In 2011, Automotive.com’s staff size increased 600 percent. We started our own revitalization, staking out where we were and where we are yet to go.
To close out the year, we put together our picks for the high and low points that made up the automotive year that was 2011. From regulations to new products, from new technology to cars withering away in an ever-changing market, here are our picks for what made 2011 memorable.
Best: 54.5 mpg CAFE Latte
I like the new CAFE regulations and how automakers are focusing on fuel-efficient vehicles instead of horsepower. I’m a patriot, and the U.S. depends on foreign oil, the better off we’ll be. Don’t get me wrong: I like horsepower as much as any other gearhead, but Los Angeles traffic is the great equalizer, humbling all vehicles regardless of power or top speed. Besides, fuel costs continue to eat into household budgets. I honestly look forward to the day when my compact whatever averages 55-65 mpg but still can still zip-a-dee-doo-dah when I floor the gas/diesel/electric pedal.
Worst: Suzuki and Volkswagen’s Irreconcilable Differences
The so-called Suzuki and Volkswagen farce that’s turning into a bitter, and very sad, breakup. Like Saab’s sad story, please solve that so-called “oil and water” mix up soon for the sake of Suzuki and VW fans. Split them apart and have Suzuki build up its fleet. Bring back the Swift. Make the SX-4 competitive. Update the Grand Vitara. Oh, and expand the brand’s lineup. (Equator doesn’t account.)
Best: 2012 Audi A7′s Badonkadonk
While Audi is still collecting the awards and praise heaped upon the A7 (much of which came from yours truly), if nothing else it all goes to show the power of a good derriere. Audi took its commendable A6 sedan model, reshaped the rear and turned the collective world of automotive journalists into puppies seated in front of a bowl of bacon. Driving the A7 is satisfying: the 3.0-liter V-6 delivers 310 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque, much of it at the ready in low gears, meaning the all-wheel-drive A7 can scoot! While large wheels and dynamic styling define the exterior, sumptuous materials, Google Earth navigation, an optional “floating” digital speedometer on your windshield, and a luxurious cabin await inside. Twenty minutes with this looker with have your insides cooing with delight.
Worst: The Shame of the 2012 Honda Civic
Honda makes some very fine, very reliable cars. When I was in high school and college, it seemed we all wanted to be in Civics—they were priced accessibly, but still had style and fun. In fact when I was in college and it came time for me to buy my first car and replace the old hand-me down Corolla I got from my parents, a used Civic was all I wanted. Many years have passed since I was last in a Civic, until a 2012 Honda Civic arrived at our offices for testing. It wasn’t sad so much as shocking. While doubtless the car is still a good, reliable car, there was no hint of passion, inspiration, excitement in that car. The fabric and dash were lackluster, and there was a general somberness about the car. We hear Honda execs have caught wind of their faux pas, letting such a storied model be shamed in such a manner. The questions are, what are they going to do about it, and when?
Best: Revenge of the (Fun) Electric Car
After years of insufferable little hybrids trying to appear sporty, something happened: Automakers stopped trying (and falling short), and they started doing. Where the hybrid Honda Insight is powered by unmet promises and memories of great Hondas of yesteryear, it doesn’t deliver today. But now, Fisker is joining the ranks of fun alternative-fuel cars that look to break the mold. Although rival Tesla tagged out for 2011, it looks to get back into the game with the Model S sports sedan next year. And likewise, BMW will be joining the fray with two rear-wheel-drive cars, the i3 and i8 it introduced this year. Just because a car is good for the environment doesn’t mean it has to lack personality. Automakers have finally caught on, providing environmentally-conscious consumers with real options instead of just egg-shaped compromises.
Worst: Volt. Spark. Flames.
The Chevrolet Volt is the car of the future, whether you like it or not. Despite the fact that much of the development cost of it was wiped out in GM’s 2009 bankruptcy, it cost a hefty sum to make, and it’s still a working technology that will undoubtedly go from good to primetime over the next few years. When the NHTSA reported that three Volts it had crash-tested burst into sparks or flames days after testing, it likely caused more damage to the vehicle’s reputation over the long-run than anything else in recent years. GM’s goals are modest with this year’s batch of vehicles. And at $40,000 it’s a tough sell in a sea of confusion, lousy advertising, and cheaper so-called rivals. But make no mistake: We want the Volt to succeed on the deepest level because its technology is soon to spread to everything. It’s hit some rocky spots in recent months, and we hope it can bounce back and begin to pick up steam as it rolls out nationwide.
Best: America’s Back!
Simply put, there is no reason to cross domestic manufacturers off your list anymore. It used to be easy to dismiss GM, Chrysler and Ford. Decades of neglect, apathy and outright laziness of execution ensured that an entire generation of car buyers—my generation, really—would simply not consider heading toward a domestic dealership any more than they’d consider going to Krispy Kreme for health food. But the bankruptcy of GM and Chrysler, excellent management of all three, and relentless competition from overseas has finally produced some truly great products from all three manufacturers. It used to be that the list of domestics I’d consider purchasing was limited to specialty cars: Chevy Corvettes, Dodge Vipers, and the like. Now, their mainstream offerings aren’t just good-for-a-domestic, they’re often best in class. Just don’t get sloppy, guys.
Don’t get me wrong. As an Apple iPhone 4S user, I have grown to love and rely on the voice-command system known as Siri. But the ease and fun of using Siri shines a harsh spotlight on automotive voice-activated systems: They all stink. Here’s a real-world example (this actually happened, verbatim):
Me: How do I get to 8257 Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood?
Siri (after thinking for a few seconds): Here’s 8257 Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles, (but I’m not sure that’s what you meant).
Me: It is.
Siri: I aim to please.
How cool is that? Not only did it accurately find my destination and give me good, solid directions, it made the process as easy as asking a buddy in the passenger seat. Now, compare that with the typical voice-activated nav system, where you have to say precisely what the computer expects in exactly the way it wants you to say it. Make a mistake, and it gives you the wrong info. Thanks to Apple, all in-car voice activated systems are antiquated.
Best: Extinction of the Panther Cars
Hands down, the best thing to happen in 2011 was the laying to pasture of the Ford Panther platform. Bloated, floating bubble relics of the past that are large, heavy, slow, and ugly have no place in today’s smart, efficient, attractively-designed, and high-tech automotive lifestyle. The Ford Crown Victoria, Lincoln Town Car, and Mercury Grand Marquis represent everything that was wrong with America—and Ford. Thankfully, that era has received a double-tap to center mass.
Worst: The Weather Underground
Earthquake and tsunami. That is all.
Best: The Irrelevantly Relevant 2011 Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet
“I don’t like it,” said Truck Trend Executive Editor Allyson Harwood, mincing her words within earshot of the bosses. “It’s ugly and pointless,” she went on, expressing a sentiment shared by, one would imagine, 99 percent of the car-buying audience. But I love the CrossCab…I am the one percent? Well whatever, Allyson! Because an impossibly tall, surprisingly glamorous convertible based on a roly-poly four-door crossover is nothing short of hilarious—a nonsensical, impractical, glee-inducing Redondo Beach parade float. It is a Monty Python sketch on wheels. It could possibly be the first car designed and produced from a bet. If the Germans had built it, it would simply be a cynical example of forced niche-carving—but the fact that it came from French-owned Nissan makes the insanity so much more justifiable. Zombie Charles De Gaulle, your décapotable is waiting.
Worst: Saab Story Makes Us Cry
Up until 24 hours ago, Saab was the Bela Lugosi monster of the automotive industry: it just wouldn’t die! And God knows there had been forces at work conspiring to kill it: not GM, nor the Chinese, nor the loan-denying Swedish government, nor shady Russian businessmen ripped straight from the pages of a Guy Ritchie script had been able to strike the beast down. Perhaps Saab was the Chuck Norris of car companies, a supernatural entity that can’t be destroyed by the force of mere mortals and their boardroom transactions. But in the end, and much like the moral of the Final Destination movies, death finally caught up to the ailing Saab—this time in the form of a sudden, ignominious bankruptcy. We say goodbye to the company that gave us the SPG, the two-stroke 96, the 80s-epynomous 900 Turbo convertible, and a whole host of firebreathing rally cars that made Stig Blomqvist a household name (at least in Örebro County, Sweden). But there’s a flip side to the whole sordid affair: those 147 people that bought a Saab 9-4X now inexplicably own the rarest production car on the planet. See you at Barrett-Jackson, folks.
Best: Chrysler-Fiat Merger Bearing Fruit
The best thing that came out for 2011 in the automotive world was the eight-speed transmission that will now be offered in Jeep’s Grand Cherokee. Already tried and true in the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger, the eight-speed gearbox is configured to be able to handle the torque output from all engines in Jeep’s stable. The new transmission will help lower Jeep’s carbon emissions and can also be configured for a hybrid set-up, something Jeep has already begun looking into. According to Jeep boss Mike Manley a hybrid Jeep is already set to hit the open market sometime in 2012.
Worst: Chrysler-Fiat Merger Bearing Fruit
The worst thing that came out for 2011 in the automotive world was the three vehicles that earned three stars in the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s crash testing. The 2012 Fiat 500 aced the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s crash testing earning a Top Safety Pick for 2011 but obviously the NHTSA didn’t agree. In the latter agency’s testing the Cinquecento only escaped earning three stars because of poor side impact results but it did earn four stars in front impact and rollover testing. Out of 55 vehicles tested by the NHTSA, 17 earned five stars while 35 earned four. The other vehicles remaining, the 500, the 2011 Ford Escape and the 2011 Dodge Caliber all earned three stars. The latter two have been drastically redesigned or discontinued. However the Fiat 500′s lower crash test score raises red flags as it’s the first of many products expected from the Chrysler-Fiat merger.