curb weight: 4000 lb
  • FUEL ECONOMY: EPA city/highway driving: 18/27-28 mpg

View Pictures:  Audi S4

Do you agree that these are the 10 best cars for 2010?

2010 BMW 3-Series / M3

Attacking our 10Best loop each year in a 3-series gives you the sense that this car has been designed for the sole purpose of oozing along that twisting, cratered section of pavement. There, it has a cohesive fluidity that's unmatched by any of its competitors. But then, the 3 feels similarly sublime on any other stretch of road, too.

From the 230-hp 328i that can achieve 30-plus mpg on the highway to the even thriftier and uncharacteristically responsive diesel to the unforgettable bawl of the M3's screaming 414-hp V-8 at 8400 rpm that gets the 0-to-60-mph job done in just over four seconds, the 3-series range is extremely broad. Body styles consist of coupe, sedan — including the resurrection of a fantastically subtle four-door M3 — wagon, and folding-hardtop convertible.

There are faster cars, and ones with more horsepower, but the 3-series has earned a long list of comparison-test victories and now a 19th-consecutive 10Best appearance because of the instant confidence it imparts to the driver, making pushing a little harder completely comfortable. It's the extraordinary precision and response of the perfectly weighted steering, the smooth predictability of the unwavering chassis, the optional sport seats that adjust and embrace in all the right ways, the slick six-speed manual transmissions, the firm but never harsh ride. In short, it's the car we'd like to drive every day.

And some of us do. Actually, is there any higher praise than the fact that more of our staff has spent their own money to buy a 3-series than any other car?

  • VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine; rear- or 4-wheel-drive; 4-5-passenger; 2-door coupe, 2-door convertible, 4-door sedan, or 5-door wagon
  • BASE PRICE: $33,675-$69,025
  • ENGINES: DOHC 24-valve 3.0-liter inline-6, 230 hp, 200 lb-ft; twin-turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 24-valve 3.0-liter inline-6, 300 hp, 300 lb-ft; twin-turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 24-valve 3.0-liter diesel inline-6, 265 hp, 425 lb-ft; DOHC 32-valve 4.0-liter V-8, 414 hp, 295 lb-ft
  • TRANSMISSIONS: 6-speed automatic with manumatic shifting, 7-speed dual-clutch automated manual, 6-speed manual
  • DIMENSIONS:Wheelbase: 108.7 in, Length: 178.8-181.7 in, Width: 70.2-71.5 in, Height: 54.1-57.0 in, Curb weight: 3350-4150 lb
  • FUEL ECONOMY: EPA city/highway driving: 13-23/20-36 mpg

BMW 3-Series Reviews