Zoomies: The Everyman’s Car of the Year, where style and value still matter
Zoomie got kicked to the curb this year, after 25 years of top car selections for the Milwaukee newspaper.
Hey, stuff happens!
So while you didn’t get to see my top car, hybrid, crossover, etc. selections in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after 25 consecutive years, you can see them here. I hope you also hear, or heard, me chat them up on WUWM’s (89.7 FM) Lake Effect show on March 9.
My Zoomie Car of the Year was launched in 1990 as a response to what I thought a travesty. Noted car mag Motor Trend had just dubbed the bulbous whale-like Chevrolet Caprice, that of big city taxi fame, as its Car of the Year.
This was the year that Mazda had launched its soon to be iconic Miata roadster, the first, the best and the most affordable sports car ever. I had to right a wrong!
Thus, my first Zoomie (named after my brother Steve’s iguana) went to the Miata, instantly setting the automotive world right – even if said world was fully unaware.
NOW … 26 years later I’ve driven roughly 1,300 cars and trucks and use that as my basis for selections. Yet I only compare the vehicles I’ve driven in the past year, since the last Zoomie Awards, for Car of the Year, and other categories as befit the past year’s fleet.
My intent, as always, is to select a car for the masses, but one with styling flair, something that’s fun, yet also delivers value.
So you won’t see a Ferrari, Bugatti or Lamborghini here (uh, they’ve never even invited me to drive one), but the award also won’t go to a big ol’ truck either, as they simply aren’t fun or sporty, ever.
Now the envelopes please:
Kia’s Soul is the cutest crossover on the market, and while cute may not cut it with everyone, its distinctive looks coupled with its high value, lively handling and stellar interior design make it an easy choice this year. Zoomie loves value and styling panache.
Lest you think Soul is just another cheap little hatchback, consider what you get for the roughly $19 grand entry price, including delivery fee. First, the Soul was stretched about an inch to improve ride and increase interior room. Second the Soul+ (not the entry-level Soul) comes with a 164-horse 2.0-liter direct-injected 4-cylinder that mates perfectly with a 6-speed automatic with an Eco mode to save gas. That’s 34 more horses than the 1.6-liter engine in the base model, which starts at about $15,500 – talk about Value.
Standard on the Soul+ are 17-inch tires, again a bit larger than you’d expect, and the EPA rates this at 23 mpg city and 31 highway. I averaged 24.4 mpg in a mix of driving and 30.8 mpg on a highway run.
Soul’s interior is quiet for the price and just by adding a Primo option package for $3,000, you get a monster panoramic sunroof, push button start, leather seats and trim, heated and cooled front seats and heated rear seats and steering wheel, plus a power driver’s seat.
That means for $22,000 you have a super well-equipped sporty handling hatch with excellent interior space for people and cargo. Handling is light and lively and the dash styling and interior touches will make you feel young, even if you’re old enough to remember the Moon landing.
All the Soul needs now is AWD, and I’ll bet that’s available soon!
Rest of the Best:
While crossovers and sport-utility trucks seem to be a larger portion of my drives each year, let’s stick with cars for a few more awards. Remember, all these are vehicles I drove in the past year, a few new models that you’ve seen or heard about did not make it into the test fleet in time to be rated this year.
Love the AWD Subarus and Legacy gets some new sheet metal to give it a more modern, if not daring look. Still, Legacy is roomy with a luxurious interior befitting a higher priced car. Speaking of which, you can get into one just short of $30 grand, so below the average cost of a new vehicle these days. (That price is inflated by all the pricy SUVs and pickups folks buy.) Ride is good, handling is good too and the power from the 256-horse 3.6-liter boxer 6-cylinder is much better than you’ll get from most mid-size cars. This is an unsung hero for families, especially those in the upper Midwest where snowy roads are a concern.
Second place: Chrysler’s new 200 is a worthy new competitor and also is available with AWD. Its styling is superior to the Legacy, but past history concerns me until the model has been out a year or so. It was not nearly as quiet and comfortable overall as the Legacy, but did receive the Midwest Automotive Media Association (of which I’m a member) award for Top Family Car.
Best Sporty Car: Scion tC
I wasn’t sure I’d still like the tC after its latest overhaul, the entry-level sporty car market keeps raising the bar, and price, each year. But this one is unique and sleek in appearance, yet not as racy looking as my second choice, the Subaru BRZ, which is lights out the best looking new sporty car. Yet the Scion is more fun to drive. With a peppy 2.5-liter engine and 6-speed manual transmission this is a no-nonsense sport model along the lines of the old Toyota Celica. Plus its TRD exhaust system from Toyota gives the engine a racy tone that exceeds expectations. Good for Scion, they kept this a low-cost sporty car that’s still fun … and it was Zoomie’s 2004 Car of the Year when it was brand new!
Second place: Subaru BRZ because it flat out looks great.
My regular readers know that I’m often not as wild about BMWs as the noted car enthusiast mags that would select a BMW with flat tires and no engine over all other makes, no matter the price. Well, this year I agree with them, but I expect good tires and an engine. I’m not sure I’ve ever driven a better, nicer coupe than the 428i. It’s near perfect, outside of price, but even that isn’t outlandish at $42-50 grand. BWM delivers stellar looks, racer handling and yet a luxurious sporty ride that borders the sublime thanks to its suspension and Driving Dynamics Control. Oh, and 241 horses from a twin-turbo 2.0-liter 4-cylinder ain’t bad either, if you like crazy torque.
Sad for Cadillac that its new ATS came out the same year as the BMW 428i, otherwise its cool edgy styling and precise handling coupled with a muscular 272-horse turbo 2.0-liter would win hands down. Yet its ride doesn’t measure up to the BMW and Caddy’s CUE system still is a drawback.
Best Family Hybrid Sedan: Kia Optima
Peppy? That’s right, Optima is a peppy hybrid and that makes it special. Optima already is one of the best looking family sedans, but now it’s smooth, quiet and peppy, plus a high mpg showoff. I got 39.5 mpg in this stylish family hauler with one of the quietest interiors in any car costing less than $40 grand. This one listed at just short of $33,000 and had heated and cooled seats, a heated steering wheel and heated rear seats. If all hybrids were this comfortable, roomy, attractive AND peppy, more folks might buy them.
Best Value Large Luxury Sedan: Hyundai Genesis 3.8
Hard to believe that a Hyundai wins in the luxury category, but the new Genesis could challenge luxury makes from Asian and maybe some Europeans too. The name won’t do it, but the features, price and comfort will. Genesis is roomy, extremely quiet inside and strikes a BMW profile. Not a bad place to start if you’re trying to win luxury buyers. Base price? $40 grand. You read that right and you get a 311-horse V6 with 8-speed automatic. Load up Genesis with all the tech bells and widgets (HID lights, power sun shade, rear cross-traffic alert, etc.) and the test car only hit $52 grand. You may sniff at the brand, but trust me, you’d love to drive a Genesis.
Let’s move on to the crossovers, SUVs and wagons, yes wagons.
Best Family SUV: Hyundai Santa Fe Sport
Santa Fe Sport is the best blend of entry-level luxury car and sport-ute with a comfortable ride, good handling and attractive overall styling, plus it’s loaded with features at between $33-36 grand. That’s with a 264-horse turbocharged 2.0-liter engine and leather seats, plus heated rear seats and steering wheel. I’m seeing a trend here with the South Korean brands. Hyundai and Kia both continue to offer more technical and comfort features as standard while many others offer them as options. This one’s second row seat also moves to create more room in back for legs, or luggage.
Best High-End SUV: Mercedes-Benz SL 400
What’s not to like about a bi-turbo powered sporty sport-ute that cranks out 329 horses and delivers one of the best rides of any SUV on the market? Well, not much, unless your checkbook balance is as small as mine. This model starts about $64 grand with delivery, but you can get an adjustable air suspension and handling is quick too. Seats and steering wheel are heated and there’s real wood trim, although with all those goodies you’ll likely need to pay closer to $75,000 or more.
Best Hybrid Crossover: Toyota Highlander
The swept-back styling sets Highlander apart from most of the crossover crowd, but the 28 mpg and smooth and quiet operating hybrid system here makes Highlander a winner. Ride is excellent and Highlander has all the goodies a family would want for a long trip, for less than $50 grand.
Best Family Wagon: Subaru Outback
Some may argue whether the Outback is a crossover, but to me it’s a tall wagon with everything a family could want, including AWD for roughly $30 grand, a little more if you demand a leather interior. But even with cloth seats Subaru offers heat for your tushie, and the new Outback continues the handsome lines of past models while improving ride and delivering more low-end torque with a gas-saving CVT. Interior layout is stellar too and I’m partial to the blue rings around the main dash gauges.
Best Sporty Wagon: Volvo V60
I never would have imagined two great wagons in one year, but the Volvo is a lean low wagon with spunk. Its 240-horse 2.0-liter turbo (you may have noticed a turbo pattern this year) delivers oomph through a slick 8-speed automatic and the interior is as stylish as in any luxury car on the market. Nicely executed and practical too, for $35-$42 grand.
Best truck: GMC Yukon
The pickups all seem about the same now and even the mid-size ones are large. But the luxurious Yukon is still super comfortable and useful, even if it remains a big ol’ box. Of course, the price makes it as expensive as the top-level luxury sedans, but it’ll still tow a loaded trailer, and isn’t that the primary use for a truck?
Best ride: Lexus LS460 AWD
Ahhhh, this sedan is simply like floating down the road on a pillow!
Most Fun Drive: Jaguar F-Type Roadster
Can’t leave this one out, although totally impractical except for turning heads. The F-Type is beautiful, elegant, luxurious and sporty. It’s everything a two-seat sports car should be, including wicked fast with a 495-horse 5.0-liter V8. The F-Type has handling, looks and a $92 grand price tag.
Oh, and it has the absolute Best Exhaust Tone of any car under $100 grand in the world, well, at least that the car companies will let me drive!