#VOTY16 has been awarded. The editorial calendar has turned over a new year. It is cause for celebration!
There is one more bit of business to take care of.
As a tradition, I sit down and look at all of the vehicles I had the chance to work with for all of my outlets and list my favorites of them all. It gives a chance to let you know what truly made this work special, whether you saw it here or elsewhere in the Interwebs.
You would think this is an easy task. It is not. I probably worked with 50-plus vehicles on a 12-month period, so picking a few out of that number is a monumental task. It gets more difficult every year.
However, this year was one that rose the bar further in this work. How so? I decided to select ten vehicles (OK, twelve) I worked with from last November to this one and compiled this list. I think some of it would come as no surprise. Others? Just read onward…
2016 DODGE CHARGER: Fiat Chrysler's big rear-drive cars are ones that provide all of the smiles in this work. It was great that FCA brought their 392 HEMI-powered R/T Scat Pack version of the Charger – in Plum Crazy – for me to work with. We talk about getting "all of the feels." This specific car provided more than that. There is the noise from the exhaust, the pulse from underneath the hood, the practical cabin and trunk space and the solid handling package this Charger offered. There is a catch – well, a couple of them. The Plum Crazy paint job was a limited run for the early part of the 2016 model year. And, try finding any R/T Scat Pack within your local dealer's inventory. A dealer would say…"how about a Hellcat?" I drove one…no thanks. The 392 HEMI is the perfect balance of performance I need. And, you only need one key to operate it.
2016 JEEP RENEGADE AND CHEROKEE TRAILHAWK: These should be two vehicles that should be separately spoken about. They are different in terms of size, power and overall capability. Yet, that third point is seen as an overarching theme due to their shared trim – the Trailhawk. For Jeep to sell these front-drive biased SUVs as off-road capable machines worthy of the "Trail Rated" badge, they have to exhibit the traits we come to expect from Jeep in terms of its ability to get through the rougher stuff. The Cherokee might not look like a Wrangler, but the Trailhawk version can manage trails as well as one. However, the biggest surprise is in the Renegade Trailhawk, as it can run through the same trails with the greatest of ease. This is proof that neither of these vehicles will compromise the seventy-five year legacy of Jeep.
2016 KIA OPTIMA: The Korean car industry is starting to mature now. No more do we look at a Hyundai or Kia and think it would self-destruct in sixty seconds. Not only have they achieved high marks in terms of build quality, technology and execution – they are also starting to look absolutely desirable. The Optima is a great example, with its available turbocharged powerhouse and the absolute luxury of the SX Limited model. Customers might think that they do not need the Cadenza or the K900 to enjoy such exquisiteness as exhibited in the Optima SX Limited – even at a lower price point. The truth is that the Optima rides smooth, shows its sporty side on occasion and satisfies the soul wanting a great sports mid-sized sedan. Not be ignored, the lower trim levels are also very good!
2017 MINI CLUBMAN: I got to finally work with a MINI this year! The context for wokring with one was to see the impact of MINI's engagement with its customers during the MINI Takes the States stop in the Twin Cities this summer. I was able to bear witness to all of this through the lens of its newest product – the Cooper S Clubman ALL4. What MINI (er, BMW) did was to create more of a proper wagon out of the latest platform. We're talking four proper doors and a lot more cargo space behind its "Barn Doors." The longer vehicle had not diminish MINI's driving tenets of a lower center of gravity with excellent handling and road holding. Plus, it keep its charming looks for its fans to swoon over. Here is a further point – the Clubman should also be considered as a serious vehicle to drive. Then again, who could be serious when you drive a MINI?
2017 PORSCHE 911: Let me repeat Will Smith's famous line from his first hit: "Would a lunatic drive a Porsche like this?" No, I am not a "deranged lunatic." However, I am very appreciative of the excellence Porsche had instilled over the 50-plus years of production for their most iconic product. It may not be as pure as an old 911T or the 930 Turbo. However, the Carrera 4S Cabriolet I was able to work with was absolutely magnificent. It brought out all of the feels and engaged anyone that bore witness to it. I said it was the greatest car I ever worked with. It also brought me closer to a brand that was simply untouchable just a few years ago in this work. I am grateful for the opportunity to drive this absolutely incredible vehicular experience.
2016 SCION iM: Over a year ago, I flew back from Grand Rapids, Michigan with the hope that Scion would be saved by a duet of cars that meet the brand's ideals. Little did I know that it would one of the last Scions ever sold by the now-folded brand. They continue on as the 2017 Toyota Corolla iM, but I would always remember it in its first model year as a fun, practical and entertaining compact hatchback. It is a Corolla, upon deeper inspection – the global-spec Auris/Levin, to be exact. However, it has its own personality and swagger. It just drives like something that would play nicely with the FR-S and tC on long drives through the countryside. Even when considering the 2017 Toyota-badged version, think about one thing: "Scion Lives On." In the iM, the soul and legacy of Scion certainly lives on.
2015 TOYOTA 4RUNNER TRD PRO: I believe one of the consumer outlets stated this is one of the best vehicles on sale today in terms of quality and reliability. This is definitely confirmed by me. However, I will also argue that getting just a 4Runner is not enough. You need to get the one with the best suspension, best off-road capability, the best snow destruction and the absolute best vehicle to turn a 50-something person into someone much younger. Let's be clear that the 4Runner TRD Pro is not a toy. It can do a lot of things with the power and durability expected in a 4Runner. All you need to do is add the gas-filled shocks, more flexible springs and additional touches that make the TRD Pro an equal to any (product from a certain FCA brand known for its 4WD vehicles) that would share the trails with.
2016 TOYOTA RAV4: I better talk you all through this one. The current generation of this Toyota was originally shoved aside because it looked and felt uninspiring. That was where the company went in and did more than just revise its looks. They worked on everything inside and out to ensure a better compact SUV that delivers on right-sized space, performance and a higher level of quality. Adding the Hybrid version also helped tremendously. What I got out of the SE tester I worked with was a much improved product overall. The segment is more competitive than ever, and the RAV4's inroads this past year was certainly a huge factor in its sales growth within Toyota and the segment at large. This is a vehicle that a lot of people will be surprised by…and pleasantly so!
2016 VOLKSWAGEN PASSAT: To be fair, I love cars that offer superlatives. Those superlatives include the level of luxury, performance and quality workmanship/engineering in a single vehicle. But, what if I did not care to have the best of everything? There are days – almost every day in my life – that I simply want a comfortable, spacious, economical, and affordable car with the right amount of safety and connected technology. That is what the Volkswagen Passat is all about. It is a big sedan inside, though it is pitted in the highly competitive mid-sized family sedan segment. It is comfortable, smooth, economical, powerful – even from its 1.8 liter TSI turbocharged engine – and offer the most value for the money. It is exactly the kind of car I would actually own.
2017 VOLVO XC90: The SUV had been the bane of my work. Yet, they always left me wondering about the state of the automobile industry and the consumer trends that lead to its leadership in sales. Perhaps I had been searching for the best of the best of them all. Enter the Volvo XC90 – according to Volvo Cars, the "most awarded SUV of The Century" (now including our own #VOTY16). If the trophy case in Gothenburg was any indication of how excellent the new XC90 turned out to be, it did deliver on its promises and supported its accolades in a grand manner. It is the best SUV I ever worked with. It also was equipped with the best audio system I ever had the chance to listen to in a vehicle – the Bower & Wilkins system. The result is a vehicle that is driving the brand's comeback worldwide. I cannot think of another vehicle to handle this task admirably.
All photos by Randy Stern