Even though it seems like it should be impossible, almost every year the car industry brings forth new and impressive feats of engineering, packaging, and value. Faster, more efficient, more feature-filled, and better-looking--just as it appears the end is in sight (cf. the "horsepower wars"), one brand or another turns a corner and the industry follows suit.
This year has been no different. If anything, it has been extraordinary, with familiar favorites getting brand-new faces and equipment, or all-new models reviving once-forgotten niches. If you're in the market for a new performance or luxury car, you have a bounty to choose from, at almost every price point.
Our top picks of the year thus far, based on our experience driving the cars, our tastes for speed, handling, and refinement, and our own back-of-the-envelope math highlight some of the brightest spots in the industry for 2013. You can't really go wrong with any of these choices--it just depends on what you're after.
2013 Subaru BRZ, 2013 Subaru FR-S
First up, the Subaru BRZ and Scion FR-S. At just over 2,700 pounds and 200 horsepower, this pair is nearly identical save for the badging and a few aero bits, though you'll get different standard and optional equipment in each. If you're after sporting value, the 2013 FR-S is hard to beat; if you want a little more gear with your lightweight, rear-drive sports car, the BRZ is the better bet. Both are brilliant behind the wheel, as we've said before.
Hatchbacks often get little love in the U.S. due to a public that supposedly doesn't want them. Nevertheless, Ford has seen fit to grace us with the 2013 Focus ST, and boy, are we glad. Rated at 252 horsepower sent to the front wheels, and seating five, this turbo hatch is more than just fun. Applying power far more controllably than you'd expect, handling like a well-tuned personal street/track toy, and equipped with one of the nicest interiors you'll find in the sub-$30,000 range, the Focus ST is, nearly, the complete package. And that's before you get to the cargo and passenger space it offers.
If small, light, or hatchy doesn't stir your soul, perhaps you're after big, brutally powerful, and neo-classic: the 2013 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500. With 662 horsepower from its aluminum-block 5.8-liter supercharged V-8, 200-mph gearing, and a set of launch and traction control parameters aimed at making a drag star out of any average Joe, it's hard to argue with this brawny pony car. In fact, we don't recommend arguing with it at all. Just smile and nod politely.
Swinging to the opposite end of the drinking-distilled-dinosaurs spectrum, we have the Tesla Model S. Sold initially in Signature Performance guise, this isn't your bearded hippie neighbor's electric car. Capable of getting to 60 mph in as little as 4.4 seconds, yet carrying on for up to 300 miles on its 85-kWh battery pack, the Model S is, in our estimation, the first real electric car. If you want the best the EV world has to offer right now, forget about parking a short-range toy in your garage. This is the car you want.
For those of us that appreciate a well-rounded, well-balanced machine--one that doesn't put down the biggest power figures or the lightest curb weight, but melds a grab-bag of medium into something greater than its parts--the 2013 Porsche Boxster S is perhaps the best car introduced in 2013. Yes, the S is markedly better than the standard Boxster, as the all-new chassis and Porsche's brilliant suspension tuning yearn to make use of every bit of the Boxster S's 3.4-liter, 315-horsepower output. The sound of the hot little flat six is fantastic, especially with the top down. Get the PDK if you can afford it, as it's truly brilliant, even in fully automatic mode, almost psychic with its downshifts. The 2013 Boxster S is one of the most enjoyable driving experiences we've had all year.
One thing two-seat roadsters aren't good at, however, is carrying people or things. Fortunately, BMW's 2013 M5 and M6 fit that bill very nicely. While they aren't as precise, engaging, or truly fine-tuned on track (or a good canyon road) as the Boxster, they're formidable weapons for lap time on track, with abundant grip, good balance, and 560 horsepower from a twin-turbo 4.4-liter V-8 engine. They're also incredibly good road cars, reaching a balance of on-track ability and over-the-road comfort that few cars manage. If you opt for the M5, you can carry four tall adults in comfort, and even equip it with a six-speed manual. The M6 is better suited to couples that require only occasional rear-seat duty--but either way, BMW's latest M cars wear their dual-purpose nature well.
Sometimes, however, you just want to throw practicality out the window, and that's where Lamborghini comes in. Born of tractors and a hatred for Enzo Ferrari, the brand packages more emotion, vigor, and exuberance than nearly any other. In the Aventador, those characteristics are at full boil. With 700 horsepower on tap, all-wheel drive, and a robotized manual paddle-shift automatic gearbox wrapped in a carbon fiber monocoque chassis, it's both potent and high-tech. In truth, the Aventador is a violent, somewhat uncomfortable, awkward, and unapproachable machine. But it's also a road-going work of art, insanely powerful and quick, acoustically drop-dead gorgeous, and priced like a nice house. If you want to make a statement that ends with "...and I just don't give a damn!" you can't go wrong with the Aventador. It's a childhood fantasy brought to life.
Also Italian, and also passionate, somewhat impractical, and a bit obnoxious at times, but far more suitable to daily life--and priced at about 5 percent of the Aventador's sticker--the Fiat 500 Abarth is our pint-sized pick of the year. Despite the paltry (for this group) 160-horsepower output and front-wheel-drive layout, there is, quite simply, no car that does as good a job of masquerading as a city car while still being impressively fun to drive. Around town, it can be a bit buzzy thanks to the Abarth-tuned exhaust on the 1.4-liter turbo MultiAir engine, but open it up, and you get a classic Italian burst of four-cylinder song. Take it to the track, and you'll find yourself dancing with the very eager-to-rotate rear end. Try to pack your friends in, and you'll wish they were acrobats--but hey, it's a city car, remember?
If there's a downside to the swinging-for-the-fences attitude the carmakers seem to have taken this year, it's that a really great car can be one-upped by another that comes just a few months after. That's the case with the 580-horsepower Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. Though it's nominally a 2012 model, it was launched to the press and the public early this year, so we're grouping it with the 2013 model-year cars--and for 2013, you can now get the ZL1 in convertible form. Compared to the new Shelby GT500, yes, it's 80-plus-horsepower short, a few hundred pounds heavy, and not a member of the 200-mph club. Behind the wheel, you won't care about any of that. Between the third-generation magneto-rheological dampers working magic on the lackluster Camaro chassis and the engineering team's masterful tuning of the five-stage Performance Traction Management system, the ZL1 is, by far, a more enjoyable, responsive, and engaging car to drive hard than any other in the super-muscle segment. Don't believe us? Fine. But it really is that good.
(c) 2012, High Gear Media.