America’s love affair with the sport-utility vehicle continued in 2016, as gasoline prices remained low, and automakers kept their best engineers and designers on SUV duty. Today’s SUVs – mostly unibody vehicles called crossovers – ride and handle like passenger cars, but are built to keep their cool on bad roads and in worse weather. People also like the high seating position. But the real lure of the SUV, which may not be understood by all who buy them, is potential. People who are poised to spend $20,000, $30,000, $40,000 or more for a motor vehicle want one that will do it all. In the automotive world, SUVs come closest to that ideal.
Many of the 50 or so cars we test-drove last year were SUVs, from the diminutive Mazda CX-3 and Mitsubishi Outlander Sport to the beefy Dodge Durango and GMC Acadia. Last week, we took a look back at our favorite sedans, sports cars and models best described as unique. Following are the best of the luxury sedans, SUVs and pickup trucks.
Full-size luxury sedan
Eight years ago, Hyundai started dabbling in high-end, full-sized luxury sedans, with the Equus. We were skeptical; it seemed unlikely the sort of people who normally frequent Lexus, BMW and Mercedes-Benz dealerships would find their way to Hyundai showrooms. But the South Korean automaker judged the response promising enough to bundle its Equus and Genesis badges into a new, premium brand.
Our first encounter with the new nameplate was a 2017 Genesis G90, successor to the Equus, while the midsize G80 replaces the original Genesis. The G90 we drove is a $71,550 luxury cruiser that tries to keep up with six-figure European models, and seldom comes up short. Its refinement, interior accommodations, standard features, ride and interior quiet largely meet or exceed the European standard – for tens of thousands of dollars less. The G90 doesn’t measure up in cornering and responsiveness, however. Still, “a luxury sedan should handle well enough to make its driver feel comfortable and confident; it doesn’t need to have the athleticism of a Porsche Boxster,” we observed.
The sales numbers remain small, but seem to be headed in the right direction, according to Hyundai: “The G90, a finalist for North American Car of the Year, saw sales move up 26 percent over the previous month, as dealer inventory continues to improve,” Erwin Raphael, general manager of Genesis in the U.S. market, said Jan. 4. “The brand overall was up 33 percent, and we look forward to building upon that momentum in 2017.”
The competition in this increasingly popular category resulted in a tie between the Jeep Renegade Trailhawk – a car we leased for personal use – and the BMW X1, which we test drove.
After nearly a year, the rugged little Renegade has remained fun to drive, functional and reliable. It’s also comparatively fuel efficient, averaging nearly 25 mpg. We were attracted by the Renegade’s “rugged personality and all-weather, all-road capabilities … (and) it also had ample front-seat legroom for tall drivers, good fuel economy and clever touches that suggested its makers were on their game.” It’s also affordable; our well-equipped Renegade Trailhawk was priced at $27,635. (The base Renegade, with front-wheel drive, starts at $17,995.) In a year that saw slow sales of some Jeep models, Fiat Chrysler sold more than 106,000 Renegades in the United States during 2016, a dramatic increase over the debut model year.
BMW’s X1 has a pretty big price tag for a small car: $43,945 for our loaded test vehicle, about $11,000 more than the base model. The 2016 model is a little bigger than the 2015 X1, but handling and overall performance remain exemplary. “The car feels impeccably balanced in all road conditions,” we wrote. “Road noise is moderate, but there’s virtually no wind noise. While the ride is consistently firm, the X1 handles the worst road surfaces … with more composure than more softly sprung SUVs.” In what was a lackluster year for BMW overall, X1 sales rose 87 percent.
The Jeep costs less and is more rugged than the BMW, but the X1 is more refined and roomier.
The Mazda CX-5 flirts with the boundary between compact and midsize SUV, but it reflects Mazda’s best efforts in the SUV category. “The CX-5’s strongest suit is its driving dynamics,” we wrote in our review of the 2016 CX-5 Grand Touring test car. “… It’s not just reassuring and confidence-inspiring; it’s actually fun to drive. Mazda has brought the roadworthiness of its sedans, the Mazda3 and Mazda6, to the crossover game.” Our loaded, all-wheel-drive test car had a sticker price of $32,640, but less well-equipped models with front-wheel drive start at $21,795. The CX-5 is sporty, fuel-efficient and refined, and it’s a strong seller for the second-tier Japanese automaker. For 2017, Mazda plans to offer a CX-5 with a 2.2-liter turbodiesel engine.
We’ve been reading for years that the Honda Ridgeline was one of the top-ranked midsize pickup trucks, but never had the opportunity to drive one until recently. Honda had halted production of the truck in 2014 and brought it back last year, after a full redesign. Our test truck, a 2017 Ridgeline RTL-E with all-wheel drive, proved the critics right. It’s one fine truck.
Built in Lincoln, Ala., the Ridgeline is a four-door crew cab with a short bed. The base Ridgeline, with front-wheel drive, a 280-horsepower V-6 engine and independent suspension, starts at $29,475. Our loaded test truck had a sticker price of $42,270. The Ridgeline can’t match full-sized trucks like the GMC Sierra and Ford F150 for ruggedness, payload capacity and towing power, but it offers superb road manners, interior comfort and ergonomics. Its fuel economy is among the best, at 18 mpg city, 25 highway, with all-wheel drive. It’s a Honda, so reliability is a given. And it’s tough enough to do most, if not all, of the work expected of a crew cab.
For all its good qualities, the Ridgeline apparently poses no threat to the big dogs of the pickup-truck sector, led by Ford’s F150 with 820,799 units sold. Just 23,667 Ridgelines left Honda showrooms after the hiatus.
Steven Macoy ([email protected]) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.