In a year of surprises, a surprise choice for Detroit News Vehicle of the Year

Posted by Talbot Payne on December 31, 2020

The coronavirus proved massively disruptive to automakers in 2020 with manufacturing delays, skittish consumers and regional dealer shutdowns.

But the show must go on.

Market competition is fierce, and the last year was important to multiple brands introducing cornerstone vehicles. I tested 59 new cars, trucks and SUVs from automakers determined to meet product delivery schedules despite uncertain economic winds. In the end, three stood out for the 2020 Detroit News Vehicle of the year.

The Ford Bronco Sport is part of Ford’s one-two punch countering Jeep’s wildly successful SUV brand.

The variety of new entries was impressive. In addition to Ford’s foundational F-150 pickup, I evaluated Ford sub-brand pioneers Mustang Mach-E and Bronco Sport. General Motors’ Big Three Sierra/Silverado/Escalade re-asserted their authority. I floored the Porsche Taycan, the company’s first electric missile, and the Polestar 2, the first offering from Volvo’s EV brand. They are chasing Tesla, which delivered its Model Y (shock) ahead of schedule. Land Rover’s Defender is back. Cadillac landed new CT4 and CT5 sedans.

Amidst these brand mic-drops came models to die for. The first 700-horsepower SUV, the Dodge Durango Hellcat. The Porsche 911 Targa, master-class of style and handling. A last fling with the legendary Mustang GT350 before it rode into the sunset.

It’s been a memorable 12 months. Here are my nominees for 2020 Detroit News Vehicle of the Year.

Third place: Mazda3 Turbo

The Mazda3 Turbo is proof that the gap between luxury and mainstream vehicles has been all but obliterated.

The Turbo was Mazda3’s long-awaited return to the hot-hatch segment. The best all-around vehicles in autodom, pocket rockets like the VW Golf GTI, Honda Civic Type R and Hyundai Veloster mix hatchback utility and devilish fun at an affordable price.

Starting at just $31,000, 2021 Mazda3 Turbo hatchback brings premium looks to the hot hatch segment for an affordable price. Why pay $10,000 more for an Audi S3?

With its head-turning looks and stylish interior, the Mazda3 Turbo takes the formula to another level. Loaded with standard features including blind-spot assist, adaptive cruise-control, all-wheel drive and a buttery smooth turbo-4 drivetrain pumping out 250 horses and 320 pound-feet of torque, a loaded red leather-swathed Turbo can be had for just $34,000. That’s $10,000 less than a comparable (hatch-less) Audi S3 pocket rocket.

Runner-up: Tesla Model Y

The Tesla Model 3 was Tesla’s game-changer, bringing the Silicon Valley brand’s high-tech electric vision to the luxury market. But its Model Y doppelgänger is now deployed in the popular compact-SUV segment.

Delivered ahead of schedule (a rarity for Elon Musk’s elves), the Model Y instantly became the standard that every other electric SUV must match.

The Tesla Model Y is the standard that every other electric SUV must match.

And there are quite a few. This year alone introduced the Audi e-tron Sportback, Polestar 2 and Mustang Mach-E. More will follow next year, including the VW ID.3 and Mercedes EQS. The Model Y’s formidable capabilities indicate the uphill battle these wannabes face.

Its battery range, rear-seat room and self-driving capability are all tops-in-class. It stomps the e-tron, for example, in range (326 miles compared to 222). Its over-the-air updates (I tested a Model Y fresh off an Autopilot upgrade that recognized stoplights, for goodness sake) are the envy of the industry. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the Mach-E (my runner-up as year’s best EV) follows the Model Y formula to a tee: spare interior, big screen, similar range, similar self-driving capability, performance.

But the Mach-E lacks Tesla’s secret sauce: a consistent charging network. Every other EV must depend on sparse, third-party chargers to get about when far from home. Tesla’s proprietary network is fully integrated into the Model Y’s navigation system, meaning a fast charger is never far away.

Model Y leaves the door open to competitors with its nagging quality issues (my test car had window problems just weeks after delivery). If the wannabes can deliver consistently better quality, it may dull Tesla’s luster.

Winner: Ford Bronco Sport

The 2020 Detroit News Vehicle of the Year is the Bronco Sport. Surprised you, didn’t I?

The 2021 Ford Bronco Sport is the 2020 Detroit News Vehicle of the Year.

The Ford F-150 is the 800-pound gorilla in this year’s judging — an all-new model of America’s best-selling vehicle. With a hybrid option and on-board generator capability it is very good and will top a lot of Vehicle of the Year lists. But option the F-150 with these goodies and it can easily crest $50,000.

Bronco Sport is not only affordable (starting at $28,115) in America’s largest segment, but it brings with it an outsized personality to an often-vanilla class. Credit big brother Bronco, which will debut in 2021.

The Baby Bronco, as the Sport is affectionately called, is part of Ford’s one-two punch countering Jeep’s wildly successful SUV brand, led by the tree-chewing, ladder-frame Wrangler. The bigger Bronco takes aim at the Wrangler; the Bronco Sport takes on the Jeep Cherokee and Latitude.

Built on the same unibody platform as the elegant Escape, the Bronco Sport teases offroad adventure to complement the Escape’s more metro vibe. Ford did not hold back. The Sport is a comprehensive effort.

The exterior shouts Bronco swagger with its round headlights and squared-off design. A bright color palette (my testers wore sky blue and yellow) telegraph the vehicle’s colorful personality. The interior is loaded with technology and lots of thoughtful details: There’s F-150-like second-row storage beneath the floor. A big cargo bay that can hold two upright bikes. Floodlights in the rear gate. A bottle opener on the rear pillar.

Yee-haw. The 2021 Ford Bronco Sport in action. The Badlands model has 8.8 inches of ride height.

Typical of Ford, the Baby Bronco also comes with multiple engines and trims. My favorite is the off-road focused Badlands model. This eager beaver takes the 2.0-liter turbo-4 from Escape and marries it to the twin-clutch pack from the Ford Focus RS track rat for some serious off-road cred.

So capable is Badlands that I tore up an off-road, sand-choked autocross course at Holly Oaks ORV park. That’s my kind of family ute. Ford has put sedans in its rear-view mirror, but the Bronco Sport is proof that the fun spirit of Ford hot hatches — Focus ST and Fiesta ST — lives on.

In an auto market that offers so much variety, Bronco Sport has it all: fun, utility, style and a price tag that won’t break your wallet.

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