It's been a real juicy peach of a year for sports cars. And I don't just mean the ones that feel like you're driving with oven mitts on. I mean the ones that have the crackly goodness a sports car should have.
And that's been kind of surprising, in an era when more automakers simply must build cars that can "do it all," and in the process wind up building cars that do some things well, and other things like Tyson Chandler playing hide-and-seek. In other words, goofily.
And so, despite some pundits' predicting the demise of cars that drive well, and in the face of appliance cars, the world doesn't seem so gloomy after all.
And so, here are the cars I drove in 2012 that I liked, and the ones I not so liked.
Best: 2013 SRT Viper
The updated, SRT-branded Viper is the purest sports car available today at any price, from any major automotive manufacturer whose name isn't Porsche.
It's also got the most powerful naturally-aspirated engine ever offered in series production — excluding unicorn supercars — and is more comfortable to drive long distances than a Conestoga wagon on fire. Ralph "You're Full of Shit" Gilles dreams of getting track-driving Porsche GT3 owners to buy American. And while that sounds batshit mad, he may be on to something.
Best: 1986(?) BMW 325es
Calling the E30 BMW 3-Series a classic is like saying Vlad the Impaler liked to whittle. To E30 lovers — i.e., those who've driven one in some sort of anger — it's less a car than a totem to BMW's ancestral roots, founded on brilliant steering, neutral handling and light weight. No car of any era manages momentum as naturally as the E30.
And so, it was the perfect car in which to be thrust athwart my first LeMons race, the "Real Hoopties of New Jersey" at New Jersey Motorsports Park this past April. Now that the novelty has worn down on LeMons a bit, "real racers" have showed up. You can tell these "real racers" by the expanding collection of E30 BMWs (guilty; though the team borrowed Alex Roy's former "Jamaican Patrol-mon" BMW to save $$) and worked-over Volvos amid the art-car junkers.
These "real racers" do "real racing" things like shake their fist at you and pound the steering wheel when they think you're jumping a place under yellow flag. Chill out, Raikkonen, and shouldn't you be driving a Brinks truck made from two Pontiac Sunfires stacked atop a '65 Country Squire?
After a few warm-up laps, I realized I couldn't imagine any car in which I'd rather be tossed into a junk-filled procession of weekend racing warriors than the E30. Even after 25 years of who-knows-what, the 325e proved itself to be the most graceful junkheap out there. By far. The engine, on the other hand, was another story.
Here's the thing about the "e" BMW models. They were built for economy; the Eta-engine has a long-ass stroke, with a redline of nigh under 4,500. Sure, it's torquey, but also prone to serious over-revving by red-misted LeMons racers who didn't really have to downshift there, but did anyway for effect. Naturally, we threw a rod on day 2.
Best: Cadillac ATS
Amid all the "BMW 3-Series vs. Cadillac ATS" comparos, it's easy to forget Cadillac ATS can stand on its own. Yes, Cadillac engineers benchmarked the 3-Series to within an inch of its life, but they got so much right with the ATS's chassis dynamics that it's a great car to throw around. Naturally, like the 3-Series, the turbocharged four offers the best balance, but the powerful six makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention.
Worst: Dodge Dart, 2.0-liter, manual
I'm sorry, Ralph "You're Full of Shit" Gilles. As grateful as I am for the new SRT Viper, I'd rather have the flu than drive the entry-level Dart again. I was excited for the new Dart. I think it's the best-looking car in its segment — it definitely looks like the most exciting car in its class.
This is starting to feel like shooting fish in a barrel, considering the base-level status of the Dart I drove. But it's in the entry-level model where the car's bones are most evident. Let's just say I wouldn't have noticed all the body roll if not for the poorly-bolstered seats.
What could have been one of top picks in the compact space is sadly behind competitors in driving sparkle appeal. But there's hope. We're still waiting for the 184-hp R/T version, and the often-rumored-never-confirmed-pretty-much-guaranteed ~280-hp Dart SRT.
Worst: Hyundai Veloster Turbo
Whereas the Cadillac ATS benefited from GM examining the BMW 3-Series with an electron microscope, the Veloster did not benefit from Hyundai not having reverse-engineered the Mini Cooper. The Veloster just doesn't have enough driving sparkle to make it a true contender in the econo-sport category — and that's a shame because I do like its courageous styling and standard-feature set.
Who did get it right here? Chevrolet, with the Sonic LTZ. Of course, I'm waiting patiently for the Fiesta ST.