Over the past year, we’ve collectively driven hundreds of cars between us. We thought that we’d bring you an unofficial list of some of our favorites for the year.
Both cars are Chrysler products. The car that impressed me the most was the Chrysler 300S AWD and the car that disappointed me the most was the Dodge Dart Limited.
Favorite car I drove all-year: Last year I reviewed a Chrysler 300 Luxury Series that was fully loaded save for the fact that it came with a Pentastar V6 and an 8 speed automatic transmission, not the Hemi and a six speed. I happened to have driven it back to back with a Jaguar XF Supercharged and since the cars were both 5 passenger RWD sedans with tons of features, I couldn’t help but ask if the Jaguar was worth $25,000 more than the Chrysler. I decided that the refinement and the extra 200 horsepower of the XF explained the difference. This year I got to drive a Hemi powered AWD Chrysler 300S and while it didn’t have quite as many luxury features as the 300 I drove last year, if that Luxury Series 300 had been equipped with the Hemi, that $25,000 question would have been much harder to answer. The 300 is a fine automobile, evidence that American car companies are capable of building a great sedan.
Biggest let-down: the Dodge Dart to see if the folks in Auburn Hills had made a class competitive compact car for the American market from the bones of an Alfa Romeo platform. There were things about it that I liked, it’s spacious and comfortable and can almost handle but the 2.0L/automatic drivetrain was such a dog that it impacted my overall impression of the car. I rarely used paddle shifters or autostick it in cars so equipped but it was necessary to keep up with traffic safely in the 2.0/auto Dart. Also, driving it back to back with the Chrysler 300 drove home the fact that there are substantial differences in component and build quality between a car with a base MSRP of ~$17,000 and one that starts closer to $30K. While photographing the car I noticed a paint flaw, where the paint had left a “run” about an inch and a half long. I used to work in an automotive paint R&am
p;D lab and I haven’t seen a flaw on a production car’s paint like that in about 20 years.
Special Honorable Mention: the Toyota Crown Royal I got to drive at a Toyota hybrid event, because I’m old and I sometimes like a little insulation from the world. In many ways it’s the antithesis of the Chrysler 300S or the Jaguar XF. There is nothing sporty about the Crown Royal, it has no S setting, but it was just so smooth and serene that it was worthy of note. There were a lot of unusual and interesting vehicles to drive at that event, but just about everyone wanted to try out the Crown Royal and all that did exited the car with smiles on their faces.
RAM 1500 Diesel – The car company lampooned last decade for doing everything wrong seems to have found their mojo. 2014 combines a sweet 3.0L V6 turbo diesel engine with a ZF 8-speed automatic, healthy tow ratings and one of the best infotainment systems on the market. Chrysler will gladly stuff the torque-happy towing champ in their base Tradesman pickup or their cowboy Cadillac with stitched leather dash bits and real wood trim. Yeehaw!
Honda Accord Hybrid – Honda has tried dethroning the Prius for ages with hybrid Civics and even dedicated hybrid models to no avail. Until now. The 2014 Accord is combines decent handling, traditional sedan looks and impressive fuel economy numbers. There have been others that have claimed 47 MPG, but the Accord is the first to deliver in the real world putting the better handling, more attractive and more comfortable Accord just 3 MPG shy of Toyota’s fuel sipper. By not attacking the Prius head, on Honda has accidentally created the best Prius alternative to date.
MitsubishiOutlander – Let’s face it, unless Mitsubishi pulls a rabbit out of their hat, they are the latest dead brand walking. The new Outback is unremarkable inside and out. Old engines combine with slow transmissions and 1990s interior styling to create a completely forgettable crossover. The Outlander is $4,000 less than a 7-seat Kia Sorento, unfortunately for Mitsubishi, the Sorento is totally worth the $4,000 bump.
Smart FourTwo – At $13,270 the Smart sounds like a great idea. Until you look at the price and discover a Nissan Versa sedan is 10% cheaper, seats 150% more people, carries more stuff, gets better fuel economy and has a transmission that doesn’t shift like a drunk 14 year old learning to drive a stick. If you really must own a 3-cylinder conveyance in America, get a 3-cylinder Fiesta or a Mitsubishi Mirage.
Best car: Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution with manual transmission. This car is so spirally-eyed ridiculous and its powertrain such an engineering masterpiece that you won’t mind the tooth-loosening ride, tinny Lancer bodywork, and dismaying thirst for fuel. Of all the press cars I’ve driven in recent years, this is the one I’m most tempted to go out and buy. You must get the manual transmission to appreciate this car, even though it’s an early-90s-style 5-speed that keeps the engine screaming at nearly four grand on the highway.
Best light truck: Piaggio Ape. So small it barely exists, yet does most of what a truck should do: haul stuff, keep the rain off you, repair easily. Needs a stereo, though.
Worst: Rental-car-grade Nissan Altima. The civilian Altima might be just fine, but the several rentals I had over the last year managed to be even more unpleasant to drive than the previous LeMons Staffer Worst Rental Car of All Time (the Dodge Nitro). Steering feels disconnected from driver input (a pro racer says it feels like there’s a built-in 1/10th-second delay in steering input), resulting in exhausting and constant overcorrections on the highway. CVT howls, hunts for ratios, can’t find them. If you have a choice between the Altima and a Little Tikes Cozy Coupe at the rental-car counter, take the Cozy Coupe.