Reviewing cars means driving dozens of new vehicles every year. Picking individual cars and trucks that really stand out from the crowd becomes ever more challenging because design and engineering standards have improved across the board. That said, here — in no particular order — is a handful of personal favorites from the past year.
First up has to be the 2014 Corvette. This seventh generation version fixes many of the failings of the previous Corvette and so can now truly compete with much more expensive, exotic sports cars. Stand out features include steering that finally has the precision and crisp feedback the car deserves, plus an attractive interior design with high quality materials and equipment. What could be improved? Now that the car has become so much more sophisticated and competent in terms of handling and road holding, how about an engine that sounds cultured and complex under full throttle, not simply loud and raucous?
Small to mid-sized crossover models have become the hot ticket in the premium/luxury vehicle market and everyone, from Lexus to Lincoln, is piling in. The best of the bunch, however, remains one of the first entries in the segment, the Audi Q5. The sporty SQ5 version is especially compelling, with added horsepower from a supercharged V-6 and excellent handling, making for a driving experience well above the standards of rival crossovers. At approximately $60,000 for a well-equipped example, the SQ5 is pricey but worth it.
When it comes to cost, the $320,000 Aston Martin Vanquish Volante is off the charts expensive. However, this convertible two-plus-two coupe is a visual stunner and guaranteed to turn heads, partly because it's such a rare sight. The 565-hp V-12 engine provides aural excitement and good performance, although other, more hard-core sports cars, like the Corvette, will outrun it. The Vanquish is also falling behind in terms of safety technologies and creature comforts. But for those with an appropriate bank balance, it may be tough to resist the Aston's exclusivity and seductive appearance.
For the price of the Aston you could buy about 10 of my next choice, the 2014 Mini Cooper S hardtop. This latest version of the Mini is a transformation. Its predecessor's main flaws — a choppy ride quality and an interior saddled with confusing, muddled instruments and controls — have been largely corrected. Now the Mini is back to what it should be; a stylish, fun to drive runabout with a welcome dash of sophistication.
In the compact car arena, it's hard to find a better option than the Mazda3 five-door. This neat looking hatchback combines the practical attributes of its body design with a spirited driving character that is unique to Mazda in this class. For buyers who don't care about sharp, responsive steering and crisp handling, there are rival models that will do the job, but the Mazda3 remains king of the hill for those who enjoy the art of driving.
Finally, here's to a car that still celebrates its engine. These days many drivers rarely open their car hoods, partly because maintenance requirements are so minimal and also because most engines are covered in drab plastic shrouds. Not so the 2015 Nissan GT-R. Each engine produced for this remarkable sports car is hand assembled in Japan and signed by its builder. Lift the hood on the GT-R and the 3.8-liter twin turbo V-6 engine is presented in all its mechanical glory. It's a veritable feast for a car enthusiast's eyes. Even more impressive are the GT-R's extraordinary performance and handling capabilities, outranking or matching several cars that command far higher prices. If only the GT-R's awkward exterior design could be made more aesthetically pleasing, this Nissan would climb even higher in the ranks of sports car superstars.
John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at email@example.com