Jason Harper

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Rise of the Machines: Who’s Driving Whom

Dec. 17 (Bloomberg) — Warning: You may soon find that your car is taking over for you.

Lately I’ve been testing more and more automobiles that seem at times determined to outsmart me and in some cases partially drive themselves. Many of these autonomous features are safety-minded, though some are a bit silly or simply wrongheaded.

Then there’s the car that watches you while you drive it. Creepy.

From Lexus and Mercedes to Infiniti, many new models boast multiple cameras and radar sensors. One can alert you to other cars in your blind spots, another will shake you awake when you’re distracted and one even hits the brakes if it thinks you’re headed for a crash. [Read on Bloomberg News]

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This Week’s TV: Jason Spake

Talking cars: Matt Miller and Jason Harper on Bloomberg TV

Talking cars: Matt Miller and Jason Harper on Bloomberg TV

Hey, so my weekly 4:44 pm ET spot on Bloomberg TV. We’re talking blind-spot monitors related to my column about new safety items in cars. We also talk the sad demise of Saab. See it here.

Top Picks of Year: TV Talk

I’m on live every Friday at 4:44 ET on Bloomberg TV… here’s last weeks, my picks of the year.

Cars of the Year! 7 Best for 2009

 

Porsche Panamera — Car of the Year
Porsche Panamera — Car of the Year

Review by Jason H. Harper

 

Dec. 10 (Bloomberg) — This year, I’ve driven overhyped and underrated cars, green vehicles and 1,001-horsepower ones, smart cars and silly ones. Some rocked, many didn’t, and it’s natural to compare them.

 

So here’s my list of the best cars of the year, broken into seven categories, including best executive sedan, green car and car of the year. Each winner is a new or significantly revised model for 2010 and is on sale now.

 

Best Green Car: Ford Fusion Hybrid

 

Toyota’s latest Prius may crow the loudest, but Ford has quietly slipped into the hybrid market with an outstanding entry. A true parallel hybrid which can reach 47 mph on battery power alone, the Fusion gets great mileage (41 city, 36 highway) in a much less self-conscious package than the Prius. An airy mid-size which seats five, it drives confidently and surely, with no real compromises. The styling could be a bit more interesting, but at the competitive price and with green credibility, who cares? From $28,350.

 

Best Sports Car: Audi R8 5.2

Audi R8 5.2 — Sports Car O the Year!
Audi R8 5.2 — Sports Car O the Year!

 

A hot sports car should have an air of fantasy: If you were 8, you’d have a poster of it on your bedroom wall. Audi stuffed a 5.2-liter, V-10 Lamborghini engine into the already supercool R8 mid-engine sports car, and voila! Fantasy achieved. All those Audi Le Mans wins have translated to the real world, including a top speed nearing 200 mph and a naught-to-60 time of 3.7 seconds. With faultless balance, 525 horsepower and all-wheel- drive, this badder-to-the-bone R8 is stupid fun on the racetrack and yet easy to motor around in town. One step closer to the Lamborghini, with none of the embarrassment. From $147,200.

 

Best Economy Car: Mazda3

 

It’s unclear how Mazda puts so much car into such an economical package, but the $16,000 Mazda3 is as much fun as cars twice the price. The smartly revised 3 comes in four- and five-door configurations, seats five and has an exceptionally well-designed interior. On-road, the front-wheel drive pulls hard off the line and the brilliant suspension ably handles both highways and byways. The styling will put off some (the front fascia looks like a maniacal smile), but you can see where the exterior designers got their inspiration. From $16,045.

 

Best Executive Sedan: Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG

 

This is a category crowded with happy choices, including the Jaguar XFR and the updated BMW 7 Series. For the best blend of comfort, drivability and technology, however, the revised E- Class rules. It retains classic elements such as the upright Mercedes badge, supple ride and ample rear seat, while shedding stodginess with a whole mess of new-age technology like a “drowsiness detector” and headlamps which automatically dim. In AMG guise, it’s also a highway bruiser, with a 6.3-liter V-8 that channels more power (518 horses) than most muscle cars, achieving 60 miles in 4.4 seconds. A guaranteed CEO pleaser. From $85,750.

 

Best People Mover and Family Car: Lincoln MKT EcoBoost

 

Cadillac’s new CTS Sport Wagon is a close second for this year’s best people-mover, but the truth is most Americans don’t buy wagons. They want something that can accommodate the basketball team, the coach and all the equipment. The Lincoln MKT fits that bill with room for seven plus stowage. What separates it from other crossovers is the excellent engine and pleasing overall drive. Ford’s new twin-turbocharged and direct- injected V-6 has 355 horsepower and manages 22 mpg highway. And even at 17 feet long, the all-wheel-drive Lincoln handles exceedingly well. After all, even with all the safety features, the best protection of all is accident avoidance. From $49,200.

 

Best All-Around Sports Utility Vehicle: Land Rover LR4

 

Land Rover LR4: SUV of the year
Land Rover LR4: SUV of the year

The all-new LR4’s poor gas mileage (17 highway) nearly took it out of the running, but the truth is the least expensive of the big Land Rovers is the most versatile, go-anywhere, do- anything SUV currently on the market. After a 1,000-mile trip up California’s northern coast on winding back roads, gravel and hard-core 4X4 tracks, the four-door truck held up brilliantly. Land Rover’s “command” driving position lets you see everything on the road, the new interior is plush and smart, and you can throw a Home Depot-load of stuff in the back. For now, Land Rover remains king of the rugged hill. From $48,100.

 

Best, period: Porsche Panamera

 

Surprised? So was I. The Panamera is no purist’s Porsche, and the rounded, Chrysler Crossfire-like rear end takes time to warm up to. Yet Porsche’s first-ever sedan incorporates many of the legendary 911’s best elements — the upright seating position, the aggressive drive, the ideal on-road feel — into a spacious four-door. After driving it on the Autobahn, in the Alps, in crowded U.S. cities and ultimately on a racetrack against a BMW M5 at speeds of up to 160 mph, I was sold.

 

It drives wonderfully, has the best interior ever done by Porsche, and the rear seats are hugely accommodating and magically comfortable. The Turbo is the top of the line, but the (nominally) less-expensive S model with 400 hp handles and revs the most organically and is my personal pick. A perfect car for a Master of the Universe. From $89,800.

 

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

 

To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com.

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