I test-drive close to 70 new vehicles in the course of a year. Most of them are pretty good; they have to be, in an automotive marketplace where quality is the price of admission.
So, since competence is commonplace, it takes a bit more to make a car or truck memorable for me. There has to be something exceptional about its styling, capability, engineering, or price/value story to make a strong impression.
Jeep Cherokee. You may wonder how you could get lathered up over a crossover that lives in the borderlands between compact and midsize and starts at only $22,995. The answer is its winning combination of macho styling, interesting and useful interior design, remarkable economy, and off-road facility - and Walmart price tag.
This first Jeep Cherokee since 2001 is built on a beefed-up Fiat pleasure-car platform and is available with a new, 271-horsepower, 3.2-liter version of Chrysler's 3.6-liter V-6; an 184-horse four; and a first-in-class nine-speed automatic. The latter, when teamed up with the four-cylinder engine and front-drive, delivers a best-in-class highway mileage rating of 31.
Climbing in the Trailhawk model, the top Cherokee off-roader, you realize this is most certainly a Jeep. With its increased clearance, sophisticated four-wheel-drive with low-range gearing, locking rear differential, and electronics that tailor engine mapping, shifts points, and torque distribution to specific driving conditions, the Trailhawk is remarkably agile when dancing with rocks and ruts.
Jaguar F-TYPE. This two-seat ragtop is Jaguar's first true sports car since it stopped building the E-TYPE some four decades ago. And like the E-TYPE, it is rear-drive, very fast, stunningly athletic, and outrageously lovely.
This roadster is, in fact, beautifully proportioned, with an elegant muscularity that borders, at times rather obviously, on the predatory.
The F-TYPE model with the supercharged V-6 opens at $69,000. The tech-laden, supercharged, 495-horse V-8 variant starts at 92 large. The car's zingy 0-to-60 times - 4.2 seconds in the V-8 - derives from its light weight as well as its power. The mostly aluminum F-TYPE is not just light, it is also the strongest open car Jag has built, and that contributes to its superb handling.
Chevrolet Silverado. Thoughtful design and innovation are what made an impression here. With a starting list of $25,575, this redesigned, full-size pickup comes out of hood-to-hitch surgery quieter, better riding, better handling, and more economical than its predecessor.
There are three new, all-aluminum engines for 2014 - two V-8s and a V-6 - each of them fitted with direct injection, variable valve timing, and cylinder deactivation, which saves gas by allowing the engine to run on four cylinders instead of six or eight in low-load situations such as cruising on a level road.
The upgraded engines provide bragging rights. The 5.3-liter V-8 has a highway EPA of 23, which beats any V-8, as well as Ford's EcoBoost V-6. The 5.3 V-8 and the V-6 also top their classes in towing.
Nifty features include steps built into the corners of the back bumper and a tailgate that gradually lowers itself.
Cadillac CTS-V Sport Wagon. Cadillac has long built cars on the comfy side. Now, it invites you take a walk on the wild side.
A CTS-V is a midsize CTS with a reworked suspension and a supercharged, 556-horsepower V-8 that capitalizes the word hellacious. It is available as a sedan, coupe, and, my favorite, the Sport Wagon, which is the most fun I'll ever have in a station wagon.
When equipped with the six-speed manual gearbox, this $63,600 sports car in wagon weeds will give you the same acceleration and top end as that $92,000 Jag V-8.