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CAR REVIEWS: BEST OF 2011

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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.

DAVID'S TOP PICKS

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.

The Leaf isn't for everyone, but given the limits of battery technology right now, Nissan put together a rather functional all-electric car. Fear of running out of juice fades away with a comprehensive (and standard) navigation system that gives you all the information you could ask for on how your driving and energy usage are affecting your range, and just what that range is.

Its economics make the Leaf even more approachable. Although the sticker price starts at $32,780, federal and state tax incentives can bring that down another $10,000 to around $21,000, depending on where you live. That's for a well-equipped compact car powered by an 80-kilowatt motor putting out 107 horsepower and a lively 207 pound-feet of torque.

SUSAN'S TOP PICKS

Chevrolet Volt

If there's any upside to General Motors' killing its all-electric EV1 in 2004, it's the post-bankruptcy company's even more groundbreaking Chevrolet Volt — a plug-in electric with a range-extending gasoline engine.

A compact sedan that combines the best aspects of electric- and gas-powered propulsion, it operates emissions-free in pure-electric mode and is also capable of going the distances to which Americans are accustomed. Not including a federal tax break, the Volt lists at $41,000.

The Volt can travel up to 50 miles using its 16-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack and 111-kilowatt electric drive unit, and an additional 310 miles with a 1.4-liter internal combustion engine that juices its electric generator and drive motors.

What's revolutionary about the Volt is that it negates the need for drivers to choose between going green and conducting business as usual. For green technologies to succeed, they can't require consumer sacrifice. To become mainstream, they need to be equal to or better than what consumers have come to expect. They need to handle like regular cars, to be as quick to refuel as gas

vehicles and to operate at a reasonable cost. The Volt accomplishes all of these things.

The weight distribution of its gas/electric powertrain is centered and low, making its ride feel utterly normal. Because the car is designed to go up to 40 miles in pure electric mode, which GM says will satisfy most Americans' daily commuting needs, the battery doesn't need to be as large as one for a comparably sized pure electric car. And it can recharge in as few as four hours with a 240-volt charger.

Although electricity prices vary by region, the cost to drive on electricity may be less than it is for gas. In California, it costs about one-third as much per mile.

Jaguar XJ Supercharged

Middle age often leads to unpredictable behavior that, at its best, leads to innovation. Take the 42-year-old Jaguar XJ, a lean and low-slung luxury sedan that's been sculpturally updated to demo the British manufacturer's commitment to the sensuous and the sporting.

A dramatic update of the Jaguar flagship, the new XJ is powered with a 5.0-liter V-8 that, in its supercharged version, pounces with an incredible 424 pound-feet of torque. But its muscle isn't raw. This is an extremely refined machine, both under the hood and inside the cabin — all for a list price of $72,500. The one I tested was $90,500.

An active rear differential is stock, helping to improve traction and stability when cornering. A gear-selector dial lets drivers match their moods and surroundings with the way the car drives.

But it's the XJ's interior appointments that are most impressive, making standard luxury fare seem almost mundane. Its climate-control system senses humidity as well as temperature. Its perforated leather seats aren't just heated but air conditioned; when requested, at the touch of a button, the seats even offer massage.

Quiet describes not only the inside of the cabin but the understated taste of the new XJ's fit and finish. The dashboard is trimmed in sumptuous leather and ringed with glistening inlaid wood. The dashboard display looks old-school and analog but is, in fact, digital, able to cycle at the touch of a button through different menus of information.

It is difficult to fuse glamour with edge, and to do so in a manner that honors a model's heritage, but the large and luxurious Jaguar XJ has done it.

Jeep Grand Cherokee

Limited 4x4

Long co-opted as mom mobiles, SUVs are rarely used to perform the tasks for which they were first designed. Off-road-capable but driven, for the most part, on pavement, they tend to suffer from a dual-purpose mandate to make them as comfortable as cars but rugged enough to trek the wilds.

But the redesigned Jeep Grand Cherokee strikes an excellent balance, with a pampering interior that complements radical upgrades in technology — at a price. The Limited lists at 39,190.

In addition to an all-new, 3.6-liter V-6 engine that yields an 11% improvement in fuel economy (to 22 mpg highway), the new Grand Cherokee employs an optional air suspension system that lifts or lowers the chassis, adjusting its ground clearance to between 4.7 inches and 10.7 inches with the push of a button, allowing drivers to ford deeper streams or drop passengers curbside without breaking a leg.

A new Selec-Terrain system operates with the twist of a knob, electronically coordinating the powertrain, braking and suspension systems, as well as the throttle, transmission shift and stability controls, to better traverse snow, sand, rocks — even boulders.

A new hill-descent control feature allows the new Grand Cherokee to calmly descend radically steep and rock-strewn hills.

And it does this from a driver's seat that is luxuriously tactile and technologically upscale. Its interior is leather; its steering wheel is wooden and can be heated on demand. Additional options turn the Grand Cherokee into a traveling living room, with Wi-Fi connectivity and live TV.

DAVID'S DISAPPOINTMENTS

Infiniti QX56: This is the ugliest vehicle that I've ever enjoyed driving. If you want something huge, luxurious and heinous, this is your SUV. The 400-horsepower engine is a dream, as is the sumptuous interior. But the exterior is a nightmare.

Volkswagen Jetta: All around a good car, but drivers of previous Jettas should note that Volkswagen's cost-cutting took all the spice out of the 2011 model. Space and value were added while character was subtracted.

SUSAN'S DISAPPOINTMENTS

Buick Regal CXL: In its attempt to be simultaneously elegant, sporty, fuel-efficient, technologically savvy and affordable, the Regal doesn't fully succeed at any of these goals.

Honda CR-Z: For a hybrid car designed on the twin pillars of fuel efficiency and fun, the CR-Z falls slightly short on both points. To achieve its 39-mpg highway maximum, drivers can't unabashedly push pedal to metal.

susan.carpenter@latimes.com

david.undercoffler@latimes.com

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