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Test Drive: The best cars from 2013

We drive a lot of cars as part of the job, and the most common question is, “What’s your favorite?” Or the similar, “What’s the best thing you’ve driven lately?”

Here are some of my picks from the past year’s Test Drive miles.

Most fun: Jaguar F-Type V-8.

Undiluted joy — right up until you lose your driver’s license.

The F-Type’s worth buying (if you can handle a six-figure sticker price) just for the fabulous, outrageous exhaust sound. And it’s not a false promise; the F-Type goes as fast as that growl implies.

TEST DRIVE: F-Type’s a howling beauty

Even the convertible top is fast, going up or down in only about 10 seconds, which is blazing for that operation. Styling’s pretty fetching, too.

It’s for people who live out loud and have good traffic-court lawyers.

About $93,000 to start, but you won’t stop there. Too many goodies to add. The two-seater is meant as a reprise of the famous XKE, or E-Type, of the 1960s and 1970s

Biggest surprise: Chevrolet Spark EV.

Who knew you’d have to worry about turning the tires into smoldering rubber if you nailed the “go” pedal too enthusiastically in an electric car?

Spark EV’s muscle-car-like 400 pounds-feet of torque (delivered more or less instantly, because that’s how electric motors work), make the bitty, battery eco-buggy a raging ball to drive.

Seems like the right way to get people hooked, fast, on alt-power vehicles; make petroleum-saving a joy ride.

TEST DRIVE: Spark’s a powerhouse

Spark EV is about $27,500 to start, before any government eco-credits, which is a daunting $12,000 or so more than the similar gasoline version. And it’s only sold in California and Oregon, which have clean-air quotas, but GM says it’s considering a wider rollout.

•Best mud-buddy: Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk.

Trailhawk’s the off-road version, and it made quick sport of the mud hills on a course in West Virginia. Low-range gearing, locking rear differential, well-tuned nine-speed automatic transmission, adjustable-height suspension — up it goes.

We won’t vouch for its stiff on-road personality, or put Cherokee’s less-rugged versions on a pedestal, but if you really play with your toy — or need it to beat the slop for work, or to visit Grandma who’s a survivalist in the wilds — Cherokee Trailhawk appears to have it handled.

Its size is an advantage on some other very good mudders. Cherokee’s trim enough to squeak through between the trees, but roomy enough to carry three or four others on the adventure.

It starts at about $30,000, a hefty premium over the $23,000 bare-bones Cherokee base price. But when you gotta go, regardless, such a machine’s priceless. And its bright red tow hooks look like fangs. Who’ll dare park too close to those?

Best cover: Lincoln MKZ

In music, a cover is a song done by a band other than the original. Sometimes covers are better, sometimes not.

In this case, the Lincoln MKZ does a great cover version of the hit Ford Fusion midsize sedan. If you’re not hooked on Fusion’s faux Aston Martin grille, you might find the Lincoln sexier, classier and as maybe as much fun as the sporty Fusion.

TEST DRIVE: MKZ a good reboot for Lincoln

The push-button transmission control — think positively here — might even be a welcome throwback to those warm (?) memories of Ford’s short-lived Edsel brand, and its transmission buttons in the steering wheel, or the Chrysler models of the 1960s, with their gearshift buttons alongside the steering column, much like the Lincoln.

The MKZ will reach at least $36,000 deep into your pocket.

Best rookie: Chevrolet Cruze diesel.

It’s a little lame in around-town mpg — all rookies have faults, right? — but delivers the fuel-saving goods on the highway.

The low-speed torque that’s inherent in a diesel is well-suited to much U.S. driving, and can make the daily slog a bit more exciting. In fact, the diesel’s the quickest Cruze, Chevy says, clipping off the 0-to-60 dash notably faster than the gasoline models.

Plus, there’s nothing bad about it. Not sluggish. Doesn’t stink. Isn’t noisy.

TEST DRIVE : Cruze and diesel a good fit

It starts at around $26,000, which is nearly $2,600 more than the similar gasoline version. It makes the auto business a better spectator sport, because it finally gives the array of Volkswagen diesel models some mainstream competition.

James R. Healey, USATODAY

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