Twelve months have raced by with 50 more new vehicles making the trek into Maine. Some were repeat visits, some were impressive newcomers with much to share and all have virtues and features that attract a cadre of buyers into dealer showrooms. Automakers create their products to target sales, profits and sustainability — no matter what critics say or consumers think.
What follows is our annual selection of the 10 vehicles that made the most impressions, were the most entertaining, versatile and composed driving machines, as well as those vehicles that were deemed worthy of space in my garage if circumstances presented themselves for such reward. See if any of these 10 favorites are on your shopping list.
Back in January, the Kia Niro Hybrid debuted in New England to strong accolades. The elevated seating position and hyper-fuel economy demonstrated that this modern hybrid crossover was much different from previous hybrids from other manufacturers. The handling is solid, ride comport is commendable and the torque output from the 1.6-liter engine and electric motor team is impressive.
“Auto geeks have nothing to fear about this technology’s eventual necessity,” was the comment cementing the relevance of the Niro. The Niro displaced hybrid sedan offerings from Toyota and Honda to earn a spot here.
Luxury car builders have pursued every niche possible in shapes of their new cars. Yet one design continues to stand out — five-door hatchback sedans. BMW’s 640i Gran Turismo nipped the Audi A5 while re-establishing the driving panache that has been slipping from BMW’s recent offerings. The pricing can be stiff, $70,695 to start, yet the Gran Coupe provides rich rewards not found in other luxury cars that are turning the driving population into a cult of steering wheel pilots as opposed to actual engaged drivers. For those who consider themselves the latter, the BMW 640i warrants consideration.
And that is the essence of the VW GTI. A pure driving machine for over four decades, the current GTI is the well-rounded king of the small car segment. Civic Si is roomier, Elantra GT is less pricey and the Focus RS is faster (and going away), yet none of these compact pocket rockets has the handling acumen, driving experience, well-crafted interior and overall competence of the GTI.
The family sedan has been under attack for two decades. Honda, however, has determined that the Accord will continue to be a cornerstone of its lineup, and it clearly separates itself from several rivals. New turbo engines with more efficiency and power, refreshed instrument panel, more interior space, and better overall fuel economy checks several of the boxes essential to family four-door buyers. Add crisper handling with a slightly longer wheelbase and the Accord barely edges the latest Camry. In effect, this is almost a draw, with styling and pricing the defining point for many buyers. The Camry’s sales are still atop the class; the Accord remains a tick better as a driving experience.
At number six is the first of several crossovers, the new VW Atlas. Built in America and designed for America, the Atlas is a three-row full-size crossover with front or AWD and the packaging efficiency normally found in a minivan. Styling is reminiscent of the Ford Explorer, intentionally, yet the road manners are like few other large crossovers with a nimbleness and ease of driving that is closer to the afore-mentioned GTI than some of the stalwarts of this class. With a two-row version coming soon, VW has the Atlas positioned to make more noise in this class.
The next crossover is a perennial favorite, along with its sibling the Jeep Grand Cherokee. This year, the Dodge Durango visited twice; a GT model was followed by the all-new SRT 392. You can’t get anything like the SRT 392 from any other mainstream three-row crossover manufacturer; 475-hp, high-performance chassis, heavy-duty eight-speed automatic, AWD, race-car soundtrack, plus a wealth of features to improve comfort while exploiting this truck’s enhanced capabilities. Santa might have used an SRT Durango last week.
At the other end of the spectrum, Audi sent two crossovers that reflect the technological advances evident in today’s premium cars, but without giving up the functionality key to these platforms. The three-row Audi Q7 and compact class Q5 have to be considered the benchmark offerings in their respective classes. Known for its quality and refined interiors, the Audi twins were also smooth driving machines using turbo four-cylinder power to create strong energy and efficient economy. Class-leading graphics and displays in the virtual instrument panel were universally embraced, while the shift lever control was not, yet Audi’s growth in the premium class is evident in these products. BMW’s potent X3 M40i was a very close second to the Q5 and drivers looking for more cutting-edge performance, like in the Durango SRT, will seek the X3.
The most impressive full-size crossover/SUV was far and away the new Lincoln Navigator. Ford took its long neglected full-size SUVs out to the woodshed, and came back with disciplined, well-crafted luxury wagons that will redefine this segment. Sales have been slow to react to the impressive changes — big power from the turbo V-6 engines, big tow numbers, outstanding ride and drive dynamics — plus the opulent cabins mean that Lincoln is no longer playing catch-up to Cadillac, Mercedes and Volvo in technology or comfort.
Three times in four years, we have thoroughly enjoyed the eyeball-popping performance of the Dodge Challenger Hellcat. This year, perhaps the fastest of the trio of cars sampled, reinforced the notion that the aging Challenger platform has more life to give, more thrills to share, and more sales to gain. The Hellcat is a mind-bending fun machine, a pony car for the 21st century, a personal expression toy that never fails to put a smile on your face. Don’t we all need that once in a while?
Happy New Year to all.