2012 Tesla Model S
Our choice for CNET Tech Car of the Year goes to the 2012 Tesla Model S, a car that shows superb technology throughout while also challenging our conceptions of how a car should work. Most people know the Model S for its electric drivetrain, which not only gives it tremendous acceleration, but also the best range among current production electric cars. Compared with an internal combustion engine, the Tesla's electric motor delivers magnitudes of better energy efficiency. The EPA estimates the cost of electricity for a year of driving at $700, about 25 percent of the cost for gasoline in an equivalent luxury sedan.
Beyond its efficiency, the Model S modernizes the whole idea of a car's cabin. Tesla streamlined the entire process of getting into the car and setting off, taking out steps that have become anachronistic. A big touch screen handles all in-cabin functions, eliminating the need for an array of buttons across the dashboard. A 3G data connection feeds the infotainment functions, providing maps, destination search, and music, similar to what we have become used to with our personal electronics.
The Model S went up against the Audi S5, BMW 640i Gran Coupe, Ford Focus Electric, and Toyota Prius C, a formidable field nominated for technical excellence in drivetrain and cabin. The BMW proved popular with our jury, and we liked how the Focus Electric drove, but the Model S trumped the others with its innovative approach and capabilities.
The Car Tech 10
There was a lot more going on in the past year besides five really, really good tech cars. So that's why we have The Car Tech 10, a set of inconsistent awards for various achievements in automotive technology.
2012 Chevrolet Volt
With a solid five-star User Review score, it's clear that you guys and gals really love the 2012 Chevrolet Volt. That's cool, because we loved it too. The range-extended electric vehicle combines enough electric range for most drivers to get from home to work and back with a gasoline range extender that lets you keep on driving when you need to. It's sort of the best of both worlds: a do-everything, full-size EV that can become a hybrid when you need it to.
However, with 136 comments on our review as I write this, it's also clear that nearly as many of you love to hate it. This is probably because, with a car like the Volt, the adage "your mileage may vary" becomes a massive understatement, with reported cruising ranges and fuel economy averages of drivers varying by many orders of magnitude. Either way, the Volt is an amazingly flexible car that captured your imaginations, earning it our Most Popular award.
Most worthy of its hype
2012 Scion FR-S
As rumors of a new sports car from Toyota began to circulate a few years ago, we were merely intrigued. When it became known this would be a joint venture between Subaru and Toyota, we took notice. A couple of years and a few concept cars later, we finally got to see and drive the car we -- and the rest of the world -- had been so anticipating. Actually, the hype was apparently worth three cars, the Subaru BRZ, Scion FR-S, and Toyota GT86. We got a little seat time in the BRZ, and a full review of the FR-S. Our desires and expectations for a quick, little affordable sports car were met, then exceeded by the supremely engaged handling.
Runner-up in this category was the 2012 Ford Focus ST, which brought our simulated Gran Turismo and Forza racing into the real world.
Most improved car
2013 Porsche Boxster
The mid-engined roadster has always been one of Porsche's best-kept secrets, having been overlooked by enthusiasts and usually wasted on drivers more interested in looking good than going fast. For 2013, the Boxster steps up to the plate with a more muscular, expensive-looking aesthetic that borrows heavily from supercars like the Carrera GT and performance that simultaneously adds gobs of refinement without losing any of the sharpness that made the old car great. For the rare feat of fixing nearly everything that was wrong with the previous model without diminishing anything that made it awesome, the 2013 Porsche Boxster earns our award for Most Improved.
Ford earns a runner-up spot with the 2013 Escape, which merits an honorable mention for its improved aesthetic and tech.
Best concept car of 2012
This car was the hit of the 2012 Detroit auto show and earns best concept for a number of reasons. First, it brings back the legendary NSX name, a model the loss of which was lamented by many a gearhead. Next, it signifies a new -- and much-needed -- era of drivetrain tech for Acura. A new direct injection engine, mid-mounted, drives the rear wheels, while two electric motors drive the front wheels. This arrangement makes for all-wheel-drive with a torque split between the fronts, with potential for wildly good handling. Finally, the styling comes off as incredibly smooth, with a bubble over the passenger cell making it look like a futuristic NSX -- which is exactly what it is.
Kind of an anti-runner-up, the Bentley EXP 9 was an odd attempt at an SUV that showed the British car maker which design direction not to take.
Most OMG!! car
2012 Bentley Mulsanne
We get some very nice cars here at CNET, but only rarely do we see one so deserving of excited acronyms as the Bentley Mulsanne. When the car arrived in our garage, our text messages and tweets were pretty much all 'Mulsanne OMG 752 pound-feet of torque and 2,200 watt Naim audio'. Driving a car as expensive as a midwestern house inspires a certain kind of awe that cuts right through our jaded auto reviewer personas. Knowing that we are sitting on leather taken from Scandinavian bulls (no barbed wire means unblemished hide) engenders a certain sort of specialness, kind of like in kindergarten when that certain someone gives you an unexpected Valentine card. OMG indeed.
Most exciting car in the solar system
Mars Curiosity Rover
There were many amazing rides launched this year, but the car that captured the imagination of the world was literally launched into space in late 2011. All eyes were on the Mars Curiosity Rover when it made landfall in August after its 350-million-mile journey. The rover is easily one of the coolest cars in this solar system. Powered by a nuclear-electric generator, it rolls on six 20-inch wheels arranged on a crazy Rocker-Bogie suspension configuration. It's hardened to withstand temperatures ranging from -197 to 104 degrees F, and carries more than 180 pounds of sensitive scientific equipment.
The $2.5 billion Curiosity beams information of visual, meteorological, radiation, chemical, mineral, and spectrographic nature back to Earth. Thanks to the Rover, we're getting the best look at our interplanetary neighbor that we've ever had, and it might even find extraterrestrial life. Plus, it's got a robotic arm! For being central to one of the most important scientific moments of 2012 and for simply being an epic set of wheels, we salute the Mars Curiosity Rover.
Beats by Dre in the Dodge Charger
Quite a number of cars with very impressive audio systems have come through our garage during 2012, and we applaud brands such as Naim, Bang & Olufsen, and Mark Levinson for their excellent efforts. However, for this award we favor a system that's attainable by the masses, Chrysler's implementation of the Beats by Dre system in the Dodge Charger. Dr. Dre started his audio brand to combat the low sound quality from the ubiquitous earbuds showing up everywhere. Extending this thinking to the car, Beats by Dre came up with an 11-speaker system using a 12-channel amp to produce exceptionally clean, tight sound. Listening to it at CES 2012, we appreciated the careful tuning given to this system, such that it could be turned up extremely loud without distortion. Its bass punches you in the chest, and if you close your eyes, it seems like your favorite artist is singing right on top of the dashboard.
Best app integration
Ford Sync AppLink
As one of the only automakers supporting app integration for Android, iOS, and BlackBerry, Ford's Sync AppLink is clearly ahead of the curve. Ford's system supports over a dozen apps. For music streaming, there's Pandora, MOG, TuneIn Radio, iHeartRadio, and Slacker. NPR, Stitcher, and MLB at Bat bring news, podcasts, and sports to the mix. Scout and Sync Destinations help navigate from point A to B. Apps supported vary by your phone's platform -- for example, Allergy Alert and Roximity are iOS-only affairs -- but Ford adds more apps every few months. Now, we just want to see this system implemented more universally across Ford's lineup.
Best aftermarket device
Parrot Minikit Neo and Neo App Suite
We've always been fans of Parrot's Bluetooth speakerphones. However, the Minikit Neo builds on Parrot's fantastic audio quality and voice command system with a svelte new form factor and NFC-based pairing technology. The Neo is also compatible with an app for Android and iOS that further boosts its functionality, letting your phone automatically mark your parking spot when you leave the car, remind you to feed the parking meter with its timer, or use your phone's voice command (such as Siri or Google's voice dialer) if you prefer.
Runner-up goes to Pioneer's AppRadio 2, which builds on its previous generation's promising iOS app integration with compatibility for a number of Android apps.
Most promising future tech
Near Field Communications (NFC)
Perhaps NFC isn't the newest tech on the block, but we feel like automakers have only just scratched the surface of the applications for this technology. Right now, about the best that you can do with the tech is pay for gas or pair your smartphone with a Bluetooth speakerphone (like the aforementioned Parrot Minikit Neo). Soon, you'll be able to automatically pair with your car by tossing your phone into the cupholder. But why stop there?
In the future, you will be able to unlock your doors by tapping the handle with your NFC-enabled phone, and maybe even start the engine. Drivers who want to lend their car to friends and family members will be able to grant them the same access by tapping phones or e-mailing an NFC key. In areas where car-sharing services are popular, being able to unlock, start, and pay for a rental with NFC will vastly simplify the car-sharing process.