2017 behind the wheel: Our favorite cars of the year
A whole slew of our four-wheeled coverage in 2017 involved autonomous vehicles and self-driving cars. And with good reason—between the big OEMs and a legion of startups, a lot is going on there. But human-driven vehicles aren't going anywhere just yet, and 2017 has been an interesting year behind the wheel here at Ars.
We've had a bumper crop of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids, with important new EVs from Chevrolet and Nissan bookending the calendar. We've driven enough crossovers and SUVs to fill a parking lot, some of which came in very handy during a house move. At the other end of the size chart, on one memorable day in Tennessee, I got to drive a gaggle of microcars, which made me realize just how far vehicle safety standards have progressed in 50 years. And there was a light sprinkling of supercars during the warmer months.
But the two cars that captivated me—the ones that still cause me to wax rhapsodic when people at dinner parties ask my opinion—belong to none of those categories.
It started with a Bolt and ended on a Leaf
2017 has been a great year for the battery electric vehicle. Both in the US and globally, sales of BEVs have been better than ever—although it only takes one look at the numbers in percentage terms to realize we still have a long way to go. The year began and ended with a pair of very competent mass-market BEVs. The Chevrolet Bolt EV is the more expensive of the two, has a much longer range, and is also a bit more fun to drive. The Nissan Leaf, on the other hand, comes with the latest ProPilot Assist system (which is good) and has more than enough range for the vast majority of us. When Tesla's Model 3 finally starts showing up en masse there should be quite a good selection out there for people looking to ditch the internal combustion engine for less than $50,000.
Utility vehicles—not sure about the sport
This was the year I realized I couldn't keep ignoring crossovers and SUVs. Yes, I can give you a hundred reasons why I think you'd be better off with a sportback or station wagon or shooting brake. But the sales charts don't lie: no one cares about that stuff. The customers have spoken, and they want a lofty driving position to go with their hatchback and fold-flat rear seats.
I enjoyed the Mini Countryman, particularly with a manual gearbox. And the Porsche Macan GTS—a review you should be able to read in a week or two—was marvelous, and very car-like, but you'd hope so with a sticker price of nearly $84,000!
After driving a handful of plug-in hybrid crossovers and SUVs, I'm still left with questions. If you have somewhere to charge regularly and mostly make short journeys, I can definitely see the appeal. Driving a two-ton monster around smug in the knowledge that you're not burning nonrenewable fossil fuels is a wonderful feeling. And electric motors work well in vehicles that have a lot of mass that needs moving. But is the extra cost and weight worth it? A PHEV option will cost several thousand dollars more and may only deliver a few extra miles per gallon.
SUV-haters beware: you'll see more of them on these pages in 2018 as Eric Bangeman tries to drive them all.
Driver aids are getting really good
Cadillac's new Super Cruise system sounds marvelous, but we'll have to wait until 2018 to sample it. The same goes for Tesla's current Autopilot, which remains a work in progress. So after plenty of miles driving hand in hand with the machine in other makes and models (and excepting those two systems), I'm confident in stating that Audi, Volvo, and Nissan are at the head of the pack for level 2 driving. By that I mean adaptive cruise control and lane keeping: as the human, you still have to be in the driver's seat, focused on the road and keeping your hands on the wheel—no reading books or watching DVDs!
The idea behind these systems is not to do the driving for you. Instead, level 2 takes some of the low-level tasks off your plate. That, and to provide a little electronic safety net with things like blind-spot detection or pedestrian warnings. Now, you might scoff at the idea and think you don't need it, and for some of you that might be true. But think how many crappy drivers you encounter in an average week—wouldn't life be great if they had a digital nanny to prevent them doing stupid things behind the wheel?
But the cars I won’t shut up about are…
Each year, there's a car or two that sticks with you: ones you keep bringing up in conversation, and ones you keep wanting to drive again. You might expect that a supercar would occupy that place in 2017. After all, the Ferrari 488 GTB was spectacular, even at legal speeds. The Audi R8 V10+ probably sounded the best, and 15 minutes was too short of an experience in the Acura NSX to really form a proper judgement. But anyway, none of those got under my skin the way a couple of other rides did.
In the runners-up spot is the Kia Stinger GT. In rear-wheel drive form it was a joy to drive and a car that has lived up to the hype, which had been steadily building all year. The cabin is spacious and well-appointed. The car looks damn good. And it ought to be plenty reliable, too. Kia deserves to sell them by the bucketload.
But the Alfa Romeo Giulia is what truly won my heart in 2017. I drove the $72,000 505-horsepower Giulia Quadrifoglio first, and what a car that was. $10,000 cheaper than rivals from BMW or Mercedes-Benz and flawed in ways those cars would never be, it's infused with character and soul. A 30-minute drive with the Giulia in Race mode—all the power and plenty of noise, but remember to soften the dampers—will leave even non-smokers wanting a cigarette. It's that kind of car.
The engine is basically the same as the twin-turbo V8 Ferrari uses, but with two cylinders cut out. The steering is hyper-responsive, also like a modern Ferrari, and those big aluminum paddle shifters feel so, so right to your fingertips.
But here's the more remarkable thing: the entry-level car is half the price but almost as good. Yes, you lose some of the soundtrack, and it won't set a record-breaking Nürburgring time. But as long as you spec it with a limited-slip differential, sports seats, and the paddle shifters, you'll find the 2.0L rear-wheel drive Giulia nearly as engaging to drive and presumably much cheaper to run. And, from the outside, it still looks menacingly beautiful. As I understand it, sales have been a bit of a disaster for the Giulia, which is a shame, because the car really is spectacular.
Listing image by Jonathan Gitlin
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