Click to enlarge pictureCar and Driver 10Best of 2011 (© John Roe)

Car and Driver 10Best of 2011

From the dry lake bed of El Mirage, California, we present these pinnacles of automotive achievement; cars that affirm that, for all the hand-wringing about the coming electrified future, the dinosaurs and the mammals are playing together quite nicely. For the first time ever, we have an electrically powered car on the list, the Chevy Volt. You may have heard of it. But we haven't forsaken its antipode, the Cadillac CTS-V. Nor have we left off significant events of the past year — the coming technologies, the best performers, and our pitiless look at this year's winners and losers.

Was it all perfect? No. But perfection is a funny thing — just ask Toyota. It is elusive. Slippery. None of the winning cars is ultimately perfect, but each one is as close as you can get for less than $80,000. They all fulfill their intended missions; they all make you feel smart; and they all practically grab you by the lapels and pull you in for a drive. More important than actual perfection may be that these cars are constantly evolving toward that impossibility.

2011 BMW 3-Series/M3

This year marks the 3-Series' 20th consecutive 10Best win, a feat unmatched by any other vehicle on the market. We won't call the 3-Series perfect, but you know how there's always one old lady at the bake sale whose recipe everybody wants? The 3-Series is that car. The chassis balance is exquisite, with handling that encourages risky behavior but a ride that you wouldn't feel bad subjecting your grandma to. The fluid steering weights up just right, the brake pedal bypasses the soles of your shoes and goes straight to your brain, and the manual transmission — should you be wise enough to specify it — boasts a shifter that knows its way effortlessly from gear to gear. Plus, all the 3-Series' goodness is available in coupe, convertible, sedan, and even station-wagon forms. Engine choices are a silky inline-six; powerful, turbocharged inline-sixes; and the M3's screaming, 8400-rpm V-8. The 3-Series is rear-drive dynamics perfected, or, for those in colder climes, all-wheel drive is available. The four-wheeler gets a little heavier and amends the 3's near-perfect weight distribution, but the rest of its virtues remain. Other drawbacks? Only a few. The clutch needs more weight to better convey its takeup, and no matter the configuration, the 3-Series is seriously expensive. But there's a reason people will pay so much more for that one lady's cookies.

2011 Cadillac CTS-V

In awarding a 10Best trophy to Cadillac's CTS-V lineup only — and not to the sedan, coupe, and wagon on which it's based — we are saying no to mere virtue, no to mere versatility, no to mere parity with the European competition. In forsaking the mainstream CTSs, we are saying yes to psychedelic power, yes to organ-shifting g-forces, yes to the great, mind-expanding duality of Cadillacs that make the 0-to-60 sprint about as fast as a Ferrari 599. We expect the regular CTSs to be fiercely competitive with the foreigners. Hell, we deserve it. What is utterly unexpected and, frankly, not even deserved, is the V's bombastic calm, its furious poise, its spastic nonchalance. These are hard-core performance cars, but they are also Cadillacs, with all of the seamlessness, refinement, and content that implies. Yes, some of the interior trim is occasionally dollar-store, and these vehicles are heavier than they need to be overall, but they have more bandwidth than almost anything on the road. And what do you expect at a price so ruthlessly competitive? At the end of a good long drive, you're left trying to figure out how the CTS-V can balance its outrageous athleticism with such a pacific ride. More than anything, though, you're left marveling at the courage of the thing: Did GM just create a 556-hp wagon? Did you ever think you'd see the day?

2011 Chevrolet Volt

To put it simply, the Chevy Volt was far and away the biggest surprise to every editor at this year's 10Best event. None of us imagined that nestling into the glass cockpit would bring the words "automotive bliss" and "electric vehicle" together in the same sentence. The smooth-riding Volt can't shred tarmac like a VW GTI or infuse fun into the family-sedan segment like a Honda Accord or a Hyundai Sonata. Think of the Volt as smile-inducing Xanax for range anxiety — something all other EVs evoke. Canceling the range limitation from the EV equation doesn't make it perfect, though. A tight back seat, limited cargo capacity, and a general lack of horsepower — though plenty of low-end grunt to merge onto the highway like you have somewhere to be — would normally eliminate a 3800-pound porker from contention. However, one would need to be driving straight through the Library of Congress to detect the switchover from EV mode to gas-electric hybrid operation. And maximizing the electric range by curtailing full-throttle or full-brake episodes brings its own kind of driver engagement. Best of all, its efficiency is unmatched, as long as interstate travel is omitted. One editor drove the Volt 101 miles in 18 hours (including a 10.5-hour charge) and only used one gallon of gas. That's some seriously eye-opening arithmetic.

2011 Ford Mustang GT

You might wonder why we've left the Mustang GT's equine siblings to snort in the paddock. It's simple: The GT is the ideal blend of performance and value, serving up brutal muscle, daily usability, and the agility of an honest-to-Edsel sports coupe at an eminently fair $30,495. The V-6 model is less expensive, but it cedes more than 100 horsepower to the GT and lacks the V-8's final measure of polish (the six goes gritty at high rpm, for example). The Shelby GT500 betters the GT's 0.94 g of grip, 153-foot 70-to-0 braking distance, and 4.6-second 0-to-60 sprint, but those bragging rights cost an extra 19 grand — a nicely optioned five-door Fiesta, or just $4000 shy of a V-6 Stang — and it isn't as livable besides. Yes, the Mustang's interior still could use better materials, but the drive is the thing. From the how-the-hell'd-they-do-that? taming of the live rear axle to the tactile steering to the crisp six-speed manual, the 2011 GT is, save for the GT supercar, perhaps the most gratifying Ford ever made. But even better than the chassis is the five-point-oh! V-8 thundering away underhood: It's a soulful marvel, smooth in its power delivery and mellifluous in its sound. Where the V-6 and GT500 are good — make that really good — the Mustang GT is greatness at a great price, and that's why it alone grabs the trophy.

2011 Honda Accord

Click to enlarge pictureHonda Accord EX-L V6 Sedan (© American Honda Motor Co., Inc.)

Honda Accord EX-L V6 Sedan

The current Accord sedan, the eighth generation of the company's bestselling midliner, has a few flaws. It isn't as frisky and playful as its predecessor, and it looks a touch homely, especially parked next to a Hyundai Sonata. But flaws don't equal failure: The Accord remains inscrutably excellent. It manages to combine all the practical virtues you need in a family sedan — plenty of interior space, lots of available infotainment and trim choices, a quiet and relaxed ride, subdued engines, and effortless transmissions — with a fluid chassis that urges a driver to wring it out on back roads and off-ramps. The optional V-6 engine is one of the best of its breed, but the Accord becomes quite pricey when loaded with options such as a navigation system. The Accord range is rounded out by a sporty five-seat coupe. Although the V-6 model strays too close to Mustang GT money, it can be mated to a six-speed stick for a 0-to-60-mph time in the mid-fives. The coupe is refined and far more stylish than the sedan, and the less-expensive four-cylinder versions make more sense and have the spirit of the old, much-loved Prelude. For the 25th time, the Accord wins a 10Best spot because it marries excellence and affordability so brilliantly. Our favorite? The sedan with the 190-hp four-cylinder mated to a slick five-speed manual, of course.

The Nominees
Nominees consist of all-new cars, 2010 10Best winners, cars that were not available for the 2010 competition, and those with significant updates. All cars must fall under our base-price cap of $80,000 and be on sale in January 2011.

Acura TSX wagon*Audi A8Audi S4BMW Z4 sDrive35is
BMW 3-Series/M3BMW 5-SeriesBMW 5-Series GTBMW 740i/Li
Buick RegalCadillac CTS/CTS-VChevrolet Corvette Grand SportChevrolet Cruze
Chevrolet VoltChrysler 300*Dodge Charger*Ford Fiesta
Ford Fusion HybridFord Mustang/Mustang GT/Shelby GT500Honda AccordHonda CR-Z
Honda FitHyundai ElantraHyundai EquusHyundai Sonata
Infiniti G 25*Infiniti IPL G Coupe*Infiniti M37/M56Jaguar XJ/XJL
Kia Forte 5-doorKia OptimaLincoln MKZ HybridLotus Evora
Mazda MX-5 MiataMazda Mazda2Mazda Mazda3/MAZDASPEED3Mercedes-Benz E-Class cabriolet and wagon
MercedesBenz E350 BlueTECMercedes-Benz FCell*MINI Cooper CountrymanNissan JUKE
Nissan LeafPorsche Boxster/Boxster Spyder/CaymanPorsche Panamera V6Saab 9-5
Scion tC*smart fortwo Electric Drive*Subaru Impreza WRX/WRX STIToyota Avalon
Toyota Corolla 2.5Volkswagen Golf/GTIVolkswagen JettaVolvo S60

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