AOL Autos editors test drive every new car, SUV and truck that comes out in the year so that you, our readers, can have a better idea of what to buy.
For the second straight year, we have decided to name a Car of the Year and a Truck/SUV of the Year.
The process of selection is difficult. Why? The quality of new cars, SUV and trucks has never been higher. Our job of separating the wheat from the chaff has never been more difficult.
Even grouping the vehicles is tough. Should we group SUV and trucks together? Should we just do Car of the Year and SUV/Crossover of the Year, since pickup trucks is kind of a whole other market? These are the things we wrestle with.
For now, though, we have treated passengers cars one category and pickups, SUVs and crossovers in another.
Today, we will give you the countdown to our top choices, finishing with our Truck/SUV of the Year. Tune in January 2 to find out what car has won our Car of The Year Award.
5. Hyundai Santa Fe
The Hyundai Santa Fe has been a reliably consistent crossover for a decade. The all new 2013 restyled model not only has sensible styling and packaging, but it now comes in a version that will seat seven with a third row of seats.
The exterior styling is clean, tailored and taut. From the profile, a strong character line extends along the body from the front wheel well and tapers off just before the rear door handle, but then picks up just before the C pillar and integrates nicely into the wraparound tail-lamps.
Talk about a comfortable. The dashboard and doors are outfitted with high-quality leather and soft-touch materials, accented with small amounts of aluminum and wood trim. The whole cockpit looks and feels truly upscale; everything from the leather used on the steering wheel to the plastics used on the door trim to even small details like the window switches and climate control buttons are top-notch.
The base engine is Hyundai's naturally aspirated 2.4-liter Theta II GDI inline four-cylinder, good for 190 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque, which -- like all configurations of the Santa Fe -- can be mated to both front- or all-wheel drive. Front-wheel-drive Sport models with the 2.4-liter achieve 22/33 miles per gallon (city/highway), while AWD models are rated at 21/28. The engine you'll really want to focus on, however, is the 2.0-liter turbocharged Theta II. Fuel economy looks good here, as well, with the turbo motor rated at 21/31 mpg with front-wheel drive and 20/27 mpg with all-wheel drive.
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4. Audi All-Road
We like pretty much all Audis coming out these days. Extremely well turned out, good performers, with a superior telematics system that connect easily to our smart-phones and takes us where we need to go. The All-Road, a sportwagon built off the A4 sedan platform, is no exception.
It will run you around $40,000 depending on trim level and options. Stand-alone options include wood interior trim, heated front seats, and rear side airbags, plus Convenience (iPod interface, Bluetooth, trip computer, etc.) and LED lighting packages.
We are especially fond of Audi's Quattro all-wheel-drive system, which really put the All-Road on the map for us. The Allroad also carries the the latest version of Audi Connect, one of our favorite telematics systems. The navigation system with Google Maps is especially nice.
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3. Ford C-Max
Detroit has largely ceded the hybrid car market to Toyota for the last decade. But that time is over. Ford introduced the C-Max crossover this Fall as its all-out frontal assault on the Prius.
The C-Max's powertrain combines a 2-liter gas-powered engine, a torque-filled electric motor and continuously variable transmission to create a powerful and efficient powertrain. This is the next generation hybrid powertrain that will also be applied to the 2013 Ford Fusion.
The C-Max will produce 188 net horsepower and can pull the C-Max along at 62 mph on electric power only. It out muscles the bigger Prius v by more than 50 ponies under the hood.
In our drive, the C-Max never wanted for power. Its off-the-line power was noticeably pleasant with quick acceleration. Along the highway, the C-Max cruised along quietly at 80 mph without a problem. More over, the C-Max rides quietly when it's supposed to and toughens up when it needs to. It's a hybrid full of surprises.
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2. Mazda CX-5
Mazda does a few things really well. It still build the best affordable convertible on the market in the MX-5 Miata. And it has brought the prowess that produces that taut, fun, sporty roadster to the crossover category in the CX-5.
The CX-5 doesn't have category leading power. But it earns our praise because of how nicely balanced the whole package is out on the road.
The CX-5 uses the full suite of Mazda's Skyactiv technologies--a gasoline engine mated to the buyer's choice of a pair of new Skyactiv-branded transmissions or a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic. And the whole package is wrapped in a lightweight Skyactiv chassis.
The CX-5 is a crossover that begs to be driven with passion. Mazda has employed electric power steering assist here, and while a majority of electric steering racks have a tendency to feel artificial and overboosted, the system in the CX-5 is comparatively grand. Steering feel is direct and linear, with minimal effort needed to execute quick turns. Combine that with a suspension that's designed to reduce body roll and offer a sportier ride quality than the more mainstream cushy CUVs, and what you have is a crossover that stands true to Mazda's belief in driver engagement as the most important aspect to the whole vehicular experience.
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1. Ram 1500
It seems unfair to compare a pickup truck to crossovers like the Mazda CX-5 and Hyundai Santa Fe, but operating within our judging system the 2013 Ram 1500 was hands down our leading choice and winner of the AOL Truck/SUV of the Year.
Simply put, the 2013 Ram 1500 redefines pickups, challenging perennial front-runners Ford and Chevrolet with a stellar interior, solid performance and the best highway gas mileage--25 mpg-- in the segment. (Cue the flag waving.) The Ram is so good, President Obama should take credit for it after the White House and taxpayers bailed out Chrysler in 2009.
The Ram's overhaul is truly a multigenerational campaign. It started with the previous generation Ram in 2009. That brought a smooth rear coil-spring ride and the new front face of Ram, the handy RamBox storage bins in the side rails of the bed, and a vastly improved interior. But there were still some rough edges in performance and interior appointments. Its potential, though, smelled of luxurious leather.
For this generation, we see the introduction of a the Pentastar V6 engine, the power plant that has nearly single-handedly powered Chrysler's recovery, an eight-speed automatic transmission and more fine tuning than a political message.
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1. Ram 1500
Every point, piece and part feels improved, retuned or redone--all for the betterment of this new Ram.
There are four new grille designs, some more intimidating than others and a new bumper that stretches across the face of the Ram. Add to that the quad headlamps, which provide more light in more areas for night driving.
Some of the less noticeable details include the stainless steel running boards on some models that stretch all the way from wheel to wheel. And a thoughtful change was moving the Ram badge on the sides so buyers could easily tack on a magnetic door sign for a business. See, pickups are the true small business offices.
The base 3.6-liter Pentastar produces 305 horsepower, which is more than enough power to get this big rig rolling. I purposely selected a loaded crew cab model to find the heaviest truck with a V6.
Of course, if you need more power, the Ram offers its 5.7-liter Hemi V-8. It rumbles with more authority than a Rhino, and is much easier to hook up to a boat trailer.
Most impressive is all of the engineering work on the Ram to eek out better fuel economy. From the active grille shutters that close to increase the aero dynamics, and the standard low rolling resistant tires to the engine's thermal management system and the start/stop system that turns off the engine when not in use, the Ram focuses on efficiency. All of that work allows the V6 Ram to hit 18 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway. The 5.7-liter V8 numbers with the six-speed transmission hit 14 mpg in the city and 20 mpg on the highway.
The Ram 1500 It sets new benchmarks that everyone will surely follow. That's leadership we should all admire.