Not simply the newest cars, but the best cars for 2013, and all of them under $80,000.
Audi A6 3.0T/S6/A7 3.0T/S7
All hail the new autobahn—and interstate—kings.
For the second consecutive year, we're bellying up for a helping of Audi's alphanumeric soup. To the "As" and "6s" and "7s" from the A6 3.0T and A7 models that made the list last year, we're happy to see a couple of hot "Ss" float to the top in 2013. For the S6 and S7, Audi takes the "A" models' rich mix of virtues and turns it lethal, thanks in no small part to a 420-hp, twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8. In a recent comparison test, the S6 put the hurt on the vastly more powerful BMW M5 and Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG. On the road, the S6 is an inexhaustible cannon, more cohesive and less fiddly than cars costing an additional $20,000. Audi's modus operandi for the non-S varieties is basically the same, minus 110 horsepower. Understated bodies cover stout structures into which Audi crafts beautiful and sensible interiors, without unnecessary complication. Combine that with an unflappable chassis, accurate steering, ample power, and a general sense of quality and you have an unbeatable luxury/sports-car range.
BMW 3-Series Sedan
The same old song and dance, differently.
Regular readers of this publication may have felt inklings or heard the notion that we have a certain fondness for the 3-series, as we've lofted it to this list now for 22 years in a row. This being a transition year for the model, the F30 sedan stands alone as the winner, without support from the rest of the lineup. Recent comparison and road tests suggest that we haven't gone ga-ga for the F30 as we did its predecessors, but it nevertheless delivers one of the best overall packages on the market. Two turbocharged engines offer improved fuel economy while the inline-six in the 335i maintains nearly undetectable NVH levels. The body and interior may have grown slightly, but that imposes little or no weight penalty. Front seats are comfortable and supportive, and the back seat is adult friendly. There's virtually no performance gap between the six-speed manual and the eight-speed automatic. With five equipment lines to choose from (base, Modern, Luxury, Sport, and M Sport), the 3's appeal has expanded to reach a larger audience without breaking its grip on the sports-sedan segment. Many would-be challengers have benchmarked this winning formula, and some even match or beat it in one way or another, but they all fall short of the gestalt. The F30 is just getting started, too—a hotly anticipated M3 version slides into view next year.
Ford Focus/Focus ST
Long on value, short on fluff, this is America's supercompact.
Never confuse cheapness with value. A cheap car endlessly reminds you of its inferiority. But value is doubly rewarding; it means paying the least amount possible for something of superior grade. And value perfectly describes the Ford Focus and Focus ST. A Focus might cost slightly more than other cars in its compact class, but for a few bucks extra, it's profoundly better. From the basic 160-hp Focus to the new 252-hp hot hatch, the entire lineup transcends the compact caste. It's as if Ford built the Focus's structure to compete with Mercedes-Benz, the steering with Porsche, and the suspension with Lotus. Ford might not have hit every mark—the automatic is still a dullard, for instance—but the reach upward lifts the Focus away from its competition. Even the electric version (deemed too pricey for a 10Best award) boasts the same blend of refinement and handling. Note that we did, however, add the ST to the list this year. It's like a younger, louder, and hungrier GTI, and we fell hard for it. But even the lowliest Focus is suffused with character and quality far above its price.
Ford Mustang GT/Boss 302
The Lord loves a juvenile delinquent.
Tip o' the hat to the freshened-for-2013 Ford Mustang in this, its third consecutive 10Best posting. Which is funny, because this 48-year-old malefactor's stingy rear seats would enrage the Amish. Its cabin materials still recollect Little House on the Prairie. The rigid rear axle is older than Moses. And on commutes in rain or snow, this loudmouth is only marginally more useful than your Schwinn. Said Jens Meiners, our European voter, "Wasteful, crude, unsophisticated—an automotive caricature of America." That's why, when the polls open, the Mustang sucks up to a constituency comprising Bruce Springsteen, Joe Biden, and all the rest of us hormonally imbalanced American boys whose primitive predilections got us kicked out of study hall. Well, too bad. At least we know our math:
420-hp Mustang GT: 60 mph in 4.5 seconds, quarter-mile in 13.0 seconds at 111 mph, top speed of 147 mph, 0.89 g of cornering grip, base price of $31,095.
444-hp Mustang Boss 302 Laguna Seca: 60 mph in 4.2 seconds, quarter-mile in 12.7 seconds at 114 mph, top speed of 161 mph, 0.96 g of cornering grip, base price of $42,995 (Boss) or $49,990 (Laguna Seca). For now, we're still warming to the 305-hp Mustang V-6 and the 662-hp Shelby GT500. In the end, it's the GT/Boss twofer that shines as the quintessential Motown emblems of power, performance, and practicality—each a white-hot line drive of blue-collar satisfaction for red-blooded Yanks. Did we go over the top there?
The family sedan, elevated.
Let us get this straight: The new Accord has ditched its control-arm front suspension for struts; a CVT has displaced its four-cylinder's step-gear automatic; and gasoline direct injection is new this year—but only on the four—nine years after Audi first offered it in the U.S. So why is this car back on this list for a record 27th time? It's not because the Accord is a looker. What it has is inner beauty: Luxury-car big inside and yet smaller outside than before, this ninth-gen version fully delivers on Honda's "man-maximum, machine-minimum" philosophy. The Accord's greatness has always derived from its ability to disappear under its driver, but this new car verges on the ethereal—it is so easy to see out of, so easy to point into a corner, so elegant and light and forgiving in its responses that one big fluid loop develops between man and machine. This is true whether you're talking about the base four-cylinder sedan or the six-cylinder coupe with its clockwork manual. Its playful and graceful spirit makes taking grandma to the doctor and the kids to soccer and the boss to lunch no chore. You only think it's a driving appliance until you drive it. Then you understand.
Intelligence in five-door form.
With the Fit, Honda hands drivers a bargain-priced tool that is neither pretty nor powerful. In place of all that is something rarer: density of thought. There's more intelligence packed into the Fit than in many cars nearly twice its size. It's the defining small car—mechanically precise, pared of excess fat, respectful of gasoline, and graced with fluid handling. It's also hugely practical and affordable. Like a genie lamp, it's small on the outside and remarkably cavernous inside. An electric version priced itself out of contention, and the gas model is by no means perfect—the 117-hp engine needs more oats. But the Fit's every component hums the song of high-quality machinery and that seduced us again.
Mazda MX-5 Miata
Best in a class of one.
At this point, the Miata deserves some veneration for enduring as the only inexpensive roadster still on the market. But we don't hand out awards for longevity. The Miata remains on this list for the eighth straight year because it shows how engineering rightness transcends performance figures. The 167-hp four is merely adequate and the handling limits are unimpressive by sports-car standards. What keeps the Miata triumphant is not raw performance but a balanced chassis that communicates every nuance to the driver through perfectly calibrated controls. And at a $24,515 starting price, the Miata keeps all that fun affordable.
Porsche Boxster/Boxster S
Is this the greatest roadster ever built?
Our expectations for the new Porsche Boxster couldn't have been higher. We've put the Boxster on our 10Best list 13 times since the model's introduction in 1996. Well, hello number 14. To say that this stem-to-stern reworking for 2013 exceeds expectations is to engage in an almost British level of understatement. The new car is roomier, thanks to a longer wheelbase, but lighter than the car it replaces. A slinky new body makes the Boxster look less like the 911's little brother and more like an exotic. It will generate 1.0 g on the skidpad. It can stop from 70 mph in a shorter distance than the McLaren 12C. According to our testing, the Boxster S accelerates as quickly as a standard 911. But the Boxster is not really about generating big performance figures. Driving it is a holistic sports-car experience, an exercise in interactivity. The standard 265-hp 2.7-liter flat-six sounds as thrilling as the 315-hp 3.4-liter in the S model. The steering is genius. Utterly unperturbed by broken or wavy pavement, this car remains steadfastly on the line you've chosen. A redesigned Cayman (the Boxster's hardtop brother) is not yet available, so it doesn't share the award this time. But something tells us we'll end up liking that one as well.
Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ
Double your pleasure, double your fun.
For the first time since 1997, when the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique shared, one car sold under two different marques has claimed a single 10Best award. The differences between the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ are some exterior colors and trim, and the BRZ comes standard with a navigation unit, equating to a $1310 premium over the $24,955 FR-S. Critics of the Scibaru are quick to point out its unrefined and buzzy shortcomings. We hear the buzzing, and even a little interior rattling, as the backing track to a constant reminder that chassis development took the lead during this car's gestation. Electrically assisted steering that actually communicates and a chassis balance that ebbs and flows between understeer and oversteer with brake or throttle applications are hallmarks of its personality. It is a lot like the Porsche Boxster in that regard, but for about half the cost. With only 200 horses and a 6400-rpm torque peak, there's no power cushion to adjust the mid-corner pace. The Subion challenges drivers to maintain speed and when apex velocity is maxed out, so is the driver-satisfaction gauge. Entertainment, value, and execution of the intended purpose are the 10Best commandments: This one (okay, two) nails 'em all.
So well-rounded, if quite boxy.
Volkswagen's testosteroid Golf R did its more common kin a favor this year, even though we left the pricey black sheep of the family off our list as too much of an outlier. Volkswagen's venerable hatchback will be replaced in 2014 by an all-new model, and that made its 10Best berth vulnerable. Yet, after we drove the most powerful and expensive Golf ever to grace our shores, the R merely reinforced how complete the Volkswagen Golf experience already is. Offering nearly perfect fundamentals in base form, thrift in its TDI (turbo-diesel) variant, and an obscenely high fun-per-dollar ratio from the GTI, the Golf upends the underachiever's excuse that you can't please all of the people all of the time.