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Car Reviews: Best Of 2011

Ready for the red carpet

January 16, 2011|By Susan Carpenter and David Undercoffler, Los Angeles Times
(Tom Foty, For The Times )

Awards season is at hand, so it's only fitting to salute top performers in one of L.A.'s favorite categories: autos. Our work as Times car reviewers put us behind the wheels of dozens of vehicles last year. Breakout stars included two new electric vehicles: the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt. Luxury models by Jaguar and Porsche also impressed us with their style and power. The new Jeep Grand Cherokee, an American classic, got a big thumbs up. Fans in the cheap seats will find there's something for them too: One of our winning cars has a sticker of only $19,690. We also drove some vehicles that didn't measure up. So let's roll out the red carpet and acknowledge some of the standouts and also-rans of the 2011 model year.


Porsche Cayenne S

Where descriptions of the 2011 Cayenne S are concerned, you'll need to indulge me in a round of existentialism. What exactly is a "sport utility"?

We'll start with the sport. Sport is climbing into a 4,500-pound, all-wheel-drive vehicle and laughing in the face of the laws of physics as you flog said entity around a racetrack. No SUV should be able to do this as well as the Cayenne can, but if one has to, it makes sense that it would be a Porsche.

Now for the utility. Utility is taking that very same vehicle that cleaned your clock on the racetrack and taking it off-roading. Or, to be more precise, it takes you off-roading. With a full complement of rough-terrain aids, such as hill descent control and a locking center differential, the Cayenne S is as charming in dirt as George Clooney was in "Ocean's Twelve."

Will any Cayenne owners actually find themselves in these situations? Not if they can spell their own name. But these capabilities demonstrate the level of engineering and sheer volume of performance-obsessed brain cells devoted to creating an SUV that lives up to the gilded crest on the hood.

Add to these assets an interior that is effortlessly tasteful and luxurious, and an exterior that sheds its predecessor's amorphous and wandering design. The Cayenne stable features variety too; there's a V-6 model, a hybrid and, if you look past the boundaries of common sense, a 500-horsepower turbo iteration. None of these is cheap; the Cayenne S I tested started at $64,675 and had almost $15,000 worth of options on it.

Yet any of these Porsche SUVs is worth every red cent. Toss me your checkbook and tell me to pick one vehicle to live with and it's going to be a Cayenne.

Pick a Kia, any Kia

Kia had a banner year in terms of introducing redesigned vehicles, and you really can't go wrong with any of them.

I had the good fortune of reviewing the Kia Sportage and the Kia Optima last year, and spent some quality time driving the larger Kia Sorento SUV.

All of them jump to the top of their respective segments in terms of value, performance, design and safety. The people at Kia deserve a trunkful of credit for taking already solid vehicles from parent company Hyundai and making them great.

The Kia Sportage is a capable compact SUV that starts around $21,000 for an LX model with automatic transmission. I tested a loaded EX AWD that came in at a sniffle under $30,000, which is pricey. But the beauty of the Sportage, and indeed all Kias, is that the elements that make the vehicle shine are standard across all trim lines.

Kia's valedictorian is the 2011 Optima. If it's my dollars on the counter for a mid-size car, this is my first choice and it's not even a close one. It beats all rivals in style, handling, safety and value. Spend $19,690 on the base LX with the standard 200-horsepower four-cylinder or $26,660 for the SX, a 274-horsepower, turbocharged sleeper. There's really no loser. Nothing's perfect, and in my review I mentioned the hard seats, but they're not cement and are no reason to avoid the vehicle.

Perhaps the biggest downside to Kias right now is their tainted pedigree. Extolling the virtues of this brand is often met with a look reserved for soured dairy products. So, to the owners of 2011 Kias, I say stay strong. Consider yourself in front of a trend.

Nissan Leaf

Before you go to bed tonight you'll probably plug in a few items for charging. Perhaps your cellphone, your laptop, maybe an electric toothbrush. So why not your car? The Leaf is the first mass-marketed all-electric car available, and it's a game-changer precisely because it is so easy to live with.

Charging takes place in your garage. A full charge on a standard 110-volt outlet takes about 18 hours, while using a dedicated 240-volt charging unit takes eight. But my time with the Leaf demonstrated that it was rare that you return home at the end of the day in need of a full charge.

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