Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

c.2013 New York Times News Service

It was the year when Fisker fizzled and Coda collapsed, along with the dreams of several other would-be automakers. Tesla provided endless drama as its chief executive, Elon Musk, swatted at naysayers, state dealer associations and federal regulators, even as the Model S became a trophy car for the affluent and tech-savvy.

Among higher-volume companies, General Motors seemed to find its stride again with several well-received new models. Ford’s luxury division declared itself the Lincoln Motor Co. and attempted a much-needed makeover — so far, mostly by smearing cosmetics on Fords.

Toyota and Nissan reworked their high-volume compacts, the Corolla and Sentra, but both seemed stodgy in relation to the competition, particularly from Mazda.

Among the Germans, BMW continued to spin out a dizzying array of spinoffs from its basic models: hatchback GTs, four-door Gran Coupes and a new 4 Series line. Mercedes looked for sales high, with a new flagship sedan, and low, with the $30,000 CLA aimed at 30-somethings. Volkswagen, bereft of new products, sent its top U.S. executive packing as sales slid.

Overall, it was a good year for car buyers, as postrecession investments paid off, bringing interesting models to showrooms. Here are a dozen that stood out:

1. MAZDA 3 ($17,740 base; $24,785 as tested) In a compact class full of competent — sometimes exemplary — cars, the eager-to-please 3 is the class act, and it seems to belong, like a 14-year-old prodigy who skips high school to start college, in a whole other category. From its fine road manners to its responsive yet efficient powertrains, from its Alfa-sleek exterior to its controls and driving position, everything about the 3 just feels right.

2. CHEVROLET CORVETTE STINGRAY ($51,995 base; $71,960) I never felt the urge to get my accelerator ankle tattooed with Corvette’s crossed-flag logo; I tend to prefer sports cars that are lean, light and high-revving. But the latest, greatest generation of the ’Vette is just too good, on too many levels, to ignore. America’s Sports Car has long been a bargain. This one can frolic with bona fide exotics at a fraction of their cost yet is also a delightful companion for everyday driving.

3. CADILLAC CTS ($46,025 base; $60,095 for Vsport as tested) If you’re a taxpayer still fuming over your temporary investment in General Motors, take heart: Not only is ownership of GM back in the private sector, but your contribution helped to create one of the world’s finest luxury sport sedans. The 2014 CTS isn’t just another big leap for Cadillac; its spirit is distinctly American, and it’s every bit as good as its haughty German rivals.

4. JAGUAR F-TYPE ($69,985 base; $98,395 for V8 S as tested) That style! That growl! That thrust! The first two-seat Jag since the E-Type isn’t perfect — it’s a bit too heavy and quite a lot too expensive, for starters — but it’s the perfect car for exploring mountain roads on a lovely fall day. On one drive, the lovely F-Type was constant camera bait, and it drew a crowd of admirers at every stop.

5. CHEVROLET IMPALA ($27,535 base; $39,510) In the 1960s, the Impala name — applied to millions of widely varied but always stylish models — really meant something. In recent years, it meant something else entirely: boring fleet cars. The 2014 Impala is a huge step up with expressive styling and a quiet, comfortable ride.

6. MAZDA 6 ($21,675 base; $29,495) Like the winsome 3 and the impressive CX-5 cute-ute, Mazda’s redesigned family sedan has found the sweet spot in a crowded market. With spirited performance, 30 mpg economy and impressive road manners, the spacious 6 is the life of the midsize party.

7. MERCEDES-BENZ S550 ($93,825 base; $113,815) After absorbing a detailed presentation about all the sci-fi wizardry in the 2014 S-Class, I slid into the driver’s seat with trepidation. Who wants to share the wheel with computerized drivers-in-waiting? Do you need an engineering degree to drive this thing? Happily, the big luxo-cruiser keeps its autonomous helpers mostly on the down low, and the ride is as soothing as it should be at this price. Once again, there’s no car I’d rather drive in a hurry from coast to coast.

8. HYUNDAI SANTA FE ($25,555 for base Sport; $38,730 as tested) One of the year’s nicest surprises, and one of the more impressive crossovers at any price, the Santa Fe shows a level of attention to thoughtful details — an impressive list of standard features; convenient charge ports, storage trays and cup holders; seamless Bluetooth integration — that continues to escape larger competitors.

9. LEXUS IS350 ($40,375 base; $49,615 for F-Sport as tested) At Café Lexus, where warm milk is always on the menu, the aggressively redesigned 2014 IS350 is a triple-espresso alternative with overcaffeinated performance and a hip interior. Now, if only we could convince Lexus that joysticks belong on video game consoles, not controlling in-car infotainment systems.

10. RANGE ROVER SUPERCHARGED ($99,100 base; $133,695) Equally at home in the suburbs and the city streets, the Range Rover is practically a cliché: a Country Squire for 21st-century Gordon Gekkos. The latest version, though, is a revelation: How did they get such a big, tall box to feel so button-down and carlike?

11. KIA CADENZA ($35,000 base; $41,900) I was there in the mid-1990s when an obscure Korean company showed up with a pair of neo-agricultural vehicles and cheeky TV ads, and I didn’t see this coming: Not only has Kia thrived, it has become a leader in style, value and customer-friendly design. And this year the Korean company rolled out a genuinely pleasant upscale sedan that can brush $42,000 and yet seem like a reasonable value.

12. CHEVROLET CRUZE DIESEL ($25,695 base; $25,795) America’s highest-mileage nonhybrid car with an internal-combustion engine, the Cruze Diesel impresses with its 46 mpg highway rating — I got 50-plus on some stretches — 720-mile range and copious torque for jack-rabbit starts. Like the terrific new diesels from other automakers — VW’s diesel sales will top 100,000 this year — the Cruze makes a strong argument that Americans should give oil burners another look.