Savage names his top vehicles, the annual Zoomie Awards …
Last year’s Zoomies were all about monster speed and power, this year’s are all about hybrids, high value and family fare. That’s OK though, because that’s where most of us live.
While I was testing new Corvettes, Challengers, BMWs, Mercedes, Lexus LC 500s, and Dodge Durango SRTs in 2020, the minivans, hybrid crossovers and family sedans dominated 2021’s drives. And you know what? Nearly all were excellent, making some of my Zoomie choices as hard as picking your favorite child
So what’s a Zoomie?
It’s my annual choice of the top vehicle among the 50 or so I’ve tested in the past year. But there’s more than one great vehicle every 12 months, so I call out the best in various categories, from basic wheels to luxury rides. 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. Zoomie is an everyperson’s car of the year, but with pizazz.
Zoomie always appears just as the Milwaukee Auto Show is about to roll into the Wisconsin Center downtown. This year the show runs from Feb. 26 to March 6, and not surprisingly is sponsored by area auto dealers.
This year I’ve divided the Zoomies into several categories, and as always, the best Zoomie wraps up the report. Let’s start with the now under-appreciated cars. With fewer manufacturers even making cars, this would seem to be a neglected market. But it’s not, some brands are still making great looking and driving cars, in all price ranges.
Entry-level: Kia K5 – The Optima was a fine family sedan and the newly restyled and renamed K5 is a sporty fastback with a refined ride coupled with good power and handling, but as with most Kia and Hyundai models, packed with content that normally costs extra on other makes. The turbo I4 kicks out 180 horses and gas mileage is decent too at 27 mpg city and 37 highway. I got 28.5. But starting at basically $29,000 the K5 makes a family look ritzier while delivering comfort and safety. Let’s address the elephant in the room here too as Kia and Hyundai models have been major targets of car thieves. Both assure that new models, all with push-button start, are much less likely to be stolen, so I feel confident touting the new models.
If you need to spend even less, the Hyundai Kona and Elantra are other strong bets for high value and good looks.
Hybrid: Honda Accord Hybrid – This was one of the easiest picks as the new Accord’s styling has been vastly improved so it looks sleeker and the hybrid system is as smooth and seamless as any on the market. The Accord satisfies with a quiet, comfy interior, easy-to-use controls, light and breezy handling, 212 hp from its Atkinson-cycle I4 and hybrid electric motors, and a superb ride. It’s rated 44 mpg city and 41 mpg highway. I got 31.3 mpg. And all this in a family-sized sedan that lists at $37,590.
Luxury: Genesis G80 – Genesis is still newish to the market as Hyundai’s luxury brand, but the G80 looks like Bentley could have designed it with exquisite exterior proportions. Handling is effortless, power 300 horses strong from a turbo I4 and ride every bit a luxury ride. Interior styling is clean and simple with a giant info screen and content is generous from heated seats to solid safety equipment. Price as tested was $49,125. That’s way below similar sized European makes this well equipped.
Honorable mention to Volkswagen’s Arteon sedan, another fastback model with elegant styling. VW isn’t often considered a luxury brand, but Arteon could pass for entry-level lux!
Entry-level: MINI Cooper S – I said in my review that driving a MINI is more fun than anything else you can do with your clothes on, and I stand by that. This new version has a drop-top that can be powered back to resemble a sunroof, or lowered entirely. On the test car that roof was a subtle darkened matte black Union Jack, and the paint job a not so subtle Zesty Yellow (lime greenish) that made it the focus of other drivers’ attention. Still, its 6-speed manual with a twin-turbo I4 that creates 189 horses and a 207 torque rating make it a hoot and a half to drive. The automatic is fine too. MINI is nimble and sporty with killer looks and a $33,000 base price.
Luxury: BMW M440i – Looking for the Rolex watch of cars? This sleek 4 Series convertible is a jewel of a car, fast, frisky, fun. But isn’t that what you expect from a luxury convertible that starts about $65 grand? BMW returned to a canvass top that gives the car a sportier, leaner look and it’ll even drop as you drive, up to 31 mph. Clever! The 3.0-liter twin turbo I6 cranks 382 horsepower and 364 in torque, plus a mild hybrid system helps its gas mileage (26.2 tested), incredible for a car that will hit 150 mph and whose handling, ride and braking are all aces. I’m stoked!
Entry-level: Ford Bronco Sport – This is the first of many Fords in the 2022 list, and bravo for bringing back the Bronco name and some of its original styling to give off-roaders another strong choice. Watch out Jeep! This Badlands 4×4 model is perfectly sized for city driving and parking, exhibits excellent handling and enough power (250 horses) to be fun on highway or slopping in a mud bog. Riding on Escape’s platform you’d never know it to drive it as it feels so nimble. Plus pricing is milder than I’d expected, starting around $28,000 and topping around $38,000. The boxy styling reflects Land Rover and old-time Bronco and now seems fresh and exciting, again. Welcome back Bronco!
Honorable mention goes to Mazda’s fabulous CX-30 Turbo. Regular readers may recall the CX-30 was last year’s Zoomie of the Year as it offers precise handling, good ride and solid power, plus AWD and fantastic looks (love it’s beaked nose), especially in red. But NOW it adds a 2.5-liter turbo to belt out 250 horses, making it a near perfect sporty crossover at an affordable price.
Entry-level: Kia Sorento – I had to split this category because the hybrid market is exploding for crossovers and SUVs and the Sorento is the cream of the current crop for affordable family crossovers. Its gas-only model is fine, but the hybrid wowed me. Get this, at $34,000 the hybrid manages nearly 10 mpg better (37.6 tested mpg) than the gas-only version, and of course the styling remains the same, along with a fine interior with stellar dash layout. Acceleration is even better in the hybrid and cornering seems improved too.
Luxury: Volvo XC60 Recharge T8 – This is where much of the auto world’s design and marketing efforts are aimed, the regular hybrid and plug-in hybrid luxury crossover market. Volvo took the styling lead a couple years back with XC60, now it adds a hybrid system to the torquey 2.0-liter supercharged and turbocharged I4 to slap out a crazy 400 horsepower. Wow, this sharp looker and handler will haul arsel. And starting at $62 grand, this isn’t even a high-end luxury crossover.
Luxury: Acura MDX – This popular 3-row SUV grew a bit, getting longer, lower and wider, but adding an aluminum hood and front fenders to save weight and was restyled to look even more elegant. The result is a fine, yet not too large, luxury SUV with a touch of sportiness (remember the S in SUV stands for Sport). So with a 290-horse V6 and SH-AWD (that’s Acura nomenclature for Super-Handling-All-Wheel-Drive) the MDX can go about anywhere a luxury SUV needs to, and at speed with precise handling. Nice! Inside is super quiet with open-pore wood trim and all the amenities expected at $61 grand and change. Even your pal Alexa comes with.
Best Minivan: Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid – Chrysler has become one of the quiet Stellantis brands. That’s the former Fiat-Chrysler company that makes Jeep, Dodge, Chrysler, Ram, Fiat and Alfa-Romeo for the North American market. But when you think of the former Chrysler Corp. its minivans should be top-of-mind as they invented the modern minivan 35+ years ago. Pacifica is a smoothly styled van that continues to lead with innovations, including offering AWD and a hybrid version. Not all vans offer both. The plug-in hybrid system gives roughly 30+ miles of electric-only power and regenerative braking helps extend that in city driving. Acceleration is quick (260 hp), safety features are bountiful, comfort is uncompromised and pricing is competitive, if not a bit lower than most competitors.
Honorable mention is warranted because Kia’s Carnival debuted this past year and is a sharply styled minivan with metallic bling inside and out, plus features galore, and still in the $45,000 to $50,000 range. But so far it has no AWD or hybrid models, which may be a short-term concern. Still, it’s a delight to see and drive. It was also recently named the Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA) family vehicle of the year, so Midwest journalists agree, it’s a winner.
Best Pickup: Ford F-150 SuperCrew Hybrid – Ford continues to lead the pickup segment and in fact is adding an electric version, the Lightning. But the hybrid I tested was as perfect a pickup as is out there right now. It’s huge, tall, strong and efficient, plus offers a power generator in the bed that will power your house for hours, make that days, in an emergency. But all of the standard F-150’s strong points are here, plus the hybrid system that boosts gas mileage to a respectable 24/24 mpg rating. I got 20.5 mpg. That’s with the 3.5-liter V6 hybrid system that adds $3,300 to the price of a $52,000 SuperCrew Lariat model. Big pickups are not inexpensive!
Best Electric: Ford Mustang Mach-E – Ford opted to name its first mid-size electric crossover the Mustang Mach-E because it knew that Mustang name would bring it more attention than virtually any other Ford-owned name. They were right, and its styling, with some Mustang cues and logos, make it one of the better looking electric crossovers. Driving performance is strong too, its 88 kWh extended range battery and electric motors combining for 346 hp and a 260-mile range for the tested AWD version. 0 to 60 mph happens in 4.8 seconds, so it’s quick, like a gas-powered Mustang. While inside the dash looks decided modern (think Tesla as a target) with a massive 15.5-inch vertical info screen.
An honorable mention to VW’s ID.4, which falls a bit short on styling compared with the Mach-E, but also is available with AWD and a 250-260-mile range on a full charge. It’s comfy and well thought out, but has some quirks that kept it from the top spot here.
Most Fun: Ford Mustang Mach I – I know this seems like a Ford lovefest as we approach the top Zoomie award, but I’m a car guy and I love excellent power and handling so I had to include the venerable V8 gas-powered fastback Mustang Mach I. This is a no-apologies muscle car that looks fast, sounds fast and IS fast. It has a race-engineered GT350’s subframe and suspension, 6-piston Brembo disc brakes, re-tuned super precise power steering and a switch to engage or flip off the traction control. There’s Track and Sport+ drive modes in case you want to race the thing, and you likely will Want to. There’s also a TREMEC 6-speed manual standard to engage the 5.0-liter V8 that pumps 480 horsepower. Price is about $52 grand and, well, outside of some Hellcats and SRTs from Dodge, nothing much else touches this. A fantasy car for us aging, but still sporty, Boomers!
A quick honorable mention goes to the Dodge Durango Hellcat because it rips like it’s a dragster. Can you believe a 0-60 mph time of 3.5 seconds in a mid-size SUV? Believe it, but that’s what a supercharged 6.2-liter HEMI V8 with 710 horses will do for ya. A year earlier I drove the SRT version and was wowed by it, yet this ups the wow factor considerably.
ZOOMIE: Vehicle of the year: Hyundai Santa Cruz – And now for something completely different.
Kudos to Hyundai for finally pushing the car world back into the compact pickup world that had been so successful with the likes of Ford Rangers, Chevy S10s, Datsun (later Nissan), Toyota, and Mazda pickups in the 1970s through the 1990s.
Hyundai calls Santa Cruz an SAV, Sport Adventure Vehicle, which is just so much marketing talk, but the point is this isn’t Just a pickup.
No, Hyundai has re-invented this market with a slick, stylish, California-chic pickup that doesn’t even ride on a truck chassis. Santa Cruz (perfectly named to ooze California-chic) rides on Hyundai’s Tucson crossover platform so it behaves like a crossover, not a bumpy bouncy body-on-frame truck. Ride is stellar and with its full cab it’s basically a crossover with a pickup bed, meaning the family fits just fine, but if one needs to haul bushes, dirt, or even dirt bikes it’s easy and cleaner than slopping said goods inside a crossover’s hatch.
Santa Cruz scores aces on power, ride and handling while also offering AWD if you need to tow a camper or small boat to the lake or a campsite. Two engine choices include a 190-horse 2.5-liter I4 and a turbo version with 281 horses for more serious fun. Prices range from a front-drive model with the base engine at $24,000 to the Limited with AWD and the turbo, pressing $40 grand. Still a bargain!
Color selection is fun and youthful, grayish green or blue-gray, for instance, while inside is a 10.25-inch info screen, simple dash layout and plenty of upscale content for the price, think heated and cooled seats, etc. And the bed, well, it has a cooler built-in for tailgating, steps designed into the corner of the bumpers for climbing aboard, a lockable tailgate, and with a retractable tonneau cover that is strong enough one could stand on it. Wow!
Certainly not everyone needs a mid-size or full-size pickup, and maybe more importantly, many of us can’t afford those $50-$70 grand monsters. If style, price and putting Fun into automotive Function are atop your shopping list, Santa Cruz is the compact pickup you’ve been looking for!