Everybody likes lists, be it the top 40 hits, top 20 travel destinations or top 10 worst career moves.
I’m hoping my top five best cars list doesn’t put me on the latter one.
It’s a challenge to distill 60-plus rides into my five faves, but first I’ll lay out a few ground rules:
• I had to drive it in 2014. So if you think Rob Beintema’s Porsche 911 is a better choice – too bad. I didn’t test one last year.
• It’s not simply about fun – tedious factors like practicality, build quality and value come into play. I do, however, draw the line at minivans.
• This is entirely unscientific. Neil’s Top Five does not undergo the rigorous standards applied to AJAC’s Canadian Car of the Year program. And I don’t use international accounting firm KPMG.
5. Toyota FJ Cruiser
This larger-than-life Tonka truck is the real deal for off roading. With 245 mm of ground clearance, underbody armour that includes skid plates for engine, transfer case and fuel tank, the FJ is in its element, crawling over rocks and logs, or wading through more than two feet of water.
Visual cues hearken back to the legendary FJ40, but modern features like its brawny DOHC 24-valve 4.0-litre V6 (260 hp and 271 lb/ft of torque), water-repellent upholstery and available Crawl Control (a low-speed ‘cruise control’ for extreme terrain) take it to the next level.
Starting at $33,540, this rugged bush basher is a refreshing alternative to the current crop of urban soft roaders. Unfortunately it has been discontinued, but was fun while it lasted.
4. Mazda MX-5
What can I say about this perennial favourite, that’s been on countless top lists since it launched 25 years ago?
In short, ‘fun for the buck’ has always been the MX-5’s strength, thanks to its superb engineering, with near perfect 50/50 weight balance and ideal power-to-weight ratio. Its 2.0-litre engine (167 hp and 140 lb/ft of torque) well matched to the 1,182 kg curb weight.
The base 2014 model with black fabric roof came in under $30K. My choice would be the GT with power-retractable hardtop, 17-inch alloys and limited-slip differential that keeps this rear driver cornering as if on rails. At just over $40K, there’s not a better roadster for the price.
3. Hyundai Sonata 2.0T
For 2015, Hyundai took its popular mid-size sedan and improved it in every way.
The last-gen Sonata was stylish, but the new Fluidic Sculpture 2.0 design language (less ‘fluidic’ than 1.0), provides a more grown-up look with clean lines and taut sheet metal wrapping its longer and wider body, fronted by a bold hexagonal grille.
Rigidity has improved with more structural adhesives and high-strength steel, all contributing to a cabin that’s luxury-class quiet, and doors that close with a solid ‘thunk.’
Although performance may not be the top reason for buying, those who want more punch will forgo the naturally aspirated 2.4-litre engine and opt for the Sport 2.0T ($30,999) and Sport 2.0T Ultimate ($34,799).
These get a 2.0-litre, 16-valve four cylinder with gasoline direct injection and twin-scroll turbocharger (245 hp and 260 lb/ft).
The turbo spins up quickly for ample low-end torque.
This roomy mid-size is also alone among direct competitors in being classified as a “Large Car” by Natural Resources Canada.
2. Ford Mustang Ecoboost
It’s been decades since Ford tried to sell a four-cylinder Mustang, but this time they got it right.
The Ecoboost model starts at $27,999, and with an even better chassis and handling than last generation, this car is no poser.
For $3K less, you can pick up the base unit with 3.7-litre V6 and six-speed manual, but EcoBoost ups the ante with six-way power front seats and active noise cancellation, along with the availability of Recaro racing buckets and black painted 19-inch alloys to complement its sinister black grille and lower fascia.
More importantly, it offers more power than the six. Its 2.3-litre direct-injected and turbocharged four-cylinder delivers 310 hp and 320 lb/ft of torque (compared to 300 and 280 from the 3.7-litre).
And it comes in sooner, for a longer and flatter powerband that’s noticeable when you plant the pedal.
Few engines can best its 137 hp per litre (including the pricier 5.0-litre GT), and with Ecoboost’s lighter front end, it’ll carve corners like a champ.
Sure its modest growl won’t match the deep bass of its V8 sibling, but it still sounds good, and will save you at least $9K.
And in terms of curb appeal, it doesn’t get much better – at any price.
1. Volvo Polestar
Practicality, performance and panache have converged in a Volvo.
The company released only 750 of their S60 and V60 Polestars worldwide, but these high performance sedans and wagons have created a stir. Many AJAC colleagues would agree.
Under each car’s eye-catching blue exterior is a more potent version of Volvo’s proven 3.0-litre inline six, now sporting a twin-scroll Borg Warner turbo.
It delivers 345 hp and 369 lb/ft of torque, and is mated to a six-speed auto and rear-bias AWD.
Plant the pedal, and Polestar snaps to attention. Particularly in ‘sport’ mode where an open exhaust valve releases an angry growl through its twin 3.5-inch tailpipes.
Other mods include a more rigid chassis, six-piston Brembo brakes, stiffer springs and high-performance Ohlins shocks. At $64,895 for the sedan and $66,895 for the wagon, it’s no wonder the limited run has sold out – for now.
Read Rob’s Top Five Best Cars Of 2014.