It’s a unique thrill to drive incredible cars on fast tracks and scenic open roads throughout the year. We try to approach each vehicle with a modicum of objectivity, but it’s largely an ad hoc exercise — gunning through tunnels tends to give us tunnel vision. Now we take a step back. With the draw of roaring engines, horsepower and plush cowhides taken out of the immediate picture and hindsight pupils readjusted for perspective, what can we say about our most and least scintillating driving experiences of the past year?
A Look Back at Octane, Good and Bad
Until now, the vehicles featured in our Octane Icon series have been but singular iterations of automotive excellence — standout models, limited runs and one-offs that have bucked trends, pumped blood and turned heads. The first motorcycle to be honored in this series defines most of that very criteria. And yet, it is readily available and remains relatively inexpensive: this is the Harley-Davidson XL or, as its more commonly known, the Sportster.
Power For The People
Volkswagen is making some driver-friendly improvements to their 2014 model line. Good: they’re replacing the somewhat disappointing 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine option in the Jetta and Passat with a torquey (for its size) 1.8-liter, direct-injection turbo four. Better: five models will be given VW’s hot rod R-Line treatment for the 2014 model year. Best: we got to drive them all.
One fast land barge
Rolls-Royce issues new models with a frequency not unlike solar eclipses, so the introduction of their latest car, the Wraith ($284,900), was nothing short of momentous. The public’s anticipation of the car at the 2013 Geneva Motor Show was met with a stunning deviation from the pure stateliness of the previous two cars. The two-door four-seater captured the audience and the automotive world with a bold fastback design that put an unmistakably bright feather into a strong, staid tweed cap. We shooed the chauffeur and stepped in the driver’s seat.
The gifts that keep on giving
Just about every morning, before our cup of joe, we slap ourselves as a reminder of how lucky we are to drive some of the best cars in the world and get paid for it. 2013 was another year of stupendous privileges, with wheel time in Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Land Rovers, Bentleys, Rolls-Royces, Porsches, Jaguars, Mercedes-Benzes, Audis, BMWs, Aston Martins and more. We’ve been the beneficiaries of a huge upswing in the automotive marketplace in terms of style, quality and driving excitement through virtually all segments. And you know what that means: 2014 should prove to be even better.
Here are the cars we most covet for the new year, each one a standout in its segment by virtue of its quality, technology, design, driving experience or all of the above. In a stellar field, these are the ones that stir the petrol in our veins the most. As we embark on a new year, here’s a toast to what should be an incredible 2014 on the digital pages of Octane.
High-Speed Thrills at the Legendary Raceway
Lexus, when it was created in 1989, was itself a halo brand. Today Lexus is pushing its own groundbreaking products — that is, incredible vehicles — to reach new automotive heights. We were recently invited to experience those new halos, several of the company’s latest F models, this time at the very same proving grounds on which they were first developed: Fuji International Speedway. The opportunity provided a unique chance to study Lexus’s approach to the wide spectrum of automotive performance. It also gave us the chance to routinely push 150 mph right under the nose of Mount Fuji.
Steering in the Right Direction
The 2014 Infiniti Q50 (essentially the next generation G37 with a new name) brings ground-breaking tech, a strong engine and grown-up styling to the table and could be a major pivot point for the brand as they leave the shadow of parent company Nissan. We took a quick spin in the upgraded Q50S ($43,550), which is loaded with even more tech and an interesting new Direct Adaptive Steering system.
A Skyline in the city
With one of the highest thrill-to-dollar ratios of any production car on the planet, the only way to make the Nissan GT-R more monstrous (hello, 0-60 in less than three seconds) is a limited Track Edition. Luckily, we didn’t have to call in any favors or cash in our Bitcoins to get our hands on the 2014 Nissan GT-R Track Edition ($117,000), which serves dual duties as a sports car and a missile.
Driving a benchmark of American Luxury
Slick, quick and as luxurious as the day is long, the 2014 Buick Lacrosse ($34,060) redefines what an American flagship can be. On roads rife with cookie-cutter shapes and duplicated automotive designs, the Lacrosse displays an edgy and elegant presence that cuts a fresh path through the field of American luxury cars. It not only dares to be different, but delivers comfort and convenience aplenty; Buick’s made all the right moves to deliver a rewarding driving experience.
A father-and-son Mustang project car
My dad and I are alike in a lot of ways — the way we fall asleep in chairs and lose our hair, for instance — but our love of cars has bound us for as long as I can remember. Not long ago I sent my dad a handful of questions about what makes me a car guy and asked him to write quick responses; I got back six pages. (Dad and I also like to tell stories.) And so I realized this story is best told in tandem, with excerpts of his answers interspersed with my own. Together, they are the story of our similarities and our passions, and of the car that is, as my dad put it, “a mild street rod imported from the junction” of the two of us.
Stuttgart Speeds Into the 21st Century
Mercedes has been innovating in Silicon Valley for over two decades, but they’ve decided to bolster their cutting-edge technological efforts with their new Mercedes Benz Research & Development North America (MBRDNA) headquarters in Sunnyvale, California. We were on hand to explore the new facilities, check out their in-car technology and gawk at the beautiful, newly unveiled AMG Vision Gran Turismo.
The Abominable Snow-vehicle
Your closest encounter with the winter beast known as the Tucker Sno-Cat was probably watching as scientists and explorers with frozen beards made their way through parts unknown in an episode of National Geographic. What you probably don’t know is that these cold-capable snow monsters materialized out of one man’s desire to find a better method of snow travel, or that they comprise a proud family of multi-purpose vehicles that got their start way back in 1942. The Sno-Cat is an icon all its own in an industry that has few competitors.
Old Man Winter Anti-Venom
You welcome winter driving like you welcome a root canal without novocaine. It’s just something you’re going to have to deal with, and most of the time it won’t be pretty. And though you certainly can’t control the guy who thinks his 4×4 means he can drive like the abominable idiot, you can at least ready yourself for most situations on the cold, heartless road. As the Boy Scout motto says, “Be prepared”. That’s a wise way to approach winter’s worst, one reflected by this kit of essentials.
Sleighs are for losers
You’re an hour late to the Christmas get-together, but not because that red velvet blazer you love so much is nowhere to be found. No, instead you’re trapped in a snowdrift in your vintage AMC Gremlin. No fruitcake for you. You could’ve fared better this holiday season with some better wheels. May we suggest some truly treaded steeds for your hapless self?
Full Contact High
American drivers are starting to learn something Europeans have known for a long time: winter tires do wonders for traction in snow, slush and ice. The extra edge in slippery acceleration, braking and steering is worth the hassle of swapping rubber with the seasons. We researched top performing winter tires for various types of vehicles to compile this ultimate list of winter treads for your car, truck, SUV or sports car.
Driving, on the rocks
When Frank J. Zamboni opened one of the largest ice skating rinks in the country just outside Los Angeles in 1940, he realized he needed to streamline the ice resurfacing process. Using surplus war parts from Jeeps and tractors, he perfected his design on a number of iterations — and in 1949 the Model A Zamboni Ice Resurfacer was born.
Fast forward more than 60 years and the company, which has become ubiquitous with hockey games and halftime shows, now offers more than 10 machines ranging in capacity, price and ability. We had the chance to take the all-electric Zamboni 552 ($160,000) model for a spin, and the drive was, as expected, extraordinary.
The Methuselah of automotive design
There are a scant number of nameplates that have lasted half a century with uninterrupted production: Mercedes-Benz SL, Jaguar XJ, Chevy Corvette, Chevy Suburban, Ford F-Series. But there’s only one car whose iconic design and sporting identity has remained truly consistent, only one whose recognition as among the best sports cars in the world has gone unmatched for 50 years…the Porsche 911. The 911′s DNA is a formula that’s intoxicating, one that the car world respects and envies. The half-century mark for a car is a colossal achievement, and when that car is the Porsche 911, that much more so.
In this 50th year of the 911, we decided to take a deeper look into the generations and iterations of this remarkable car to see how far it’s come. Not all of the car’s modifications were good ones, but they will all be remembered as part in parcel of what it takes develop an icon through multiple decades.
Narrowing down the best Porsches in history is a daunting and pleasurable task, similar to running through a cascade of single malt whiskies to select a mouthful of your favorites. After much debate, we’ve settled on the 10 greatest of all time. The final litmus test, we decided, was this: Is owning this vehicle akin to receiving a kiss from the car gods right on your petrol-lovin’ lips? A difficult prerequisite, but then again, this is Porsche we’re talking about.
Enough room for passengers, enough excitement to forget about 'em
When choosing a car for the track, it’s key to choose a ride with certain distinct criteria — things like sports-car dimensions and weight, great handling, two seats, an eye-brow singeing top speed and extreme impracticality for everyday driving. But what if your tool of choice just happens to be a luxury sedan? In that case, you obviously like challenges; maybe you’re the kind of guy whose idea of a workout is strapping a bag of rocks to your back and scaling a hillside in track spikes. Or maybe your choice of luxo-sedan just happens to be the 2014 Porsche Panamera ($78,100+). We hit the track in one at Atlanta Motorsports Park.
The apple doesn't fall far
When the Porsche Cayenne SUV took front and center for the Stuttgart automaker in 2002, Porsche purists had exhaust coming out of their ears. A Porsche SUV? The move, at least to them, was tantamount to putting a plaid shirt, leather suspenders and hiking boots on Gisele Bündchen. But the Cayenne turned into Porsche’s biggest seller, providing much-needed funding for more ambitious projects. Porsche’s doing it again with the 2015 Porsche Macan ($52,000-$62,000). We break down the small performance cross-over.
Gifts for the Rubber Burner
Drivers can be a picky bunch. It’s likely that fuzzy dice and sheepskin seat covers won’t cut it this (or any) year, so take some direction from us this holiday season. Car or motorcycle guys tend to appreciate things that enhance the experience or provide a bit of insight into the hobby/obsession. And you have no excuse to be stingy. He’s given you rides in his vintage roadster, and he even bought you some driving gloves for your Camry SE in hopes of steering you toward a more legitimate ride someday. It’s time you ponied up for something he’ll appreciate. Of course, you can still stuff his stocking with a box of synthetic 5W30.
Purity in Motion
2013 has been a great year in our motoring lives. We’ve hit the tarmac and the dirt track, tossed around Ferraris and Lambos, captured the ultimate camera car and two-wheeled it through the streets of London and Los Angeles. That’s a hell of a lot of burnt rubber — and we relished every moment.
We loved ‘em all, sure, but it’s high time we selected Gear Patrol’s Best New Car of the year, a tough task amid the fierce competition of some of the best vehicles we’ve seen in a long time. That field is packed full of cars from diverse manufacturers, each deserving of vehicular accolades of the highest order. But there can be only one winner — and to us, that winner is clear. The best car of the year is the 2014 Porsche Cayman S. But before we wax poetic (and we surely will), there are plenty of counterarguments to be made and bridesmaids to applaud.
Big grilles, rich thrills
Executives require executive rides, but perhaps you’re the new CEO of a startup and you’re strapped for cash. You can’t exactly plunk down for a six-figure european limo while you’re trying to figure out how to cover the new office expansion. We’ve got two rides that cradle you in luxury and deliver you with speed: the Mercedes-Benz S550 and the Hyundai Equus Ultimate. Both are opulently appointed despite a very noticeable $25k difference in price; one says that you’ve arrived, and the other, that you’re comfortably on your way.
Racing ferocity wrapped in quiet elegance
Lexus is no longer in the business of selling warmed-over Toyotas with nice interiors, and they haven’t been for some time. Indeed, the Lexus image has been completely revamped from its early days, and they’ve poised themselves in recent years as a formidable opponent to world-class luxury vehicles. Now, with their fully integrated F Sport lineup, the company has taken a solid shot across the reigning sport sedan titans’ respective bows; heralded by their flagship supercar, the LFA, Lexus is undeniably in the sport sedan business.
Red, White and Blew Me Away
The Dodge Challenger first hit the scene in the ’70s to compete in the “Pony Car” market along side the Ford Mustang and Chevy Camaro. The third-generation Challenger (unveiled in 2006), retains cues from the ’70s version — hood scoops, round headlights, and an overall wide and flat design — to look every bit the American muscle car. New this year, the 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8 Core ($40,000) is made for those who want a massively powerful 6.4-liter V8, but who don’t care about the $5,000 extras in the fully loaded SRT8.
An enduring benchmark of '60s style
The Sixties were flush with revolutions: in music, sexuality, drugs, fashion, wider-sweeping social reform and more. And then there was the look. Psychedelic patterns and deep-pile shag carpet ran rampant through the era, but it was the Don Draper-esque looks of the Sixties that stuck and still strongly reverberate today. Skinny ties, streamlined furniture, chrome, elegance: these are the essences that seems to ooze forth from the paint of Lincoln’s 1961 Continental sedan and convertible.
Intentionally Stranded in a City of Gridlock
Navigating LA, which is known for its vastness and interlocking freeways, without a car is akin to a New Yorker pulling his vehicle from storage to run errands in midtown for a few hours. It’s crazy. It doesn’t even seem like an option. But what if I made it an option? I decided to try the unthinkable: live in LA for one week while my car sat in the driveway. The goal: see just how dependent I was on my car — and determine just how much I could buck that dependency.
A Class of Its Own
The term “affordable luxury car” never made sense. Either the car is not really affordable or it is not really luxurious. It’s a chimera, an oxymoron. Well, it was. The 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA Class ($29,900) breathes life into the fantasy with a unique combination of breathtaking design, high-tech amenities, a truly bespoke interior, front-wheel-drive performance and the convenience of four doors in a coupe-like body.
Supercars and sports cars are largely out of reach for the average human, much to our chagrin. But there’s great news for piston-lovers everywhere, too: hot hatches are here to stay, largely due to earth-bound prices, impressive speed in spite of their smaller displacement engines, and everyday practicality that dwarfs many sedans. The 2013 Ford Focus ST ($23,700) is the new hot hatch king, and for good reason. The 252 hp 2.0-liter 4-cylinder EcoBoost engine and sport-tuned suspension ensure it’s fast in the straights and in the curves, and the sublime steering ups the pleasure quotient even further. Plus, it just looks fast. The hard part is stepping out of it after a spirited drive.
British excellence, embodied
When it comes to iconic vintage Jags, the stunning E-Type comes to mind for most, but there is a British racing legend that came before the XKE. Though just about everyone recognizes the E-Type, only the true automotive cognoscenti can identify the D-Type, a car that’s far more rare and even more coveted when one of the two happens to come up at auction.