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Driving force

As 2013 draws to a close, the natural human impulse is to both look forward to the coming year, and look back on the past one.

As 2013 draws to a close, the natural human impulse is to both look forward to the coming year, and look back on the past one.

New Year's resolutions? Oh, I've got a few: let more people cut ahead in traffic, maybe drive a little less, do a few more roadtrips, learn how to unwind the wheel post-apex before applying throttle. I think that last one's going to be on the list for a while.

However, 2014 will have to be quite the doozy to measure up to 2013's driving record. It's been a year of aimless trips through tunnels and autonomous driving in heavy traffic. It's been a year of on-track shenanigans and epic minivan road trips. It's been a year of fun-to-drive eco-pods and snow-bound Aston-Martins.

Looking back through the snapshots, here's a driving look at 2013.

Late January found the North Shore hemmed in by damp and smothered in a blanket of fog. As luck would have it, there was a bright-red Porsche Boxster in the driveway, and it had snow tires on. Time to hit the road, Jack.

Ah, the Boxster - you have to wonder why people buy a 911 convertible instead. Obviously the Niner has more cachet, more heritage, and teenytiny backseats, but this year really saw the Boxster step out from behind the shadow of its moreexpensive sibling.

This particular machine was equipped with the six-speed manual and a stupefyingly expensive options list, but if you left all the high-tech goodies alone and simply drove with the top down, you could sense some of that essential Stuttgart magic. The steering? Well, Porsche's still working on that.

But as the Boxster climbed its way up Cypress mountain and punched a Porsche-shaped hole in the cloud-cover, I couldn't think of a better machine to ring in the New Year. The nature of the motorcar is changing. Driving is changing. Our streets are more clogged than ever, and fuel prices climb ever upwards.

Even so, they still make cars like this. Utterly wonderful.

However, you probably don't care. Even a relatively attainable toy like the Boxster is still a toy at the end of the day, and bragging about driving one I don't even own is hardly seemly.

As luck would have it, February brought a brace of machines that shows just how good the so-called Average Joe has it on today's roads: the all-new Mazda6 and the Honda Accord.

As much as I enjoyed the Boxster's nippy handling and thrilling flat-six, I found it deeply difficult to justify its colossal price-tag, what with all the options. But less than $30K for a full-size four-door family sedan? And you can get a manual transmission or paddle shifters? And handles like this? Truth be told, I was most blown away by the Honda, which I expected to be a bit of a potato, and turned out to be sort of extra-spicy curly fries. The Sport trim drives with some of the zip and vigour of early Hondas, and you get the sense that the engineers have started dialling back in some funto-drive factor. All that in a four-cylinder car with good resale, a fuel-saving CVT, and solid reliability.

The Mazda6, on the other hand, was just as good, and even prettier. It looks like it should cost far more than it actually does, and the driving-obsessed folks over at Mazda make the car available with a sixspeed manual and a clutch all the way to the top-level GT trim.

There's no better time to be a gearhead, even if you're a gearhead with fiscal and financial responsibilities.

Springtime came, and with it the season of car shows opened, with oddities and classics coming out of the garage. I had a chance to drive possibly the smallest truck in Canada, a Daihatsu Midget II JDMimport, and I was also lucky enough to attend a number of meets.

The first of these was a small, informal group: the classic Japanese car club of B.C. B.C.'s wet, mild climate is both a blessing and a curse for old Japanese iron. On one hand, the lack of cold weather and salty, snowy roads means that rust isn't quite the killer it is back East. On the other hand, the insidious moisture is ever-present, and a car won't survive here as long as it would in California or Arizona.

Even so, there's a vibrant community of folks who are into Datsuns and the like, and the annual gathering at Spanish Banks showed off both the restorations and the slightly-rusty. Mark it on your calendar for next year.

Also a must-attend is the All-British Field Meet at VanDusen Botanical Garden, an accessible show open to anybody who's slightly deranged. I mean, interested in owning a British car.

Wait, same thing (kidding, kidding).

This year I got out to view their annual run up to Whistler, which is even more majestic than the static display, and certainly contains more improperly combusted hydrocarbons. Jaguars, MGBs, Bentleys, and TVRs were all on the hoof, and were joined for a bit by a West Vancouver resident out for a Sunday drive in an Aston-Martin V8 Vantage (the '70s version, a favourite of mine).

Even if you're not into classics, g-forces and apexes, it's still a great time to hit the open road. In March, I loaded up a ho-hum Hyundai crossover and drove to where the beer flows like wine: Aspen, Colo.

On the face of it, this was a monumentally bad idea. Flying would have been cheaper, the amount of stuff required to take care of my 10-month-old daughter was staggering, and to put the icing on the cake, I brought my in-laws along too.

It was an eventful trip, and not without the occasional squall. However, the Hyundai provided smooth sailing and really stellar fuel economy. It wasn't a quote-unquote driver's car, in the sense that the phrase is usually indicated, but as the miles passed and we saw mountains, desert, volcanic landscapes and lush grasslands, it was the ideal steed.

Later in June, not having had enough of the desert, I headed back to testdrive some Mazdas. This sort of event is usually fairly straightforward and involves a short drive and a long lunch. Mazda had a different idea.

Turning the whole shebang into a scavenger rally for charity, teams of drivers and navigators ended up driving near a thousand kilometres a day on some of the best/worst roads imaginable. Starting in the sky-high city of Boulder, Colo., had the four-cylinder Mazdas way down on power because of the altitude. The route had to be planned beforehand, and included some tricky gravel and dirt sections - this in crossovers shod with standard

all-season tires.

At one point, our humble little CX-5 teetered on three-wheels over the shale and loose rocks of a pass at 14,000 feet of elevation. Then it tore down the mountainside like an off-road Miata. The next day, we passed a convoy of Jeep-driving tourists that were plowing through deep sand too slowly.

A lot of driving, surely, but a heck of a lot of fun as well.

Also in June, I taught my mother-in-law how to drive manual. Well, I didn't but Honda did.

The company still sells a few stick shifts here and there, and they brought out a couple of professional instructors and a squadron of their most-sporty HFP-trim Civic Si and V-6 Honda Accord Coupes.

A rain-slicked parking lot became an impromptu coned-off autocross course, and the instructors began their seemingly herculean task. Talk about your patience of Job.

All the participants, from newbie to rustyskilled enjoyed the drive, and by the end of the day, no-one was still doing the bunny-hop. For keeping the lost skill of operating a manual transmission alive, kudos to Honda. Here's hoping they expand the program next year.

Another Honda proved the sheer usefulness of the humble minivan at long-distance travel. The Odyssey simply excels at highway hauling, and on a drive to Montana, it was simply superb.

Of course, most of the roads were gorgeously winding enough to make me want to come back here in something just a tad sportier, but for passengers, the Odyssey was basically a mobile living room showing breathtaking scenery rolling past. Heck, even the fuel economy was pretty decent.

As fall approached, I had the very weird sensation of being in a self-driving car for the first time. The new Mercedes E-Class has an optional driver assist package that includes low-speed self-steering and radar-guided cruisecontrol that can stop the car entirely.

On the main highway outside Portland, with stop-and-go traffic ready to ruin your day, I turned on the cruise control and let the Merc' autopilot all the way back into town. For a luxury car, that's a pretty cool trick, and while we're years away from fully autonomous cars jumping the legal hurdles to widespread acceptance, a relaxing way to deal with the worst part of driving: traffic.

Shortly thereafter, I had a go in a vehicle that has another method of dealing with traffic: namely, it would like to run it over or eat it. The completely insane Jeep Cherokee SRT has a Hemi V-8 and far too much horsepower, and it makes for an endlessly entertaining drive.

A friend and I hit the road to the LeMay Museum just past Seattle in Tacoma, Wash. This is a fairly new place and is crammed full of everything from DeLoreans to an F40 to a Tucker Torpedo. For any car nut, it's a mustvisit.

The SRT blitzed up the slopes of Mount Rainier for an impromptu photo shoot, and then it cruised back along the interstate for a total fuel economy score of 10.1 litres/100 kilometres. In a two-tonne SUV with 470 horsepower and launch control, that's unbelievably good.

For fuel economy, however, nothing beats an electric car - which as we all know doesn't burn any gasoline at all. I took turns behind the wheel of several of these this year, including plug-in hybrids. Not very exciting, but interesting indeed, and there's always the Tesla if you want more power.

A chance meeting with the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association gave me the opportunity to go for a ride in a hundredyear- old B.C. original: a 1912 Detroit Electric. Mostly unrestored, this battery-powered horseless carriage used to swan around Victoria right up until the 1960s, stored in the basement of the Empress hotel.

It's a trifle wobbly compared to a modern car, but so will you be when you're 100. Oddly silent, this particular Detroit had its original battery pack changed just once, in the 1980s. Stupendous.

An all-electric existence might be in the cards for the future, but in the meantime, there's still a place for the combustion engine. As the winter rains started, I figured out that the best place is in one's ears.

Getting up early on a Sunday morning, I took the highway out past Hope and headed up into the Fraser Valley. There, with rain still misting down, I cracked open the top on a Jaguar F-Type and blitzed through the seven tunnels between Yale and Boston Bar, revelling in the echoing of the snarling supercharged-six.

A bit silly when the temperature's hovering around eight degrees, but really good fun nevertheless. I think I still have tinnitus.

The last part of the year had me travelling to Tokyo to cover the auto show there, and discovering a whole new kind of automotive culture, from transplanted hot-rods to highly-detailed models, to a parking lot full of automotive unicorns.

It was a fitting bookend to a packed year, and with the last thing on my list the traditional drive out to Chilliwack to fetch the Christmas tree, I'd like to wish you all happy holidays, safe travels, and clear roads ahead.

It's a privilege to be able to write for this paper, to receive interesting emails from readers, and to hear all your stories. All my very best to you and your family for 2014.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_ mcaleer.

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