Automotive Excellence Awards | Best Cars 2020
If there’s one thread woven through all of the best cars of 2020 below, it is practicality. And capability. And more premium features and specs making their way down to more affordable models. Alright, so it’s hard to declare one overarching trend this year in the ever-broadening vehicle market. Below, you’ll find the first mid-engine Corvette that’s within financial reach for more of us, a pickup with an interior so nice you might forget you’re sitting in a beast of a hauler, and a campervan that finally captures a certain Westfalia vibe while being a legitimate errand-running and daily driver.
Throughout the year, we got behind the wheels of these crossovers, SUVs, sedans, vans, trucks, wagons, and sports cars, driving them on highways, city streets, and rutted forest roads (where it made sense). We also cross-referenced our experiences in them with data from other expert sources like Car & Driver, and we referred to reliability scores from J.D. Power, Edmunds, and Consumer Reports where they were available. Each performed differently, but well. Presenting the best cars, and car developments, of 2020.
Car of the Year: Chevrolet Corvette Stingray
Crossover of the Year: Mazda CX-30
Hatchback of the Year: Honda Civic Si
Full-Size Truck of the Year: Ram 1500
Mid-Size Truck of the Year: Jeep Gladiator
Sedan of the Year: Kia K5
Station Wagon of the Year: Subaru Outback
Electric Vehicle of the Year: Polestar 2
SUV of the Year: Land Rover Defender
Family Car of the Year: Kia Telluride
RV of the Year: Mercedes-Benz Metris Getaway
Engine Development of the Year: Small Power
User-Interface Tech of the Year: Voice Command That Works
—CAR OF THE YEAR—
2020 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray
Price: $59,995 | Layout: Mid-engine, rear-wheel drive | Transmission: 8-speed dual-clutch automatic | Zero to 60: 2.8 seconds | Engine: 6.2-liter V8 | Power: 490 hp, 470 lb.-ft.
Anyone’s dream garage always includes at least one example of a specific type of car: two seats, set in front of a big engine. For decades, with a few unusual exceptions, these cars were always unattainable six-figure exotics, usually from Italy or England. The economics of making a mid-engine sports car, it seemed, made it impossible to build one for non-millionaires. But this year, Chevrolet found a way. The new Corvette is a fast, agile, covet-worthy stunner of a car, for $60,000.
So much of what makes Ferraris, McLarens, and Lamborghinis the stuff of phone wallpaper fantasy is present. The C8 (eighth generation Corvette) will go from a Stop sign to 60 mph in under three seconds, and do so with a pleasantly terrifying exhaust sound. The seats are set forward on its footprint, giving you that tip-of-the-cruise-missile feeling. By the end of our week-long test drive, the view from the driveway and the driver’s seat never lost its novelty. It is thrilling to hold the keys to this thing.
Usually, this level of presence and performance costs you everyday practicality, but Chevy figured out a way around that, too. The Corvette is livable. Actually, comfortable. Its front and rear trunks have 13 cubic feet of cargo space, enough for us to fit two week’s worth of groceries for three people. And a four-hour trip in heavy traffic and rain, the kind of drive that would be exhausting in any vehicle, was mostly pleasant. The sound-dampening materials kept the cockpit quiet at highway speeds. The center display was clear enough to skip between songs via Apple CarPlay. And that strange center bar with the air conditioning controls made sense within just a few miles of our first drive. (Our vehicle came with the hydraulic lift to raise the front lip over speed bumps, a $1,495 option, but we only needed it for one especially steep driveway).
That comfort means that the Corvette loses some of the vibration that helps you feel feedback from the road, even in its most aggressive drive setting. And as our colleagues at Car and Driver have pointed out, the steering feel doesn’t quite have the precision you get from six figures. Porsche’s $100,000 718 Cayman and Spider are slightly more engaging (though slower) driving experiences, particularly with its six-speed manual over this one’s automatic dual-clutch. But for those of us who like a little utility in a two-seater, the Corvette is a good balance.
For the last three years, Pop Mech’s Car of the Year has been electric. The Chevy Bolt, Tesla Model 3, and Kia Niro have all been signals of an electric future, and signs of our reluctant acceptance that most modern conveniences, like big V8s, are a pretty bad way to use Earth’s resources. But even if this is the last non-electric car we award, the C8 will have partially defined the automotive industry for 2020. For now, the car is a consumer good that, when done right, can make you desire one, even against your better judgement. —Alexander George
—CROSSOVER OF THE YEAR—
2020 Mazda CX-30
Base price: $21,900 | Engine: 2.5-liter, four-cylinder, 186 hp, 186 lb.-ft. | Transmission: 6-speed automatic | MPG: 25 city, 32 highway, 27 combined
We love dependability, smart engineering, and a great value. That’s true whether we’re testing automobiles or impact wrenches. And this little compact SUV from Mazda delivers all three.
By lavishing the interior with premium materials where you’re mostly likely to encounter them (on the seat, the steering wheel, and parts of the door), Mazda made the CX-30 feel as luxurious as vehicles that cost twice as much. And the exterior looks as refined as anything from Audi or BMW—even the paint, with its deep, radiant colors, is a step above what you’ll typically find at this price.
The electronics and sound system are high-quality, and the CX comes packed with standard safety features, many of which you’d have to pay extra for on other vehicles. And we’re big fans of the rotary dial for controlling the infotainment system—the tactile feel and central location make it easier to operate than a touch screen system.
On the road, test drivers have complimented the CX’s responsive, crisp handling. It’s more precise than you’d expect for a taller vehicle—not quite as good as the CX-3, but we’ll take it given the extra ground clearance and taller ride height. If there’s a trade off, it comes when you mash the gas pedal. With 186 horses, the CX-30 should lurch forward faster than it does, taking 8.6 seconds to hit 60 mph. But if a little extra zip is important to you, wait a few more months. Mazda should have a 250-horsepower turbocharged version ready later this year or in early 2021.
While this version may not do the Zoom-Zoom thing quite as well as the CX-3, it delivers exactly what car buyers want: a luxurious ride at a fantastically low price. —Louis Mazzante
—HATCHBACK OF THE YEAR—
2020 Honda Civic Si
Base price: $25,200 | Engine: Turbocharged 1.5-liter, four-cylinder, 205 hp, 192 lb.-ft. | Transmission: 6-speed manual | MPG: 26 city, 36 highway, 30 combined
Think of this punchy little coup as Hawk from Cobra Kai. Just as the supporting character in Netflix’s Karate Kid spin-off transforms from a meek high school student to a brash, show-no-mercy competitor, the Si is the feisty version of the traditionally mellow Civic. And like Hawk’s fin of crimson spiked hair, the Si’s exterior is defined by its sharp lines set against an arcing profile. The car even has a showy, ornamental rear fin of its own.
But you don’t have to be a fan of the films to appreciate what Honda’s done here. This latest Si is available as a coupe or sedan (but not a hatch version) and comes with a 205-horse, 1.5-liter turbocharged motor that feels gutsier than those in some similar vehicles. Matched to a tightly spaced, six-speed manual transmission, it encourages you to drive enthusiastically. And the metallic pedals should inspire even non-racers to hone their rev-matching skills on downshifts.
Honda also deserves credit for teasing so much performance from this model without losing the Civic’s hallmark practicality. You get a full suite of safety features, a well-constructed interior, supportive (and heated) front seats, and a roomy trunk. There’s even adaptive cruise control, a nice feature that makes this manual-drivetrain a little more road-trip worthy.
After testing the Si on the track, during which the sedan version shot from zero to 60 in 6.3 seconds, our colleagues at Car and Driver wrote that “you’d be hard-pressed to find another front-wheel-drive car that handles this well.” Honda changed only a few things from the 2019 version, but two are notable and worth the minor bump in price: The matte-black 18-inch wheels and new LED headlights give this Si a more current look that fits its aggressive profile.
With a new season of Cobra Kai slated for next year, we’re not sure what will become of Hawk’s character, but we know for certain that this pugnacious little street brawler is a winner. —LM
—FULL-SIZE TRUCK OF THE YEAR—
2021 Ram 1500
Base price: $33,940 | Engine: 3.6-liter V6, 305 hp, 269 lb.-ft. | Transmission: 8-speed automatic | Towing capacity: 6,730 lb. | Payload: 2,320 lb. | MPG: 22 combined
This should come as no surprise, but we here at Popular Mechanics like a useful tailgate. I’ve used the one on my early-oughts Chevy Silverado during projects as a workstation and prop for 2x4s when I didn’t have a dedicated sawhorse. So though Ram’s Multifunction Tailgate isn’t exactly new (it debuted on the 2019 model year 1500, coincidentally not long after GMC launched its fancy MultiPro gate), we’re happy to see Ram has kept it in the 2021 version. It’s comprised of two doors that swing open horizontally along a 60/40 split—affording easier access deep into the 1500’s bed—as well as vertically down when you do need that makeshift platform. When dropped as a normal gate, it can hold up to 2,000 pounds.
But the tailgate is only one part of a vehicle that’s gotten more fancy, luxury features as its capability as a half-ton work truck has grown. The standard 1500 comes with an 8.4-inch touchscreen, but you can buy up for a 12-inch version. Same goes for heated and ventilated seats, a heads-up display, and digital rearview mirror, as well as a steering aid when you’re backing the truck up to a trailer.
As for that capability, the 1500 comes with smooth coil spring suspension standard (and adjustable air suspension as an option). And if you plan to do much driving on dirt or forest roads, you’d be better off splurging on the $3,500 upgrade to four-wheel drive over the standard rear-wheel. But the 1500’s towing is second in its class, behind only the Ford F-150. In another nod to handymen and women, built-in cargo bed bins provide some storage for miscellaneous tools.
The 1500 is expensive, but you get a lot for your money, both in creature comforts and driving chops in a class that’s increasingly blurring the lines between luxury and heavy-duty. —Will Egensteiner
—MID-SIZE TRUCK OF THE YEAR—
2020 Jeep Gladiator
Base price: $35,040 (Gladiator Sport) | Engine: 3.6-liter V6, 285 hp, 260 lb.-ft. | Transmission: 6-speed manual or 8-speed automatic | MPG: 16 city, 23 highway
The Gladiator is so damn cool that we forgive its Wrangler-related crudities—slow steering, solid front axle, noise—because its Wrangler qualities also make it wonderful. Hey, if you want a better four-door convertible pickup truck, go find another one. The Gladiator also features easily removable doors and a windshield that folds down. It’s a rare combination of whimsical fun and everyday usefulness, a workhorse that doubles as a weekend toy. Like the Wrangler, there are roughly five million ways you can configure a Gladiator, so allow us to opine on the hot setup.
First of all, manual or automatic? If you want your Gladiator to tow as much as possible, that’s a foregone conclusion, since the Max Tow package is only available with the ZF eight-speed transmission. Normally, forsaking a manual is a capitulation, but the ZF is so good we’d probably recommend it anyway (despite the $2,000 bump for that option).
For the roof, you’ll want the premium soft top. As with the Wrangler, there will no doubt be a lot of Gladiators running around with hard tops. Which, yes, will provide a quieter cabin. But the whole point of a Gladiator is to enjoy its open-air capabilities, and you just won’t be able to do that with the hard top. Where are you going to store it? Who’s going to help? Forget about that. Pop two latches on the windshield, stand on the running board and fold the soft-top back past the rear seats. It takes five seconds. You’ll do it all the time.
Now, about that Max Tow package. A manual-transmission Gladiator maxes out at 4,000 pounds. An Overland tops out at 6,000 pounds. The Rubicon can tow 7,000 pounds. But the hottest setup is the Sport S Max Tow, which uses the Rubicon’s heavy-duty axles and 4.10 final-drive ratio, minus the locking differentials, to arrive at a 7,650-pound tow rating. Like the Rubicon, the Max Tow is a little bit wider than other Gladiators, with the fenders extended over the extra track. That alone is good reason to go for the Max Tow—the wide-body look, even if it’s subtle, is a worthy aspiration. And unless you’re actually driving across the Rubicon trail, you’re better off not daily-driving a Rubicon, with its super-aggressive tires and expensive diffs and disconnectable front sway bar.
There you go. Top-down trailering: This is how you do it. —Ezra Dyer
—SEDAN OF THE YEAR—
2021 Kia K5
Price: $24,455 | Engine: 1.6-liter, I-4, 180 hp, 195 lb.-ft. | Transmission: 8-speed automatic | MPG: 32 (combined city and highway) | Warranty: 10 years or 100,000 miles (powertrain) | Standard safety: automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping, blind-spot monitor
Fifteen years ago, Kias were known for being affordable, usually the economy option on the rental lot. Now, along with its sibling companies Hyundai and Genesis, the Korean brand builds covet-worthy cars, with tech and performance beyond what the MSRP would have you expect. The transformation shows up in flagships like the Genesis G90, which sells the same luxury as Mercedes and BMW for tens of thousands of dollars less. And in the Kia Stinger GT, a bargain performance five-seater that will keep up with AMG and M cars. This year, the K5 is the example of Kia’s newfound ability to unseat category champions—in this case, Nissan Altimas and Toyota Camrys, the go-to choices for practical transportation.
We test drove the K5 GT-Line ($25,390) that came with a $1,600 feature package that used to require spending at least $30,000. Our K5 had adaptive cruise control that will keep up with traffic, come to a full stop, then start moving again, all without any human intervention. If you haven’t experienced it, this kind of ACC makes stop-and-go traffic much, much more tolerable. Also included in our tester: A brilliant phone dock, with wireless charging and a cooling mechanism. You can spend less and still get safety functions like automatic braking, lane-keeping, and automatic high-beams, all standard on any K5.
Yes, most of the country will probably keep buying pickup trucks and crossovers. But the K5 makes a hell of a case for the affordable sedan. —AG
—STATION WAGON OF THE YEAR—
2020 Subaru Outback
Base price: $27,655 | Engine: 2.5-liter Flat 4, 182 hp, 176 lb.-ft. of torque | Transmission: 8-speed automatic | Towing capacity: 2,700 lb. | MPG: 26 city, 33 highway
Pull into a trailhead parking lot on a busy day and you’re likely to spot a few Outbacks. The wagon has long been a favorite among the outdoor crowd for its reasonable off-road capability and handling, cargo capacity, and towing prowess. I’ve even been on a camping trip with not one but two Outback owners, and both dropped the back row of seats to sleep right in their car while I slummed it in my tent on the ground.
This sixth generation of the vehicle gives us no reason to think Subaru has strayed from the Outback’s adventure-oriented strengths, even if it’s gotten a hefty facelift and a few techy upgrades. Leg room in the back seat is bumped up by 1.5 inches, and cargo space is a generous 33 cubic feet. The 8.7 inches of ground clearance is better than that of the much bigger Kia Telluride (below). And as with most Subarus, all-wheel drive comes standard. Interior niceties include an 11.6-inch touchscreen (or two 7-inch ones in the base models) and optional navigation, Wi-Fi hotspot, and wireless phone charging.
As for how it drives: The steering is accurate and the suspension smooth. The Outback felt planted and responsive despite its height. Though a common gripe is that the acceleration and transmission in the base package lack pep. (During our test drive of the Limited XT tier, with the 2.4-liter turbocharged boxer engine, we had no such issues.) Still, if you’re looking for a practical rig that you can do all your daily tasks with and then outfit for weekend adventures, the Outback is it. —WE
—ELECTRIC VEHICLE OF THE YEAR—
2020 Polestar 2
Base price: $59,900 (not including $7,500 EV rebate) | Range: 291 miles (Polestar estimates “mid-200s” for typical use ) | Engine: 408 hp, 487 lb.-ft. | Battery capacity: 78 kWh | Charge time: 8 hours (11kW home box, zero to 100%); 40 mins. (public 150kW DC fast charger, zero to 80%)
Polestar is technically a new company, but it’s connected to a large corporation, which means, for example, access to Volvo’s driver-assistance tech. I mention this corporate backstory because it manifests in the Polestar 2. The car is a blend of radical futurism and established conventions. And for the way we drive in 2020, the formula works.
The Polestar 2 will go zero to 60 in 4.45 seconds. For comparison, the $54,990 Tesla Model 3 Performance’s 3.2 seconds is slightly more urgent, but anything under 5 seconds means thrilling highway merges. But like the Model 3, the Polestar 2 has unusually good steering feel and the right amount of suspension feedback. During my test drive, it stayed planted through aggressive cornering, but then became pleasantly calm during tedious highway commutes. The Polestar 2 clears the 2020 baselines for speed and range in an electric car, and is also a pleasure to drive in every practical scenario.
Then there’s the interior. Polestar’s cabin starts with the brilliant simplicity of Tesla’s one-big-tablet setup in the Model 3 and Y, and adds what, after several hours of driving, feels like the right amount of familiarity. The 2 has a dashboard, which can be set to show several arrangements of vital information—speed, range, navigation. The center screen can show just Google Maps, Spotify, etc., or break into quadrants. Controls for functions like climate, seat heaters, and cameras, are usually always visible in an upper or lower dock.
Some might still prefer a Tesla Model 3, of course. Unlike a Tesla, a Polestar will probably never have fart mode, or arcade games. But it does have the responsiveness, speed, range, and technology that make the Model 3 so desirable. The Polestar 2 might be the electric car for people who don’t want to make a thing of it. Either way, count me as the first to celebrate the fact that we now have enough electric cars to choose from that personal expression is even a factor. At the very least, the Polestar 2 is an affirmation that having more great electric cars is good for customers, and the entire automotive industry. —AG
Editor’s Note: Polestar has asked all Polestar 2 owners to bring their vehicles (2,189 total) to service centers for a software update. The “voluntary safety recall” will fix an issue where the vehicle can lose power while driving. No injuries or collisions have been attributed to this flaw. We’ll be watching for updates and any signs of quality control problems with the vehicle. But with the resources Polestar has available, and since the issue will likely be resolved before the car arrives in North America, we don’t see enough evidence to disqualify the 2 from its place as our EV Car of the Year. We will update as we hear more.
—SUV OF THE YEAR—
2020 Land Rover Defender
Price: $50,925 (110 four-door model) | Rows: 2 or 3, with an optional center front seat | Max Ground Clearance: 11.5 in. | Suspension: Independent with coils (standard) or air (optional) | Base Engine: Turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4, 296 hp, 295 lb.-ft. | Optional Engine: Turbo- and supercharged 3.0-liter inline-6, 395 hp, 406 lb.-ft. | MPG: 19 combined
Back in late 2019, when Land Rover unveiled a car called the Defender, we had doubts. In photos, it looked like a sensible crossover, far from the loud, slow, infinitely capable, refrigerator-shaped awesomeness of the last-generation Defender. We assumed that the last 20 years of safety and emissions regulations had made a true Defender successor nearly impossible. We were wrong.
Its short overhangs give it an industry-top approach angle (38 degrees, second only to the Wrangler). And once you fully inflate the air suspension, it has 11.5 inches of ground clearance, able to ford 35.4 inches of water (both better numbers than the Wrangler’s). In practice, that means that even novices like us could push through mud and up scarily steep gradients. And on our drive back to civilization—same car, same tires—the Defender pleasantly ate up highway miles. There was no road noise or tire hum. The center touch screen is, unlike other Range Rovers, lag-free. Rear visibility is terrible, but the optional video rearview mirror made that a non-issue.
Our praise comes with the hope that the Defender defies Land Rover’s poor reputation for reliability—to be fair, Wranglers have the same issue, while alternatives like the Toyota 4Runner and Land Cruiser might be cheaper to own. But nothing else feels as futuristically capable as the Defender. —AG
—FAMILY CAR OF THE YEAR—
2020 Kia Telluride
Base price: $33,060 | Engine: 3.8-liter V6, 291 hp, 262 lb.-ft. | Transmission: 8-speed automatic | MPG: 23 combined
Kias, as we’ve established, have historically flown under the radar, making reliable cars but not ones that ever blew us away. The Telluride is among the vehicles to have changed that. It made us sit up and take notice, primarily for its harmonious blend of comfort, capability, and accessibility.
The first time we took the Telluride out, it was to North Carolina’s Uwharrie National Forest and up a steep, technically challenging trail, never expecting to make it fully up. But we did. To be sure, one of the front tires flatted on the return trip. Yet its 8 inches of clearance was enough to get up and over steep berms, and the departure angle was similar to that of a Ram 4×4’s 18.9 degrees. And the traction control kept the Telluride moving even when it only had two wheels on the ground. As we noted then, there aren’t any front or rear locking differentials, “but the traction control can mimic a locker’s action by simply grabbing the brake on a slipping tire, thus sending torque to the side with traction.”
Okay, but what makes the Telluride a family car? The third row of seating, for one thing, and ample cargo capacity even with it up, for another. The trunk has enough room that, when we tested the Telluride again earlier this year, we dropped the third-row seats and loaded everything we needed (and then some) for a weekend of car camping with space to spare. Our tester came with a rooftop tent, so two parents up top and two kids down below would be reasonable if you prefer to avoid sleeping on the ground. Plus, in the SX tier, there are USB ports on the backs of the driver and passenger seats—handy for when boredom-induced fidgeting calls for a little electronic distraction on road trips. Our colleagues at Car & Driver eked 24 mpg highway out of the Telluride, ok for its segment.
And often with family cars, more so than other rigs, buying decisions come down to price. Since the Telluride starts at $33k, the decision is made that much easier. Yeah, the priciest build with all the bells and whistles (think rain-sensing wipers, heated second-row seats) gets up close to $60,000. But spec lower and the savings might actually be enough so you can justify splurging on that rooftop tent. —WE
—RV OF THE YEAR—
2020 Mercedes-Benz Metris Getaway
Base price: $70,000 | Engine: 2.0-liter inline-4, 208 hp, 258 lb.-ft. | Transmission: 7-speed automatic | MPG: 21 combined (for the base passenger Metris before upfitting)
The Getaway is the result of a three-way partnership—between Mercedes, an upfitter called Driverge Vehicle Innovations, and Seattle-based Volkswagen restoration, repair, and rental operation Peace Vans. And after our test drive, we can confidently dub it the long sought-after successor to the VW Vanagon, everyones favorite campervan from the ’70s and ’80s. “We viscerally felt the gap in the market [left by the Vanagon],” Peace Vans owner Harley Sitner says. “Every single day, the most common customer question was: ‘When is a new modern pop-top VW camper coming out?’ Frankly, I got sick of it.”
During two weeks of putting the Getaway (which goes on sale this fall for $70,000) through duty as a surf van and a mountain escape pod, my family and I became enamored. Though it lacks that coolness of a Vanagon, the Getaway shares more DNA with an old-school VW than a luxury Toyota Sienna or Honda Odyssey. The interior is spartan—with plastic trim, tough wood laminate flooring, manual seats, and no galley or cabinetry. But that makes it well suited to the rigors of an outdoor lifestyle. And it still offers a nice Pioneer stereo unit and Mercedes’s slew of safety features: traction, lane, and stability control, emergency braking, and blind spot warnings. Plus, it’s among the only campers in the U.S. with rear curtain airbags.
Inside, the Getaway has a trick sliding bench with under-seat storage, three shoulder belts, and a removable, adjustable table. Crucially, that seat also easily folds down into a spacious double bed. Overhead is the coup de grace: a crash-tested fiberglass pop-top. Releasing a couple of latches and giving a gentle push creates a cavernous, tented interior with yet another double bed hiding in the roof. Together, the mattresses provided roomy, comfortable sleep for all four of us. Both front seats rotate 180 degrees and, with a removable table, create a small lounge ideal for card games and relaxing between sweltering suburban soccer matches.
Driving into the mountains, 17-inch Pirelli Scorpion A/T tires and nearly 2-inch lift lent our rear-wheel-drive test vehicle an aggressive stance and nearly 7 inches of clearance—plenty for North Carolina fire roads. The Pirellis were reasonably quiet and gripped winding pavement, wet clay, and loose scree with aplomb. And the Getaway’s tight 36-foot turning radius eased through forest switchbacks. I initially worried that its turbocharged 2.0-liter, inline four would feel anemic, but with 258 pound-feet of torque, its 208 horses ran up the Blue Ridge Escarpment and steep fire roads while delivering nearly 20 mpg. (To test the van’s 5,000-pound tow capacity, I also hauled our 4,500-pound boat to our local ramp. No problem.) The steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters were a revelation, providing instant downshifts on steep grades.
The verdict? If your family is in the market for a high-end escape pod, you would do well to strongly consider this Mercedes. For the price of a well-outfitted Lexus GX or a Ford F150 Limited Edition, you get a safe, fun, reliable, and eminently practical and capable micro RV with more hauling capacity than any minivan. It’s a rig that manages to capture the zeitgeist of the venerable Vanagon—with none of the mechanical risk. —Chris Dixon
—ENGINE DEVELOPMENT OF THE YEAR—
New cars need to be more fuel efficient than last year, but they also need to be faster. That simultaneous pressure of emissions regulations and performance demands explains the recent proliferation of engines that make a ton of power from only three or four small cylinders. Credit, among other factors, advancements in turbocharging, which forces more air into smaller combustion chambers, creating more forceful explosions without using more fuel. That’s how Volvo’s T5 2.0-liter hits 248 horsepower and 258 pound-feet in the excellent XC40 ($35,700). That translates to a solid 6.2-second zero-to-60, with around 30 mpg. We had more fun hauling camping gear in the Mini JCW Countryman All4 ($41,900), with its 301-horsepower four-cylinder and 4.9-second zero-to-60. But the king of small-displacement power is Mercedes-AMG’s new 416-horsepower four-cylinder, the M139. Which, sadly, isn’t available in North America, though we may create a formal petition to change that. —AG
—USER-INTERFACE TECH OF THE YEAR—
Voice Command That Works
The steering wheels and center screens on modern cars, especially expensive luxury cars, are often a mess of buttons, knobs, and sub-menus. Alexa-style voice controls are, when they work, a more logical way to get what you want without having to learn a new operating system at 70 mph. This approach isn’t new—the GPS in my friend’s 2004 Acura TSX would correctly respond to “Find the nearest Thai restaurant.” But this year, voice systems caught up to smartphones by processing commands remotely. Rather than relying on on-board processing, a new Mercedes will send your command to a data center for better accuracy, same as Alexa. Polestar’s Google Assistant integration is the most responsive voice assistant that we’ve seen, but others such as Hey Mercedes also showed huge improvements, able to correctly find a satellite radio station or adjust the interior temperature. They’re also unexpectedly irreverent. We asked the Mercedes A-Class, “Who is your father?” Its response: “What do you want me to say? You. Ok? You are my daddy now.” —AG
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