My Favorite Vehicles of 2011

I get asked questions. I'll bet you know which ones I get asked the most.

On some level, Victory & Reseda provides some form of consumer information for the weary automobile shopper. At least I try to advise the interested car buyer whether a specific vehicle reviewed on here is worth cutting a check or not. It is not the main reason why I do this site, but it is something that is a byproduct of the work I put into this spot on the interwebs.

Yet, I am still asked which vehicle I would buy if I had the money right now to do so. The answer is a trick one. If I had a definitive vehicle I'd buy, this site would be almost meaningless. There would be a bias lurking in every word I post here. I try to avoid such things.

However, a particular vehicle could be influential on some level when I’m examining a competitor or, rather, something else from the same manufacturer. There would be one vehicle that stood out amongst the rest to say "that is the best vehicle I drove this year!"

Is there such a thing? If there were such a vehicle, would I have my integrity and objectivity threatened if I popped out an answer assuredly?

Over the past seven years, I had to dig deep as to which vehicles were amongst the best ever covered by me, whether you'd call it Victory & Reseda, MotorGeek or Lavender. This year alone had its highlights – a lot of them.

This certainly calls for a year-end Five Favorites post based on the best seven (yes, seven!) automobiles I've driven this year. There is a twist – let's try automotive experiences with these vehicles. For all the vehicles I've driven, there were some moments. Which ones stood out the most?

A FULL DAY FOR A LITTLE LEXUS: To say that the Lexus CT 200h got a full workout may simply scratch the surface. On one particular Saturday, the Lexus and I woke up early for a run from the V&R Garage in Robbinsdale to the AutoMotorPlex Minneapolis in Chanhassen for the local Cars and Coffee finale for the year. I was immediately thrown to the Japanese car section in the back with some hoonilicious machinery. Sitting next to High Gear Media's Joel Feder's prized and absolutely stunning Nissan 300ZX, the yellowy-limey-goldish CT felt a wee bit inadequate. Even sitting in the same row amongst the likes of sooped-up Mazda RXs, Subaru Impreza WRX STis and other Asian monsters, I hoped for some mercy by the curious in attendance.

A traffic jam out of the venue later and I was heading east towards the Mississippi River and an apple orchard with the Minneapolis Movie Bears. Instead of picking apples and raspberries with the guys, I brought my Olympus DSLR out to photograph my friends doing exactly that. The original plan was to meet them for lunch across the river in Wisconsin and head back to the orchard near Cottage Grove and Hastings for the fun. I traded in the feigned attitudes of auto enthusiasts for lessons of different varieties of fruit, biology lessons, plenty of jokes of all stripes, – followed by a lot of laughter and camaraderie. Not a bad day for a $38,000 hybrid compact hatch.

That day was still remembered when Lavender Magazine posted an edited version of the CT 200h review on their revamped website. That piece became my first automobile review for the Twin Cities' LGBT publication. That is something I am very proud of – as I was honored to drive currently the second most brilliant Lexus on sale in the USA (next to the LFA, of course).

SIX CAPSTONES, ONE CONVERTIBLE/COUPE: The first vehicle ever received from a press pool was a part of the greatest day in my academic career. On the Twin Cities' campus of Saint Mary's University, of Minnesota, it came down to a 45-minute presentation, including a question-answer period defending my research. Years before doing this, I asked whether I was out of my mind for doing this. Coming into that Saturday, I knew I had no direction to go – but finish. In doing so, I took the Lexus IS 250 C down to campus with hopes of finishing big.

There were six of us. We went through our 45-minute periods deftly as possible. When it was over, the director of the Arts and Cultural Management program at Saint Mary's University, Paula Justich, congratulated us – and said we completed the program. I did not believe her. I thought I screwed up somewhere. A couple of weeks later, my transcript stated that I did indeed earn my Master's Degree. A hell of an achievement, I'll admit – an achievement made more luxurious by a retractable roof convertible costing about $46,000.

Photo by John Irvine

ONE. BIG. TRUCK. Since a brief spell with a Ford F-150 several years ago, I always wanted to do another truck piece for this site. That opportunity came this year when I was presented with perhaps the largest vehicle I ever driven in my life – the Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD 4WD LTZ crew cab. This heavy-duty pickup was full of superlatives that needed to no immediate response. All I had to do was drive it to understand it.

It brought along many lessons that I carry today in this work. For one, I would never use the same metrics to evaluate a truck as I would a car or SUV. Secondly, I had to determine what I could or could not do with this mass of metal and diesel. Thirdly, there is a whole different set of standards and rules pertaining to heavy-duty pickups as opposed to its lighter duty brethren. In all, I enjoyed the challenge the Silverado 2500HD gave me. Next year, I hope to review at least another pickup for this site…maybe two.

THE BAR'S BEEN SMASHED: Before this August, I would have been a called an automotive wimp. It wasn't until the Silverado 2500HD showed up on my doorstep that the highest horsepower rating I’ve driven in my life was just over 300. The Silverado HD's Duramax diesel had 397 ponies with 765 pounds-feet of torque. I reveled in the moment of having so much power under the right foot…

That was until General Motors' Outreach team held three Open Houses in the Twin Cities. As an automotive journalist, your credibility may come into question unless you experience some of the most powerful machinery in the world. I agree. By a fluke, I ended up in a Chevrolet Camaro SS convertible with the vaunted 6.2litre V8. By 11:00 in the morning, my horsepower record was bumped to 426. On my last stop at a Cadillac dealer, another fluke steered me towards the CTS-V sedan. At 556 horsepower, I reached my peak in performance.

I grew up during the detuning era due to federally mandated emissions controls and other environmental factors. Even at the age of 6, I remember witnessing the tail end of the performance race amongst muscle and pony cars. Never had I dreamed that even 400 horsepower was personally accessible. It just seems I could now conquer the universe…maybe.

A SAAB STORY – PART 45: There was a bit of personal emotion when I climbed out of the Saab 9-5. I've waited even before I was able to drive to get behind the wheel of one – any Saab, to be honest. They were quirky enough to capture my attention and brilliant enough to warrant my curiosity. They were the object of affection by its enthusiasts.

While I had the Hyundai Elantra to review, I stopped by Morrie's Cadillac-Saab for a car show of the Swedish brand. One of the salespeople – a club member as well – and I had a conversation. That conversation lead to the drive in the 9-5. I was all too happy to oblige. In all, I found it a lovely place to be on the roads around Golden Valley.

Granted, one would argue that the current 9-5 was developed by GM. Fine, but I will always give GM credit for retaining some of the Saab’s design quirks. Yet, this week's filing of the bankruptcy brief effectively ended the company's existence. My brief time in the 9-5 was a culmination of that love. My soft heart for Saab was fulfilled – even for a few moments.

THEY DIDN'T STICK IT AMONGST THE BAR ADS! I have a wonderful contact at Luther Auto's Fiat dealerships. As Studio Manager for both the Brooklyn Park and Bloomington locations, I found her energy to be fantastic – befitting of the brand's rebirth. Our connection came by meeting one of her deputies at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Auto Show in March when I was with Chrysler's regional PR representative. The invitation was sort of made to come by the dealership on the show's floor.

When I had the Lexus IS 250 C, I took the opportunity to stop by the Brooklyn Park dealership to meet with the staff and check things out. I actually met one of their salespeople at another dealership before. He seemed like a great fit for the brand. Even better was the dealership's atmosphere and energy. Everything seemed right about Fiat's return to the USA via Chrysler.

Then, I was invited to drive the Cinquecento – a Lounge model. Little did I know that the test drive would yield more than just a simple write-up. Months after it appeared on V&R, the review was edited and updated for Lavender Magazine in what was supposed to be the first automobile review for their revamped website. It became much more than that. It became a catalyst for an ad buy in the magazine by the owners of the local dealerships. It also appeared in the print version of Lavender on December 1.

I knew the Fiat 500 was going to be something special before it arrived on these shores. It became something even more on both a personal and professional level.

2011 Buick Regal CXL Turbo 2

A VOTY I ACTUALLY LOVED TO DRIVE: A journalist is not supposed to fall in love with a subject. If an automotive writer does not have a specific genre or brand he or she covers, then there must be objectivity devoid of any favoritism.

Well…maybe. Automobiles are a different story. We see Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May declare their love for certain models – until the next one comes around. There has to be enough slack where a journalist can declare some emotional bond with a subject. As much as I want to stay neutral and look everything with an objective eye – my automotive writing style permits me some slack towards the opposite.

Looking at all 27 nominees for this year's Vehicle of the Year, I thought that the one vehicle I enjoyed the most may not have the best chance. Could the Buick Regal beat the likes of the Chevrolet Camaro, Cadillac CTS(-V) or even hot topic vehicles, such as the Chevrolet Cruze and Volt? After the evaluation stage, it was the top of the table. A few votes kept it there. I had nothing to do with its victory – I swear…

But, when I was asked what was my favorite vehicle to drive this year, I had to make sure that I not blow my objectivity. In the end, I said it was the Regal – without hesitation. Even further to the point, the Regal was simply the one vehicle I've driven that satisfied me most this year alone.

If I were to sum up this past year: It took a Russelsheim-built, fully-loaded and turbocharged Buick to bring some joy back into my driving. It was the one that put a smile on my face. And, it came out on top of the annual nod by this website – again, not because of the "personal emotional factor" alone. It was that good.

How's that for a year-end wrap-up?

All photos by Randy Stern, except otherwise noted.

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