On The Road Review: My 10 Favorite Vehicles of 2009



Hidden in all of the frighteningly bad news about the auto industry in 2009 is the reality that the manufacturers are really making some very nice stuff.

 

Enhanced powertrains are improving fuel economy and performance, electronic aids are increasing vehicle safety for many driving situations, while computers are providing ever more information and entertainment for the spaces that many of us are spending more time inside of.

Instead of lamenting our future, we should be capitalizing upon the wealth of effort that is producing a broad selection of the best cars and trucks ever built.

Of the more than four dozen new vehicles sampled in 2009, here are the 10 that I most enjoyed, admired and deem worthy of space in my garage. Your choices may differ.

Chevy Traverse

GM’s lead division suffered in 2009 along with the rest of the corporation, yet the Traverse is a shining example of what this automaker is capable of when it puts its mind to the task. Very proficient at big people movers, this GM design is smooth, spacious and comfortable from both a user’s standpoint as well as a driver’s outlook. The detailing is top-notch while the big crossover’s functionality gives this fully independent platform a decided edge over the firm-riding SUVs that used to populate so many suburban driveways. If you need the most space for the most people, but also need to tow, commute and work out of a large vehicle, the Traverse is smart.

Toyota Venza

Toyota’s newest people mover is a risky design but a welcome departure from the company’s usual conservative nature. The Venza is a five-door midsize hatchback/wagon based on the Camry platform. Using front or optional all-wheel drive, the Venza also offers base-line four-cylinder power and potent V-6 production. The cabin is spacious — especially the well-crafted second row — while the styling is very appealing. In some ways, the Venza outdueled several other crossover designs to make this list because it takes a bold stance, while not eschewing the values that make Toyotas so sought after. While Venza sales have not yet met expectations, this car is really a worthy adversary for Toyota’s own Lexus RX-series, as well as Nissan’s Murano — one of my favorites from 2008.

Kia Forte and Soul

This pick is for the whole new small car lineup from Kia. The new Soul compact crossover appeared first and is a treat no matter your age or driving preferences. Two different Forte sedans visited, too, and cemented the opinion that Kia is on a roll. These compact cars are well-appointed, drive commendably well, and don’t cost much to buy or operate. The folks at Toyota, Honda and Nissan had better be looking over their shoulders because these are credible compact offerings that buyers are really starting to notice.

Jaguar XK/XKR

Jaguar XK
Jaguar XK

Most of us will never be fortunate enough to afford one of these charmingly handsome British sports cars, yet that shouldn’t mean I can ignore the responsive handling, supple ride, and intoxicating thrum of the high-output V-8 engine that hides in this car’s engine bay. The two models that visited — an XK coupe with base V-8 and a XKR Roadster with the supercharged 5.0-liter engine — were both dynamite cars, simply a blast to drive. The XKR distinguishes itself with beautiful coach work, outlandish wheels and interior styling, plus over-the-road dynamics that seem to defy Newton’s principles. One experience in the Jaguar is a trip never to be forgotten.

Hyundai Genesis

At number six on my list is a full-size premium sedan that is the North American Car of the Year. The Genesis sedan (there is also a pony-car sized coupe) blew across the pond from South Korea and caught most automakers by surprise. Packing rear wheel drive and a 375-hp V-8 engine, the Genesis looks like a Mercedes, goes like a BMW, packs an interior like a Lexus, all while costing as little as a loaded Toyota. That’s a feat all in itself, a true four-star effort from Hyundai.

Infiniti G37xS

Infiniti G37xS
Infiniti G37xS

The Infiniti G37 is a mature midsize premium sedan that keeps getting better and better with age. Adding an updated all-wheel-drive system gives the G-series the adroit responsiveness that buyers admire in an Audi. Repowering the car with a larger 3.7-liter V-6 tells owners that this four-door still has its sights set on the venerable BMW 3-series. I really liked Nissan’s new Maxima this year as well, but, the Infiniti’s sharper handling and more balanced chassis tipped the scales in its favor.

Chevy Camaro SS, Dodge Challenger SRT/8, Ford Mustang GT

America’s three retro-styled pony cars each made a favorable impression — enough so that I could be happy with any of the three. Two of these powerful coupes were experienced in the last few weeks of the year — tempting the weather gods as well as the laws of physics as disabled traction and stability control systems turn these big coupes into smile-a-minute hooligan cars. Unfortunately, not every driver can appreciate their very existence, let alone their prodigious performance.

Volkswagen Jetta TDI Sportwagon
Volkswagen Jetta TDI Sportwagon

I liked virtues in each of these renaissance-man cars. The Mustang’s throaty V-8 sound is boss — all of the time — while the Ford offers the best interior layout. The Camaro’s SS powertrain takes top honors for speed, acceleration and overall output — all in a chassis that features great braking, supple steering feel and strong road manners. The Challenger gives buyers the most interior space, and for these eyes, the best looking body of the three. I don’t care if you are a blue oval, bow-tie or MOPAR fan, these three cars are nice drivers, cars that can be admired and enjoyed. In base V-6 trim, each design is also thrifty and worthy of admiration. We couldn’t always say that about the earlier editions of America’s pony cars.

At number one is a pick that should not surprise regular readers. Volkswagen’s Jetta sedan and new Sportwagon with the TDI-clean diesel engine appeared three times this year. Each model reinforced initial impressions. This car is smooth, strong, efficient and one smart way to save fuel and still enjoy driving. Each sample of the Jetta TDI returned at least 40 mpg, while delivering the torquey performance that turbo-diesels are known for.

There is no diesel smell or engine clatter from the 2.0-liter turbo/diesel and the Jetta is surprisingly quiet going down the road. Add in the usual Jetta characteristics — responsive German handling, well-outfitted cabin, attractive styling — and this compact is not only a fuel-miserly daily-driver, but a comfortable, reasonably priced economy car. With TDI prices starting at just under $22,000, the Jetta makes a lot of sense for a world that appears to lack much sense.

For more photos of this year’s choices, visit www.fenceviewer.com.

For more arts & entertainment news, pick up a copy of The Ellsworth American.

 

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