The future of the car is written, and we’re not in it. Well, we’re in it—riding in a mobile living room, looking at our phones, or possibly pouring a drink and playing poker with our fellow car-share commuters. And hey, for the daily ooze down the nearest traffic-choked conduit of drudgery, that doesn’t sound so bad. The thing is, though, we love driving. We always will. Fortunately, we’re not alone. Just look at what’s happened this year: Economy cars that should be slow and efficient are quicker than old muscle cars. New muscle cars are quicker than old Lamborghinis, and new Lamborghinis accelerate like Formula One cars.
BMW and Mercedes are building all-wheel-drive systems that you can put in rear-wheel drive mode just so you can do burnouts. Ford made the Mustang quieter (just kidding—they made it louder). And Tesla built a mass-market electric car that appeals not on piety but performance. It’s hard not to wonder if we’re at the apogee of driver enjoyment, the final years of automotive technology being directed toward the human behind the wheel, not the A.I. plotting course vectors to Walmart. That’s why this year’s awards celebrate the cars that make us happy to still be in the driver’s seat. At some point, maybe next year, we’ll test the first car with no steering wheel. But for now, let’s have fun choosing our own path.
So far, about 450,000 people have each paid $1,000 to reserve a Model 3, with the waiting list for delivery stretching to over 18 months. Tesla literally can’t build this thing fast enough. So the question to be answered, the only one that really matters, is whether the Model 3’s biggest problem is that too many people want one. Because that’s a dilemma that hasn’t existed since maybe 1964, when a million people wanted the new Mustang. You know, that vaporware fad that’s only been around for a half-century now.
The demand makes sense. I try to reserve judgment on any car until I drive it, but the Model 3 sure looks good on paper. Tesla claims zero-to-60 times in the fivesecond range—unofficially, the first owners are getting into the fours. The car has doublewishbone front suspension and multilink rear, an elite sports-sedan setup. Later this year, Tesla will start building the dual-motor all-wheel-drive model but for now, the Model 3 rolls with a single rearmounted motor and rear-wheel drive, giving it a little bit of a rearward weight bias (53 percent with the standard battery). You know what else is rear-engine, rear-wheel drive? The Porsche 911. That’s fine company for a car that’s priced like a Buick LaCrosse.
Our test car is fitted with the bigger battery, a $9,000 option that increases range from 220 miles to 310. It also has a premium interior with power-adjust heated seats ($5,000), enhanced autopilot ($5,000), and red multicoat paint ($1,000), bringing the total to around $55,000. Which, yes, is a lot more than $35,000. For my money, I’d get the enhanced autopilot to ensure my participation in the self-driving future and skip the rest.
All Model 3s are built around an utterly spare interior. There’s a 15-inch touchscreen on the dash, two scroll wheels on the steering wheel, and that’s about it. Via the screen, you instruct the scroll wheels what to control—the mirrors, the steering wheel tilt, stereo volume—thus eliminating a scatter of dedicated buttons that you might use only once. That decision drives down cost, as well as weight, in the form of wiring. Even the key fob is rethought, in that there isn’t one: An app on your phone automatically locks and unlocks the car when you leave or approach. If your phone dies or you lend your Model 3 to a friend, a hotel-style proximity keycard unlocks and starts the car.
I put the stalk into drive, and head toward the highway. It’s strange to have no instrument panel dead ahead, but I’m already used to it. I engage autopilot, hit the turn signal, and let the Model 3 change lanes by itself a few times. The autonomy is reliable and pleasantly novel, but I learn that it’s more fun to do the driving myself, sandbagging in the middle lane and then mashing the throttle to revel in that gush of acceleration. With 271 horsepower, the Model 3 doesn’t quite rearrange your internal organs like a Model S, but it’s still ferocious. Leaving the onramp, I immediately get into a drag race with a frustrated day trader in a Mercedes S550, which the Tesla casually dusts until I back off and he goes screaming past. I take a moment to ponder what happened. I launched effortlessly, with instant torque and total traction, no gears to shift. The other guy had to spin the Benz’s V-8 up to its horsepower peak, probably beyond 5,000 rpm, at which point the transmission shifted gears, the revs dropped, and it all happened again. By the time that process repeated a few times, I was halfway to my exit. In a car that costs half as much.
No, the Model 3 isn’t perfect. I’d like a heads-up display, some way to put the speedometer in my line of sight. And there are some places where you can see the cost-cutting, like in the rear trunk, where there’s no trim panel up top, just bare metal and cutouts for the air vent that makes the lid easier to close.
But I think I could live with such compromises. In fact, I know I can, because when I get home, I do something that I’ve never done with any of the other thousands of cars I’ve tested: I put down a deposit. I pay my $1,000 and get in line. Maybe I’m number 450,001. Maybe I’m doing this because I enjoy supporting a guy who builds rockets and shoots cars into orbit. I don’t care. Because unlike almost everyone who’s reserved a Model 3, I’ve actually driven one. I know that it’ll be worth the wait. And while I wait, it makes me happy to think that sometime in 2019, I’ll have the Seniorhelpline Car of the Year in my driveway.
Base price: $39,250
Zero to 60: 4.4 seconds
Drivetrain: Rear- or all-wheel
Think of Kia’s 365-hp hatchback as a Korean Chevy SS in that you get a sensible package with a surfeit of horsepower, along with brakes and handling to match. And while the SS design was absolutely anonymous, leaving the general public unaware of its capabilities, the Stinger looks like a concept car, low and wide, with possibly a few too many vents and flourishes. But it faces the same underestimation. Because it’s a Kia, and in 2018, few people realize that Kia builds a 170-mph sports sedan. Well, it does, and this one had its chassis tuned by a team led by Albert Biermann, whom Kia poached from BMW’s M division—which makes it interesting that the Stinger’s steering gives more feel than most BMWs. Comparisons aside, Kia built something that stands on its own merits, unburdened by the qualifier “for the money.” But at $40,000, damned if that doesn’t make it a lot of car for the money.
Base price: $43,190
Cargo volume: 19 cubic feet. Practical!
It’s all about the steering. Because Alfa—which has the gall to build the 4C, a modern car with no power steering whatsoever—understands steering. And even though the Stelvio is a high-riding crossover, it steers like its sport sedan cousin, the Giulia. It’s light but not numb, a rare combination. And great steering is so underrated. You can’t put a number on it, but a communicative wheel can make every drive just a little bit better. Oh, and the rest of the package is pretty fantastic, too. You get a zesty turbo four-cylinder, all-wheel drive, and a 5.4-second zero-to-60 for $43,000. Of course, there’s also a 505-hp Quadrifoglio model, if you need to own a crossover built for the Nürburgring. But the base model is plenty to make you smile.
Base price: $50,985
Seats: Five or seven
SVX version: 525 hp and a rear winch
In the age of the $75,000 Suburban and the $100,000 Navigator, this Land Rover is within SUV pricing norms. But it’s technology puts it way out in front. A supercharged V-6 is standard, but also offers a 26-mpg diesel. The body is aluminum, so it doesn’t weigh as much as the Queen Mary. But most importantly, the Disco retains its Land Rover offroad cred. With an automatic-locking rear differential and height-adjustable air suspension, this is a family hauler that you can actually take onto the trail. This field is crowded with vehicles that are adapted from either pickup trucks or sedans. This is neither. It’s simply the Discovery, and it’s the real deal.
Polestar, Volvo’s performance division, is going solo. Next year, it rolls out the Polestar 1, a 600-hp four-cylinder hybrid that can go nearly 100 miles on electric power. That range is commuter-practical, but the performance potential is what has our attention. Its twin rear electric motors enable instant torque vectoring, which ought to make it incredibly agile. And the 2.0-liter engine’s supercharger will produce monster thrust—the Volvo S90 T8 uses a 400-hp version of this setup, and that big sedan rips seconds. In late 2019, the lineup will expand to an all-electric Tesla Model 3 competitor named the Polestar 2, then the Polestar 3, an SUV. All will sell as a subscription: pay a monthly fee (to be announced this fall) and Polestar takes care of the rest, including insurance. Just make sure you have enough left over for any speeding tickets.
Base price: $28,190
Ground clearance: 9.7 inches
Driving without a windshield: Legal, as long as you wear eye protection
Over the last two decades, the Wrangler has evolved from a crude off-roader into a machine suitable for everyday driving. First it got coil springs. Then a better interior, a modern engine and transmission, and then a four-door option. Driving this latest Wrangler, you get the impression that Jeep understood that its icon was refined enough. So instead of trying to make it better at being a minivan, Jeep made it better at being a Wrangler, at doing the things that only a Wrangler can do. For instance, you could always drop the windshield, but it was a pain. Now, unscrew four bolts and it’s done. There’s more ground clearance than last year, and the front bumper is factoryready for a winch. The zipperless soft top is easier to lower, the doors easier to remove. Let’s repeat that last part: Jeep made it easier to drive around with no doors. The optional turbo four-cylinder with electric assist reads like a fuel-economy special, but its torque is suited for rock-crawling exploits. We took a two-door Rubicon out in the boonies and got into situations that seemed to call for a tow—say, standing up on the rear bumper, tires sunk into the loose sand of a gravel-pit wall. Somehow, it always clawed its way out. But that’s not really what’s impressive. What’s impressive is that you can then point the Wrangler to the highway and head home at 75 mph, completely comfortable. It’s the most versatile vehicle you can buy, doors or no doors
For the sci-fi “floating commander” controls for the entertainment and HVAC. For the seven touchscreens inside. For being able to control menus with your eye movement. For the fingerprint authentication. And for the virtual assistant system. Which is a koi. Nissan: we know it’s just a concept, but please. We need a koi co-driver
One manufacturer makes the Dodge Demon, Ram Power Wagon, Jeep Wrangler, Alfa 4C, Alfa Giulia, Alfa Stelvio Quadrifoglio, Charger Daytona, Jeep Trackhawk, Challenger Hellcat Widebody, Ram Rebel, Chrysler Pacifica (yes, it’s fun), Dodge Durango SRT, Fiat 500 Abarth, and the Fiat 124 Spider. And, of course, pour some out for the Viper. If you can’t tell, FCA is all about fun.
BMW M: Builders of cars that look low-key, go like stank.
AMG: Used to just build big engines. Now, deeply reengineers Benzes into new models, like the Mercedes-AMG GT.
SRT: Stuffers of Hellcat engines into everything.
GM Performance: Turners of Caddys and Camaros into exotic-slaying track weapons.
Toyota TRD: Will hook you up with a 500-horse supercharged Sequoia.
Audi Sport: The in-house race shop that brings us RS models, the R8, and the RS 3 LMS, an actual race car you can buy.
Lexus F: Like AMG back in the day: big engines into small cars.
The redesigned Ram is the most technology-packed truck on the market. There’s a heat exchanger for the rear axle that uses engine coolant to warm up the differential fluid and reduce friction. Non-diesel models get a light hybrid system. Recaptured braking energy goes to a 48-volt motor that contributes extra torque on acceleration. And there’s active aerodynamics: Above 35 mph, the front air dam lowers 2.5 inches to reduce drag. Inside, the new interior looks like the class standard, with a 12-inch touchscreen and high-end materials (actual wood instead of plastic wood). A lot of domestic truck buyers reflexively gravitate toward either Ford or Chevy. Ram is trying to get them to consider another possibility.
Midsize truck sales are up 83 percent since 2014, and Ford doesn’t want to be left out. That’s good news for fans of the Ranger, which was discontinued in 2011. The new version is powered by a 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder using a ten-speed automatic. If it’s tuned any thing like the one in the Mustang, this thing’s going to be a lot of torquey fun. There’s also an FX4 off-road package with skid plates and knobby tires. And it seems like a lock that Ford will eventually give us a Raptor version—Ford is planning to sell this Tonka truck edition around the world, and if Thailand gets a Ranger Raptor, you’d think we would, too.
The Silverado and its GMC twin, the Sierra, get a total redesign for 2019. They look sleeker, lost up to 450 pounds , and gained a few luxuries that Ford will surely make fun of, such as a power tailgate. A 3.0 -liter diesel model will fit neatly between the four-cylinder Colorado and Chevy’s heavy-duty line, and offroaders get a new Trailboss model with a two-inch lift , skid plates, and a locking differential. The 5.3-liter and 6.2-liter V-8s can now shut down any number of cylinders to promote fuel economy. Which means your beefy Chevy truck will sometimes be powered by a one-cylinder engine.
Best for: Track days, delighting fellow motorists.
The 720S’s tub, its structural keystone, is one big piece of carbon fiber that loops all the way up through the center of the roof. That makes the cockpit so stable and protected that the pillars can be thin. Among midengine supercars capable of taking you from a standstill to breaking every U.S. speed limit in about four seconds, it’s a noticeable difference. That visibility makes it easier to tap apexes on a track—the only place you can touch this car’s potential. It also means you can smile at the Uber passengers sticking their phones out the window for a picture. And you should smile. Because anyone young enough to see the all-electric autonomous future will remember about the time they saw this McLaren.
Best for: A weekend trip across the Tail of the Dragon
Inasmuch as any Porsche 911 can be described as a rational purchase, the GTS is it. You get rear-wheel drive and a seven-speed manual (or PDK automatic), huge brakes, and the center-lock wheels from the Turbo S. With the optional rear-wheel steering, the 450-horsepower GTS is ridiculously agile, able to spin a doughnut seemingly within its own wheelbase—uh, hypothetically. Out on the Dragon, with its 318 corners, a 911 GTS is the perfect tool. Put it in Sport Plus mode and you can push hard enough to scare yourself while retaining an electronic safety net in the background. And since it’s a 911, you don’t have to think too hard about packing. Throw luggage in the trunk, or maybe the backseat. And try not to add any Porsche-shaped decorations to the Tree of Shame
Best for: A 1,000-mile drive to your high school reunion
Did you know the Queen is descended from Germans? It’s true. Go back a couple generations on the royal family tree, you’re at the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. So don’t worry that Aston Martin turned to Mercedes-AMG for the DB11’s standard 4.0-liter V-8. But if you’re really bothered, there’s always Aston’s in-house continent-inhaling 5.2-liter twin-turbo V-12, which makes 600 horsepower and emits a ripping warble that commingles thumping bass with a high-pitched feral shriek. When you’re just mellowing out, the DB is cosseting and smooth, just the thing for a long road trip. This is the rare supercar that can play understated but still do 200 mph. Roll in with a DB and your old classmates might be jealous, but they’ll still respect you.
Base price: $18,935
Redesigned for 2019, it kept the crazy asymmetrical doors, turbo engine, and dual-clutch transmission, but added torque vectoring and more rakish sheet metal. Nice.
Base price: $26,485
Two entirely different cars that actually go together. And while we like each of them better with a V-8 under the hood, the standard-issue four-cylinder versions pack 275 (Camaro) or 310 (Mustang) horses, and come with manual transmissions and rear-wheel drive, essential ingredients to a good time
Base price: $26,900
Base price: $22,540
Sure, there’s a Civic Si, and a bananas Type R. But driving the base Civic Sport with its 180 horsepower and six-speed manual, you find yourself thinking that you could have a happy 100,000-mile relationship with a car like this.
Base price: $26,415
Plaid seats. Manual transmission. 220 horsepower. You have to spend a lot more money to get a better car than this.
Base price: $27,855
Subaru’s junior rally car is still a turbocharged, all-wheel-drive bargain. Do you really need the STI? We say no.
Base price: $26,295
Credit to GM for offering this with a manual, but the nine-speed automatic is a better bet. The close ratios keep the little 1.6-liter sitting in the meat of its 236 lb-ft of torque. This diesel isn’t the smoothest, but that’s all right. Its rugged growl reminds you that you’ve got something different under the hood.
Base price: $25,790
Let us never stop applauding the fact that Mazda will sell you a 2,300-pound convertible in which you can drop the manual top without leaving the driver’s seat. Want a coupe? Opt for the RF, which offers all the driving joy but with a power retractable hard-top roof. Want a turbo? Get a Fiat 124 Spider, a Miata with a different badge and turbocharged engine. We like the naturally aspirated flavor better, but we’ll never complain about more Miatas.