10Best Cars of 2010
58 contenders. $2.5 million total. 12,000 test miles logged. The ultimate quest to find the year's greatest cars.
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.
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
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
2010 Cadillac CTS / CTS-V
Now entering its third year as a 10Best winner, the Cadillac CTS plays at the top of a segment packed with some of the best cars in the automotive kingdom. Its interior is gorgeous, with a truly expensive feel, and it is more spacious inside than most of its similarly priced competition. Outside, the CTS combines uniform shapes and sharp angles that borrow from nobody. But the way the CTS drives is what we keep falling for year after year — its moves are as crisp as its exterior lines. The CTS manages to blend refinement, driving dynamics, comfort, and performance in a refreshing, even exhilarating, way that satisfies enthusiast drivers and luxury seekers simultaneously.
For 2010, the sedan is joined by a new Sport Wagon that maintains the connected and rewarding feel of the sedan but adds practicality and arguably an even more stylish appearance. And for those who aren't satisfied by the 304 horsepower of the 3.6-liter V-6, Cadillac still offers the CTS-V, a 556-hp supercharged beast that brawls eagerly with the very best sports sedans from Germany. More than a few of us consider the CTS-V to be the best American car ever made. Put that assertion aside, and the CTS-V is still a bargain alternative to the supersedans from Germany.
The CTS lineup retains its place on our list of favorite cars because it is that rare thing: an American car that doesn't have to make excuses. It's simply great.
- VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, rear- or 4-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan or 5-door wagon
- BASE PRICE: $37,555-$62,845
- ENGINES: DOHC 24-valve 3.0-liter V-6, 270 hp, 223 lb-ft; DOHC 24-valve 3.6-liter V-6, 304 hp, 273 lb-ft; supercharged and intercooled pushrod 16-valve 6.2-liter V-8, 556 hp, 551 lb-ft
- TRANSMISSIONS: 6-speed automatic with manumatic shifting, 6-speed manual
- DIMENSIONS: Wheelbase: 113.4 in, Length: 191.3-191.6 in, Width: 72.5 in, Height: 58.0-59.1 in, Curb weight: 3850-4300 lb
- FUEL ECONOMY: EPA city/highway driving: 12-18/18-27 mpg
2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid
It's an unlikely claim, but the Ford Fusion hybrid is in fact the most advanced car on this list. Through the body of this unpretentious family sedan runs the sturdiest bridge between the tech of the 20th century and that of the 21st.
The Fusion's hybrid powertrain is so refined and compact that it's almost not there, but the driver-selectable, power-tracking gauge display gives the game away: It is Donkey Kong addictive, challenging its driver to run on electric power all the way up to a possible 47 mph. This is a boon to both car guys and the unafflicted — you can drive it for fun (a hybrid first) or for mileage (a class-leading 41 city/36 highway), which is also fun.
On the subject of in-car entertainment, Ford's Sync system offers Sirius Travel Link, featuring weather, sports, traffic info, even movie times. This is the car as home computer, only voice controlled, organizing data for the driver and keeping distractions to a minimum.
That both of these elements function so seamlessly is the essence of the Fusion hybrid experience. It undersells itself in a decidedly un-Prius-like way, but its modesty can't obscure its greatness. Fuel-economy numbers, handling, ride, interfaces — there is only virtue, no vice, making the Fusion hybrid the most mainstream and thus the most important alt-fuel vehicle on the road. It decouples fuel economy from economy-car ennui. We admire it as much for what it isn't (polarizing, showy, cramped) as for what it is. And it is both fun to drive and interesting to drive, offering up new definitions of performance and entertainment.
- VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
- BASE PRICE: $28,350
- ENGINE TYPE: DOHC 16-valve 2.5-liter inline-4,156 hp, 136 lb-ft; AC permanent-magnet synchronous electric motor, 106 hp, 166 lb-ft; combined system, 191 hp
- TRANSMISSION: continuously variable automatic
- DIMENSIONS: Wheelbase: 107.4 in, Length: 190.6 in, Width: 72.2 in, Height: 56.9 in, Curb weight: 3800 lb
- FUEL ECONOMY: EPA city/highway driving: 41/36 mpg
2010 Honda Accord
In 28 years of 10Best competition, Honda's Accord has made the list 24 times. Somewhere in Japan, there are about 200 engineers wringing their hands and asking each other, "Where'd we go wrong in those four losing years?" Maybe that's why the car is so good.
In '08, the redesigned Accord sedan vaulted into the EPA's large-car domain yet retained the taut, square-jawed underpinnings that make it so gratifyingly competent to drive. The automatic transmission never draws attention to itself, body motions are subdued, the cockpit is hushed, the steering discreetly reveals what the front tires are up to, and the 2.4-liter four is not only quick to rev but also offers the idle quality of a six.
But what so reliably sets the Accord apart is its platform — as solid and unyielding as a shotgun barrel.
If the sedan pegs your personal blandness meter, investigate the slick coupe. When fitted with the 271-hp V-6, it becomes an Accord coupe. Row through the velvety manual six-speed — barking the front tires something fierce as you shift into second — and 60 mph manifests in 5.6 seconds. It feels peculiar to be nailing apexes and heel-and-toeing in an Accord — it's like yelling at your mom — but it's okay to tell friends that this is the spiritual successor to the feisty Prelude.
The V-6 coupe could benefit from less torque steer, a less confusing center stack, and a friendlier sticker — an over-$30K Accord is in Celine Dion territory. She could call hers the Accord Dion.
- VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan or 2-door coupe
- BASE PRICE: $21,765-$30,015
- ENGINES: DOHC 16-valve 2.4-liter inline-4, 177 or 190 hp, 161 or 162 lb-ft; SOHC 24-valve 3.5-liter V-6, 271 hp, 251 or 254 lb-ft
- TRANSMISSIONS: 5-speed automatic, 5- or 6-speed manual
- DIMENSIONS: Wheelbase: 107.9-110.2 in, Length: 190.9-194.3 in, Width: 72.7-72.8 in, Height: 56.4-58.1 in, Curb weight: 3250-3600 lb
- FUEL ECONOMY: EPA city/highway driving: 17-22/25-31 mpg
2010 Honda Fit
The overachieving Fit is one of our quick-draw answers when people ask us which car to buy. It's all the car anyone needs — big fun, and as cheap to own and operate as a hamster. Despite the Fit's microbial footprint, it takes truly Sasquatchian dimensions to be discomforted inside, and all that space is surrounded by quality materials and thoughtful design unmatched in many vehicles costing much more.
While the 1.5-liter's 117 horsepower won't much squish the seatback foam, keeping the four-pot revving can make for an engaging game with either of its two available transmissions. With short shifts and direct, mechanical movement, the base five-speed manual should be studied by the world's finer sports-car makers. Pairing the automatic with the Sport model nets an obedient paddle-shifted slushbox that does the cheapest F1 impression on the market.
If momentum isn't particularly easy to summon up, it's a riot to conserve. The Fit zips through corners with an agile, balanced manner directed by quick and accurate steering. Thick bolsters on the front seats keep occupants comfortable and in place while reinforcing the idea that the Fit is not just an economical car but an entertaining one, too. It is engaging enough to inspire back-road thrusts and parries, but it won't alert police.
Everything about this Honda feels like a more expensive, more upmarket vehicle. It is the marriage of a number of seemingly paradoxical concepts, but its greatest accomplishment is the association this little runabout dissolves: The Fit proves more decisively than any other vehicle that affordable and cheap are mutually exclusive concepts.
- VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 5-door wagon
- BASE PRICE: $15,610
- ENGINE TYPE: SOHC 16-valve 1.5-liter inline-4 Power (SAE net): 117 bhp @ 6600 rpm Torque (SAE net): 106 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm
- TRANSMISSIONS: 5-speed automatic, 5-speed automatic with manumatic shifting, 5-speed manual
- DIMENSIONS: Wheelbase: 98.4 in, Length: 161.6 in, Width: 66.7 in, Height: 60.0 in, Curb weight: 2500-2600 lb
- FUEL ECONOMY: EPA city/highway driving: 27-28/33-35 mpg
2010 Mazda MX-5 Miata
The fundamental mission of a sports car is to put smiles on the faces of its occupants, and few accomplish that mission more effectively than the Miata. After all, a sports car, particularly a roadster, is at least as much about transportation for the spirit as it is about simply getting your body from one point to another.
What makes the Miata special in this regard? Certainly not organ-displacing power. With 167 horsepower (158 with the automatic transmission) and 140 pound-feet of torque, the Miata's 2.0-liter four is at the low end of the contemporary sports-car pyramid.
On the other hand, it's fair to say that the Miata has become one of the world's most popular race cars, particularly among the weekend warriors of club racing, as well as autocross. On any weekend, flocks of Miatas are on track somewhere, battling for trophies.
There are two very good reasons for this. First, the Miata possesses the essential qualities that separate sporting machinery from the rest of the herd: feline reflexes, crisp shifting, and surgically precise steering — traits that make a car a treat to drive on a winding back road.
Second, the Miata's pricing puts sports-car fun within economic reach of just about anyone. The range starts at $23,560, and even when maxed out with leather and a power-retractable hardtop (one of the best: 12 seconds up or down, preserves trunk space), the bottom line doesn't go much over $30K. Agility and affordability. In a sports car, it's a combination that's tough to beat.
- VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2-passenger, 2-door roadster
- BASE PRICE: $23,560
- ENGINE TYPE: DOHC 16-valve 2.0-liter inline-4 Power (SAE net): 158 or 167 bhp @ 6700 or 7000 rpm
- Torque (SAE net): 140 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
- TRANSMISSIONS: 6-speed automatic with manumatic shifting, 5-speed manual, 6-speed manual
- DIMENSIONS: Wheelbase: 91.7 in, Length: 157.3 in, Width: 67.7 in, Height: 49.0-49.4 in, Curb weight: 2450-2550 lb
- FUEL ECONOMY: EPA city/highway driving: 21-22/28 mpg
Mazda Mazda3 / Mazdaspeed3
The latest Mazda 3 arrives with more than just a shiny new wrapper. It's more refined, too. In both 148-hp i and 167-hp s versions, the basic Mazda 3 feels more like a genuine car than most of the econoboxes it competes with on price — a bare-bones i starts at $16,045, and the s begins at $19,790. Material quality, ride quality, and chassis control are all a class above. If there are beancounters at Mazda, they don't get anywhere near the suspension. Getting behind the wheel of the Mazda 3 is a comforting reminder that there is a fun-to-drive car for every economic stratum.
And then there's the Mazdaspeed 3 in all of its 263-hp glory. You'll have to spend thousands more than the Speed 3's $23,945 base price to find a more complete performance package that seats four in comfort. It might have coarse manners compared with the VW GTI, but its visceral thrill is part of the Speed 3's appeal.
The presence of two cars with a 3-based designation on the 10Best list might suggest that we're suckers for any vehicle with a 3 in its name. But it's just a coincidence. Like the BMW 3-series, the Mazda 3 delivers an exceptional package in all of its trim levels.
- VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan or 5-door wagon
- BASE PRICE: $16,045-$23,945
- ENGINES: DOHC 16-valve 2.0-liter inline-4, 144 or 148 hp, 132 or 135 lb-ft; DOHC 16-valve 2.5-liter inline-4, 165 or 167 hp, 167 or 168 lb-ft; turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 16-valve 2.3-liter inline-4, 263 hp, 280 lb-ft
- TRANSMISSIONS: 5-speed automatic with manumatic shifting, 5-speed manual, 6-speed manual
- DIMENSIONS: Wheelbase: 103.9 in, Length: 177.4-180.9 in, Width: 69.1-69.7 in, Height: 57.5-57.9 in, Curb weight: 2900-3250 lb
- FUEL ECONOMY: EPA city/highway driving: 18-25/25-33 mpg
2010 Porsche Boxster / Cayman
There are a lot of words beginning with the letter "P" that can describe the mechanically identical Boxster and Cayman — poised and profitable leap to mind — but we think the most appropriate one is perfect. It's certainly hard to think otherwise when the Boxster offers a driving experience so sublime and so tactile that it's really only rivaled by the Cayman's. Every spin of the steering wheel, every push of a pedal, every fat blat from the flat-six engines, they're all calibrated to deliver one thing: unparalleled automotive pleasure. In fact, the pair proves even more rewarding than the iconic — and much pricier — 911.
The list of strengths goes on. The structures are girder-level rigid whether you opt for the tintop Cayman or the droptop Boxster. Operating the manual transmission is an act of mechanical self-gratification. And last year saw the addition of direct fuel injection for S models (which raised gas mileage and widened the already potent power band) and the slick, dual-clutch PDK gearbox for folks who no longer wish to use a clutch pedal. Power went up, too, with base models gaining 10 (Boxster) and 20 (Cayman) horsepower and the respective S cars getting an additional 15 and 25 horses.
Beyond that, they're livable and luxurious, with good cargo room from their two trunks as well as supportive seats and leather everywhere (including on the coat hooks and vent slats, if you opt for it). Sure, these mid-engined Porsches are expensive, but don't you always get what you pay for? This is the 11th appearance on our 10Best list for the Boxster and the fourth for its hardheaded sibling.
Hail Boxster. Hail Cayman. Long may they reign.
- VEHICLE TYPE: mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2-passenger, 2-door roadster or 3-door hatchback
- BASE PRICE: $48,550-$62,450
- ENGINES: DOHC 24-valve 2.9-liter flat-6, 255 or 265 hp, 214 or 221 lb-ft; DOHC 24-valve 3.4-liter flat-6, 310 or 320 hp, 266 or 273 lb-ft
- TRANSMISSIONS: 7-speed dual-clutch automated manual, 6-speed manual
- DIMENSIONS: Wheelbase: 95.1 in, Length: 172.1-172.3 in, Width: 70.9 in, Height: 50.9-51.4 in, Curb weight: 3000-3250 lb
- FUEL ECONOMY: EPA city/highway driving: 19-20/26-29 mpg
2010 Volkswagen GTI
The latest GTI is the sixth iteration since VW invented the pocket rocket (or "hot hatch" in Euro-speak) back in 1976. And while the GTI has grown larger and more powerful, it keeps its original spirit.
It's relatively inexpensive and supremely practical yet is an immensely entertaining vehicle that's as happy meandering around mall parking lots as it is being flogged along a great back road. The 200-hp, turbocharged inline four-cylinder is smooth and responsive, although it doesn't imbue the GTI with the kind of startling acceleration that the brawnier Mazdaspeed 3 possesses.
But then, the GTI doesn't shout about its ability. It's the quiet kid at school who gets on with it and outperforms the blustery types on the ball field and in the classroom. It doesn't dart and lunge across uneven blacktop but seems to caress the road surface. The midrange torque and easy handling allow a GTI to cover twisting blacktop at hair-raising speeds. It steers and stops like a sports car. And whether the driver opts for the standard six-speed manual or the dual-clutch transmission, shifting is smooth and gratifying.
This latest car is better-looking inside and out than was the outgoing model, and we are particularly taken with the interior design and execution. It looks and feels like a car that costs more than its base $24,189 price, making it even more of a great value in our book.
- VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 3- or 5-door hatchback
- BASE PRICE: $24,189
- ENGINE TYPE: turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 16-valve inline-4, iron block and aluminum head, direct fuel injection Power (SAE net): 200 bhp @ 5100 rpm Torque (SAE net): 207 lb-ft @ 1800 rpm
- TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual, 6-speed dual-clutch automated manual
- DIMENSIONS: Wheelbase: 101.5 in, Length: 165.9 in, Width: 70.0 in, Height: 57.8 in, Curb weight: 3200-3300 lb
- FUEL ECONOMY: EPA city/highway driving: 21-24/31-32 mpg