A Lamborghini and an Audi had the Motoring editor drooling, but so does a Honda minivan - sort of.
2011 behind the wheel: Neil Vorano prioritises style and value for price
Head in the clouds
There have been three standout cars in the higher echelon for me this year: the Ferrari 458 Italia, the Lamborghini Aventador and the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG. The 458 is easily the best handling of the three and it's quite a looker, but I'm not a fan of that Ferrari exhaust drone. The SLS is a favourite of mine anyway, with its timeless design, its gullwing doors and the best V8 roar I have ever heard. But it's been around for a while.
But the Aventador is all new this year, and it has charged into the ring like the raging bull adorning its bonnet. I don't ever remember driving something as radical, as raw, as agonizingly brutal as this latest Lamborghini. And to let it loose on the Vallelunga track in Italy was one of the most exciting and exhilarating experiences I've ever had behind the wheel of a car.
My first introduction to it was seeing it parked outside of a hotel in Rome, and any other car would have to be on fire to attract the same attention as the Aventador received from passers-by.
But as exciting as it looks, it delivers on the road and the track in spades. At Vallelunga, the engine roared like it was exploding, and in corsa mode, shifting gears was akin to getting kicked in the back by a mule - the whole car shuddered for a split second before regaining traction. It just didn't want to stop pushing you into your seat, and I was only to happy to let it - or perhaps too frightened to stop it.
Lamborghini is proud to say it is the bad boy of the automotive world, and the Aventador is the baddest of the bad. In a very good way.
Feet on the ground
Even I'm shaking my head at this decision; am I really writing this? But for a reasonably priced vehicle, I was most impressed with the Honda Odyssey minivan. That's right, a minivan. Why? Because, if you have a family and don't pretend that you need an off-road vehicle, I found nothing better that does it all for moving people. Of course, there are the usual luxuries, such as sat/nav, cruise, power everything, blah blah. But as I spent more time with it, I began to appreciate all the other unique additions it includes: power sliding doors on both sides of the car, seats that can be removed entirely, a split-screen DVD for the rear passengers, a deep cool box between the front seats, even a pop-down convex mirror at the front to watch the kids don't get into any mischief.
Add to that an incredible amount of room for seven people easily accessed by low floors, a cavernous cargo space and a top-notch safety rating, all at a reasonable price, and I'd gladly take this minivan over any garishly towering SUV any day - if I had a family, of course. Sadly, it was the best Honda I've driven all year.
Audi's design department has been creeping to the forefront lately and the company has released one of my favourite cars this year: the A7 Sportback. Wow, if this is what the new four-door coupé segment is bringing, then I'm all for it. It's a classy car without being ostentatious, but the real treat is just sitting inside of it - one of the most stylish and luxurious cabins I've had the pleasure to drop my rump in.
Peugeot managed to surprise everyone with its RCZ coupé. Sure, it may look like an Audi TT, but it's a lot cheaper while still delivering a fantastic drive. Its turbocharged 2.0L four-cylinder engine has enough oomph to please all but the most aggressive of drivers, but the chassis could easily take more power as it handles the curves better than many more expensive cars and is an absolute hoot to toss around.
Speaking of a good chassis, even the little Chevrolet Sonic impressed me with its on-road abilities and the amount of kit you get for its low price, one of the lowest in its segment. Add to that its sharp looks and it's nice to see General Motors is finally getting a few things right for a change. Maybe the Sonic is a harbinger of what's coming down the pipe for the rest of the GM line? I hope so.
One of my favourite cars to drive this year won't be available to the general public, at least for the foreseeable future, and that's a shame. Oh, and by "general public", I mean multimillionaire CEOs and footballers, because those are the only ones who would be looking at a Rolls-Royce Phantom. But this is the 102EX, the one-off electric version of the ultra-luxe barge. But the normal V12 petrol engine and seven-speed gearbox of the Phantom just can't match the smooth power delivery of the two electric motors and single-speed transmission of the 102. It is a perfect fit for all the luxury and opulence the Phantom is supposed to embody. I declare, if they build it, buyers will come.