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Head to Head: The Best Automotive Rivalries

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author photo by Josh Sadlier August 2012

It's football season again, and that means bitter rivals are back in action with scores to settle. As it happens, the automotive marketplace is all revved up, too. We can't remember a time when there were so many compelling matchups between competing cars, trucks and crossovers. In honor of the pigskin's long-awaited return, here are AutoTrader.com's most interesting automotive rivalries of the year.

Chevrolet Silverado 1500 vs. Ford F-150

Although the Chevy Silverado hasn't changed much in recent years, it still packs an enviable punch. Our favorite is the broad-shouldered 6.2-liter V8, but even the tried-and-true 5.3-liter small block V8 is a pleasure. Towing and hauling capacities are off the charts, and straight-line performance is pretty impressive, too. Sure, the interior's pretty basic, but does that really matter in a truck?

Well, yeah, it kind of does. Trucks have become much more luxurious over the past decade, and the Ford F-150 has led the charge with its quiet, nicely trimmed cabin. Moreover, Chevy fans can no longer claim supremacy under the hood, because the F-150 has four, count 'em, four new engines to choose from, including two stout V8s, the hot-selling "EcoBoost" twin-turbo V6 and even a passable base V6 that blows Chevy's starter V6 out of the water.

AutoTrader's Pick

The F-150 gets the game ball here on the strength of those new motors. We used to be partial to the Chevy's no-nonsense muscle, but now the F-150 pretty much does everything well.

Nissan Altima vs. Toyota Camry

Treated to a ground-up redesign for 2013, the new Altima shows that Nissan is sick and tired of playing second fiddle. From its aggressive, Maxima-inspired sheet metal to its remarkable 4-cylinder fuel economy of 27 mpg city/38 mpg hwy, this Altima means business. It's even fun to drive, which is rare praise for a family sedan.

As for the Camry, it's no slouch either, having been treated to a redesign of its own for 2012. Unlike every Camry before it, the new one can actually handle a curve, and the optional hybrid power train is hyper-efficient and surprisingly powerful. Styling remains rather anonymous, but for some shoppers, that might heighten its appeal.

AutoTrader's Pick

Nissan by a nose. The Altima just feels like a nicer all-around car than the Camry these days, and that's enough to give it the victory. We're guessing this contest gets a re-do when the 2013 Honda Accord becomes available.

Hyundai Genesis Coupe vs. Scion FR-S

Hyundai took the sport-coupe world by storm with the rear-drive Genesis Coupe back in 2010, offering Infiniti G37-grade handling at a Honda Civic Si price point. For 2013, the Genesis Coupe gets a mid-cycle refresh that's meant to open people's eyes all over again. It certainly worked on us, especially once we sampled the hugely improved 2.0-liter turbo engine with its 274 eager horses.

But the all-new Scion FR-S is eye-opening, too. Not because of its 2.0-liter "boxer" 4-cylinder motor, mind you; no, that 200-horsepower mill might not leave you breathless. But the FR-S has such balance! And what precision! Everything you've read about the FR-S being a real driver's car is true. Will you have frequent-enough opportunities to exercise the FR-S on back roads and racetracks? That's really what it boils down to.

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Used 2012 Ford Explorer 4WD XLT
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Used 2013 Nissan Altima Sedan
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Used 2013 Scion FR-S
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AutoTrader's Pick

We're going to go against the grain here and pick the Hyundai. For most drivers, most of the time, the powerful and relatively luxurious Genesis Coupe is a better fit. The FR-S is the superior athlete, but it's only at the hands of skilled driver that it's true potential is realized.

BMW 3 Series vs. Cadillac ATS

The competition has been gunning for the 3 Series for decades, but thus far, no cigar. That's because BMW relentlessly improves its winning formula, and some major changes arrived with the redesigned 2012 3 Series. There's now a turbocharged 4-cylinder in the 328i's engine bay, and numerous other tweaks have rendered the 3 Series a roomier, more comfortable luxury car. However, the new 3 Series doesn't have the same sporting demeanor that set its predecessors apart.

Enter the 2013 Cadillac ATS, a purpose-built sport sedan intended to match the driving dynamics of the old 3 Series. In other words, just when BMW goes a little soft, along comes Cadillac with a precision tool. We've driven the ATS, and we think it's at least as sharp as the new 3 Series, maybe sharper. Looks special, too. And while we're not sold on the base 4-cylinder engine, the others--ranging from a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder turbo to a hearty 3.6-liter V6--are quite satisfying.

AutoTrader's Pick

We're taking the upstart Caddy. To us, the 3 Series' identity was all about its ability to emulate either a sports car or a luxury sedan as circumstances dictated. Now that the 3er has grown up, the ATS is next in line for that throne.

Dodge Durango vs. Ford Explorer

If the Dodge Durango looks like an unusually tough truck for a three-row family crossover, well, that's because it is. Boasting rear-drive architecture and a platform donated by the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Durango is more of a real SUV than a mere minivan substitute. Thanks to that robust structure and an available Hemi V8, the Durango's towing and hauling abilities are at the head of this class.

Meanwhile, the Ford Explorer ditched its former tough-guy persona when it borrowed the car-based Flex platform for its latest redesign. Taking a further bite out of the Explorer's trail-busting aura is the available turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, which is barely adequate with a full load aboard. But the Explorer is great at what it's intended to do: schlep the kids to and from practice and take the family on quiet, comfortable road trips. There's also the high-tech MyFord Touch infotainment system, which has attracted its share of controversy but continues to impress us with its range of features and sleek look.

AutoTrader's Pick

Based on appearance and that Hemi V8, we'd take the Durango in a second. But we're picking a winner for average American families here, and that would be the Explorer. Plain and simple, Ford's got what families want.

Ford Escape vs. Honda CR-V

What a difference a decade makes. When the Ford Escape debuted, it was the brawler of the compact crossover crowd, decked out with off-road-ready looks and optional V6 power. But the Escape finally received a redesign for 2013, and now it's essentially a Focus hatchback on stilts. You know what? That's a wonderful thing. The new Escape is genuinely engaging to drive, and it also offers a top-quality interior and even a trick electronic liftgate that opens with a wiggle of your shoe.

The Honda CR-V, on the other hand, has strayed considerably from its roots as a small, simple crossover. Today's CR-V is a bona fide midsize vehicle that drives more like the Odyssey minivan than those compact, nimble CR-Vs of yore. On the bright side, practical touches abound inside the CR-V, and Honda's reputation for reliability remains strong. But as ever, the only available engine is a modest 4-cylinder, so don't expect a whole lot in the way of passing power.

AutoTrader's Pick :

We're smitten by the Escape with the top-of-the-line 2.0-liter "EcoBoost" inline-4. It's a delectable mix of comfort, technology, sport, and good old-fashioned American muscle. If you want a little extra flavor in your crossover, this matchup is no contest.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Head to Head: The Best Automotive Rivalries - Autotrader