News that Dodge is burying its iconic Hellcat models sent a shiver through the auto market this fall as enthusiasts fear a wave of cookie-cutter electric vehicles in the decade ahead. Government scolds are in the driver’s seat — are we doomed for a repeat of “That ’70s Show”?
Happily in 2021, the auto menu is a feast of flavors.
Consider the year saw the introduction of everything from the V-8-powered, 668-horsepower Cadillac CT-5 Blackwing to the battery-powered, 1,020-horsepower Tesla Model S Plaid. Automotive purists got manual toys from the $28K Subaru BRZ to the $138K Porsche 911 GTS. Even the pickup market saw an explosion in diversity with rookies like the entry-level Ford Maverick and electric Rivian R1T.
The sudden growth of pickups beyond the usual light-duty workhorses dovetailed with the SUV revolution that has washed over the U.S. market in the past 10 years. Volume SUV segments saw upgrades from familiar names like Jeep Grand Cherokee, Nissan Pathfinder and Jeep Wrangler, as well as new kids like Volkswagen ID.4 and Genesis G70. Americans escaped to the great, socially distanced outdoors in the adventurous Ford Bronco and Jeep Wrangler 4xe — as well as new trim lines like Subaru Wilderness.
We got a Mach-E, e-Tron, MX30, TLX, Ioniq 5, RS6, Carnival and Karma. Off-road, on-track, gas, electric, three-motor, four-wheel-drive.
My 2021 Vehicle of the Year winners:
Third place: Tesla Model S
Yeah, I know, it starts at $91,190 and is out of reach for most of us. But the Model S has been the most influential car of the past decade and the 2022 model is its first major reboot since the OG wowed in 2011.
After Tesla’s success, other companies remade their business models (see Cadillac and Jaguar) to go all-electric. But Tesla’s secret sauce is more than battery power. The Model S remade the luxe space with fresh design, big screens and performance. The ‘22 model continues Tesla’s relentless effort to re-imagine the automobile.
The new Model S interior echoes its Model 3/Y siblings with a landscape-oriented, 17-inch infotainment display that includes everything from Autopilot self-driving controls to streaming channels to watch while you’re recharging at the brand’s cross-country network of Superchargers (the only way to travel EV).
The already minimalist interior gets more so by deleting steering wheel turn signal and shift stalks. Shifting (PARK, FORWARD, REVERSE) is done via swipe on the big screen while the turn signal is integrated into the vehicle’s signature feature, a steering wheel yoke. No joke. Toyota is already following Tesla by adapting a yoke of its own for the forthcoming bZ4X EV.
I tested the $134K Model Plaid, which takes the car’s already superhuman performance to another level: 2-second zero-60 mph launches, cornering grip greater than a Corvette C8. Its 1,020-horsepower, tri-motor drivetrain propels the car to acceleration speeds greater than even the legendary, $3 million Bugatti Chiron supercar — for 20% of the price and 50% more seats.
Runner-up: Volkswagen Golf GTI
The original hot hatch, the Golf GTI has been my baseline for best all-around vehicle. Fun to drive, fuel-efficient, seating for five, hatchback utility — all for an affordable price. Like the Tesla, Golf GTI has reset the bar again with its 2022 model update.
The exterior is updated with sharp stampings and thin headlights — an industry trend as designers love to play with their new LED tools. For my money, the V-dub outclasses its Audi S3 cousin. The car’s performance is more engaging than the Audi’s (with which it shares a platform) thanks to its manual transmission option and hatchback.
The manual bonds driver to machine and there are few experiences more engaging than rowing the Golf over a twisty road. Drivers who prefer automatics will enjoy the GTI too, with its optional “chiclet” shifter right out of a Porsche.
The interior is the real game-changer as VW has brought in twin digital screens with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Honda also introduced an all-new Civic Si this year that is an even more affordable pocket rocket than GTI — but the Golf’s hatchback utility trumps the Civic sedan’s standard trunk.
Winner: Ford Maverick pickup
With average prices hovering around $40,000, affordable new vehicles are an endangered species. Say hello to the terrific $21k Maverick.
Not only is the compact pickup a tasty appetizer for Ford’s sprawling truck menu, it’s the entry-level vehicle in Ford’s lineup. And the $21,490 model is no stripped starter. It comes standard with hybrid drivetrain, 500-mile range, 191 horsepower, cool steel wheels, smartphone connectivity and clever interior.
It’s a Swiss (Dearborn?) Army knife for the urban do-it-yourselfer with a roomy interior and capable of carrying 1,500 pounds of mulch in its 4.5-foot bed (the same size as, ahem, an electric, $70K Rivian R1T pickup). Need more oomph? Upgrade to the 250-horse, 2.0-liter turbo-4 engine that can tow 4,500 pounds. If it’s an Olympic weightlifter you want, buy a ladder-frame F-150 truck, but you can’t park big brother easily in a downtown parking spot.
Built south of the border on the same unibody platform as the Bronco Sport (The News’ 2020 Vehicle of the Year) and Escape SUVs, Maverick is fun to drive around town and on the open road. The rear seat can be flipped up, revealing all kinds of sub-storage thanks to its flexible frame. Get the sub-seat organizer — part of a $50 five-pack of gadgets for the rear seat console including cord wrap, cupholder, grocery bag holder and trash bin.
The Maverick is now the third SUV-based pickup in the U.S., and automakers will be watching the wee Ford closely to see if the king of ladder-frame trucks can also sell the unibody variety. Early signs are that customers are biting.
Alas, the affordable Maverick is not immune from chip shortages. Model year 2022 Mavericks are sold out and new orders will not be filled until next summer.
The 2022 Ford Maverick Hybrid XLT and 2L-EcoBoost AWD Lariat.
The 2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI has a standard manual six-speed transmission or an optional seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.