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Auto Excellence Awards: Our 10 favorite cars of the year

Auto Excellence Awards: Our 10 favorite cars of the year

The Ram 1500 is a mean hauling machine. The Chevy Camaro ZL1 is a performance powerhouse. The Cadillac ATS marries substance to luxury. All 10 of our Automotive Excellence Award winners are standouts—and they stand out in their own way.

Ford Escape - Car of the Year

Base Price: $23,295

This year we introduce our first-ever Popular Mechanics Car of the Year. This is an affordable vehicle that excels in multiple auto excellence categories, not just one. No vehicle hit a variety of marks harder or topped more editors' scorecards than the all-new 2013 Ford Escape.

Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S - Fun to Drive
Base Price: $26,245/$24,930

The BRZ handles like it's your personal road therapist, intuiting your every thought while supplying plenty of feedback along the way. The gearbox and transmission operate with the precision of a Swiss watch, and that fat steering wheel is just what your hands want. Cost-cutting measures have been taken, but the car doesn't feel cheap. Instead it feels light and toned like a bantamweight boxer, ready to take on whatever the road throws at it. For the price, more fun on four wheels doesn't exist.

Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 - Performance
Base Price: $55,250

Simply put, the ZL1 is the quickest Camaro that Chevrolet has ever made. It will run through the quarter-mile in less than 12 seconds and blast all the way up to 184 mph. Power hounds can choose between a six-speed manual and automatic. But the ZL1's excellence isn't based solely on its prowess as a sprinter. This Camaro will swallow up bumpy back streets and tackle curvy canyon roads with a deftness usually reserved for a European sports car and rewards every action you take with smoothness, refinement, and ease of use. That's impressive, considering this is a car with a monstrous 580-hp V-8 under its hood. The ZL1 comes packing all the hardware you need for a day at the track, from big brakes to coolers to a five-mode Performance Traction Management system with launch control. But the Chevy's enormous potential at the dragstrip or racetrack doesn't compromise its everyday drivability.

Ram 1500 - Hauling
Base Price: $23,585

Ram perennially takes the bronze in full-size pickup sales, but the 2013 1500 could change all that. When Chrysler made Ram a separate brand from Dodge in 2010, the first order of business was upgrading the nameplate's core pickup. For 2013 the list of comprehensive updates makes it essentially an all-new truck. The new 1500 features a host of structural improvements and fuel-saving technologies but still remains very much a workhorse. When equipped with the V-6 the 4x4 Tradesman model's max towing capability is 6300 pounds, and it bumps up to 9000 pounds with the V-8. The latter is a 100-pound improvement on the 2012's max towing. All brawn and no brains isn't an option for a modern pickup, though, so the Ram also comes with a smart-looking cabin and the complete raft of Chrysler infotainment and safety system options, including an 8.4-inch touchscreen, Chrysler's next-generation UConnect system, a Wi-Fi hotspot, a rearview camera, and rear parking sensors. The result is a more capable, powerful, fuel-efficient, and all-around user-friendly truck.

Cadillac ATS - Luxury

Luxury isn't defined solely by the gleam and grain of the wood fastened to the dashboard or the suppleness of the hides stitched to the seat frames. Sure, we like to be pampered, but the luxury cars we truly admire are more like the all-new Cadillac ATS—short on fluff and long on substance. The ATS packs a technical spec sheet loaded with advanced lightweight materials in the chassis as well as a body shell that's up to 40 percent stiffer than the larger CTS sedan.

SRT Viper - Design
Base Price: $99,390

With its cartoonish silhouette and staggering performance numbers, the Dodge Viper is the epitome of the car-poster supermodel. Throughout its four generations, which began in 1992 and ended in 2010, four design elements came to define the car's shape—cab-rearward proportions, double-bubble roof, central air intake, and side gills. But for Ralph Gilles, Chrysler's senior vice president of design and CEO of its SRT performance subbrand, these elements never fully melded into one cohesive design. So when he got approval to make a new Viper, his team built it from the ground up. The SRT Viper advances the car's design, better blending the curvaceous sheet metal and increasing overall functionality. The only carryover from the old Viper? The windshield.

Nissan Pathfinder - Versatility
Base Price: $28,270

Crossovers today have a tough job. Drivers expect them to haul passengers like a minivan, tow like an SUV, and deliver the fuel economy of a smaller passenger car. It's a tall order, but the all-new Nissan Pathfinder hits those marks, and with a dollop of innovation too. The Pathfinder leads the pack of seven-seat crossovers by delivering 26 mpg highway, thanks in large part to moving from body-on-frame to unibody construction, which saves 500 pounds. The new design also makes the Pathfinder a smooth rider that's easier to maneuver because the center of gravity has dropped 3 inches from the previous generation. There's now more room inside, and with the EZ Flex seats, parents can slide the rear seats forward (with a child's seat in place) to access the third row. And the 3.5-liter V-6 is downsized slightly from the old Pathfinder, but still makes a solid 260 hp. That's enough grunt to haul a 5000-pound trailer. No, the new Pathfinder isn't the kind of vehicle meant for slogs up the Rubicon trail. But families these days will be more concerned with how many groceries will fit in the Pathfinder's 79.8-cubic-foot cargo hold.

Tesla Model S - Techical Innovation

Base Price: $49,900 (after rebate)

How would you build a modern car if you didn't have to make space for an engine? That question is still a thought experiment for most of the auto industry, but California-based startup Tesla Motors has actually done it with the new Model S. With its motor packaged neatly between the rear wheels and its massive battery mounted under the vehicle floor, the Model S has lots of free space available under the hood, in the rear of the vehicle, and in the cabin for storage, legroom, and two extra passengers. Tesla has also reimagined the traditional center console as one enormous, reconfigurable 17-inch touchscreen. And if all that doesn't impress you, consider this: In its top-of-the-line Performance variant, the Model S does 0 to 60 in 4.4 seconds—that's BMW M5 territory.

Hyundai Elantra GT - Value

Americans are finally downsizing their vehicles. Cars like the Hyundai Elantra are outselling trucks by 33 percent and SUVs by 55 percent as of August 2012. That wasn't the case a few short years ago. Modern compacts offer better fuel economy, power, and sophistication than their predecessors, and they do it for a great price. But of all the quality compacts currently available, most impressive is the new Elantra GT.

Prius C - Fuel Efficiency

Delivering an EPA-rated 53 mpg in the city, the Toyota Prius C is the most fuel-efficient compact car in America. Although the C uses much of the regular Prius's tech, it does so in a lighter weight, more compact footprint based on the Toyota Yaris. The drivetrain is a clever setup, consisting of a 1.5-liter four-cylinder paired with an electric motor, CVT, and batteries. The engine revs only to 4500 rpm, but then the electric motor kicks in to provide any extra power.