Fiat 500 Abarth
Vaughan: The Fiat 500 is cute, cute, cute. It puts smiles on people around the world who have bought the thing. But how much farther can cute take you? That's why they stuck an Abarth label on it, boosted the horsepower from 101 to 160, beefed up the suspension and brakes and turned Smiley-face into one hot hatchback. Of course, with 58 per cent more horsepower and 73 per cent more torque blasting through the front wheels, you'd better hang on tight to the steering wheel. With the Abarth, you can skip the gelato stand and go race a Mini Cooper S.
Cato: A number: 4.4. That's how many seconds it takes to go from 0-100 km/h in this M5. Another number: 560. That's the horsepower output of the turbocharged V-8 here. Why care? The last M5 stickered at $106,900 and its V-10 power plant spun up only 500 horsepower. Pitiful. All the M5's power is there almost from the moment you crush the throttle. Stay there and in 13 seconds you'll be at 200 km/h. A third number: 30. As in 30 per cent. BMW says "the new M5 consumes over 30 per cent less fuel to provide over 50 per cent more range than its predecessor." Oh, and the transmission is a slick, shockingly smooth and reactive "high-torque seven-speed M-Double Clutch (M-DCT) transmission." Gearheads, wipe your chins of drool.
Vaughan: This is the Porsche for me – it has the engine in the right place (in the middle, not the tail) and a rag top. The 2013 Boxster is lighter, slightly wider and still perfectly balanced. Plus it's built to be a convertible, not modified later. The new engine is 2.7-litre flat-6. That's a 0.2-litre drop in displacement with a 10-hp gain and 10 per cent improvement in fuel economy. The cabin is roomy but overly plain. And who cares? It's nimble, fast, sounds wonderful and you have the sun of your face and the wind in your hair.
Hyundai Veloster Turbo
Vaughan: Okay, two doors on the passenger side, one door on the driver side, plus a hatchback. That's edgy, but edgy didn't sell enough Velosters, so Hyundai added a turbo. It might make a difference. The engine is the same 1.6-litre, four-cylinder, but boosted by a twin-scroll turbo which kicks it up 63 horsepower to 201 and 195 lb-ft of torque. It's weird looking and it's a blast to drive. That should be enough to interest the demographic group that buys such stuff. It's their statement car. I simply don't understand the statement.
Volkswagen Golf R
Vaughan: Here's the enthusiasts' Golf, a high-performance, limited-edition gem. Only 500 were brought to Canada, all identically equipped and loaded for about $40,000 a copy. It's lighter and stronger than the garden-variety Golf with 256 hp and all-wheel drive. I thrashed the thing around an ice track and up the autobahn. Magnificent on both. Expensive? Well, yes, but also sold out. The keeners snapped them up. No wonder. Probably the best VeeDub ever.
Cato: The SL is a German roadster designed explicitly to impress. Big and powerful, the SL is all about driving a car that dominates the landscape. Of course, if you are an enthusiast, then you can wring out an SL with the best. Carve corners? Sure. Scream down the autobahn? Naturally. But best of all, the SL is a ride that tells the world that you have arrived, that you have mountains of money and that you want both comfort and a measure of sportiness. So the SL is sporty, but not a sports car. It's a luxury cruiser with racetrack potential – especially the $229,900 SL 65 twin turbo V-12 at 621 horsepower.
Cato: We don't get the most basic Audis in Canada, such as the A1. We do, however, get the bread-and-butter A4 sedan. If you want to go fast, then the S4 is your next step. Either way, you get a premium four-door with a cabin that is the standard in the industry. Audi knows how to put together an interior. And the road manners fall somewhere between BMW and Mercedes – BMW being harder, sportier, and Merc on the conservative side.
Vaughan: The Audi A6 is nothing to sneeze at, but the S6 takes it over the top. It starts with more aggressive styling front and rear, followed by plenty of aluminum to keep the weight down. Beefed up suspension and brakes prepares it for a new 4.0-litre twin-turbo V-8 with 420 hp. Doesn't sound green but it replaces a V-10. The high-end stuff from Audi combines style, luxury and performance for the one per cent. Audi has passed Mercedes in worldwide sales by turning out one after another just like this.
Cato: Subaru has taken a novel approach with the BRZ: minimalism. In an age of excess, with so many new cars stuffed with electronic features, control modules, media interfaces, and so on, what are we to make of the BRZ? I love it, this lightweight, low-slung, long-nosed, short-rear-decked gem with just enough horsepower (200) and more than enough precision where it matters – in the corners, whether they are tight or sweeping, on-camber or off. As a driving machine, the BRZ is a delight. Even the Porsche 911-like 2+2 seating configuration is a throwback to a time when a sports car with too much horsepower was simply gauche, and less was seen as more.
Lexus GS 450h
Cato: No, the latest GS hybrid cannot go toe-to-toe with the Mercedes-Benz E63, nor is it close to being a match for the frighteningly capable M5. But the 2013 GS 450h is its own work of engineering genius, and it is vastly more affordable than either German powerhouse. It is also kinder to the planet, more fuel-efficient (6.4 litres/100 km in the city, 6.2 on the highway), staggeringly more comfortable to drive day-to-day, and wonderfully reliable. And the design. This is the most stylish Lexus ever. And that's not damning with faint praise.
Cato: Porsche – now part of Volkswagen – is led by businessmen who want to spin up fat profits from what was once an iconic sports car company. Fortunately, the engineering ranks remain filled with passionate engineers. The lucky ones get to focus on the 911 Carrera, coupe and convertible. Now bordering on a size that puts the 911 dangerously close to touring car territory, the 911 is still something to enjoy.