Top 5 Surprisingly Good Cars of 2012

Colum Wood
by Colum Wood

What’s the best car of 2012? Who knows. Is a Porsche GT3 RS 4.0 better than a Ferrari 458 Italia? What about the Scion FR-S? Or a Prius Plug-in Hybrid? The past year has seen the launch of numerous excellent vehicles, including some we really didn’t expect to be any good. That said, we’ve put together our list of the top five surprisingly good cars of 2012, starting with the updated Mazda3.

We thoroughly enjoyed the new 3 ( read our 2012 Mazda3 review here), something that’s not at all surprising at first. What is more of a shock is that it was Mazda’s new Skyactiv model, designed primarily for fuel economy, and that it managed to deliver in that department while sticking true to the brand’s Zoom-Zoom slogan.

Adding to our reasons for placing this car on our list of surprisingly good cars is the technology behind it. At both a preview event and the actual drive, Mazda gave us a deep-dive into the engineering solutions behind its new SkyActiv technologies, rethinking every aspect of the engine and transmission for this updated model. When Ford sold off its shares in Mazda recently many skeptics proclaimed that in this new era a smaller company like Mazda couldn’t possibly hope to be competitive without a large partner like, say, Toyota. But Mazda has proved them wrong, not only competing, but perhaps delivering the the only 40 mpg car that’s actually fun to drive.

DALLAS, TX. September 22, 2010 – The Ford F-150, America's top-selling truck for 33 years, is the first and only pickup available with a twin turbocharged, direct-injected gasoline truck engine. Rated at 365-horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque, the EcoBoost F-150 has a class leading towing rating of 11,300 lbs. F-150's four new engines help…

Until Ford introduced its EcoBoost-powered F-150 model this year, there were two commonly held misconceptions about truck buyers. First, that they wouldn’t buy a V6 over a V8, and second, they wouldn’t gamble on a turbocharged engine (non diesel anyway), with its potential maintenance issues.

To everyone’s surprise, truck buyers embraced the new twin-turbo V6 F-150, a fact helped by the fact that with a 11,300 lbs tow rating, the EcoBoost engine offered more capability than even the V8. By year’s end, EcoBoost F-150 sales have topped 100,000 units, accounting for roughly 41 percent of total sales and just shy of the 5.0-liter V8’s 44 percent take-rate.

The opinions of regular truck buyers were confirmed by AutoGuide editors who fell in love with the EcoBoost truck – read the review here.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Toyota delivered an excellent hybrid, but there’s no doubt that the Camry Hybrid is an even more impressive machine than anyone could have predicted – and not just because of the fuel economy either.

For starters, hopes for a new Camry weren’t high (especially after Honda failed to blow away the competition with the new Civic) and the strong new competition from cars like the Sonata. After all, the Sonata Hybrid is rated at 36/40 mpg, well ahead of the previous Camry’s Hybrid’s 33/34 mpg rating, so even a decent improvement wouldn’t put the Camry ahead. So Toyota upped the ante, delivering a 43/39 mpg rating, for a combined 41 mpg, making the Camry Hybrid the first and only real mid-size sedan to offer over 40 mpg average.

As mentioned, that’s not all. With a history of cars like the Prius, one might expect the Camry Hybrid to be a slouch, but using the Hybrid Synergy Drive system mated to a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder there’s 200-hp and it feels like it too, making the Camry Hybrid arguably the best all-around Camry you can buy and perhaps the best mid-size sedan on the market.

Read AutoGuide’s 2012 Toyota Camry Review here

A slap in the face of electric car skeptics everywhere, the Leaf launched on schedule in 2011 and impressed just about everyone. It remains an electric car with the obvious drawbacks, including charge time and range anxiety, but with a real-world range of 70 miles it’s a functional daily commuter for a lot of Americans.

As the first mainstream EV, the car’s rollout went off without a hitch – due in part to a massive effort by Nissan to work with local municipalities to ensure proper charging infrastructure was in place. In fact, Nissan was able to accelerate the car’s rollout beyond its initial target markets, arriving in Chicago (its first mid-West sales area) ahead of schedule. The result of all this is that the Leaf is on target to reach its 10,000 unit sales goal in the U.S.

But perhaps the major contributing factor to the Leaf’s success is the car itself. While an EV, it’s not loaded up with excessive compromises. In fact, it’s a very real and reasonably good set of wheels, with a nice mix of comfort and agility, and unlike the Prius it’s not dreadfully slow.

For more on the Nissan Leaf, read AutoGuide’s review here

The Sonic Z-Spec accessory portfolio includes aColor Outa accent packages with contrasting-color exterior parts and graphics that express the caras performance characteristics.

And our number one pick for the most surprisingly good car of 2012 is the Chevrolet Sonic. GM has invested heavily in reinventing itself in the small category and it’s working. First came the Cruze and now the Sonic, a car that delivers as promised, with a stylish 5-door hatchback that out-powers all rivals and is genuinely fun to drive.

What makes this such a shocker is because of how far behind GM has lagged in the small car segment. To call its predecessor, the Aveo, lacklustre, would have been a compliment. The new interior, while not faultless from a materials perspective, is definitely unique with its motorcycle inspired gauges, plus the Sonic comes with goodies like hill-hold assist (manual transmission models), 10 airbags and standard alloy wheels. The base 1.8L 4-cylinder is passable, while a 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder can be had for just $700 extra. It makes 138-hp, tying the Accent for the most power in the sub-compact class, while 148 lb-ft of torque is significantly more than any rival. Plus, the tiny 4-banger gets 29/40 mpg.

On top of all this, the Sonic hatchback offers solid cargo room and a reasonably sized rear seat area, two qualities the Ford Fiesta certainly can’t claim.

Read AutoGuide’s complete 2012 Chevy Sonic Review here

Colum Wood
Colum Wood

With AutoGuide from its launch, Colum previously acted as Editor-in-Chief of Modified Luxury & Exotics magazine where he became a certifiable car snob driving supercars like the Koenigsegg CCX and racing down the autobahn in anything over 500 hp. Find Colum on <a href="http://www.google.com">Twitter.</a>

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