Talk about your First World Problems. The first review we published this year was of Audi's excellent R8 Spyder, which left us wondering: Where do we go from here? We may not have equaled that bit of automotive bliss in the ensuing months, but we were fortunate to drive a variety of interesting cars. What we took away from 2011 was the impression that we — finally — are entering the era of practical and fun-to-drive small cars in the United States.
Best new entry: The fun Hyundai Veloster has unique looks and deft handling. The engine is somewhat anemic, but with a turbo version on the way, it could be a hot hatch.
Small wonder: We really enjoyed the Ford Fiesta, but our favorite subcompact also was the most basic — the Mazda 2 with standard 5-speed manual. While the 2 may lack Ford's technology, it more than makes up for it in fun. You don't get much power (100 horsepower), but tossing this car around is simply a joy.
Compact sedans: It's tough to choose a favorite in this competitive class; the Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra and Chevrolet Cruze are all strong, fuel-efficient contenders. The sporty Focus can be loaded with gadgetry, but its transmission needs refinement. The stylish Elantra is roomy and gives you lots of features for the money. The Cruze, which gets up to 42 mpg, has a spacious interior.
People mover: Two stood out for us. The all-new Dodge Durango and the Mazda 5. The Dodge is much more refined than its predecessor and offers an available third-row seat. It's now one of the better-looking SUVs on the market. The Mazda 5 shows that good things come in small packages. It carries up to six without sacrificing the fun factor.
Favorite sports car: It's not as pure a driving experience as the Audi R8, but the Porsche Turbo S with a 3.8-liter twin-turbo 6-cylinder puts out 530 horsepower and can go 0 to 60 in 3.1 seconds. We were skeptical of an automatic in a sports car, but this 7-speed dual-clutch transmission clicked through gears flawlessly, maximizing the power.
Green machines: The more time we spent with the Chevy Volt, the more we liked it. (No, we aren't deterred by recent crash test concerns.) The Volt seems to make sense, if not currently in price, then in technology: Until charging stations are common, the Volt's onboard gas generator is a necessity when you can't plug in. We also like the Lexus CT 200h hybrid, a roomy 5-door hatchback with lots of cargo space that gets up to 43 mpg.
Odd couple? Combine a crossover and a convertible, and you get the new Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet. This eccentric car has an upscale interior and a divisive look. Some called it the most hated car of 2011.
Kia squared: We drove two versions of Kia's redesigned Optima — the turbo and the hybrid — and liked them both. The turbo is a spirited and stylish sedan while the hybrid — Kia's first — is a solid start that leaves us hopeful of further refinements. They both share best-in-class good looks.