Lexus IS 350: Toyota's luxury division puts out solid, well-appointed cars that are typically boring. The new $36,845 Lexus IS 350 breaks that pattern. Remove the logo and you might mistake this aggressive sports sedan for something from Germany. From the side, the IS is sleek, with a long hood. In front, lines of the grille flow across the hood, presenting a sense of movement with a hint of menace. The elegant interior boasts the precision fit and finish you expect from Japanese automakers. The IS 350 pairs a 3.5-liter V-6 with an eight-speed automatic transmission to provide sports-car acceleration. The car is stiff, connected to the road with nimble steering. Don't cheap out and opt for the lessor IS 250. A smaller engine and cost-cutting considerations in that model hand the advantage back to the Germans.
Mazda6: This is the cool guy's family sedan. Mazda makes its car distinctive in what typically is a boring slice of the car market by wrapping a sleek, handsome shell around the best-handling sedan in its class. When it comes to fuel economy, the $21,785 Mazda6 is one of the stingiest non-hybrid mid-size sedans available, getting up to 28 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway. This is a car that should give you the confidence to walk away from that Toyota Camry and live a little.
Mercedes-Benz S550: Mercedes has a long history of using the S-Class to introduce technologies that later become commonplace in common cars -- air bags and anti-lock brakes, for instance. This all-new model keeps up the tradition. A camera system reads road conditions and adjusts the air suspension accordingly, and 360 degrees of radar can spot hazards, both motorized and human. This car doesn't even have light bulbs. Anywhere. Instead, some 500 LEDs are used inside and out. What hasn't changed is the pampering of S-Class passengers, who enjoy acres of curved wood, massaging seats -- and even perfumed air, if that's your thing. Meanwhile, a silky twin-turbocharged V-8 moves this $93,825 sedan from zero to 60 in 4.8 seconds.
Porsche Cayman: You might think Porsche has lost its focus on sports cars, given the automaker's plans for a second crossover and a $845,000 hybrid supercar. The Cayman refutes such notions. With a mid-mounted six-cylinder boxer engine cranking out 275 horsepower, and a blissfully precise and smooth manual transmission, this is Porsche purity like its founders intended. Starting at $53,595, it looks the part, too: poised, sleek and athletic. This is the recipe that defines Porsche, and the Cayman pulls it off with grace.
Tesla Model S: This Tesla Model S has spurred a thorough rethinking of the electric car. With the biggest available battery, the Model S has an EPA-rated range of 265 miles -- more than three times most electrics. It charges from zero to 60 mph in a scant 5.4 seconds -- 4.2 seconds in the performance version. The massive touchscreen could have been designed by Apple. Revolutions don't come cheap, as this car starts at a cool $71,079 before any government incentives and climbs quickly to six figures. But for that coin, you get a car that can more than hold its own against an Audi A7 turbo-diesel (which almost made this list). And Audi has been making cars for decades.
Toyota Corolla: We did not expect to like this car. Historically, the Corolla has often been the car for people who don't like cars, the ultimate A-to-B appliance. Cheap. Dependable. Ugly. Toyota wouldn't put it quite that way, but the automaker has acknowledged a certain lack of flair in the styling and driving dynamics of its cars. The $17,610 Corolla is among the first model redesigns Toyota has vowed would inject excitement into the brand -- and it delivers. This is a distinctive and handsome car, inside and out. It handles well while retaining a comfortable ride. It has enough power. Even the fuel-efficient and gearless CVT transmission responds intuitively to actual driving, as opposed to just getting there.
Rankings based on performance, reliability and five-year ownership cost.
Award given for delivering an exotic performance, for far less than an exotic price.
Top fuel efficient models include Toyota Camry Hybrid, Prius C and Nissan Leaf.
Consumer Reports releases 2013 car brand report cards.