Features

2016 Hits, Misses, and Revelations

The year’s best, worst, and most enlightening

With the year coming to a close, we decided to take a look in the rear-view mirror and comb through 365 days of happenings and new debuts to pick our top hits, misses, and revelations of 2016.

The Hits

Acura NSX

There are faster super sports cars, with more power, more history. But the NSX is helping to redefine high performance. As we continue to move inexorably toward alternative forms of propulsion, we’ll start seeing more formulas like the NSX’s use of electric motors to aid power delivery. But more than that, the NSX is simply one of the best cars I’ve driven this year. It makes you feel like a hero, it attracts a ton of attention, and it’s even easy to drive in traffic. Honda/Acura shook up the status quo before with the previous NSX, it’s done it again. – Mike Floyd

BMW 100 Vision Concepts

In recent years, most concept vehicles we’ve seen have been cars that are either close to production or a little further out but still with lots of hints at what’s to come in the very near future. But the BMW, Mini, and Rolls-Royce concepts the BMW Group challenged its design teams to create reached far out into the future, especially the Rolls, which blew people away with its massive wheels, boat-hull look and bubble passenger shell. These were concepts in the truest sense, and whether you liked them or not, they made an impression and showcased where BMW plans to go with its future, one that is just starting to be realized. – Mike Floyd

BMW M2

Some may deride the M2 simply on the grounds that it isn’t as much fun or as “special” as the 1M Coupe that came before it. Whether it is or it isn’t is beside the point. The M2 is one of the most enjoyable cars for real-world roads that you can buy today — at any price. The 718 Cayman has too much grip for the street and doesn’t make the right noises. The Corvette’s limits are too high and it’s too large to feel at home on most twisty backroads. The BRZ has excellent dynamics, but it’s slow. The M2 is the Goldilocks solution for today’s enthusiast. – Rory Jurnecka

Fiata 124 Spider

Beside a much different look to the car, the Fiat 124 Spider’s suspension is tweaked differently from the ND Mazda Miata and its turbo four gives it a different dynamic flavor. As a brand, Fiat might be on the skids, but this car helps pay for the Miata’s latest platform and helps extend the life of the most pure sports car on the market. – Todd Lassa

GM’s Factory Assembly of Autonomous Prototypes

CEO Mary Barra announced in December that GM would begin fitting Chevrolet Bolt EVs with prototype autonomous test equipment (not for public sale) at the Bolt’s Orion Township, Michigan, assembly plant. This is huge news in that it “normalizes” production of autonomous cars and adds manufacturing scale that will more quickly bring down costs. I’m sure this is behind Google spinoff Waymo’s announcement it will partner with Honda on autonomy. Google/Waymo has a limited, non-exclusive contract with FiatChrysler to work on autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans, but FiatChrysler’s manufacturing efficiency is no match for Honda’s these days, so the contract with the Japanese automaker will prevail. – Todd Lassa

Highway 58

The good news for all of us who like to drive is that there are still some remote, twisty mountain roads out there that are years away from autonomous car-mapping. Features editor Rory Jurnicka suggested Highway 58 in Central California for our feature on anti-autonomous cars, comparing the Mazda Miata Club with the new Fiat 124 Spider Abarth. Go drive yourself, while there’s still time. – Todd Lassa

Lotus Evora 400

I genuinely expected the Evora 400 to be a warmed-over version of an already dated car, one with a less-than-stellar track record for quality. To my surprise (and delight), the Evora 400 delivered on all of its promises. Lotus truly sharpened the Evora’s claws with a healthy dose of extra power, not to mention the weight loss, which keeps the specter of Colin Chapman happy. Even better is the pleasantly bespoke interior, which relies less on parts-bin switchgear and such than in the past (the window switches are still from GM’s Cadillac shelf). For once, the roughly $100,000 price for a limited-release Lotus feels well worth the money. There’s just nothing in that space that touches the Lotus’ driver-focused feedback, seating position, and devilishly quick reflexes. More importantly, the Evora 400 feels truly special, nimble, and purpose-built in a way that no 911, Cayman, F-Type, or Corvette does. The closest thing to it is an Alfa Romeo 4C, but the Evora is even better sorted — and comes with a standard six-speed manual to boot. – Eric Weiner

McLaren 570S

What an absolutely brilliant machine. Devastatingly fast and endlessly engaging, it’s amazing to me that this is McLaren’s first crack at the entry-level supercar space. If the 570S is any indicator of McLaren’s capabilities, especially this early in the company’s development, I can’t wait to see what Woking will cook up for the future. It’s really, really tough to balance exoticism and approachability, but the 570S toes the line with a gymnast’s strength and grace. – Eric Weiner

Michigan’s Liberal Autonomous Testing Culture

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) signed in December a state Senate bill that allows the testing of driverless cars. Meanwhile, construction is underway at The American Center for Mobility, an autonomous test track at the old Willow Run assembly plant where Ford Motor built bombers during World War II and where General Motors later built Chevrolet Corvairs. Expect Michigan to replace Northern California as the home of autonomous testing, with automakers and suppliers more likely to test responsibly. Contrast this with Uber’s disregard for safety and traffic laws while testing its autonomous Volvos in San Francisco. – Todd Lassa

Opel GT Concept from Geneva

My favorite show car this year. – Todd Lassa

Volvo in 2016

If the XC90 didn’t deliver, Volvo was in serious trouble. But boy howdy did it come out of the gate with gusto. Volvo’s debut for its new generation of luxurious and technologically advanced vehicles was a smashing success, racking up accolades across the industry, including an Automobile All-Star award. The Swedes didn’t disappoint with the S90 either, which nabbed our Design of the Year award as well. What Volvo has managed with this new generation is a distinct flavor of comfort and elegance that represents a clearly in-demand niche apart from its German competitors. – Eric Weiner

The Misses

Apple car

Project Titan took a nose dive this year despite a humongous hype machine from the Silicon Valley faithful. It turns out, as many auto-industry elites and veterans advised, that building a brand-new car from scratch is extremely difficult to do even for established OEMs. Apple was unable to keep its automotive ambitions on track due to a variety of internal struggles and fleeing executives, but word emerged this year that a big factor was the unexpected challenges of dealing with suppliers. It’s looking like the driverless-car push will, as industry insiders predicted and hoped, come from the within and not from outside. – Eric Weiner

Auto Shows in 2016

Most of the auto shows this year, from Paris to L.A. to New York and beyond, felt a bit dull and listless. There’s something to be said for auto shows still as a networking and interview opportunity, but as far as product reveals go the big splashes are very few and far between. Given the exorbitant cost of these affairs, I’m not sure how much longer they will last, as OEMs have been dropping out of select shows every year. – Eric Weiner

Bugatti Chiron

It’s Volkswagen Group milking the same basic design and make this ode to excess pay off. Bugattis and other supercars of their ilk are beginning to bore me, especially while brands like Porsche, with its brilliant new 718 Cayman, and Fiat, with its 124 Spider ND Miata variant, continue to put out real sports cars for real drivers despite continually decreasing demand. – Todd Lassa

CAFE pushback

When the world’s automakers agreed to the U.S. government’s aggressive CAFE regulations in 2012, with a 54.5-mpg target for fleets by 2025, it was seen as a turning point toward a cleaner future for automobiles. And interestingly, automakers have been meeting or exceeding the marks thus far. But the standards are coming up for review and, sadly, it looks like the brakes are trying to be put on the progress. The old bugaboos, including higher costs to make fleets more efficient and higher costs for consumers, are being trotted out. And lower gas prices are de-incentivizing consumers from buying more fuel-efficient vehicles. While somewhat valid concerns, any attempt to roll back the standards in the end is just excuse making we’ve heard before. – Mike Floyd

Diesel Engines in Cars

I was a fan, myself, not long ago. But for one thing, they’d be no fun to drive without turbocharging. For another, they put out more CO2 per mpg than a gasoline engine – they’re “cleaner” only because they get better mpg and use expensive aftertreatment systems. Major cities in Europe are looking to ban them in cars and yet, both Mazda and GM (through its Chevrolet brand) plan to add new models in the U.S. while Mercedes-Benz has committed 2.6-billion euro to a new family of four- and six-cylinder diesel engines. I’m sorry but, except for trucks, electrification, including plug-in hybrids are the future. Someday, they’ll be the future for trucks, too. – Todd Lassa

EVs and Hybrids

Despite some amazing new products, including the Toyota Prius and Chevrolet Volt (and soon the Bolt), low gas prices and subsequently stagnant sales of EVs and hybrids have shown just how fickle the American car buyer can be. My fear is that all the good progress OEMs have made will be rewarded with too little return on their massive investments and this brief period of crucial innovation for the future will soon be just a blip on the historical radar. Maybe I’m being too alarmist too soon, but I guess we’ll find out. – Eric Weiner

Lincoln Continental

Lincoln waited nearly 15 years to bring back the revered Continental model name since it was discontinued in 2002. Sadly, the 2017 Continental makes me wish Lincoln had saved the model’s return until it had the not just the inspiration, but the ability, to carry out a proper reincarnation. The team obviously meant well when it launched the stunning Continental concept in 2015 but as sometimes happens, much was lost in the translation from concept to production. The less-inspired sheet metal, rubberized dash material, and unrefined driving experience all scream “fleet vehicle” — contrary to Lincoln’s goals for its new flagship sedan. – Rory Jurnecka

Tesla’s Beta-Testing of AutoPilot

Elon Musk still doesn’t understand that cars cannot be beta-tested like websites. Especially when the beta-testing involves advanced autonomous driving systems. Extra-“credit” for Tesla’s creepy ability to instantly data-mine its customers’ cars. Time to stand up for the 4th Amendment to the Constitution. – Todd Lassa

The Revelations

1957 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Roadster

With prices at all-time highs for many significant classic cars, actually using many high-dollar examples comes secondary to staring at them on well-manicured lawns or in climate-controlled garages. That’s why my four days and 1000 miles behind the wheel of a ’57 300 SL, a car worth well over $1 million, on the scenic back roads of Colorado was such a treat. In that time, the car — owned by Mercedes-Benz and maintained by the Irvine, CA Mercedes-Benz Classic Center — was perfectly reliable, had plenty of power even at elevation, and plenty comfortable. It felt like it could be used as a daily driver even at nearly 60 years old and climbing into the car after four consecutive mornings felt as easy and normal as slipping on a favorite pair of sneakers. If you have a collector car, aim to drive it more in 2017 —it’s the best way to truly appreciate it. – Rory Jurnecka

Autonomous Cars are Going to be a While, Folks

It seems like every day now there’s another story about an automaker’s breathless plans to roll out an autonomous vehicle, Uber flaunting rules to start testing driverless cars, the government saying it wants vehicle-to-vehicle communication to become the norm. The bottom line is there are so many hurdles: infrastructure, lack of universal standards and government regulations, tech issues, and of course what to do about the billion or so non-autonomous cars on the road. Will there be production autonomous cars soon? Yes. Will you be in one in the next decade in some way? Probably. But the day when you get into a car every day to go to work without a wheel and pedals is at least 20 years away. Mark my words, bookmark this page. – Mike Floyd

Porsche is a Luxury Brand, Not a Sports Car Brand

This has been true for years. Macan and Cayenne now account for much more than half its sales. No matter how dynamic Porsche tries to make these tall, heavy SUVs, they’re not “sports cars.”

– Todd Lassa

The Mid-Engine Corvette Might Actually be Real This Time

Spy shots and a fresh wave of speculation are showing that the long-rumored Zora project could have some real legs to speak of. Say it’s finally so! I’d love to see America get back into the proper supercar game, especially with the Ford GT in the spotlight. Nothing like a little intra-Detroit rivalry to milk the most of of each other’s ambition and talent. Let the games begin. – Eric Weiner

There are few bad cars anymore

There are some mediocre ones, some uncompetitive ones, but very few cars are just plain terrible anymore. Even Mitsubishi, everyone’s favorite punching bag, is supremely affordable, great on gas mileage, and can be had for way under sticker price at just about any dealer. – Eric Weiner

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