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December 4, 2011 1:00 AM

Best of 2011: Year of change brings beauty, innovation to cars

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This year may go down as one of the most exciting and unpredictable in automotive history. American, European and Korean brands ascended, while Mother Nature kept many from buying the Japanese car they wanted. Radical technologies hit showrooms. Familiar vehicles were reborn to fit changing times.

And it's the year 40 became the new 30 (miles per gallon, that is).

Here's a look back at my candidates for the most significant vehicles of 2011. More than just excellent cars and SUVs, these are products that are, in one way or another, changing things up in the industry.

Chevrolet Volt

It's an electric car with an on-board gasoline generator that eliminates "range anxiety." Many believed Chevy wouldn't or couldn't build it. Bob Lutz, General Motors' former vice chairman, claimed it would be ready by the end of 2010. Mission accomplished.

The Volt shows that GM is creative, nimble and relevant, even while struggling through a historic reorganization. It also proves that efficient cars can be attractive and fun to drive.
Even GM's swift and cooperative response to the battery's potential reaction under extreme impact demonstrates their new, improved attitude.

The all-electric Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus Electric and Mitsubishi i are significant as well. But until batteries improve, the Volt is the only electric car that can be your only car.

Hyundai Elantra

Over the past few years, Hyundai has been showing Americans that its automobiles have improved with a series of appealing vehicles that have replaced its humble cars of the past.

Then, to top it all off, the 2011 Elantra dropped like a supermodel strutting into an accountants' convention. Its swoopy sheet metal is one of my favorites this year.

Hyundai also ripped a forgotten page from Japan Inc.'s playbook: offering fuel efficiency and quality at a bargain price while slipping in delightful features like heated back seats. Some luxury cars don't even get that option.

Fiat 500

Fiat finally returning to the U.S. in 2011 is only part of the story. Who knew its launch product would be so endearing?

True, it's too diminutive for many buyers, but the 500 packs more personality per square millimeter than nearly any car on the road. Its Italian charm is like discovering authentic gnocchi after years of eating at Olive Garden.

The Cinquecento is quiet, comfortable and stable at highway speeds. That's impressive for a subcompact car.

Range Rover Evoque

Land Rover is known for fusing Rolls-Royce-grade luxury with epic off-road capability. The Evoque keeps much of that boulder-hopping ability, and swaps conservative lines for bold, modern design.

The Evoque Coupe, based on the compact LR3 architecture, definitely polarizes. Some see the gun-slit windows and edgy profile as brilliant; others can't get their head around it. But everyone will fall for the sporty driving dynamics and sumptuous interior.

Audi A7

Audi's white-hot popularity is due in part to design. The A7 is Exhibit A on how it's done. Not one line is wasted on this svelte, elegant hatchback. Make a grocery run and it's like parking a Calder sculpture in the Safeway lot. It draws eyes and sighs.

The A7 performs heroically with quattro all-wheel drive, bristles with technology including Google Earth navigation, and coddles its occupants in a cleanly penned cabin. If this is what new luxury is about, the future is bright.

Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango

Modern times demanded that the popular SUV get a redo. These three rose successfully to the challenge.

The seven-passenger Explorer ditched its body-on-frame platform and reinvented itself as a highly capable and stylish crossover. It does what most buyers need from their SUVs.

The five-passenger Grand Cherokee and seven-seat Durango are platform twins that still do the heavy lifting of their predecessors, but with improved interiors, comfort, fuel economy and style.

All three of these sport utilities bring modern sensibilities to a classic segment. It would be tough to choose between them.