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Porsche, Mazda, Stingray Take the Lead as ’13’s Best

Last January, I tested the latest, reinvigorated Range Rover sport-utility vehicle. Eleven months later I closed out the year with the Porsche 918 Spyder, the company’s $845,000 hybrid supercar. The days in between brought Ferraris and Hyundais, Jaguars and Mazdas, Aston Martins and Hondas and Bentleys. (Of those, a Jaguar and Mazda made this list.)

Automakers are releasing new and significantly revised cars at an absolutely frantic pace. Most of them are, amazingly, quite good. A few are even better than that, managing to define, change or recharge a segment. These are my picks for the best autos of 2013.

Sports Car: Porsche 918 Spyder

Why? This is the fantasy car of the year, eclipsing the $4 million Lamborghini Veneno and the $1.4 million LaFerrari in terms of want and cultural relevance. The 918 draws on Porsche’s historic racing credentials while remaining a street-legal car. This is Porsche’s first bona fide supercar since the release of the Carrera GT almost a decade ago, and there’s a lot of pent-up desire from brand fanatics. And it delivers: The Spyder is deliriously fast and riotously fun, making it the coolest hybrid in the world.

The experience: Absolute silence when started, then total fury when switched into sport or race settings. It’s a plug-in hybrid, so the choice of green or gangbusters is yours at any given moment.

Power and price: It has two electric motors and a 4.6-liter V-8, for a boggling total of 887 horsepower. The price is both the catch and the cachet. The base car starts at $845,000, and with options could easily brush $1 million.

Killer application: Gliding around town silently in this hypercar, with the top off. Bystanders’ reactions? Priceless.

Edging Out: The fantastic but less sexy McLaren 12C convertible, Jaguar F-Type and Mercedes-Benz SLS Black Series.

Sedan: Mazda 6

Why? High-end sports cars and brash SUVs garner the most attention, but the majority of us get around in four-door sedans. No reason your daily drive should be dead boring, and the Mazda 6 certainly isn’t. With prices between $21,000 and $30,000, it straddles style and efficiency with as much as 38 miles (61 kilometers) per gallon highway. And it’s really fun to drive. The sedan for the smart shopper.

The experience: Easy and spirited around town, it slipstreams through traffic, yet comes most alive on back roads. A car that communicates with the road.

Power and price: The 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 184 horsepower sounds modest, but it proves Goldilocks right. The base model, without a navigation system, came in at $21,675. Go crazy with a Grand Touring model and you’ll see a sticker of just under $33,000.

Killer application: The sense of (slightly smug) self- satisfaction that comes with never getting confused which car is yours in a sea of Corollas and Accords.

Edging out: Cadillac CTS, Kia Cadenza (a nice car with a silly name), and the power-mad Audi RS7.

Car of Year: Chevrolet Corvette Stingray

Why? The car is fantastic. One of the most entertaining two-person sports cars to arrive in many, many years. The design is modern, the cockpit makes you feel like a jet-fighter pilot. It’s easy to drive in traffic and outrageous fun on a racetrack. Smart and clever engineering is found throughout. And that’s the bare-bones analysis when the car is divorced of its 60-year history and General Motors drama. Add in the fact that the Corvette has historically fallen short of its European competitors (usually in the interior), and that this one was engineered under duress, when GM was bankrupt and the Corvette’s future in doubt, and it proves that GM really can make a great product if it just puts its mind to it.

The experience: Explosive. Zinging along curvy roads, the car is planted and safe, yet highly responsive. Stop in a parking lot and crowds gather, peppering you with questions.

Power and price: 6.2-liter V-8 with 455 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque, $52,000 for the base and $63,800 for the top-line model with a sports performance package.

Killer application: Owning the most capable modern sports car that may have ever come from America.

Edging out: All the other cars that did make this list.