2016 AUTOMOBILE All-Stars: The Winners
From a field of this year’s most compelling new cars, we pick the seven that most closely match our ethos
We don't do boring.
Yes, we're impressed that the Acme BlahMiser Brougham sold 600,000 units last year, but if it doesn't make our cerebellum sizzle when we drive it, if it doesn't channel our passion for mechanical splendor, if it doesn't make us a bit teary-eyed when we switch off the ignition, it'll never be an Automobile All-Star. Save the complicated entry rules, the price caps, and the tedious numbers-crunching for the consumer reporters. We're aficionados, as attuned to the tugging of our hearts as we are to the musings of our minds. What's more, like most of you we dream big; a couple of the winners pictured here climb pretty high into the price stratosphere. But, hey, just because we can't afford a Jackson Pollock painting doesn't mean we're not going to celebrate its brilliance—and envy those who can hang one on their living room wall. Thus, our formula for this All-Stars shootout: We gathered up 25 of the 2016 model year's most intriguing new models—spanning a variety of classes and market niches—drove them for a week on the racetrack and the road, and voted for our seven favorites. Boom, done: the best of the best, the new vehicles dearest to this magazine's purpose. These are the 2016 Automobile All-Stars.
PAHRUMP, Nevada — A hardscrabble desert town best known for strip-mall casinos and, uh, chicken and mustang ranches with zero chickens or mustangs might seem an unlikely site for celebrating automotive excellence. But surrounding Pahrump are numerous empty two-lanes for assessing on-road performance and, even better, the Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch—a sprawling facility boasting clubhouses, condos, and more than 6 miles of writhing race circuit customizable into more than 50 different configurations. Our editors descended upon a 1.5-mile section of track for speed-limit-free evaluations. Joining us this year was a new member of the team: British-born race driver Andy Pilgrim, winner of the Daytona 24, SCCA World Challenge champion, and a Le Mans racer in both a Porsche 911 GT2 and as a factory driver in a Corvette C5-R. Not only would Andy provide us with his professional insights at the track, he'd accompany us on our multi-day winners drive west from Pahrump, past Death Valley, and on to scintillating winding roads in the foothills of California's Sierra Nevada range.
Of all the cars in this year's field, it's doubtful that any one shouted "shoo-in" louder than the new Mazda MX-5 Miata. "Refreshingly simple without being old-school," wrote Joey Capparella in his logbook. "Still the same car as my kid's '92 Miata—and this is quite an accomplishment," noted Michael Jordan. "Probably more fun than the Ferrari, McLaren, and Porsche because you can use it to its max," waxed John Lamm. "A little sweetheart."
"Probably more fun than the Ferrari, McLaren, and Porsche because you can use it to its max." — John Lamm
Just like the original Miata launched more than quarter-century ago, the new edition dispenses joy with its tach needle. Hurl it around the track at the limit, and it rewards with evocative steering, a playful but predictable chassis, and a 155-horse, twin-cam 2.0-liter four that'll gun to 6,800 rpm all day. You'll giggle in the driver's seat—the Miata is that entertaining. It's equally attuned to the open road; you couldn't feel more in touch with the tarmac if you crawled across it on your hands and knees. Even the Club edition we had out, which features stiffer damping and adds a limited-slip differential, remained impressively composed over broken pavement. And when you want to motor alfresco, simply flip one overhead lever and drop the softtop with a single hand—right from the driver's seat. Raising the top is equally painless. Which is to say the new Miata, $29,420 in Club trim, is wind-in-the-hair rapture. Just about the only complaint was the genetic lottery's fault more than the car's: "I wish I was 3 or 4 inches shorter so I fit inside the Mazda a little better," said 6-foot-1 Mac Morrison.
Multiply the Miata's sticker by, oh, more than 10, and you reach the opposite end of our All-Stars spectrum with the turbocharged Ferrari 488 GTB, resplendent in its Rosso Corsa Metallizzato paint and supermodel curves. Base price: $249,150. And our test car had nearly $100,000 in carbon-fiber extras. Crazy money, we laughed. Then we drove Maranello's latest masterpiece—and quickly set up a group hedge fund.
"When this motor rips above 5,000 rpm, look out," exclaimed Andy Pilgrim. "Seems to grab ahold of the horizon and shove it down your throat." Concurred Preston Lerner: "With both turbos spooled up, the 488 is crazy, batshit, borderline-scary fast. Surprisingly nimble in the tight sections, well-planted in the faster ones. Spectacular." Most of us agreed that we miss the raw shriek of the outgoing, naturally aspirated 458, but the 488's twin turbos—which mute the exhaust note but help generate 661 horsepower from the 3.9-liter V-8—deliver even more outrageous forward thrust.
"With both turbos spooled up, the 488 is crazy, batshit, borderline-scary fast." — Preston Lerner
The Ferrari's allure lies in its bewitchery—it's like looking at a metal Monica Bellucci; you'll sit in the cockpit just to inhale intoxicating wafts of hand-stitched leather—and its extraordinarily expansive performance envelope. "A very comfortable road car, but can handle a serious thrashing on the racetrack," noted Marc Noordeloos. "Outstanding visibility all around," said Pilgrim. "The front view is so good, corner apexes appear to pass right under your nose." The 488, in short, does everything with engineering virtuosity and designer style. As Lamm summed it up, it's "just the sort of car Enzo Ferrari would've wanted in 2016."
The line of All-Stars snaking west from Pahrump and into California wasn't composed solely of two-seat sports cars. Right there in the middle of the other winners, standing tall and proud, was a vehicle about as far from a Ferrari as you can get.
The all-wheel-drive Volvo XC90 sport-utility might not brandish a screaming V-8 or neck-wringing grip, but it wowed our jury just the same. Said Mike Floyd as he admired the XC90's smooth contours and well-executed cabin: "This is easily one of the best SUVs on the road today."
Volvo has nailed its target dead-center. You want room? The XC90 delivers up to 86 cubic feet and seats up to seven. Efficiency? Despite its size, the new Swede returns 25 mpg on the highway—thanks to an eight-speed automatic transmission mated to a supercharged and turbocharged 2.0-liter four that purrs like a happy leopard. Luxury? Todd Lassa called it "a beautiful Scandinavian-modern interior." Ronald Ahrens remarked of the cabin: "It's like slicing open a heavyweight wrestler and finding a display of Lladró figurines." Set amid the rich leather and fine wood trim is a touchscreen that's as intuitive as an iPad—perhaps the best display interface we've ever used, a thing of beauty. "I want this in my house," Morrison noted.
You wouldn't normally equate "exquisite" with an SUV, but the XC90 deserves the adjective. While options can push the sticker into the $70K range, a base-model T6 starts at $50,795. For that, noted Eric Weiner, you get "a gorgeous, technologically advanced, splendidly appointed family SUV." And a 2016 All-Star.
You might think the presence of a Ferrari would overshadow everything else in the field. It didn't. Perhaps even more electrifying, a beast on the track and a Saturn V rocket out on the open road, the new Ford Shelby GT350 had us fighting for seat time. The mountain walls lining the serpentine asphalt of Highway 168 wriggling down into Big Pine, California, are probably still echoing with the shock waves of its 526-horse V-8 screaming at 8,500 rpm.
"The GT350R has a very 'mean American' feel. ... It's a classic ponycar but has excellent dynamics. "— Marc Noordeloos
We sampled both the base and the more track-focused R versions of Ford's new brute. Both blew us away. "The GT350R has a very 'mean American' feel but balances that with a very good chassis," noted Noordeloos. "It's a classic ponycar but has excellent dynamics." Pilgrim: "This thing is loud in a way that homeowner associations just love. Not! Where do I sign up?" Lerner: "The flat-plane V-8 is a magnificent piece that makes all the right noises." That said, there's no escaping the vibrations that the flat-plane crankshaft telegraphs through the seat and wheel. These Shelbys define the word "visceral."
Not surprisingly, the GT350R (base price: $63,495) is the more aggressive sibling—it deletes the rear seats to save weight and, among other changes, adds carbon-fiber wheels—but no one found the standard GT350 (base: $49,995) lack- ing. This is the car the old Boss 302—"and I liked that car a lot," Morrison noted—wishes it could've been: monster brakes, studly six-speed manual shifter, standard Torsen rear diff, more power and grip than the Terminator. And that sound. Driving either of these Shelbys is like being in a nonstop "Bullitt" chase scene. That's a very good thing.
Wait. A base price of $36,470 ($38,715 with dynamic chassis control and nav) for a VW Golf? Why, yes. In fact, when you consider some of its competition, the new all-wheel-drive Volkswagen Golf R comes across as a bona-fide bargain.
"A helluva lot of car for the money," wrote Weiner. "And neatly bundled into a package most anyone can live with. " Jordan agreed: "This is the car the Audi TTS tries to be, only the VW is cheaper, better, and way, way more fun." Indeed, more than one editor remarked that the Golf R even stood up impressively against another Audi in the field—the $191,150 R8 V10 Plus. True, the VW lacks the R8's epic engine, but on the track and on real-world roads it felt anything but one-third the price. Noordeloos: "The Golf R does everything so well."
Think of this new VeeDub as a GTI (also one of our favorite rides) cranked up to 11. The 2.0-liter turbo-four is boosted to 292 hp. Adjustable dampers allow tailoring of ride firmness from Comfort to Race. Each corner sports a 19-inch wheel wearing summer performance rubber. Touchscreen navigation and a Fender premium audio system are welcome options. The flat-bottom steering wheel and short-throw manual six-speed speak directly to an enthusiast's soul. And then there's the stealth factor. Said Weiner: "Only gearheads will know you're not driving a plain-Jane Golf. A dirty little secret that never has to apologize for itself. My kind of car."
The Ferrari 488 GTB wasn't the only supercar to earn a spot on our winners drive west. Also among the magnificent seven: the audacious new McLaren 570S —scissor doors, 562 horsepower, and a paint job so green it makes Kermit the Frog look like a pomegranate.
Granted, the base sticker—$187,400—is out of reach for most of us. But a little perspective is in order. For about the price of a "garden-variety" Porsche 911 Turbo, you get a genuine mid-engine exotic—low, rakish, rare—with awesome speed and star power. When we stopped for gas in tiny Big Pine, the smartphone cameras in the hoodie-wearing, skateboard-toting throng that suddenly materialized out of nowhere all fired at the mean, green British machine.
"Like no other car, the 570S gives me the feeling of being at the tip of a bullet." — Michael Jordan
From behind the wheel, the McLaren delivers more thrills than a game of Wesson Oil Twister. "On the Spring Mountain circuit, I was playing this car like a skier on a downhill slalom," said Lassa. Said Jordan: "Like no other car, the 570S gives me the feeling of being at the tip of a bullet." Robert Cumberford: "Astonishingly easy to drive and surprisingly agreeable in terms of ride quality. Really, really pleased me." Morrison: "This is right there with the 488 and Cayman GT4 as my favorite new performance cars. There's nothing clinical about it."
With its twin-turbo, flat-plane-crank 3.8-liter V-8 and seven-speed dual-clutch tranny, the 570S can hurtle to 60 mph in just 3.1 seconds and tops out at a claimed 204 mph. And with its small Alcantara-wrapped steering wheel, paddle shifters, deep racing bucket, and IMAX-grade forward view, you almost feel as if you're sitting in one of McLaren's legendary Grand Prix single-seaters. An F1 car of your very own? Yes, please.
More than any other, one car in our field of winners proved as blissful on the track as it did out on the open road: the Porsche Cayman GT4, the most potent and track-focused Cayman ever. "Still the best 'serious' sports car," wrote Cumberford. "Great to drive, solid feeling, fast, and safe—with super braking and hard-to-fault handling." Ahrens concurred: "The All-Star I'd take for myself. Agreeable in every way. Fast, refined, and stirring." Noordeloos dub-bed the Cayman "near-perfect."
"The All-Star I'd take for myself. Agreeable in every way. Fast, refined, and stirring." — Ronald Ahrens
Starting at $85,650, the GT4 delivers sports-car purity like few others. Behind your ears sits a 24-valve, 3.8-liter flat-six wringing out 385 horses and mated to a fabulous six-speed stick. The cockpit is all-business, with simple controls, Alcantara sport seats, and a steering wheel conspicuously devoid of buttons and switches. In one right-hander on the Spring Mountain circuit where the tarmac dropped downward suddenly, most of the cars in our field stepped sideways before regaining their footing. Not the Porsche. It simply glided over the brow, never losing contact with the asphalt, not perturbed in the slightest. The optional carbon-ceramic brakes were equally sensational, communicative in pedal feel, and seemingly immune to fade. Editor after editor gleefully flogged the GT4 around Spring Mountain all day long.
Yet somehow, almost magically, this pulse-jacking track car transmogrifies into a buttery-smooth dance partner out on the open road. Said Pilgrim: "Less road noise and a more compliant suspension than I expected in normal street driving." Agreed Weiner: "A purely rewarding drive in any situation." Morrison, after driving the car five hours from Los Angeles to Pahrump: "I would've happily done another five." Lamm expressed his impressions with just two words: "Love it."
Those two words also spoke for all of us at this year's All-Stars. In fact, looking back on our week hustling seven of the world's best new cars on the track and on some of the West's most challenging two-lanes, we're a little heartsick.