Attention, gearheads: We logged thousands of miles, torched dozens of brakes, triggered more than one “check engine” light, and collected two moving violations in our mission to bring you the definitive list of the year’s best rides in the automotive universe. The following pages should fuel enough oil-slicked dreams to last a lifetime. Happy driving.
<strong>Best Beast From the East:</strong> Nissan GT-R- I finally understand why gearheads call the most anticipated imported sports car of the year “Godzilla” when the GT-R’s true personality surfaces on a remote southern Vermont freeway on-ramp. The piece of concrete is desolate, straight, and steep enough to handle the GT-R’s gnarly “launch mode,” in which, after I flip a few switches, its twin-turbocharged V-6 revs to 4,500 rpm. I step off the brake, and the car erupts to 60 mph in just over three seconds. Godzilla likes. He lets out a throaty, bassy roar of approval accented with a high-pitched whir, a polyphonic machine noise that’s not unlike sitting wingside on a 737 as it climbs. Then I do it again. And again.
It’s not until my third or fourth on-ramp rally that I stop expecting the GT-R to flip out Transformer-style wings and thrust itself into the air mid-run. But thanks in part to a superstable all -wheel-drive setup, adjustable Bilstein shocks, and sticky nitrogen-filled racing tires, the car never feels out of control. I start to have that misplaced go-kart-track hope that somebody from NASCAR is watching in the shadows, waiting to tap me. I’ve been following the birth of Nissan’s tech-loaded, 911-killing machine for months; I’ve driven a virtual GT-R in the video game Gran Turismo 5 Prologue and watched footage of one jaw-dropping lap on the Nürburgring (YouTube it). In real life the car is even more thrilling, and easier to drive fast than I expected. But most surprising about this monster? It’s got manners. In town the GT-R is stupid-simple to drive, thanks to its smooth paddle-shifted automatic transmission. It doesn’t jerk in traffic; at slow speeds it’s almost as smooth as Ma’s old Maxima. It becomes a sleeper supercar.
As I cruise into a small town to grab a coffee and give the GT-R a break after our madness in the mountains, it catches a girl’s eye. “Nice car. The engine’s so quiet,” she says. An odd thing to say about one of the fastest production cars ever. I look back to the GT-R and hear it cooling, ticking ever so slightly, and think, Would Godzilla take that as a compliment? In its polite Japanese way, yes. But underneath those angles and planes, strange power lurks. The monster awaits another romp.
<strong>Best Eco-Mobile With Muscle</strong>: Mercedes ML 320 BlueTEC- As my luxe Mercedes M-Class flies down a Carolina highway, the numbers go higher and higher. A record is at hand, and I wordlesslycommend my steely poise behind the wheel. No, I’m not talking speed. The Benz has reached 26 miles per gallon—class-kicking mileage for a luxury SUV—and there’s not a whirring electric motor to be heard, nor a hybrid battery weighing down the fun. This here’s a diesel, in all its fuel-saving, stump-pulling glory. Fine, so maybe driving for mileage doesn’t deliver the triple-digit ego boost of thrashing around in a sports car, but it’s sure as hell easier on the conscience. Idling at a stoplight, I hear the lightest ticking from the Mercedes’ 3.0-liter turbodiesel, nothing like the chug-chug of an old-school oil burner. There’s no exhaust soot, no smell.
With the engine emitting 20 percent less CO2 than gas models, a diesel wave is following Mercedes’ wake from the likes of VW, BMW, Audi, Nissan, Subaru, and Honda. As the miles spool out in plush style, I’m on pace to top a mind-blowing 600 miles on one tank. Four bucks a gallon or not, many Americans aren’t about to force their plus-size lifestyles into tiny econoboxes. The BlueTEC Benz is green icing on the SUV cake: Imagine a smug Prius going crunch under your wheels. If that doesn’t make you smile, you’re not alive.
<strong>Best Reason to Buy American:</strong> Corvette ZRI- At GM’s Milford proving grounds near Detroit, a team of brave (or foolish) GM reps toss me the keys to a shiny Corvette ZR1. It’s finally time to see if the much-hyped super-’Vette drives worth a damn in the real world.
While waiting for a thumbs-up from track security, I make a mental run of the ZR1’s car-geek cred. Its supercharged 6.2-liter V-8 produces 638 horsepower and puts out enough torque to kick-start the USS Missouri. In other words, I’m pretty damn scared of the thing.
When the “go” signal comes, the ZR1 lets out a subdued shriek; what follows is a spleen-rupturing shove that might be what getting kicked in the stomach by Chuck Liddell feels like. Seconds later I’m down the straight and into a tricky double-apex right turn that tucks into an uphill twist. With traction control on and “competition mode” selected, the ZR1 allows a bit of drift before the system steps in to save you. Every measure of control the car takes happens progressively; there are none of the “uh-oh” moments that make harder-edged supercars such a handful. When it’s time to get on the brakes, the gigantic carbon-ceramic disks and multi-pistoned calipers respond with the certainty of death and taxes. You press. It stops. The end.
Later I take the car offtrack. Its suspension easily corrects to the rough pavement, serving a supple ride that’s more like a German sedan than a ’murican supercar. I pull into a Dairy Queen, where locals negotiate past the ZR1 in raised pickups decked out in mud tires. They give my chrome-wheeled beast an approving eye. On top of everything else it does well, the ZR1 is also the first 200-plus mph supercar in which you don’t feel like a tool sipping a butterscotch malt. This time the hype machine got it right.
<strong>Best Defense of Foreign Oil Dependency</strong>: Dodge Challenger SRT8- Considering that I’ve been driving just about 40 mph over the posted speed limit as I weave in and out of the late-night traffic streaming down three lanes of Manhattan’s West Side Highway, the police officer is quite calm. “Do you know why I stopped you?” I lamely shrug. Yet despite my silent admission of guilt, the paycheck-size ticket I so clearly deserve never materializes. Instead, the cop hands back my license and silently gives the newly revived Challenger a lusty once-over, from its front turn signals—inspired by a pistol chamber—to its racing-style gas cap. And as he bids me good night, he doesn’t even bother to tell me to slow down. He obviously knows better.
I’ve never actually ridden on an angry bear, but I imagine it’s not unlike driving the Dodge Challenger SRT8. Punch the start button and the 6.1-liter Hemi V-8 roars to life, threat and menace rumbling out of the twin tailpipes. New for ’09, a Tremec six-speed manual tranny treats the first couple of gears like an annoying, jerky formality; this car wants to go fast. It’s no surprise that the Challenger rules straight urban highways, but the 4,000-pound beast can also terrorize gape-mouthed bumpkins on upstate twisties thanks to its standard limited-slip differential and grippy 20-inch Goodyears.
The best reason to drive fast in this thing? Lane-changing at speed in the 198-inch-long behemoth is a pulse-quickening game of Russian roulette.Glances over your shoulder reveal little but the headrest and massive C-pillar, so you might as well just floor it. Maybe that’s for the best: The Challenger simply can’t be driven any other way but balls-out. Just ask New York’s Finest.
<strong>Most Subtle Supercar</strong>: Aston Martin V8 Vantage- It’s a good day when someone tosses you the glass-capped key fob for the Aston Martin V8 Vantage is and you’re ordered to explore the roller-coaster roads that slice through Marin County, California. It’s an even better day when you assume that Aston’s entry-level ride will drive like an emasculated version of its DBS supercar and are proved hugely wrong.
You’d expect martini-swilling silver-hairs to savor this car’s subtleties—not a gearhead speed fiend like me. But I quickly fall in lust with the exterior, so smooth it almost disappears, and details like its “swan wing” doors, which open just slightly upward to reveal an interior ensconced in fragrant, buttery leather. Before I even turn the ignition, my ass and I are in supercar heaven.
I fire up the 420-horsepower V-8 (a fresh engine for the 2009 model), and with the sound of “whoosh, brummble-bum-bum-bum,” the gentlemanly ride becomes an animal. Mountain bikers and frazzled moms spin their heads to catch a glimpse of the sled making that signature rip and snarl. Punching the accelerator slams me to the seat, and when the exhaust valve opens above 4,000 rpm, the Vantage unleashes an even more raucous wail. I half expect highway patrol officers from the next county to home in on my hoonage. But reinforcing my belief in a higher power, no five-ohs magically appear—thus enabling me to practice sideways driving maneuvers, enhanced by the new-for-2009 Sports Pack. The option, which endows the Vantage with bigger wheels and a more aggro suspension, edges it closer to that hallowed Porsche 911 territory by transmitting more steering feel and feedback to the driver. It’s like injecting go-kart DNA into the Aston’s pedigree bloodline: my type of family values.
The takeaway from my seat time? You can’t judge a two-seater by the subtlety of its curves. The V8 Vantage is a prizefighter masquerading as a banker, a punk in a Paul Smith suit. Just go with it; if you’re lucky enough to be shopping for a $120,000 sports car, it doesn’t hurt to be original.
<strong>Best Earthbound Spaceship:</strong>Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4- The Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4 arrives on my Brooklyn street, lolling on its flatbed trailer like a molten-orange goddess. Cell-phone-camera-bearing supplicants soon appear, the first of the paparazzi who’ll stalk the machine at every stop. I’ve driven a dozen Lamborghinis, from a vintage Countach—the wall-poster wet dream of the ’70s—to the Murciélago. Still, it’s impossible not to geek out over the redesigned Gallardo’s galaxy-next-door shape and 5.2-liter, 560 hp V-10 engine, which when revved to 8,300 rpm unleashes a heavy metal aria whose peaks are simultaneously artistic and transgressive.
Sure, this northern Italian bull tops out at 202 mph. But for the amateurs who buy 90 percent of these 200-grand-plus showboats, the real payoff is that the Gallardo has become easier to drive at 50 mph and more electrifying at 150, thanks to its easy-to-master E-gear paddle-shifted transmission and an AWD system that provides drama-free grip. Though it feels like the car is rearranging the pavement beneath me, I’m firmly in control. That lazy stereotype of the Lambo man—South Beach nouveau riche—is easy to dismiss when you’re the one having brutal, beautiful, mad fun. To begrudge the lucky few who caress them is like dissing the guy who dates a supermodel: The rest of us are just jealous.
<strong>Assault & Battery</strong>- Get ready to “gas up” your next ride with the voltage in your garage. The hottest upcoming green cars will be plug-in electrics, which promise gas-mileage figures high enough to make the Prius weep hybrid puddles. While you’re holding out for these rides to arrive, just sit back and think of how the earth-loving green girls will swoon when they hear your motor whirring!
Fisker Karma (ETA: late 2009): If it really hits roads next year, one-time Aston-Martin designer Henrik Fisker’s long, low-slung boutique beauty (shown above) should be the most badass electric car ever, with stunning looks and a top speed of more than 125 mph. After plugging the $80K car in overnight, it’ll travel 50 miles on battery power. Then a gas engine takes over and lets you produce planet-harming emissions again.
Electric Mini Cooper (ETA: late 2009): It’s already the cutest car on the road, so the 500 battery-powered Mini Cooper models destined for California will either be eco-chick panty droppers or the gayest rides ever. Either way, you’re getting laid by someone, dude.
Chevy Volt (ETA: late 2010): The Volt may have lost the muscular looks of the sporty, aggressive concept version that debuted at the Detroit auto show in 2007, but the stuff under the hood of the production model will still be groundbreaking. Similar to the Fisker Karma (which should cost about twice as much), the fully charged car will run on its electric powertrain for 40 miles before its gas engine fires up to boost the battery, extending the one-tank range to 350 miles. That’s L.A. to Vegas, bitches!