2023 Zoomies, the best vehicles of the past year …
Zoomie goes all social media trendy this year whittling the 50 or so vehicles I’ve tested in the past year down to a dynamic Top 10. Eat your heart out Letterman*!
What’s the Savage criteria for a Zoomie?
There’s no point system. These all come from the gut, and a wee bit of brain. They are the 10 vehicles I most enjoyed driving (for what they are), but offer value and do it with style. So talent with style, you know, like Beyonce or Lady Gaga. For variety’s sake, some fall into the category of “mostly affordable” while others are for the upper crust. Hey, they deserve nice things too.
I’ve been choosing Zoomies since 1990 (missed a few years), so some have been winners, like the first year’s Mazda Miata, while a few were, well … nobody’s perfect.
Why Zoomies in February? They always appear during the Milwaukee Auto Show, which kicked off yesterday and runs through March 5 at the Wisconsin Center downtown. The show is sponsored by area auto dealers.
So here goes, in no particular order, except the grand finale being my top Zoomie Vehicle of the year.
10. Ford Maverick Lariat hybrid: Let’s start with the meat of the market, pickups. One can argue that style is not a word often associated with any pickup, and I agree, generally. But the new Maverick is compact, handsome, and understated, which is saying something for a pickup as most are over-the-top macho big and bulky with grilles that look like angry alien Transformers.
Maverick also comes standard as a hybrid, and with an entry price just north of $21,000. That’s right, a compact pickup that is economical (remember the old Ford Ranger and Chevy S10?) and gets 42 mpg city and 33 highway, says the EPA. I got about 32 mpg, still awfully good. Power is decent too with a 2.5-liter I4 with hybrid system that nets 191 horsepower. The tested Lariat easily seats four and started at about $27 grand. Bravo!
9. Mazda CX-5 2.5Turbo AWD: I just can’t say enough about the CX-5’s styling, handling ability, and speed with its semi-new turbocharged engine. This is more fun to drive than most crossovers, heck, most sedans, plus AWD is now standard. There are 227 horses here, 256 ponies if you splurge for premium 93 octane fuel, and the interior is so luxurious looking and feeling you’ll likely feel you’re in an up-scale brand.
CX-5’s interior is spacious with good cargo room too, so no surprise it’s Mazda’s top-selling model, especially since it starts at a family-friendly price of about $28,000. Heck, my well-equipped tester was still less than $40,000. In fact, the top-level Turbo Signature model squeaks in at $40k and is loaded with all the equipment you’d get on an entry-level luxury crossover costing $50,000 or more. One option you’ll definitely want, the $595 Soul Red Crystal paint. It’s stunning!
8. VW Jetta GLI Autobahn: I said it in my review, the Jetta is a hoot that’ll scoot and that’s the truth. Sport sedans are among the most thrilling cars to drive and Jetta has firmly embodied that trait for years. This Autobahn trim is a value-oriented speedster that will haul the family and its gear with a flair. I’m no fan of the blah battleship gray color that it and so many other cars now wear, but hey, you can opt for another color, even if you have to pay a bit extra.
Starting at $32,900 this model packs a perky 2.0-liter turbo I4 that kicks out 228 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Think vintage BMW 2002. Rawrr! And I managed 26 mpg. Jetta is a pocket rocket with excellent handling, braking and a decent ride. Seats are super supportive and are also heated and cooled. Jetta includes solid safety equipment too, including smart cruise control. A practical racer!
7. Toyota Camry XLE Hybrid: This may be my biggest surprise of the year. A Camry hybrid, really? Oh yeah, this is a particularly sharp-looking sedan, especially the nose, but one that’ll carry a family of five in comfort and style. Plus the hybrid system means it’ll kick the gas-only powered sedan’s fannies for efficiency. I hit 48.2 mpg in a week’s drive, even better than the EPA’s 44/47 mpg estimates.
Power comes from a 2.5-liter I4 with hybrid system (remember Toyota has been doing hybrids longer than anyone, 20+ years) that generates 208 horsepower. Ride is as good, or better, than any other similar sized sedan, even some luxury brands. Handling is easy, cargo room spacious and a wonderful interior with logical and simple controls along with comfy seats that are heated and cooled. A base Camry hybrid starts at $28,000, but this high-value mid-level XLE lists at just $34,065. (Note: Average new car prices are approaching $45 grand.)
6. Honda HR-V AWD EX-L: Another surprise, the HR-V moved to the dynamic Civic platform and its looks were smoothed too, so now it handles great and looks better than its previous iteration with a less boxy appearance. Plus the small crossover is now longer, lower, and wider so it rides and handles better to. There’s even acoustic glass to quiet the interior.
No racer, the HR-V still gains ponies though, nudging up to 158 horsepower from its previous 141 from the 2.0-liter I4. Wish it had a turbo, but still the lightweight Honda is nimble and a fun drive, and AWD is only $1,500 extra. That’s not so much when you consider the starting price is basically $25,000 and a well-equipped Sport model is just $26,895. Top end you can still snag for a shade short of $31,000, including AWD.
5. BMW X3 xDrive 30i: If cost is less a concern, but you still want a nimble, downright racy small crossover look no further than this sporty BMW X3. Naturally a Bimmer falls into the compact premium luxury crossover market and the AWD system means road-holding is primo too.
If you think all the fuss about BMW handling better than other makes is bunk, well, jump in an X3 with the 2.0-liter twin-turbo I4 and hold on. It corners like a slot car and with 248 horsepower it’ll smoke a lot of sport sedans. The interior is clean and simple too, with enough leather and well-formed seats to make anyone comfy. Even ride is good, still sporty, but with enough comfort to justify the price. Which is? A base rear-driver starts near $47 grand and AWD is $2,000 extra. Oh, it can cost a lot more, especially if you opt for the I6 twin-turbo making 382 horsepower, think in the neighborhood of $60 grand. Still ….
Note: Any of these final four could be the vehicle of the year, but they each aim at totally different markets.
4. Nissan Z Performance: I’m a sucker for Nissan Z cars, to me the poor man’s Corvette starting with the Z’s intro in 1969. The Z though has been through various iterations and was off the market for several years until now, and instead of a number tacked onto the Z, as in 240Z, it’s now just Z. Simple is better, and that goes for design, powertrains and pricing.
First, its streamlined modern yet retro design, long hood and fastback tail makes it a standout in any parking lot or stoplight. People notice, but not for long. That’s because it cradles a 400-horsepower twin-turbo V6 that’ll zip the rear-drive speedster down a highway entry ramp like a racer exiting the pits. Plus it comes with a six-speed manual, now that’s racy. Interior is bright and sporty looking with round gauges above the dash and seats are race-car supportive. Even the price feels a bit retro, starting just north of $41,000, but the Performance model ups that to just beyond $51 grand. Z rocks!
3. Toyota GR86 Premium: I know, I know that Z could still be a bit beyond your budget, so how about a sexy sports coupe from Toyota that starts at (wait for it) a smidge over $30,000, including a six-speed manual tranny. A Premium model goes for just about a grand more and non-shifters can get an automatic for $1,500. Both trims are high-value fun.
The GR86 (GR stands for Gazoo Racing, a Toyota team) uses a Subaru 2.4-liter boxer 4, like Porsche prefers. That means smooth power, up 23 horses to 228 from the previous model. Sporty and spunky with a light feel (the car weighs less than 3,000 pounds) is a blast to power around twisty country roads and even around town. It’s easy to handle, park and with a limited-slip differential it corners well and powers out of turns like a pro racer. Good too that its disc brakes are vented and the ride better than several other small sport coupes. Since Subaru and Toyota developed this together, its cousin, the Subaru BRZ should be considered a winner too, I simply haven’t had a chance to test it yet.
2. Genesis G90 3.5T E-Supercharger AWD: This is a show-stopper in looks and performance, but this beautiful luxury sedan is not for the hourly worker. Still, I can’t stop thinking that it was the best car I had ever driven, no matter the price or brand. G90 is smooth, quiet, luxurious, and as handsome a sedan inside and out as has been produced. That’s saying something because smaller Genesis sedans are also quite beautiful.
The top-level 3.5T E-Supercharger packs a silky 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6 with an electric supercharger. Output? 409 horses and 405 pound-feet of torque. Oh my! The base model lacks the supercharger so only creates 375 hp. Darn! Both are loaded with tech features, multi-drive modes, rear-wheel steering for better handling, a 26-speaker B&O stereo system, push-button power doors, sun shades and get this, massaging front and back seats.
Pricing is what keeps the G90 from earning my top-rated spot though. Its entry sticker is roughly $89,500 and the Supercharger model lists at $100,000. I give it a few value marks though because its German competitors cost $15,000-$20,000 more.
Kia EV6 GT-Line AWD: Electric car haters avert your eyes. As much as I like gas-powered vehicles, it’s increasingly clear electric power is the future, and it’s arriving sooner than I, or most of us, thought.
Yet the car of the year, no matter its power source, needs to be a looker, a value and fun to drive. The Kia, and its cousins, the Hyundai Ioniq5 Limited AWD and pricier Genesis GV60 AWD, all meet the looks and fun-to-drive quotient.
But there’s only room for one winner and the Kia EV6 simply looks fabulous with its futuristic styling, slim lights, sleek nose, sporty profile, and muscular haunches that invite frisky behavior.
As I said in November’s review, this was the best electric vehicle I’d driven all year with spirited performance and the longest range, a key concern for any owner of an electric. My test car’s range topped out at 278 miles and the EV6 was quick to charge. Power from its twin electric motors is incredible at 320 horses with 446 pound-feet of torque. That used to be exotic supercar power. With AWD there’s superb traction and the batteries give the car a low center of gravity for stability and fine handling.
Beyond performance it was the beautifully designed interior that pushed this just past the Ioniq5. Seats feel like suede but are a man-made material and comfy, while the dash features twin 12.3-inch digital screens that merge as one and are easy to see and use. There’s a flat-bottom steering wheel and big center console with space beneath for a purse or bag. Practical!
All the digital features are here, like a wireless charger and heated and cooled seats, including heated outer rear seats, plus there’s Smartwatch connectivity for the digitally savvy buyers so the car can be started remotely from a watch. Waste heat from the coolant system also works to keep the batteries warm, increasing range especially in cold climates such as ours.
A base level EV6 starts just beyond $42,000, and the GT-Line with AWD goes for about $57,000, while a Wind trim level is wedged in between.
Costs still need to come down for electrics, but functionally the EV6, Ioniq5 and luxurious Genesis GV60 with its mesmerizing rotating crystal shift ball, meet most consumer demands.
They mark the beginning of useful, more practical electric vehicles, and thanks to their designers, they do it with style. Zoomie winner!
Honorable mentions: Depending on your budget, a few other vehicles I had this year are worth a look. At the higher end consider the Cadillac XT6 and Volvo XC60, both luxury ute/crossovers. At the lower end check out the Toyota Corolla Cross and GMC Terrain.
*(Comedian David Letterman attended my Indianapolis high school, Broad Ripple, and his quirky Top 10 lists were a hit on his CBS Late Night show for years.)
Links to the Top 10 car reviews:
Toyota Camry Hybrid:
Ford Maverick Hybrid: