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Best mid-level performance/luxury cars of 2012

Best mid-level performance/luxury cars of 2012

So you’ve got around $50,000 to spend and you want something that is both luxurious and performance oriented. Well, you’re in luck. There are plenty of fantastic choices. Here are our top five recommendations.

Audi TT RS

TT RS

Although the TT debuted in 1998 and this current and second generation debuted in 2006, this is the first-ever TT RS. The TT RS stands out from the rest of the TT pack by its distinctive direct-injected, turbocharged, five-cylinder engine that produced 340 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque. This mighty little sports coupe will make a 0-60 run in 4.1 seconds and onto a top speed of 174. A six-speed manual transmission sends power from the mighty little five-cylinder to all four wheels through Audi’s infamous Quattro system. Unlike other all-wheel drive power coupes; the TT RS doesn’t seem to suffer from any parasitic loss, and feels capable of laying down all its ponies.

The five-cylinder in the TT RS is special beyond its exclusivity in the current TT lineup. Five-cylinder motors have powered powerhouse Audis of the past. Take the original S4 for example; it was powered by a 2.2-liter inline five-cylinder that produced 227 horsepower. So to say five-cylinders are in Audis blood would be an understatement.

What was most striking to us about the TT RS, beyond its powerful acceleration, relatively roomy cabin, exhaust notes, and handling characteristics, was the fact that we hadn’t expected much from it. Yes, the TT S is a fine, fun little coupe. That, however, is where our praise of it ends. The TT S, like so many German cars, is too expensive for what it is, great handling or not. At around $57,000, however, the performance you get for stepping up to the TT RS is astonishing.

Behind the wheel of the TT RS our jaws dropped, our hearts pounded, and sweat dripped from our brows. Initially, we pegged the TT RS at an $80,000 sticker price. It was every bit as good as an optioned-up Porsche Boxster. When we learned it was only $57,000, however, we were ready to start writing a check.

So few cars allow you to get in, fire up the engine, and forget about everything. Behind the wheel of the TT RS nothing in the world matters but the roar of the engine, the precision of the steering, the perfection of the steering, and the open road ahead. That’s why the TT RS is one our favorite mid-level performance/luxury cars of 2012. For a mid-level price, customers get a high-end experience.

BMW 1M

BMW 1M

Although you might not think it from its button-down exacting German heritage, BMW likes to go a bit wild sometime – within reason. And BMW allowed itself to go a bit berserk this year with the 1 Series M Coupe, better known as the 1M.

First, BMW started with the smallest vehicle they sell in the US and stuffed a very, very powerful motor into it: a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter six-cylinder that produces 335 horsepower and 370 pound-feet of torque. Then BMW bolted to that a six-speed manual transmission – only – and put it up for sale; but not before giving it the brakes, rear differential and suspension, wheels, and tires from the M3.

Starting at $47,010, the 1M is a monstrous little car. It goes fast and looks very, very mean. We especially like it because it’s a BMW coupe built for the open road. Unlike the M5, which can act like a grand tourer, taking the kids to school or the wife to the country club, the 1M is for driving. It doesn’t have a sunroof, nor can you order it with a dual-clutch transmission.

Some reviewers hate this car. We figure they’re simply looking too hard. Being overtly — and perhaps unreasonably — critical has become chic. We think the 1M is fabulous. For the money, it goes like stink, looks heart-breakingly handsome, and at full throttle makes a noise like two planets colliding. In short, it’s simply fantastic.

Acura TL SH-AWD

2012 Acura TL SH-AWD

The 2011 Acura TL SH-AWD, although fantastic to drive, looked like a chromed-out garish nightmare. After scaring all potential buyers from the showrooms at first glance, the good folks at Acura yanked the TL back into the design studio and toned it down a bit for 2012. Luckily for us, however, they didn’t tone down its performance characteristics.

The TL SH-AWD is powered by a 3.7-liter V6 producing 305 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. Acura offers either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic, which sends power to all four wheels through Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive system (SH-AWD). We’ve driven both the manual and the automatic and recommend the former.

For $42,985, the TL SH-AWD with the manual is the most expensive TL you can buy, but it’s far superior to the front-wheel drive 280 horsepower, 3.5-liter version, which starts at $35,705.

Unlike other Asian family sedans, the TL SH-AWD allows drivers to be both smart with their investment but also a bit mad. The TL is one of the safest cars on the road and also one of the most reliable; your kids will be safe inside and you can happily own it for many years without much financial woe. When the kids aren’t around you can grip that shifter, put the skinny pedal to the floor, and let ‘er rip. It’ll be so exciting, your bald spot might even fill back in a bit…maybe.

Volvo S60 T6 AWD R-Design

Volvo S60 T6

Just like the TL, the S60 was designed to be safe and sensible. In spite of its safety-obsessed self, Volvo allowed a version to be made that was – brace yourself — fast. Fitted with a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine producing 325 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque, the S60 T6 AWD R-Design will do 0-60 in 5.5 seconds and hit an electronically limited top speed of 130, while  power is sent to all four wheels through a six-speed “Geartronic” driver-adaptive automatic transmission.

Sharing the top crash test ratings for safest cars on the planet with the TL, the S60 is capable of being two things at once  sporty and family friendly. Unlike many of its high-octane brethren, Volvo has tuned the S60 to run on regular gasoline. Although it will achieve a 21-MPG overall score, you won’t break the bank at the gas pump.

We love the looks, the power, and the handling characteristics of the S60 T6 AWD R-Design. It truly is one of the best Volvos ever made. Where it sold us, though, was on the interior. In true Swedish style, the interior is very spare. Volvo doesn’t even give drivers a coolant temp gauge, saying it needlessly frightens and distracts the driver. Interior lines were inspired by the Spa racetrack in Belgium, and are clean and simple. Volvo even offers an optional matte wood finish on the center stack, which is very modern indeed.

Starting at $42,950, the S60 T6 AWD R-Design is on par with the TL but doesn’t offer the manual transmission option. What it does have over the TL is a pedestrian detection system that will – up to 15 MPH – bring the vehicle to a complete and sudden stop if it senses a pedestrian crossing in front of the vehicle, and doesn’t sense the driver is going to react in time.

Camaro ZL1

Camaro ZL1

Yes, of course an American pony car had to make the list. We’re not crazy. But what is crazy is the ZL1’s performance figures: 580 horsepower; 0-60 in four seconds; top speed of 184 MPH; 11-second quarter-mile time; and $56,550 price tag. Those numbers, thanks to its supercharged small-block V8, make the ZL1 the fastest Camaro ever.

Competing directly with the $54,995 2013 Ford Shelby Mustang GT500, the ZL1 is a bit more expensive and not quite as powerful. But what the Shelby lacks, which is essentially everything at that price, the ZL1 includes as standard equipment, including; transmission cooler; differential cooler; dual-mode exhaust, and dual-mode suspension.

Fire up the ZL1 and any motoring enthusiast’s senses will be alight. The loud, guttural rumble of the ZL1 is hypnotic and intoxicating. It’s on the open road, however, where we really fell in love with the ZL1. Unlike, well, every American Pony car before it, the ZL1 can actually handle. The huge 6.2-liter V8-powered ZL1 is counter intuitively at home doing 120 through the corners and upwards of that in the straights. At those speeds, we burned through a half-tank of gas in 20 minutes, so we don’t recommend straying too far from a near-by gas station, if you’re going to give the ZL1 the beans.

We loved the ZL1 at 120 as much as we loved it parked on the side of the road. The interior is comfortable and the exterior is breathtaking. Although the Shelby GT500 is cheaper and has more horsepower, we’d choose the ZL1 over it any day.

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