My Favorite Vehicles of 2012

Last year was simply a breakout year. This year eclipsed it.

All told, I drove over 35 vehicles of all stripes throughout this year. They stretched from brief moments at a drive event to having two to choose from at the house for the week. Every vehicle brought a new challenge as I try to absorb every little aspect of it.

It is worth repeating: The life of an automotive writer is not as glamorous as you think.

However, this past season yielded not just quantity in terms of vehicles to evaluate. There were some gems that moved the bar in terms of what I look for as a benchmark. Some truly made a huge impression upon me – even if it was for a few moments.

Which ones made my 2012 season behind the wheel? Be prepared to be surprised…

2012 Acura TL SH-AWD 23

2012 ACURA TL: If I fixated on the revised "shield" grille up front, I would not have known what a treat the TL was to drive. The all-American Acura was exactly that. The TL is this fantastic combination of Acura's techie-edge design inside and out with the right amount of luxury worthy of its price tag. Yet, there was more. What impressed me the most was its Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) system. Between that and the nineteen-inch Goodyear Eagle RS-As provided an astounding amount of grip never experienced personally in a passenger car. Yet, the TL did something for me that I have waited 19 years to accomplish – it bridged the legacy of a small Concord Blue Metallic hatchback made by the same company. The TL is my old 1991 Integra RS coupe all grown up and befitting with my age. It still has the spunk of the old Civic-based upscale hatch, but refined many times over for a mature enthusiast. If you are asking what my favorite car of the year was – this was it.

2013 Cadillac XTS Platinum 4

2013 CADILLAC XTS: Somehow, I knew this new big Caddy would leave an impression upon me. It was as General Motors decided to make amends for every front-wheel drive DeVille, Fleetwood and DTS ever made to create a technological feast. The interchangeable instrumentation, the CUE infotainment system, the high level of safety equipment and its enhanced Art&Science design augmented one specific feature I fell in love with in the XTS – its front seats. Would you think that a big Caddy would have a seat with real comfort and bolstering? It gets better – try driving it. It was that good. The XTS was poised and confident at every turn. You can criticize the decision to make it on a front-wheel drive platform, but it just seems to work. Having a V6 as its sole powerplant also works in the XTS's favor – the job was given to a 300-plus horsepower version of the High Feature 3.6litre mill. One drive in the XTS will make you forget about anything Cadillac made on a large front-wheel drive platform. This is what American luxury has become.

2012 Dodge Durango 23

2012 DODGE DURANGO R/T: It was big, red and…cuddly. No, seriously, if I were to equate an archetype of my attractions to this big all-wheel drive, three-row crossover/SUV, it would be a big buff ginger Bear. Though they are rare in the wild, I think you could find a few in San Francisco, Fort Lauderdale, Dallas or Chicago. All kidding aside, the Durango exuded a brawny, tough and sporty look backed by the 5.7litre HEMI V8 and an aggressive interior. Surprisingly, the Durango was relatively well behaved. Not exactly a perfect driving experience, but it actually hauls like crazy given its size and capacity. The Durango won on another intangible – the fun factor. This is a 5100-pound, three-row, V8-powered crossover/SUV – it is not supposed to be fun. Well, it just is. The Durango R/T is just as fun as a group of your closest friends and a cargo hold of their stuff with no particular destination in mind. Perhaps this is exactly what Chrysler had in mind for the Durango R/T.

2012 Kia Rio 4

2012 KIA RIO: True story: Whenever a Rio was presented for me to rent – I would pass it up. They were just terrible – to me, they were. The newest Rio changed my perspective on Kia's smallest car offered in North America. Only a few times had I had fun in a subcompact – including a couple of Geo Metros. The point of the Rio was to elevate the subcompact experience. I found it appropriate it would be the hatchback I would experience. With the stars aligned, I found the power fine for its class through its ambitious 1.6litre engine. The space was quite good, but the big winner was the instrument panel with its great switchgear, fine infotainment head unit/screen and wonderful instrumentation. It actually drove unlike any subcompact – the Rio simply exuded fun. It will get good fuel mileage, but it will reward you with a smile on your face. It did for mine.

2012 Nissan Altima SL 1

2013 NISSAN ALTIMA: Someone should have warned me about this car. How dare I take one for a dealer test drive while evaluating one of its competitors – in particular, the Toyota Camry? That was how I summed up the Altima – the best complete package in the mid-sized family sedan market. Every aspect of the Altima shone through at every turn. The way it looks, the comfort and space inside the cabin both front and back, the way it performs and drive and the reward of high efficiency and sustainability. The Altima does provide a quandary of whether this will lead the charge to knock the Camry off its pedestal as the best selling passenger car in the USA. The numbers so far favor the Toyota, but the gap is closing. My pick remains the Altima – it is a car more in tune for my tastes given the segment it resides in.

The new season – the one that began in mid-October – yielded some great vehicles so far. We may have to wait another year to find out which of those would make it to the annual personal Five Favorites for 2013. Or, if they would yield a greater prize – The 2013 Vehicle of The Year Award.

All photos by Randy Stern

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