There are a lot of cool machines hitting the road this year. We’ve got a Shelby GT500 that promises to give the Ford GT a case of engine envy. There’s a new Toyota Supra. Cadillac’s building a twin-turbo V-8. Ram’s got 1,000 lb-ft of torque. Awesome, all of it. But when we look a little further ahead, the potential for wildly different forms of transportation feels like it’s tantalizingly close.
Yeah, we know—you might have believed that in 1998, too, and been totally wrong. But this time, we think we’re right. And not about autonomous blob pods puttering apathetic ride-sharers from WeWork to SadVille. We’re talking electric dune buggies. Pickup trucks that do zero-to-60 in three seconds. Porsches that charge as fast as Porsches do everything else. And these aren’t just wish-list ideas from EV-loving Buckminster Fullers. This is stuff that is all actually imminent (Porsche Taycan), supposedly imminent (Rivian R1T truck, available for preorder now with production slated for 2020), or at least plausible (, which debuted at the Geneva Motor Show and rides on VW’s new modular electric platform).
To everyone who looked at that shockingly horrible Mr. Potato Head Google car a few years ago and started hoarding Fox-body Mustangs in your prepper compounds, we say, stand down. The car market circa 2022 might not turn out exactly the way we expect, but good things are on the way. Say it with us, loud enough for Volkswagen to hear: Electric dune buggies need to happen. The great thing is, they just might.
Car of the Year: Kia Niro EV
- PRICE $30,000 (est.) after tax credit
- RANGE 239 miles
- POWER 201 hp, 291 lb-ft of torque
- AVAILABLE IN 13 states, so far. But you can order a similar Hyundai Kona in any state.
There are two kinds of purpose-built electric cars: sexy, quick, and expensive (Teslas, Jaguar I-Pace) or virtue-signaling affordable tall wagons (Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Bolt). In either case, there’s an element of “Hey, look at me! I’m driving an electric car!” The Kia Niro EV—and its Hyundai cousin, the Kona Electric—are the first long-range electric cars that are gloriously, resolutely normal. In fact, there are gas-powered versions, too. Those ones barely look any different. But their existence serves to highlight the superiority of the electric versions. No noise. No oil changes. No gas stations. Instant torque and a lot of it. Why would you want anything else?
Well, maybe because you take a lot of road trips. So to put the Niro EV to a challenge, I decide to pick one up in Washington, D.C., and drive it 345 miles back to North Carolina. With the DC fast-charger infrastructure growing by the day, the question isn’t whether you can make this kind of trip but where you want to stop. The Niro EV is an agreeable road-trip car.
Absent underhood explosions and shifting of gears, the cabin is hushed and serene. Unless you’re a chronic tailgater, you hardly ever need to hit the brakes, because lifting the accelerator causes the motor to turn into a generator, recharging the battery while it slows the car. The only annoyance is that I have to program the route on my phone, because—unlike a Leaf—the Niro’s navigation system doesn’t automatically route you to charging stops. In fact, you can tell that the infotainment system is transplanted from gas-powered cars, because if you sit there with the accessories on, a message pops up that reads, “Battery discharge warning! Please use the system with the engine running.” Take it easy, Niro. There is no engine. (I drove a preproduction car, and Kia says production models will fix those issues.)
And there’s plenty of battery. After a couple hours of driving, I glide up to an array of 150-kilowatt , on the edge of a Walmart parking lot, with range to spare.
These chargers are owned by Volkswagen, which is laying the groundwork for its own onslaught of electric vehicles. And unlike Tesla, VW is happy to collect money from anyone who wants to use its chargers, which use a standard SAE combo cable. So I plug in and set off through a strip-mall wasteland to grab some lunch.
After a little more than an hour, I’m back on the road $25.35 poorer and with a 95 percent charge. A more economical strategy would’ve been to stop at an 80 percent charge, but I’m 173 miles from home. A little cushion doesn’t hurt.
Now that I’m confident I can squander a few electrons, I floor the accelerator and find that 291 lb-ft of torque will definitely torment the front tires. The Niro’s traction control has its work cut out for it off the line, but once you’re moving you get the full monty. It’s great fun, warping quietly away from stoplights. The Niro EV has two personalities, really: silent and aloof luxury cruiser at steady speeds, and hot hatch when you go full throttle.
About six hours after I set off, I pull into my driveway, plug into my home charger, and think, That was easy. And it was. The Niro is a handsome little crossover that’ll disappear in traffic. It’s affordable. It’s got plenty of range. In short, the Niro EV doesn’t ask for sacrifices. And that’s exactly the kind of car that’s going to set off a mass movement to electric vehicles. Because if you didn’t have to pay a fortune or live on the fashion fringe, didn’t have to constantly sweat that range number, why wouldn’t you get an EV? That’s the question that the Niro EV forces you to consider. Because it’s just a regular car, but so much better.
Crossover of the Year: Mazda CX-5
- BASE PRICE $26,795
- POWER (2.5T) 227 hp (regular gas), 250 hp (premium), 310 lb-ft of torque
- STILL WAITING FOR The twin-turbo diesel
How many times do we have to tell you? Drive a . Seriously. Please. We know you’re considering that other thing, but just humor us and drive the CX-5. Then, if you want something else, fine. But the Mazda CX-5 is awfully hard to beat. You could have argued, last year, that maybe it needed a more powerful engine, some kind of option for drivers who desire a turn of speed that the perfectly zesty 2.5-liter naturally aspirated engine can’t deliver. Done: There’s now an available turbocharged version, with 250 horsepower and a bruising 310 lb-ft of torque. There’s also a new Signature trim with an interior that would befit any Euro luxwagen, decked out in brown nappa leather and layered wood trim. It’s so loaded, the only options are snazzy paint jobs (which are also of luxury-car quality).
But this isn’t just a posh, isolated cruiser. The CX-5 is wonderful to drive. One statement of intent: There’s no CVT transmission, because Mazda decided CVTs aren’t fun. The CX-5 even uses its stability-control system to enhance driving pleasure, cutting torque on turn-in and braking the outside tire as you straighten the wheel. You don’t notice any of this happening—you just perceive that the car feels good to drive. This is really our platonic ideal for a crossover: the material quality, features, and behind-the-wheel gratification of a luxury ride, in an affordable car that’s not begging for badge-snob attention. Drive a Mazda CX-5. Seriously.
Hatchback of the Year: Volkswagen GTI
- Price $28,490
- Power 228 hp (premium fuel), 258 lb-ft of torque
- We’d order it with Manual transmission, plaid cloth interior
Last year, Volkswagen announced that in 2026 it’ll debut a new generation of internal-combustion engines. Which will also be its last, since VW is going big on electrification. We suspect they won’t fiddle too much more with the GTI, which is still the reference point for the genre it created. If a GTI doesn’t make you smile, your face is broken.
Truck of the Year: Ram 1500
- BASE PRICE $33,490
- POWER (HEMI) 395 hp, 410 lb-ft of torque
- AIR SUSPENSION HEIGHT ADJUSTABILITY 4.1 inches
School-age kids have a derogatory term for fellow students who strive to succeed and don’t disguise their ambition behind a facade of ironic detachment: “try-hards.” Well, the 2019 Ram 1500 is the try-hard of full-size trucks, and proud of it. The interior, particularly in the fancier trims, can take the measure of European luxury cars, with its Tesla-size touch screen and matte wood. The crew cab is so spacious that the rear seat can recline. Ram’s suspension—either the standard setup or the optional height-adjustable air suspension—delivers the smooth ride and accurate control that you’d expect from the only full-size truck that dares to forgo leaf springs. The forward-thinking engineering extends under the hood, where Ram’s eTorque system (standard on V-6s and optional on V-8s) uses a 48-volt system with an electric motor and a lithium battery to enable seamless stop-start and a shot of extra torque at low rpm—up to 130 lb-ft in the V-8 trucks. And, of course, there’s a trick tailgate that can either swing down or open barn-door style. It’s a clever truck, an epitome of what we tell kids: It’s good to try hard.
Luxury Car of the Year: Jaguar I-Pace
- PRICE $70,525 (minus $7,500 tax credit)
- POWER 394 hp, 512 lb-ft of torque
- RANGE 234 miles
- ZERO–60 4.5 seconds
We wouldn’t have guessed, back when the Tesla Model S first upended EV expectations, that it would take seven years for the first challenger to arrive, nor would we have guessed that Jaguar would be the company to build it. But here we are with the I-Pace, which is not only unlike any other Jaguar, but unlike any other luxury car yet on the market. If you’ve ever wondered, “What would a Tesla look like if the company had more capital and a better hang of interiors?” here’s your answer. The I-Pace is handsome, inside and out, accruing the usual EV packaging benefits: wheels pushed to the corners, front trunk, airy cabin unmarred by a transmission tunnel or driveshaft hump. With the front and rear motors teaming up for 394 combined horsepower and 512 lb-ft of torque, the I-Pace is rapid enough to give you that roller-coaster stomach lurch when you flatten the potentiometer—or whatever we’re calling the gas pedal now. The I-Pace also exhibits that relentless EV road-holding, its weightiest component (that would be the battery) snugged low beneath the floor. There are some design choices that point to the I-Pace’s role as a bridge to the future from an entrenched company—the traditional grille on the nose, the thankfully optional synth vroom vroom piped in by the stereo. But as a whole, the I-Pace is a wonderful machine, one that should make us all optimistic for what’s to come. The world is changing. Jaguar gets it.
Off-Road Truck of the Year: Chevrolet ZR2 Bison
- PRICE $49,745
- POWER (V-6) 308 hp, 275 lb-ft of torque
- WIDE! The ZR2 is 3.5 inches wider than a regular Colorado
The Ford F-150 Raptor is designed to go fast in the desert. The Jeep Wrangler Rubicon is designed to pick its way through gnarly trails. But the Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison can ably attack either off-road discipline—it’s the closest thing you can get to a factory King of the Hammers truck. Flared fenders and Multimatic dampers speak to its Baja side; triple locking differentials and an available torque-monster diesel are ready for Moab. And, yes, you can get it with a snorkel.
Technology of the Year: Cadillac Super Cruise
Last year, Cadillac updated Super Cruise, its magic-seeming highway driver-assist system. When it first rolled out, Super Cruise was prone to confusion when it encountered faded lane stripes or bad weather. Now that sucker holds a steady helm, dead center in your lane, through 75-mph lane shifts in driving rain. You arrive at your destination that much more relaxed and refreshed. And not because the car handled your highway driving, but because it handled it so well you didn’t have to worry about it.
Sedan of the Year: Genesis G70
- BASE PRICE $35,895
- POWER (3.3T) 365 hp, 376 lb-ft of torque
- AVAILABLE MANUAL TRANSMISSION? Yes, but only on four-cylinder models
It’s sort of a shame that Genesis doesn’t give its cars actual names, because the G70 has the kind of charisma that belies its anonymous alphanumeric badge. This car drives like the realization of everything Hyundai’s been trying to accomplish since its first forays into rear-wheel drive—it’s alive in its responses, a subjective joy rather than just a rolling spreadsheet of benchmarked performance stats. It even sounds great, with the active exhaust. Of course, the G70 still hits the marks, with 365 horsepower from an available twin-turbo V-6 that delivers a 4.5-second zero-to-60 and revs like it has a Rammstein CD for a flywheel. The G70 interior is sharp, particularly with the quilted leather, and the exterior is tightly wrapped and handsome, the optional red Brembo brake calipers adding to a vaguely Italianate sense of visual drama. But this isn’t an Alfa knockoff or a Mercedes wannabe—the G70 is its own car, a sport sedan out to prove that Korea can compete on style and feel and performance rather than just price. We’re sure that Genesis examined every bolt of every car from manufacturers that it considers competitors. They’d all be smart to return the favor.
Wagon of the Year: Buick Regal TourX
- PRICE $29,995
- POWER 250 hp, 295 lb-ft of torque
- AND SAFETY A pyrotechnic actuator lifts the hood four inches to cushion a pedestrian impact
If you want a 250-hp turbocharged German wagon with a killer all-wheel-drive system, you could get an Audi A4 Allroad for close to $46,000. Or you could get a Regal TourX—built in Germany at the Opel Rüsselsheim plant—for $29,995. It’s an incredible deal on a great-looking car that stands apart from the crossover crowd.
Redesigns of the Year: Mercedes-Benz G-Class and Porsche 911
Both are new, but don’t look it. Phew.
You could say that the new Mercedes-Benz G-Class and Porsche 911 are retro, but we think the word retro only applies if something’s brought back from the dead. The revived Volkswagen Beetle was retro. Ditto the Dodge Challenger. But the G-Wagen and 911 never went away. They’ve always looked basically the way they do now. In the case of the G-Wagen, that’s a happy accident—we think its designers got lost in the Black Forest during an ill-conceived team-building exercise in 1988 and only recently emerged to find that nothing at all had changed and their truck was more popular than ever. So they overhauled the mechanical hardware (independent front suspension!) while drawing an exterior that’s obviously new but still obviously a G-Wagen, which is to say, styled with a rafter square.
At Porsche, meanwhile, you get the idea that every degree of tumblehome, every millimeter of overhang, probably incurs at least a 15-hour company-wide meeting and possibly fisticuffs. We mean, Porsche is still getting grief for changing the shape of the headlights for the 1999 model. So the new 911 looks like a 911. To the uninitiated, it’s probably hard to distinguish the 2020 model from a 2010. But the people who know will know instantly. There’s a new 911. And it’s definitely not retro.
The Most Popular Vehicle You Didn't Know Existed: Chevy Express/GMC Savana
Last year, General Motors sold about 100,000 Chevy Express and GMC Savana vans in the United States, which is impressive since the company has those vehicles in the corporate version of a witness protection program. The full-size vans, which have been in production since Methuselah was a toddler, aren’t even listed on GM’s media site, scrubbed after the 2016 model year. Meanwhile, somewhere along the line, GM dropped its 2.8-liter Duramax diesel in this thing. Which means that you can buy a 12-passenger, four-cylinder diesel van for about $35,000. Who knew? Oh, okay—100,000 of you.
Special Achievement in Braking: Porsche Surface Coating
Iron brake rotors blacken your wheels with filthy dust. Carbon brakes are expensive. Now, there’s an in-between option: Porsche Surface Coated Brakes, which use iron rotors coated in a 0.1-mm layer of tungsten carbide. You get 30 percent more wear, 90 percent less dust, and shorter stopping distances. Oh, and if brakes could brag about how little dust they throw, this is how they’d do it: Cars with PSCB rotors get white-painted calipers.
Other Exciting Advances of 2019
The Nissan Kick's Asymmetrical Bose Stereo: Yeah, it sounds best for the driver. But that’s how you get a nice system in an inexpensive car.
Mercedes-AMG and Cigarette Racing: They keep collaborating on boats. This year’s, the 41' AMG Carbon Edition, is the 11th.
Tesla Model 3 Performance's Rally Skills: It’s like it’s possessed by Petter Solberg. All-wheel-drive drifts for days.
Mercedes-Benz GLE 450's Augmented-Reality Direction System: Like Pokémon Go (remember that?) but more useful.
Fiat 500 Abarth's Boost Gauge: It’s huge, the size of a New York bagel. We thought it was a tach.
Revensburger 3D Porsche 911R Puzzle: The 108 pieces are numbered. That doesn’t make it easy.
This appears in the May 2019 issue.