Narrowing the list of the year's best automobiles is a tough business.
With carmakers cranking out updated models on quicker cycles, and into increasingly diverse and competitive segments, drivers have a growing list of great options.
Our 10-best list for 2014 is a testament to that cutthroat competition, with winners from every major car-making country — Germany, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. — and across a wide spectrum of segments and price ranges.
The common thread is brilliant execution, whether it's the racetrack prowess of the Porsche 911 Turbo S, the handyman utility of the Chevrolet Colorado truck, or the surprisingly nimble handling of the electric Kia Soul.
These are the cars that stood out from a tough crowd.
A word of explanation on eligibility: With the widening disconnect between model years and calendar years, we defined "year" to include both. So our list features the Mazda3 (a 2014 model introduced late in 2013), along with the Volkswagen Golf (a 2015 model introduced early in 2014). All are new or redesigned vehicles.
Here are the winners:
Dodge Challenger/Charger Hellcat: 707 horsepower ends a lot of debates, including the one about whether to include Dodge's Hellcats on this list. This is NASCAR-caliber thrust, enough to transform these two piggish muscle cars into Ferrari-fighters (at least in a straight line). Slamming the gas pedal on our Challenger test car produced goofy grins and gooey tire marks down the block. The supercharged 6.2-liter V-8 sounds like a squadron of fighter jets. That's not surprising. But we didn't expect this level of refinement and technology. The Hellcat was as smooth and comfortable around town as it was ferocious on the open highway. And it was remarkably tunable — giving the driver, for instance, a choice of 300, 500 or 700 horsepower through the touch of a dashboard screen.
Volkswagen Golf: With classic styling and hatchback utility, VW's new Golf comes in every possible variety — gas turbo; diesel turbo; performance turbo; battery electric, with plans for a hydrogen fuel cell version. We would advise following the lead of about four-fifths of Golf buyers and buying the performance GTI or the diesel-sipping TDI. The 210-horsepower GTI starts at $25,215 and packs a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with either a six-speed manual transmission or VW's excellent dual-clutch automatic. Or get the diesel, at a new lower base price of about $23,000. With 150 horsepower, 236 pound-feet of torque and 42 mpg on the highway, it's a sporty alternative to a boring hybrid.
Ford Mustang: This latest pony car trots a fine line between tradition and technology. Sultry styling moves Ford's icon into the future without losing its 1960s fastback soul. The Mustang finally loses the antiquated solid rear axle setup in favor of independent rear suspension. It gets bonus points for interior refinement and the availability of blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control and forward collision warning. But the new four-cylinder turbocharged engine sparked a debate. One of our testers thought its versatility and fuel economy would appeal to the biggest group of buyers. Another countered that it lacked the low-end power essential to any Mustang. But all relished the rip-snorting 5.0-liter V-8 — and who wouldn't, with 435 horsepower and a half-century of Ford small-block tradition behind it?
BMW 320i and M3: BMW rolled out updates for the lowest and highest ends of its venerable 3-series lineup, the entry-level 320i and the premium performance M3. Both are stunning. The 320i version coaxes 180 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque from a smooth little turbocharged four-cylinder. This new $34,000 model easily trumps the entry-level fare from Audi and Mercedes. Or you could opt for the bully of the lineup, the M3. For $63,525, you get a sublime six-speed manual gearbox and 425 turbocharged horsepower — and world-beating handling with four-door practicality.
Subaru's Legacy and Outback: Subaru is on a roll. Sales are up more than 20% from 2013 — which was already the Japanese brand's best year in history. The new Legacy sedan and its cousin, the snow- and dirt-hunting Outback wagon, show why. They stick with Subaru's proven reliability and heartiness, then add the fuel efficiency and styling that's long been missing. The Outback and Legacy offer an extra layer of safety for just $1,200, for an option package of blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, pre-collision braking and lane-departure warning.
Mazda3: With a ground-up redesign, Mazda transformed this model into our favorite subcompact. Its handling and steering are top of class. Drivers lulled by the mushiness of a Toyota might find the ride a bit harsh, but this car shines on a curvy road or in a quick lane change. Get the base engine, a SkyActiv 2.0-liter four-cylinder unit that makes 155 horsepower. Fuel economy is excellent — 34 mpg in combined driving and 41 on the highway. One drive fulfills the promise of Mazda's "zoom-zoom" marketing.
Mercedes-Benz C-Class: Elegant, refined, vibrant — the new Mercedes-Benz C-Class is all one expects of a luxury sports sedan, and may be the best-driving small sedan Mercedes has ever produced. The superior interior separates the driver from road noise — but not from the road. The 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder is mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission. It's a wonderful match, delivering plenty of composed power. If there's a knock on the new C, it's a starting price of more than $40,000.
Chevrolet Colorado: General Motors has returned to the mid-size truck segment with the introduction of the Chevrolet Colorado and the upmarket GMC Canyon. Both are much better than the aging Toyota Tacoma (though a new Tacoma is due out soon) and both provide the utility of a full-size pickup without the bulk. The six-cylinder versions drive well and have enough power for most tasks. The cabins are quiet and well-appointed. These trucks avoid the body roll common in trucks and crossovers. They're easy to park. And they get more than 20 mpg.
Kia Soul: Kia has done something remarkable with the Soul, the top model in the quirky, boxy "toaster" segment. Both the gasoline version and the electric-only model are equally good. The gasoline model comes with a direct-injected, four-cylinder engine with 164 horsepower. That's plenty of zip for a small vehicle. And the electric version is equally exciting. Kia locates the battery across the floor pan, giving the Soul an ultra-low center of gravity that improves handling. We easily got 95 miles per charge on our test vehicle, enough range for most daily commutes, plus a detour or two.
Porsche 911 Turbo S: Sitting at the top of a seemingly endless line of 911 variants, the $182,095 Turbo S is packed with nearly every piece of high-tech weaponry Porsche makes. It's impressive enough in a straight line — 0 to 60 mph in less than three seconds — but mind-blowing on a mountain road. Beneath the shapely body panels (and fattened rear end, housing massive tires) lies an intelligent all-wheel-drive system, active aerodynamics and suspension, twin-turbocharging, torque vectoring and rear-wheel steering. And yet all that complexity translates to a seamless driving experience — among the purest available at any price.
Two losers for 2014
If you're thinking about buying one of these two cars, don't:
Fiat 500L: The standard Fiat 500 is an odd but amusing little runabout. But Fiat's attempt to add space and practicality — the four-door 500L — is atrocious. It looks like a deformed blowfish. The steering is ponderous. The engine is loud, coarse and slow. The interior, a jumbled mess of a design, also rattles and squeaks. We liked nothing about this car.
Cadillac ELR: The ELR is a tarted-up two-door version of a Chevrolet Volt — and a Tesla wannabe in the eco-luxury world — with an arcade-game interior and more blind spots than a Cyclops. If you want a Volt, just get the Volt, which has a longer electric-only range and more practicality, for half the cost. It even has two more doors. If you want a premium electric car, just buy the Tesla Model S. No one is buying the ELR. Cadillac has sold barely 1,200 this year, and dealers are now discounting them by about $20,000 off their $76,000 sticker price.