For the 2014 Yahoo Autos Car of the Year, the editors corralled 16 models from an unprecedented surge of new cars, trucks and SUVs hitting our roads this model year. While this distinguished group from the United States, Europe and Asia all had their merits, and a few really grabbed our reviewers by the collar, one stood out: the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, a laudable and unignorable revival of a classic American sports car.
Before we begin to wax lyrical about this year’s victor — which inherits the Yahoo Autos crown from 2013's winner, the Tesla Model S — we must note that unlike last year's runaway verdict, several models nipped at the Vette’s preposterously wide heels.
Had it not been for the Corvette's rebirth, Mazda’s elegant Mazda3 would have taken top spot, impressing our team with its Miata-inspired “Zoom Zoom” zest — and with an as-tested price of $24,335, offering a value-for-money proposition impossible to ignore. Close behind was Jaguar’s nimble, elegant and heart-revving F-Type rag top, which had its considerable podium chances weakened by a $104,620 window sticker. All of which telegraphs why the Corvette shot between those two standouts to grab our checkered flag: at a price of $71,720 with the 3LT Preferred Equipment Package — off a base of $53,800 — it possesses the wonderfully crazy flair of a supercar for, comparatively speaking, sane money.
A few words about our methodology: You'll have to look elsewhere for physics-class style analytics and G-force inducing skid pad tests. In contrast, our testers used the computers between their ears (not to mention the one that connects to the seat) to rate each car’s interior design, exterior styling, power delivery, ride and handling. Using window stickers we assigned a value to value, and with information about fuel efficiency and carbon emissions gave points for each car’s friendliness to the atmosphere. (Our plans for some higher-speed runs were cut short due to the U.S. government shutdown, which arrived during our scheduled visit to NASA's Moffett Field airstrip.)
Throughout, we kept one thought in mind: How would our readers approach these cars with their hard-earned money at stake?
By no means perfect, the new Corvette won on a number of fronts and was never far from the top in any given category. The plaudits were loudest over its looks; no other car had so many people stopping and gawking on the street. Our testers were not immune, often jostling for the iconic Chevy’s keys.
The large but vaguely defined exterior of recent Vettes has been replaced by sharp, creased lines that disguise the machine’s considerable bulk and bring to mind cars like the new Ferrari F12 Berlinetta, which costs as much as four of our test Stingrays. Of particular note are the rakish slats just ahead of each door, and a commanding if somewhat polarizing two-tone rear end punctuated by four centrally located exhaust tips. “Looks like a supercar, sounds like a muscle car,” raved one reviewer, while another said “it has the ‘it’ factor, soaking up attention from all around you.”
The performance of the new Vette was also a subject of some chatter, as well as a simple outburst: “3.8 seconds to 60 mph for around $50,000 base? Sold!” The 6.2-liter V8 under that sculpted, slotted hood pulls like a freight train though some lamented not having a stick (of all the cars requested, only the Mazda3 arrived so equipped.) “Easily the most fun I’ve had in a long time, (but) if it had a manual transmission it would have been even more fun,” said one reviewer. Others disagreed, calling the six-speed automatic "neat and smooth.”
For a company just four years removed from near-collapse, Chevy has upped its game with the Stingray, a halo car if there ever was one. No where is that effort more on display than inside the two-person cockpit. While it may not yet be in Mercedes-Benz S-Class territory in terms of materials and fit and finish, the Stingray leaps beyond previous-generation Corvettes. “Interior is much improved over the C6 Vette and they have fixed the terrible freeway drone of that car,” said one tester. The heads-up display “may look like something you would find in a video game, but it works on this car.”
The perfect coda for this Detroit symphony of machismo was one simple statistic: 20. That’s the car’s estimated combined mpg, which splits to 16 city and 28 highway. For a vehicle with damn-the-torpedoes looks, those are some impressive numbers that allow you to motor in style while not constantly hunting for the next gas stop.
In the end, there were both less and more expensive cars in our sweet 16 fleet than the Corvette Stingray. But if you do have around $50,000 to realize a childhood fantasy that involves speed, looks and other less definable daydreams, our 2014 Yahoo Autos Car of the Year strikes an amazing balance, providing supercar performance and looks for less than its European rivals while offering a welcome reminder that a bona fide legend of the American roads has no intention of pulling over.
While the Vette won our overall award, a few other models revealed themselves worthy of special notice during our sessions:
2014 Mazda3, Best Compact Car: Even during Silicon Valley rush hour, the five-door Mazda3 continuously made us smile. It’s plenty peppy, handles brilliantly for a front-wheel drive hatchback and sports an engaging, well-executed manual transmission. Its interior was comfortable, nicely trimmed, and while it lacks traffic-stopping looks, its certainly deserves attention from behind the wheel. Boasting 33 mpg, and a price tag starting around $17,000, there really is a Mazda3 for everyone.
2014 Jaguar F-Type, Best Roadster: The F-Type is one of the most important cars in Jaguar’s recent history. Being the first two-seater sports car the Brits have delivered since the legendary E-Type, it has sizable loafers to fill. Fortunately, with its barbaric V-8 engine producing a sound like no other sports car on the market, Jaguar has excelled itself. Of all the cars, this was the one that made us feel most alive. But our F-Type V-8 S fetches over $100,000. And it doesn’t handle quite as crisply as we’d like.
2014 Porsche Cayman, Best Sports Car: If you’re wondering what is the best handling car we’ve tested for 2014, look no further than the Porsche Cayman. The PDK gearbox defines the segment, and its handling never felt less than precise. No other car inspired this much confidence through NorCal’s sweeping mountain roads. Like the F-Type, approaching $100,000, the Cayman S we tested remains too expensive. And it lacks the emotional character the Jaguar and Corvette evoke. (It was also the only car that had an actual cigarette lighter.)
2014 BMW 4 Series, Best Luxury Car: Ignoring the confusing nomenclature, the BMW 4-Series, which is really the 3-Series Coupe, was perhaps the surprise of the bunch. Its supple ride, explosive handling and soft, powerful engine left us yearning for more. The luxury field crowded together this year, and going into the matchup the new Cadillac CTS was a favorite. But while the 2014 CTS is one of the best Cadillacs in recent years, it couldn’t keep pace with the Bimmer in most dimensions. Starting at $41,000, it’s not priced badly either. But the interior is a bit scattered, and in true German fashion, it needs plenty of box-checking to option it the way you’d like.
2014 Subaru Forester, Best SUV: Buyers looking for a capable, sure-footed, dependable machine will love the 2014 Forester. Sure, its look is bland and its plastic interior lacks creativity, but it does everything one could ask of it. It’s easy to drive, compliant and stable, not to mention its soccer-mom practicality. And at $33,220 for our test car, it’s well priced. Subaru knows something simple: What's not broken needs no fixing.
We graded on something of a curve, but in fact it's rare to have a new model fall short in the global auto industry. Even the lowest-scoring vehicle in our field offers some improvement in most ways from those a few years old. Our notes on the rest of the class of 2014:
2014 Acura RLX: The RLX had us reaching for comparisons to Buick and Acuras of years past, for reasons good and bad. "Acuras have a way of making me scratch my head," said one tester. "It actually delivers a nice ride with genuine sporting overtones, especially in Type-S guise. But when it comes to exterior styling it almost feels like the designers didn't have one coherent mandate (too many angles) other than to create something that doesn't offend." And with a price tag equal to the Cadillac CTS at $65,000, several felt the Acura didn't make enough of a statement to justify it's sticker.
2014 Cadillac CTS: We all had praise for the handling and power of Cadillac's new mid-size luxury sedan, but from there the opinions diverged — until they met again, in unison, as a critique of Cadillac's CUE touchscreen/button-free entertainment system. "Beautiful interior marred by horrid CUE haptic user interface" was a common submission. Engine and eight-speed transmission refinement in our 3.6-liter V6 tester was generally praised, but fell a step or three behind that of the BMW 4-Series. Not everyone felt the exterior design worked, especially in the rear. And at $65,000, a few questioned whether Cadillac could command such prices over the long haul.
2014 Chevrolet Silverado: We wanted to sample the vehicle that's not just a lynchpin of GM's profits but the competitor in the grinding battle around Detroit for best pickup. And in general, our testers enjoyed the power from the 5.3-liter V-8, the generally well-controlled ride and the vast improvement in interior comforts (both the Silverado and the CTS came with three-prong 120v outlets) But all of us blanched at the $50,000 tag of our fully-loaded crew cab, and none found a measure where the Chevy far surpassed the Ram or Ford F-150.
2014 Honda Fit EV: The only electric car in this year's test demonstrated why Tesla still has the field to itself. Many judges were ready to embrace an electric car, and a few had praise for it: "I prefer this car over the (Nissan) Leaf. In sport mode it's nippy and enjoyable to potter around in." But others noted the lack of interior appointments or software tuned for getting the most out of its charge, and the price tag of $37,415 offers an easy definition of "sticker shock."
2014 Kia Cadenza: The first luxury car from the South Korean automaker drew some praise as an around-town cruiser, and plaudits for exterior style that doesn't hide the Kia name or heritage, but more mixed results on other measures: "From design to powertrain, it feels like a simulacrum of a luxury car — a copy of others' work rather than Kia's own attempt to deliver something unique for buyers with $40,000 to spend on a sedan."
2014 Lexus IS350 F Sport: While it didn't surpass the BMW, the Lexus sport sedan was right in the mix with the Germans and Cadillac for praise among the luxury car set; its demerits lay mainly in less-crisp handling and a few odd touches in design "Dynamically, it's a four-fifths BMW, but with much better bang for the buck," said one. Another judge added: "The interior was well finished and didn't appear cheap like the Mercedes...but over all the infotainment system was confusing and extremely sensitive."
2014 Mazda Mazda6: While not reaching the heights of the Mazda3, the Mazda6 still won much praise. A typical summation: "Easily the go-to Asian-made sedan in our test group, if not from a styling standpoint, then from a value-for-money proposition." Many compared it favorably to the Ford Fusion and Honda Accord. The downside: The 184-hp Skyactiv four-cylinder engine felt underpowered, and the interior lacked some of the design touches or higher-tech accoutrements that midsize sedan buyers can find elsewhere.
2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class: Here, the handling refinement of Mercedes' first front-wheel-drive sedan gave way to what several judges saw as signs of penny-pinching in the interior to make its $30,000 starting price, from lower-grade plastic parts to a steering column shifter. "Amazing how a car that can look so good in those CLA commercials can underwhelm so much in person" was one of the harsher comments. Some still found it more refined than the Acura and Kia in the mix; "Pleasant overall, great chassis and suspension, but it's impossible to push the thing hard."
2014 Mini Paceman: Mini will soon reveal the first full updating of its line, and as the last of the current generation, the Paceman felt like the guest who keeps dancing while the DJ packs up and the lights go on. The Mini's diminutive shape doesn't lend itself well to this body style; the interior design bits that were once stylish have lost their appeal. Handling and power returned less joy than a base model Cooper. And at a price tag just shy of $40,000, the Paceman drew unanimous downgrades on value.
2014 Toyota Corolla: The cheapest car in our tests at $23,570 as delivered, the new Corolla surpassed our expectations for affordability, but didn't generate the excitement that the Mazda3 brought to compact cars. "Much improved over its predecessor, but still lacks the polished driving dynamics of cars like the Mazda3 or Civic," said one judge. "With features like navigation, satellite radio, seat warmers, and a sunroof it seemed like a good value for the price," said another, who then called it "slow."
Original photos: Robert Kerian for Yahoo Autos