While 2021 seems relatively fresh, and few of us want to reflect on the stinker that was 2020, this is traditionally when I do just that. I consider the 50 or so vehicles I tested last year and decide which are worthy of Zoomie awards.
What’s a Zoomie?
It’s my annual choice of the top vehicle I’ve tested in the past year. But there’s more than one great vehicle every 12 months, so I also call out a variety of the hot rods, crossovers, trucks, etc., that I’ve found exceptional. Trust me, 2020 was a prime year for muscle, both in cars and trucks, so this year’s awards are horsepower heavy.
While I try to include everything from basic wheels to luxury liners, the purpose of Zoomie, since 1990, has been 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, but with some pizazz.
I love driving Jaguars, BMWs, and such, and you would too. But my Zoomies generally are not exotics, but something YOU or your family could afford, and see at the Milwaukee Auto Show about now. That show is delayed by the Covid pandemic, but is planned for May 5-9 at Wisconsin State Fair Park instead of the Wisconsin Center downtown.
Still, let’s get the arguments started for the 2021 Zoomies (and yes, I know there are a few costly models this year). But we’ll start low, and like an anaconda, work our way up.
Hyundai’s new Venue is small, but doesn’t feel small. It’s inexpensive, but feels and looks mid-level. It’s economical, but not bargain basement. Venue is a stroke of entry-level genius, looking like a blend of early Subaru Forester and Jeep with its square body and prominent wheel flares clad in black plastic. Yet it oozes modern design with thin LED headlights and taillights, plus interior amenities such as heated seats. Venue is a subcompact crossover with precise handling, peppy low-end acceleration, yet inexpensive ($18,500 to $23 grand well-equipped). Oh, and the first 36 months, or 36,000 miles are maintenance free.
Nissan’s Frontier Pro-4X Crew Cab is simply a dandy compact pickup, really the size that pickups should be for city-bound drivers who imagine themselves farmers, or construction workers. At 205 inches long and riding a 125.9-inch wheelbase Frontier is the right size to be useful and comfortable for family transport. Yet it’s much more economical than a full-size urban assault vehicle costing north of $50 grand. Frontier boasts a new 3.7-liter V6 with 310 horsepower and a fuel-efficient 9-speed automatic. Well-equipped Frontier runs $38,500, well below the average truck price.
Best wagon wanting to be a crossover:
Subaru’s Outback Onyx Edition XT is long on value, plus features AWD, and good cargo/dog/people room. Now it touts a new 2.4-liter turbocharged Boxer 4-cylinder with 260 horses, exactly what it needed. Acceleration is improved, handling and ride are excellent and outward sightlines superb. Now it also added a huge infotainment screen, heated front/rear seats, a full set of safety equipment, wireless charger, and a new CVT that better handles the power to create smoother, quieter performance.
Oh yes, a long-roof can be sexy, which Volvo proves with its V60 T5 AWD Cross Country. It’s sexy yet debonair with swept-back looks that let you know you’re in for a special ride. V60 has sporty handling, good power and ride, plus AWD and a panoramic sunroof. It’s loaded with safety equipment, plus heated front and rear seats, heated wheel, an excellent stereo, a big screen, and elegant interior with highly adjustable seats. The 250-horse turbo 4 also has three power modes, plus there’s an off-road setting. Sexy will cost you though, between $46,000 and $56 grand.
Best affordable hybrid crossover:
Honda’s venerable CR-V offers hybrid power and even in top Touring trim is just $37,100. CR-V is a 3P winner. It’s all about price, performance and practicality while also being handsome. The interior is quiet and well laid out, plus the crossover offers nice handling and ride. The Honda Sensing safety system is standard too. Oh, and I got a tremendous 43.9 mpg. That my friends, plus cleaner air, is why you have a hybrid.
Best affordable hybrid sedan:
Prefer a car to a crossover, then Hyundai’s Sonata Limited Hybrid, should be atop your shopping list. It’s a beautiful sedan with a dynamic profile along with a grille, nose, and taillights that ooze personality. (Note: Sister company Kia just launched its K5 that pretty much matches Sonata.) And get this, it’s rated at 54 mpg and one of the three hybrid models includes two solar roof panels that can provide 1,236 extra miles of charge per year in sunny climates. Uh, that’s probably not Wisconsin. Sonata hybrids start about $36,000.
Best affordable family sedan with racy intentions:
Toyota’s Camry TRD is simply too good to not mention. At $33,000 the family sedan looks like a hot rod with a diffuser, special cladding, a black roof and spoiler, and a peppy 3.5-liter V6 that pumps 301 horsepower. Wow! I got more looks and “What is it?” questions about this than anything but the new Corvette (more on that in a second). Talk about, “Oh What a Feeling” … and it’s comfortable for the family, while holding all its baggage too.
OK, let’s move more upscale!
Best luxury sport sedan:
Genesis is still new to the luxury market, being Hyundai’s luxury brand, but its G70 AWD looks elegantly sporty and performs like it could have been designed in Germany. A 3.3-liter twin turbo V6 gives it 365 horsepower, yet the G70 also packs AWD to keep it on track in winter. It comes loaded with safety and luxury features, power trunk for one, and quilted leather seats. Ahhh! Genesis is for the sportster wanting performance and looks, but not the price of a luxury nameplate, so just $47,000 to $53 grand.
Finally, Toyota brings back its Supra, which means it brings back fun, nimbleness, and sensuous styling, the trifecta. Its bulges are in all the right places and its thrumming 3.0-liter twin turbo I6 cranks 335 horsepower, so it’s quick. Handling and braking are special too and the beautiful exhaust tone that crackles on downshifts must be experienced before you’re too old to hear, or appreciate it. Price range is $51,000 to $55 grand.
Truck lovers may feel they aren’t getting much love right about now. Well, here are a few big brawny beasts for you to sink your keisters, and big bucks, into.
Dodge’s dynamic duo win big here. The Durango SRT the RAM TRX (think T-Rex) are absolute monster trucks in every sense. With both, the party starts under their massive scoop-bearing hoods. There’s a HEMI, yes, a HEMI, under each. Durango’s V8 creates a throbbing 475 horsepower and 470 lb.-ft. of torque to haul this 5,510-lb. truck from 0 to 60 mph in just 4.4 seconds. On the practical (I know) side it’s also a roomy 6-passenger SUV with sharp handling for a ute, a big screen, an excellent interior, and a full compliment of safety equipment – much needed!
Meanwhile, the Mad Max style RAM TRX Crew Cab packs a supercharged 6.2-liter HEMI V8, the same used in both the Dodge Charger and Challenger Hellcats, with … wait for it … 702 horses. It reportedly will do 0-60 mph in 4.5 seconds, although I’m sure it can beat that. It’s a rocket with a top speed of 118 mph. Just look at it, it oozes he-man looks with performance aimed at off-road racing. Head of Baja? Yet the TRX interior is packed with luxury, like the Durango. This truck has everything, including a price tag between $70,000 and $90 grand.
Speaking of performance …
Chevy’s Corvette Stingray Coupe is kryptonite to the ever-growing cadre of supercars as it now packs a musclebound 6.2-liter V8 making 495 horses amid ship, just behind the driver. This is a modestly rich “poor man’s” supercar in looks and performance with handling much improved from its front-engine predecessor. Yet the interior is as comfy as Bruce Wayne’s study with an excellent info screen and easy controls for the driver. Bonus, you can pop off the roof panel and store it behind the engine to create an open-air experience. Price? A bargain compared to any supercar at $60,000. But it’ll hit $80 grand if fully equipped, which you’ll want. Oh, and go with the Sebring orange!
Most fun, money is no object:
If you want to spend more than on a Vette, consider a Mercedes-Benz AMG GT C Roadster. Mercedes loaned me its spectacular matte metallic blue GT C roadster that crushes it with over-the-top looks and performance. Just add a number to the doors and hood as it has OMG type power from a 4.0-liter bi-turbo AMG V8 that generates 550 horsepower. That translates to a 0-60 mph burst in just 3 seconds, or supercar fast. Yet it manages only a NEAR supercar price of $179,795, or roughly $100,000 more than the Corvette. All I can say, is WOW!
But, if the Benz and the Vette are just a little outside your price range, take heart.
Most fun, money IS an object:
Dodge dishes near perfect motorized violence via its Challenger R/T Scat Pack Widebody beginning at $46,500. This is essentially a heat-seeking missile on wheels. Actually, it packs its own heat with another muscular Mopar HEMI V8 pumping 485 horses to the rear wheels covered in thick performance rubber. No way that you can’t have fun with this beast and you gotta love the retro looks and Widebody’s flared wheel wells. In case you worry about comfort while at the drag strip, Dodge’s interior is snug but comfy and there’s a sternum stirring stereo too. This is one civilized hot rod, and mine was dressed in Hellraisin dark metallic purple. Yum!
OK, enough muscle, sort of. I told you 2020 was heavy on horsepower. Now from beast to beauty.
Beauty, thy name is Lexus LC 500. An early test of the new 2021 LC 500 convertible confirmed what I already suspected, this is simply the most beautiful car made today. The lines are sleek, its corseted grille flows perfectly into the rest of the body and its sexy rear end would make Beyonce blush. Plus there’s bodacious, but smooth, power (471 horses from a V8), and a folding power top that blends ballet and gymnastics. This is a bona fide luxury sport touring car, starting at $102,000. Take that Jaguar and Aston Martin!
You may feel it’s hard to top the Lexus, or any of those muscle cars or trucks, but for my money (which it would be) I want a sharp-looking vehicle that I can afford and that’s fun to drive. None was any better this year than:
2021 Zoomie Vehicle of the Year:
Mazda is a bit like Milwaukee’s Northwestern Mutual, a quiet company. It just keeps pumping out fun-to-drive and stylish vehicles, but with little fanfare. Its Mazda6 is a gorgeous sedan, and the iconic MX-5 (the Miata) is a pure sports car that remains fresh after 30 years of minor restylings. Mazda’s CX-9 and CX-5 are leaders in their respective large and mid-size crossover markets, at least in style and driving fun.
Now comes the CX-30 that looks like Mazda perfectly restyled its Mazda3 compact hatchback into a crossover that rides a little higher, but handles like a sports car. For $23,000 (cheap!) you can snag a front-drive model or go all-in on a Premium AWD model like I drove and you’ll still only part with $30,700 or so. For that you get oodles of torque in Sport mode from the 2.5-liter 168-horse I4. Plus the ride is as refined as some luxury sedans. Overall the feel is nimble and quick.
The interior is whisper quiet and feels luxurious with soft leather trim and seats and all the safety equipment you’d expect, plus a sunroof, power hatch and heated seats. Again, look at that price tag and tell me this isn’t a bargain.
Not persuaded? I got 31.7 mpg in my test drive. That’s as good as some hybrids I’ve driven, and they cost more, sometimes a LOT more.
No, this my friends is value coupled with good looks and premium performance. Go with Soul Red and you’ll be the envy of your neighborhood, and me!
Photos: Mark Savage
Zoomie trophy art: Stuart Carlson