Payne: 2016 Detroit News Vehicle of the Year

Posted by hpayne on January 22, 2017

The Chrysler Pacifica design team worked with engineers

‘Politics is the choice between a lesser of two evils,” said George Orwell, and 2016 seemed to illustrate his point. How refreshing to have politics’ antithesis in automobiles.

Today there is more choice than ever to satisfy your transportation needs. Walking the Detroit auto show floor on the first public day last Saturday I heard from more than one attendee that they were overwhelmed by the choices.

I tested 55 new cars last year, from the frugal Mitsubishi Mirage to the if-you-have-to-ask-you-can’t-afford-it Audi R8 — and I can recommend every single one. Even the ginormous, three-ton Ford F-250 — a truck so big I couldn’t see over it much less fit it in my garage. Stuffed with finer interior materials than my living room, I think it would make a great summer cottage up north. I could garage the Mirage in its pickup bed.

I sit on the North American Car of the Year jury and we limited our nominees to new-to-2017 vehicles. My Detroit News list is a little more expansive as I include variations on marques that have been previously introduced. Like the apex-carving Camaro ZL1 (another order of species above the very good Camaro SS) or the Ford Fusion Sport (beauty and the V-6 beast) or the VW Alltrack (the AWD Golf).

Add them to the list of much-anticipated, all-new vehicles like the Chevy Bolt EV, Alfa Giulia or Honda Ridgeline pickup, and it’s a challenge culling the herd to three nominees. But cull I did. Here are the best from the crossover, sedan and performance car categories.

The envelope please …

First runner-up: BMW M2

The last year was a showcase for iconic sports cars: Porsche 911 Turbo, Audi R8, Corvette Grand Sport and Porsche Boxster/Cayman. Incredible athletes. I tested them all. Hard.

The 911 carved up Thunderhill Raceway Park like a veteran, shrugging off 100-degree heat to lap effortlessly with its 8-speed dual-clutch tranny. At one-third the price of the Porsche, the Grand Sport humbled Atlanta Motorsport Park. On Woodward — or just off it at M1 Concourse’s Champion Motor Speedway — the mid-engine R8 stood out for its wailing, normally aspirated V-10 mill. It’s music to the ears. The Porsche Boxster/Cayman remains my favorite car to drive, even if its musical flat-6 has been replaced by a tone-deaf turbo-4.

But the revelations of the performance-car world this year have rear seats (so the kids can sit it on the fun): the Camaro ZL1 and BMW M2. The first (of many) Chevy vehicles to get GM’s dual clutch-like 10-speed gearbox, the ZL1 shares the Corvette Z06’s ferocious 650-horse engine. At Willow Springs Raceway in California, Motor Trend hot shoe Randy Pobst was just a second off his Z06 pace.

With its superior interior and rear legroom, the 365-horse, turbo-6 M2 is my pick of the litter. At $56,000 (as tested) it is the bargain of my sports picks, yet loses nothing in looks and agility. It is the perfect combination of raw, Camaro-like thrust and Porsche athleticism.

Runner-up:

Subaru Impreza wagon

The most decorated car of 2016 was the Chevrolet Bolt EV. Chevrolet out-Tesla’d Tesla by introducing the first, fun electric car that got more than 200 miles to a charge – and cost less than $40,000. I love it — it’s speedy, techy and roomy. But there’s a lot you can get for that much money — or much less: New crossovers like the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape. Hot hatches like the 2017 Ford Focus RS.

But for my money the best five-door bargains on the market are compact wagons. They are better-handling than compact utility vehicles, roomier than the Bolt EV and 15-grand cheaper. Good luck finding one. The best of the genre is the Subaru Impreza, especially as it’s the only wagon to match CUVs with the all-wheel drive that’s crucial to frigid Detroit winters.

Well, it was the only such wagon until this year. VW stepped up with the Alltrack (and sister SportWagen) that adds AWD to the superb dynamics of the Golf chassis. Subaru didn’t take the challenge lying down. It produced an all-new chassis for the Impreza, tightened up its droning CVT transmission and toned its bod.

The V-dub and Subie match each other feature-for-feature, pound-for-pound. Bravo VW. But with the Subaru’s best-in-class resale value and vaunted reliability, it holds the edge for now.

My pick for 2017 Detroit News Vehicle of the Year of the year, however, is in a class by itself.

Winner: Chrysler Pacifica

We know that minivans have the most family-friendly interiors in autodom. But what to do about that uncool, boxy image? Pacifica blew away the stereotype by not only redefining the minivan, but making one of the most attractive, tech-savvy family haulers on the road today.

The Pacifica was a part of every conversation this year. What car reinvented the minivan segment? Pacifica. What vehicle did Waymo use to develop a spacious, self-driving family mule? Pacifica. What was the first family utility vehicle to go 30 miles on electrons? The same.

Based on the late (and underrated) Chrysler 200’s flowing design, Pacifica bears comparison to the Mercedes R-class wagon. That’s right, Mercedes — luxury’s style leader. That style continues inside — no accident, as the R’s former interior designer is also responsible for the Chrysler’s handsome, thoughtful interior that surrounds a superb UConnect infotainment system. The front compartment comes with a kitchen’s worth of clever storage, and the second row boasts Chrysler’s legendary Stow ’n Go seating.

Stow ’n Go not only provides added cargo options, but also makes the comfortable third row easily accessible.

All that is available on the base model for less than $30,000. Additional features turn minivan into a family fun mobile. Too bad Chevy Chase didn’t have one to drive to Wally World. There’s a full moon-roof. Kick-open side doors and rear hatch. Stowable vacuum cleaner. Oh, yeah, and that electric option so parents can keep plugging in at home at the end of the day in order to avoid gas stations.

I actually took the Pacifica to my nephew’s first-grade class for Stow ’n Go show ’n tell. The kids raved about it, eliciting one 6-year-old’s comment that should be on every Pacifica billboard: “Mister, this car is better than my dad’s Tesla.”

All the Pacifica lacks is all-wheel drive and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. Even the best have room to improve.

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