2015 Top 10: What a year for great machines!

The year just ending has been a mighty one for car- and bike-nuts. In addition to the arrivals of the first hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, the appearance of a greater array of plug-in hybrids and a new Bond movie with a new Aston Martin, 2015 is also poised to go on record as the biggest car-selling year in U.S. history. And no wonder: Look at all the great machines!

Here are my favorites from a year full of fabulous driving and riding.

1. Tesla P85D: OK, Elon Musk is quirky, and yes, his machines suffer from unusual mechanical issues, but I enjoyed driving this all-electric sedan more than any car I drove all year. Smooth, silent and super-fast, it is the last word in luxurious transport. After a two-day trip from the Bay Area to L.A., plugging in at supercharging stations and meeting Tesla owners, I was sold. Too bad they cost so much! The car I drove goes for about $120,000. 

2. Dodge Challenger Hellcat: I laughed more while driving this car than was probably safe. With an absurd 707 horsepower, this good ol' boy is a broad-shouldered bully of a car that makes you want to grab a Dixie beer and a chaw of tobacco and tear down the road like you're running from the revenuer man. It's only possible to own it, though, if you can use someone else's gasoline credit card and are happy to slaughter the environment every time you stomp on the gas. Yee-haw!

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3. Porsche 911 Targa GTS: This might be the perfect Southern California car. Sleek, stylish and fast, it's easy and fun to drive and is as happy gliding through traffic on Sunset as it is sliding around turns in the canyons. It handles like a dream, has one of the great engine sounds on the market and its paddle-shift transmission is the best in the business. The bigger surprise: It's a great touring car too. I took an all-day drive from Monterey to Silver Lake and was sorry when it ended.

4. Mazda MX-5 Miata: The world's most popular two-seat sports car is back, and the 2016 model is a return to the little runabout's roots: lightweight, fitted with a stick shift, fun to drive and, starting at $24,000, affordable.  I spent a day in the Malibu mountains driving this drop top and Mazda's new CX-3 subcompact crossover SUV, and had no trouble deciding which one I liked.

5. Mercedes-Benz S550: The car of tomorrow is available today, though at a high price, in this elegant, sophisticated sedan. Library quiet, bank-vault solid and futuristic in its many driver-assist features, this "class in itself" Benz was a delight to drive and would be a dream to own. At about $132,000, though, it would also be painful to pay for.

6. Bentley Continental GT Speed: It seems odd to identify an iconic marque as a "surprise," but I found this legendary convertible surprising on many levels. Faster than it needs to be and better handling than expected, this exquisite English motorcar stole my heart with its plush, quiet styling. Now if only they'd offer it at a tenth of the $300K MSRP, and in a different color ....

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7. Cadillac ATS-V: Among the most underrated American automobiles are Cadillac's sporty muscle cars. This one, on the track at Willow Springs and the wide-open straightaways of the Antelope Valley, was a blast -- so fast, so steady and sticking so tightly to the big Willow curves that I kept forgetting it was from the family of big American boats I grew up ridiculing. At about $61,000, it's also one of the best sports car bargains on the road. 

8. Ferrari 488 GTB: This Ferrari, designed to be a comfortable daily driver that is also a competent track car, drives like a heat-seeking missile. Ferrari's first turbocharged street racer since the 1980s F40s, it makes 660 horsepower and 560 pound feet of torque off a carbon-fiber laden body that weighs nothing. Zero to 60: Under three seconds. Top speed: 205 mph. Chance of me owning one: N/A.

9. BMW S100XR: It's not all cars. I had many opportunities to swap four wheels for two this year, and this BMW asphalt-adventurer is the bike I liked best. Using the liter engine from the S1000RR, but in a frame that looks and sits more like the adventure bikes, this BMW inhabits a Multistrada-like niche somewhere between the touring RTs and GTs, the off-road-capable GS and the urban assault Rs and RRs. Quick on the throttle, flickable and frighteningly fast, this machine has everything going for it but value. At $16,000, it's out of reach for a lot of riders.

10: Yamaha FJ-09: It may have started off making pianos, but 60 years after it built its first Red Dragonfly, Yamaha has turned into a first-class motorcycle manufacturer, and the FJ-09 is one of the smartest new bikes of the year. A truly affordable urban touring bike, this lightweight delight is intuitive, comfortable, easy to operate and, thanks to a high-revving, 847cc three-cylinder engine, plenty fast. I got used to it in five minutes and liked it better the longer I rode it. And out of the box it costs under $11,000.

Honorable mentions: Ten is too small a number to list all the marvelous machinery I met in 2015. Also noteworthy were the splendid Zero FX electric motorcycle; the sly Jaguar F-Type; Porsche's now-maligned Cayenne Diesel; and the street-legal dirt bike Husqvarna FE350S. My only complaint -- I didn't get to spend as much time in and on them as I would have liked.

Twitter: @misterfleming


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