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Wild ride

2012 Year in Review

YOU can almost hear the deep exhalation of relief as the entire Lower Mainland sits back in their collective easy chairs, props 2.5 million pairs of legs up on the universal coffee table and relaxes.

Another holiday season survived with all its little successes and failures.

I hope yours went well. I accidentally set fire to the asparagus.

And so, in a contemplative mood, we turn a slightly glazed eye back over a year which was, automotively speaking anyway, rather an interesting one. It was, to get all Dickensian about it, the best of times, and the worst of times.

Seeing as every other publication will be issuing their yearly round-up of awards, I thought I'd do the same.

? Best Small Car of the Year: the Hyundai Elantra GT

Every year, my esteemed colleagues of the Automotive Journalists Association of Canada gather together at Niagara-on-the-late and spend an entire week thoroughly evaluating every new model year car (this year, 180 cars were tested). It's gruelling, exhausting, mostly thankless work - so I didn't bother going.

Happily, the assembled auto writers were able to get along just fine without me. In fact, they probably were somewhat relieved.

And, when it came time to award what's arguably the most important category win for a Canadian car company, they got it right. For best small car under $21,000, they chose the Mazda3, and for best small car over $21,000, they chose the Hyundai Elantra GT.

While I'm quite fond of the Mazda's driving dynamics, the Elantra GT is the clear winner in the small car segment, and with Canadians being such a penny-pinching lot, that makes it practically the car of the year. It's stylish, fuel-efficient, comfortable, packed with technology, and even reasonably engaging to drive.

Better yet, the Elantra is not just a value proposition, but a complete package that would suit nearly any on-road need its owner might have.

It looks good enough to impress your date, but is simultaneously conservative enough to have your future father-in-law considering one. It can kick out the dubstep at ear-splitting volume, or croon along with the syrupiest of Buble treacle. It rides like a comfy sedan, but you can pack stuff in like a wagon.

If I had to issue any demerits, the fuel-sipping four-cylinder does get a little over-taxed when heavily burdened. On the other hand, I did mention that it was fuel-sipping, correct? A great little car.

? Best Actually Small Car of the Year: The Scion iQ

It's called model bloat, and it's the reason the BMW 3-Series is now the same size as the old 5-series, the Honda Civic is as big as the old Accord, the Toyota Camry is as big as the old Avalon, and the S-Class Mercedes is approximately the dimensions of Liechtenstein.

Our Small Car of the Year winner is actually more a medium-sized car by any standard other than that of mid-'70s land-barges. It's a nicely appointed family car, and in Europe, it would probably seat seven and tow the family caravan.

For a really small car around here, you used to have to go to Smart. Not anymore though: now there's something smarter.

It's the Scion iQ, and it's a miracle of packaging excellence with a gutsy little engine and the turning circle of a particularly agile gnat.

Yes, it's also saddled with a wearisome Continuously Variable Transmission, but other than that, it drives exactly like some long-lost descendant of the original Mini Cooper.

The iQ seats four (in a literal pinch), can be configured to fit a surprising amount of detritus, and is even well-behaved on the highway. It's not quite as efficient as a sleeker Yaris would be, but when it comes to in-city maneuverability, it's nearly without peer.

? Best Sports Car of the Year. Again. For The 20th Bloody Time: The Mazda MX-5

I blush to think of the fawning review I gave the 2012 Mazda MX-5. On the other hand, every superlative was richly deserved.

"But wait!" you cry, "What of the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ that everybody else is calling their Sport Car of the Year?"

Make no mistake, the Toyobaru twins are good little cars. They're just not great ones.

The MX-5, on the other hand, has had 23 years of honing roadster perfection. That, and Mazda did such a good job copying the best of British that you could argue the car comes with another half-century of heritage.

Whatever the case, the little red roadster had the best steering, the best shifter, the best overall feel, and was the best at putting a grin on my face every single time I climbed behind the wheel. One of these days, a competing manufacturer will build something better. Just not this year.

? Best Audio System: the Ford Mustang Boss 302

I don't claim to be any sort of audiophile. In fact, most of the time I tune into an out-of-town FM station that doesn't always get the best reception: not much good having a 15-speaker Bang & Olafsen premium audio system faithfully producing each snap, crackle and pop of atmospheric interference.

Even so, there were a few standouts this year. For instance, the Fender-branded audio system in the Volkswagen GLI (and in the GTi as well) is so powerful it can melt earwax. Fender, Schmender: it should have a Q-Tip tie-in.

However, when it comes to the world of automotive noise, we had one clear winner this year, and I don't even recall if it has a CD player. The Boss 302 might be a big, brightly-coloured muscle-car, but it is the Pied Piper of Hamelin every time you crank that starter.

Equipped with side-exiting exhaust pipes that discharge directly in front of the rear wheels, the Boss coughs to life with a guttural bark, snarling when you prod the throttle and then relaxing into a throaty growl on deceleration.

Thoroughly fantastic stuff; you don't even have to drive the car quickly to get the visceral thrill of power and thunder of a true muscle car. When the internal combustion engine finally departs the Earth, it's this sound I'll miss the most.

? Best Alternative To Yet Another Dratted Crossover: The Ford Flex

I recently did a comprehensive round-up of every new car model that's on the market for 2013.

About halfway through, I started screaming a little every time I saw the word "crossover." Not to worry, the nice doctors gave me some medicine.

Crossovers are neither SUVs, nor trucks, nor cars - a sort of best-of-all-worlds attempt that's often best-of-none. Here's the automotive cure for the common crossover: the Ford Flex.

It's such a delightfully weird machine, handsome, strake-sided and squared-off, but practical too. It seats seven in comfort, there's a neat refrigerated compartment, and all-wheel-drive if you need it.

Best of all, the Flex can be got with the fantastic Ecoboost V6, which turns it from funky retro-mobile into Sweet-Mother-Of-Pearl-The-Griswolds-Just-Jumped-To-Plaid. It is ludicrously fast for such a big, capable truck; it might just be the sleeper car of the year, running the quarter-mile in the high 13second range.

? Best Tweet of the Year: Ralph Gilles

At its worst, the micro-blogging service Twitter is exactly the sort of cacophony of information overload that the story of the Tower of Babel warns against. At its best, it's a great way for famous people to embarrass themselves with greater speed than ever before.

As head of Dodge/ Chrysler's SRT division and vice-president of product design, Ralph Gilles already has a lot of fans for his no-nonsense approach and kickass cars: this is the guy who brought the Viper back. As the silly-season of the American presidential race reached fever pitch, Mr. Gilles took umbrage to something Donald Trump said.

In response to Mr. Trump indicating Jeep production was heading overseas because of President Obama's poor negotiation skills, Mr. Gilles implied that the Donald was full of it. Actually, the word he used both rhymes with "it" and contains the letters "i" and "t," but is somewhat more scatological in nature.

Naturally, Ralph apologized quickly for getting so hot under the collar. As far as the rest of us are concerned, and all politics aside, he just said what everybody else has been thinking for years.

? Best PR Stunt of the Year

When it comes to sales figures, small cars and family sedans are the skirmishes: full-size pickup trucks are all-out war.

At least, that's certainly the way the Big Three pitch it to you. The Dodge Ram, the Chevy Silverado (or kissing cousin GMC Sierra), and the Ford F-150 are gladiators in a battle for your dollar, with legions of ardent fans cheering them on. While they're distracted, the upstart slips off with the laurels.

When the Space Shuttle Endeavour finally retired, it was flown to Los Angeles airport, and from there made its way through the crowded L.A. streets to its final resting place at the California Science Centre. And, for a short part of the trip, a Toyota Tundra towed one of the most significant machines America has ever produced.

Granted, much of the stunt was due to the low rolling resistance of a trick trailer, but as a PR coup, you could hardly do better. While all the other guys were showing improbable payloads of haybales, horse-trailers and partially assembled sailboats, the Toyota pulled the dang Space Shuttle. Chew on that.

? Least Sensible Manufacturer Decision of the Year

At some point, I was handed the keys to a $600,000 Rolls-Royce Drophead Phantom. What were they thinking?

? Parking Spot of the Year

Ever been to Granville Island in the run-up to Christmas? I have, and I have the bite-marks to prove it.

Still, you haven't experienced Vancouver properly until you've smelled the produce, heard the fishmongers cry and been jostled out of line at the Oyama sausage counter by a short, burly woman with more than a passing resemblance to Danny DeVito.

But just try and find a parking space - you'll be circling for hours on a weekend. Unless, that is, you have an electric car. If such is the case, as it was for yours truly with the Ford Focus EV, then sail right up in front for the best spot on the island.

As an added bonus, the high-power plug-in station at the BC Hydro-sponsored spot fully charged the car for free.

? The Poor Man's Lamborghini for 2012

You probably can't afford an Italian supercar. Even if you can, you might not be able to swing the insurance, or the fuel, or the maintenance, or, most costly, the speeding tickets.

What you can get is the Fiat 500 Abarth, which is a bandy-legged little car with the heart of a lion. Easily one of the more fun cars I've driven all year, the gearshifter is vague, the seating position more tennis umpire than racing driver, and it's alarmingly tippy.

On the other hand, it's a bit like driving around in a Yorkshire Terrier on methamphetamines: lots of yapping, plenty of fun.

? Most Smug Drive of the Year

I bumped into ex-Canuck defenseman Willie Mitchell in West Vancouver a few weeks ago - he was driving around in a white Tesla Model S, and there was little doubt he was enjoying the experience.

Now playing for Los Angeles, Mr. Mitchell's still a West Coast boy at heart, and you could tell he liked the idea of running his all-electric supersedan on clean power. He even mused on the idea of setting up a wind turbine at his place out in Tofino.

The Tesla is all over the papers and magazines as the car of the year, and I have to say the praise is deserved; having had the opportunity to blast up the Sea-to-Sky in a Performance model, it's one heck of a machine - bottled lightning. Best of all, you can hum along piously, knowing that most of your power came from clean sources (in this province anyway).

? Worst On-Ramp of The Year

Once again, the westbound Capilano on-ramp remains the most idiotic way of entering a highway I've ever seen. There are plenty of poorly designed on-ramps on the Upper Levels Highway (Main Street southbound onto the Trans-Canada springs to mind), but this is the worst.

Compounded by folks who will dawdle down and then stop at the last minute, blocking everyone else, it's a hair-raising, say-three-Hail-Marys-and-punch-it, bravery-testing ordeal. I hate it.

? The First Annual Nelson M. Muntz Schadenfreude Award

Pulled over for driving without insurance: the owner of a white Lamborghini Aventador. His complaint? He can't afford the insurance.

Issued a $500 ticket, the 22-year-old driver couldn't afford that either. We all felt pretty bad for the poor kid.

Oh wait.

Ha-ha!

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and utomotive enthusiast. If ou have a suggestion for a olumn, or would be interested n having your car club eatured, please contact him at caleeronwheels@gmail.com.