After a four year hiatus (I should be well rested), Zoomie is back.
What’s a Zoomie?
It’s my annual (at least for 26 straight years) award of the top vehicle I’ve driven in the past year. I name one top dog and a lot of little pups to highlight the great cars and trucks I’ve driven in the past 12 months.
And I’ll state right here what I’ve been saying since 1990. My intent is to select a vehicle for the masses, but one with styling flair, something that’s fun to drive, yet also delivers value, an everyman’s car of the year. So don’t be expecting a Tesla or Ferrari here!
And because my picks aren’t supercars or exotics, you should be able to be see most at the Milwaukee Auto Show, Feb. 22 to March 1.
Most Fun: Volkswagon’s Jetta R-Line was a blast to drive, peppy and full of energy it’s powerful without being a muscle car, but nimble and easy to handle. One thing folks who drive SUVs, pickups and larger crossovers may forget is how much fun it is when your car handles this well. Jetta is a hoot on a drive to Holy Hill!
Most Stylish Truck: Sometimes there are vehicles you like, but it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what, and they aren’t necessarily best in class. Jeep’s Gladiator pickup was that vehicle this year. It looks cool because it looks like a Jeep. It’s strong and capable, but not a monster truck like other full-size pickups. This is a stylish salute to both Jeep lovers and folks who don’t want to blend in behind the wheel. Yes, you can take the top off too. So let the sun shine in!
Best All-Electric: This one is tough because both the Nissan Leaf, which has been around the longest, and the Kia Niro are delightful cars to drive. But while the Niro wins on styling, the Leaf wins on ride and value. I’ll stick with the Leaf. It’s fast off the line, has a comfy interior that is naturally quiet with no “engine” noise, and is most affordable. Consider this a little road rocket that requires no gas!
Best Entry-Level: There’s no better value I’ve driven in a couple years than Nissan’s Versa SR. Get this, for $21 grand or so you get a pleasant looking sedan that delivers good handling and good gas mileage while also being comfortable and loaded with features we’d all like, such as heated seats, smart cruise control, blind-spot warning, backup camera, an easy to use well laid out dash and even a racy flat-bottom steering wheel. WOW, that’s a lot for a little!
Best Update of an Old Friend: The Kia Soul is still one of my favorite cars, heck it was my last overall Zoomie winner in 2015. And its new GT-Line model is a humdinger (is that still a word?). First, Soul is cute, cute, cute, which is why its styling has only been tweaked a bit in 11 years. (Remember the Beetle didn’t change much either!) With good headroom it’ll haul four adults, has comfy seats, is fairly quiet and with its 201-horse I4 turbo is quick as a jack rabbit on expresso. Oh, and it handles and rides well too, all for less than $30 grand.
Best Pickup: Another tough call, but I got to drive all of the Big 3’s new or revamped pickups this year. The Chevy Silverado falls right in the middle, but the Ford F-150 (top selling vehicle in the U.S. for 40+ years) is the obvious choice for a work truck. It’s lighter due to more aluminum in the body, so more fuel efficient, while still being able to tow a major load.
Best Luxury Pickup: Gotta break this category up this year because Chrysler via its RAM truck division has devised a luxury pickup for those folks who just want a truck instead of a luxury sedan, yet still need to haul four or five people. The tested RAM 1500 Limited Crew Cab 4×4 is cowboy classy with the most luxurious interior I’ve seen in years, only rivaled by upscale SUVs and crossovers. And it has the $68,785 price tag to prove it. Fancy? Sure, posh leather seats, wood trim, jewel like gauges, filigrees sewn into the door panels, and speaker covers that rival Rolex watches. Yet there’s a 395-horse Hemi V8 to power this RAM so it’ll tow 11,000+ lbs. Holy horse feathers!
Best Luxury SUV: Audi’s Q8 Quattro is a fancy-pants SUV with a $68 grand starting price. But my tester added $12 grand of options. It’s as stylish as its price insists with beautiful lines and snazzy wheels, plus a 335-horse V6 turbo to give it major oomph. There’s also AWD standard, naturally, along with five (count ‘em) drive modes to suit the driver’s wants and needs at a moment’s notice. The Bang & Olufsen stereo is fabulous and the seats and interior nearly as special as a RAM pickup’s.
Best Luxury Cross-over: I was shocked by how much I loved the Mercedes-Benz GLC 300 4Matic. Sometimes the ride in tested Mercedes has not been what I consider luxurious. This smallish mid-size crossover is a delight in that department. Handling is a dream, power peppy with an I4 turbo, the interior more stylish than most other German vehicles, and there are twin sunroofs. Mostly it was just fun to drive and its AWD helps in snow. GLC is a sporty luxury crossover.
Best Crossover: Not all of us can afford $50 grand crossovers, so how about these two, Subaru’s Outback that looks more wagony, and Mazda’s CX-5, which tends much more toward sporty. Both can be had south of $40,000, so near the average cost of a new car. I’ll admit to owning the previous model Outback, so obviously my family likes it. Handsome styling, great AWD system, awesome sightlines and reliability being big pluses. But I’m leaning into the CX-5 Signature AWD because Mazda packs in a lot of zoom-zoom from its snazzy exterior to its quick, but refined, 2.5-liter I4 turbo that cranks 227 horsepower. This feels like a sports sedan, but with the advantage of AWD and a higher driving position. Mazda also has upped the level of its interior trim and design too.
Best Sedan: Getting tired of hearing about SUVs and crossovers? Well, Nissan (I know I’ve liked a lot of these this year) delivers with its Maxima and Altima, two cars that are almost indistinguishable from each other on paper. Maxima used to be much bigger, but now they are nearly the same size. Either is a fine family car and both are stylish, but I’d go with Maxima for its stellar ride and excellent 300-hp V6 engine that still gets reasonable fuel economy. For less than $40 grand you can get all the safety equipment and comfort most folks want in an interior, plus room for a family and their stuff. Want a sedan, but not a Camry or Accord? Maxima’s a fine choice.
Best Luxury Hybrid: Volvo’s S60e T8 E-AWD Inscription is the perfect car for someone with deep pockets, but who prefers a hybrid for its improved fuel economy and smaller carbon footprint. Oh man is this a smooth, sexy sedan.
I love its slim nose, full-on Volvo grille and slit-like Thor’s Hammer headlights. Love that name, Thor’s Hammer, too. But even if the S60 weren’t so dang blasted sexy it’s a hot rod in tuxedoed super-spy clothing. James Bond should drive this, the heck with his Aston Martin. It’s a hybrid with 400 horsepower, a sports car with AWD and a luxury interior to make most German makes blush. And did I mention I got 37.5 mpg in this plug-in hybrid, even exercising its kick-butt power? A dream car between $55 and $60 grand!
Best Affordable Hybrid: Back on planet Earth, Toyota’s Corolla hybrid is a wonder and looks about 98% better than a Prius, for which Toyota gained its fame for hybrid smoothness of operation and reliability. The Corolla LE Hybrid is an incredible value and a competent small family sedan. Gas mileage is nothing short of fantastic. I managed 55 mpg from its I4 and hybrid electric powerplant that creates a less than exciting 121 horsepower. But put it in Sport mode and acceleration is pretty good. Also a plus for families, the Corolla LE includes Safety Sense features standard, something Toyota and Nissan are now both touting. Bravo!
And now, a drumroll please ….
Kia’s Telluride wins, by a nose over its equally talented and handsome kissin’ cousin, the Hyundai Palisade. But that’s really your call as these mid-size SUVs are mechanically and functionally the same with a stout 3.8-liter V6 that delivers 291 horsepower via a smooth-shifting 8-speed automatic. Both are available with AWD.
I find the Kia’s nose less in your face, love its head and taillight design and find its interior both elegant and simple functionally. This is a primo family hauler (three rows of seats) that challenges the likes of Honda’s Pilot, Toyota’s Highlander and the new VW Atlas and Subaru Ascent, to name a few worthy opponents. I think it should cut into GM’s Tahoe and Yukon sales too, as it’s nearly as large and its interior is so much nicer.
And rare among any vehicles I review, I found no nits to pick for a vehicle that easily fits in the $35,000-$45,000 range where most trucks and crossovers now land. My test car had twin sunroofs too, a 360-degree camera, perfect dash layout, suede roof liner, side-view cameras and a full bevy of safety equipment. Plus, and this may be surprising, it got 25.9 mpg with four folks and luggage aboard on a highway drive.
Kia/Hyundai have raised the bar, now we’ll wait for a plug-in hybrid version!
Photos: Mark Savage