Automakers introduced dozens of new and redesigned models for 2011, and picking the best wasn't easy -- with reluctant buyers and mandated increases in fuel economy, automakers pulled out all the stops and introduced some terrific cars. Nevertheless, it's my job to pick the best of the best, so here they are in alphabetical order: My picks for the best new cars of 2011.
1. BMW 5-series
I've never really been a BMW fan -- actually, kind of the opposite -- but even I can't deny the brilliance of the new 5-series. This is a car that can truly do it all, cruising the freeways as quietly and comfortably as a Mercedes and then attacking the curves with all the zeal of a Porsche. The 5-series is sensibly sized and attractively priced for a car in this class -- from the stripped-down 528i ($45,525) to a 550i xDrive with all the options ($90,000), the 5-series delivers surprisingly good value-for-money. As a guy who has spent a lot of time criticizing BMWs, I can't find much about the new 5-series I don't like -- but I did find a lot to love.
Back in the 1960s, General Motors owned the American road -- not so much because of technical superiority (those were the days of carburetors and three-speed automatics) but because of styling. That tradition continues with the new CTS Coupe, which I think is one of the most beautiful cars on the road. But the CTS isn't just a pretty face; it's great to drive and features a high-tech V6 that delivers 300+ horsepower on 87 octane gas (whereas most of its competitors require premium). And then there's the 556 horsepower CTS-V, the mere thought of which finds me standing in a puddle of my own drool. Thirty years from now, the CTS Coupe will be remembered as one of the great cars of our era -- and it's not often we get to be present at the birth of a classic.
I can't begin to tell you how proud I am of General Motors for bringing the Volt to market. The Volt is the stepping-stone to petroleum-free transport -- a car that delivers the environmental benefits of a battery-powered electric vehicle with the flexibility of a traditional gasoline-powered car. Though the press may argue about how to properly label the Volt -- EV? Hybrid? Who cares? -- the fact remains that this is a truly unique vehicle, one that has the potential to cost owners next to nothing in gasoline, without tethering them to an electrical outlet. The Volt is not the final answer, but it is one heck of a giant leap in the right direction.
4. Ford Fiesta
I've had high hopes for the Fiesta ever since Ford announced it, and the final US-spec version is even better than I had hoped. Though originally designed for European buyers, Ford developed a smart-looking sedan body and an innovative twin-clutch automatic transmission for North America. The result is an attractive little car that's huge fun to drive and gets amazingly good fuel economy. Though not as versatile as the Honda Fit, the Fiesta has tons more character, plus its affordably priced, brimming with safety features and offers an options list chock full of surprises like leather seats and keyless push-button ignition. It's great to have an American-branded subcompact car that we can truly be proud of. If only it were built in the States, and not in Mexico...
5. Honda CR-Z
It took me a while to come around to the Honda CR-Z. At first, I saw it as little more than an overweight , greenwashed, wannabe-clone of the classic CRX. My opinion changed in the middle of a corner, when I lifted off the gas and the CR-Z's back end kicked out. Oversteer in a front-wheel-drive hybrid? I thought. Maybe I've got this car all wrong. It took a couple hundred miles of seat time before I started to see the CR-Z for what it really is -- a sporty car designed for a future when environmental responsibility is not a luxury, but a necessity. The more I drove it, the more I liked it. Is the CR-Z the modern-day CRX? With today's safety, emissions and fuel-economy standards, it's about as close as we're going to get.
I love compact cars -- they're cheaper to buy, cheaper to run, and they offer as much interior space as mid-size cars from a few years ago. The problem is that most automakers feed America's bigger-is-better mentality by reserving their nicest features for their biggest cars -- and that's why I'm so pleased when cars like the Hyundai Elantra bring big-car amenities to the compact class. Though the Elantra's handsome sheetmetal is a high point, it's the interior that I really love -- the Elantra's cabin exhibits a level of design and quality normally found in much bigger and much more expensive cars. But the Elantra also boasts a brilliant new engine that delivers plenty of power and an outstanding 40 MPG on the highway. Combine that with aggressive pricing and an epic warranty, and the Elantra is a winner.
I've been a Hyundai fan for quite a while, but even I'm amazed by how good the new Sonata is. I love the styling, the space, and the high-quality interior, but it's the powertrain lineup that that ensured the Sonata a place on this list. The base-model Sonata's direct-injected four-cylinder engine, capable of fuel economy that embarrasses its rivals, would have been enough -- but Hyundai followed up with a fuel-efficient turbocharged four-cylinder in place of a traditional V6, plus a hybrid that promises to give the Ford Fusion -- currently the best mid-size hybrid sedan in the business -- a run for its money. All this, and its priced like a Hyundai. What's not to love?
Infiniti is my favorite Asian luxury brand because they know exactly what they are and what their buyers expect: Aggressive styling, over-the-top power, and a true sports-car soul. Over the past few years, they've honed their identity on the FX and the G, and now they've applied it to the M -- and the results are spectacular. From its gorgeous curves to its brutish power, the M has the same bouncer-in-Armani feel that has made the G37 an enduring favorite of mine. Infiniti's attitude translates perfectly to the larger M-series, and its excellent road manners and attractive pricing make it a solid alternative to the BMW 5-series.
9. Jaguar XJ
Like many people, I had trouble getting used to the shape of the new XJ -- but then I drove it, and found that I, like the folks at Jaguar, was ready to let the past be the past. You may or may not like the XJ's new shape, but unless you've taken a vow of poverty, it's difficult not to fall in love with the XJ's cabin, which blends modern design with traditional British wood-and-leather luxury. Same goes for the road manners -- the new XJ is smooth, quiet and elegant, but a lightweight aluminum body and smart suspension tuning makes it agile and light on its feet. Best yet, the XJ undercuts its V8-powered rivals from Audi, BMW and Mercedes by thousands of dollars, plus it has a long warranty and an all-inclusive maintenance package that even covers brakes and wiper blades. The old XJ was a car to admire; this is a car to own.
10. Kia Optima
Kia is a division of Hyundai, and for years, they've hidden in the shadows of their corporate parent -- but those days are over. The Optima is the mechanical twin of the Sonata, and shares all three of its fantastic fuel-efficient powertrains. But that's where the similarities end. While the Sonata strives for luxury, the Optima has a crisp, contemporary look that I personally find more appealing. It's also the first car outside of the Ford family to offer Microsoft's brilliant SYNC system (Kia calls it "Uvo"). The new Optima is more user-friendly than a Honda Accord, better to drive than a Toyota Camry, and less expensive than a Mazda6 -- and none of the above can match its brilliant engine lineup. Look out, Japan.
11. Lexus CT200h
I'm sure the CT 200h will be the most controversial car on this list -- after all, one could dismiss Lexus' new hybrid as little more than a repackaged Toyota Prius. But I applaud Lexus for being one of the few automakers with the stones to bring out a true 40 MPG luxury car. The CT 200h delivers the indulgence and gadgetry we expect from a Lexus, and packs it into a small, easy-to-park package with an environmentally responsible powertrain that delivers true Prius-like fuel economy. And there's not even a price premium -- in fact, at $29,995, the CT 200h is the least-expensive car in Lexus' 2011 lineup. Not everyone will want this sort of luxury car, and even Lexus predicts modest sales. Still, we need more environmentally-friendly choices like this. Let's hope other luxury automakers follow the CT's example.
12. Scion tC
After my experience with the first-generation tC, I never thought I'd see it on any of my Top Picks lists, let alone Best New Cars. But while the all-new second-generation Scion tC looks a lot like its predecessor on the outside, it's made a complete transformation under the skin. Scion's engineers invested a lot of time in the suspension, and it really pays dividends on curvy road -- the new tC is way more engaging to drive than its predecessor. Of course, good handling isn't enough to earn a place on the Best New Cars list; luckily for the tC, it's also exceptionally versatile with a big back seat and a huge trunk thanks to its hatchback-disguised-as-a-coupe body shell. Add in a strong engine, long list of standard equipment, and excellent value-for-money, and the Scion tC has all the makings of a Best New Cars of 2011 winner.