2017 AUTOMOBILE All-Stars: The Winners
From a top-flight crop of candidates, six emerge as 2017’s elite
The danger with an exercise such as this annual shakedown — aside from driving off a mountain face, careening into a 12-point buck as it sprints from the underbrush (almost happened), or spinning off the track into an unprotected wall — is that it's all too easy to become infatuated with big money, big horsepower, almost impossibly aspirational items. So it speaks well of this year's winning class that it spans an impressively diverse range, from a Japanese technological tour de force (admittedly a pricey proposition out of our personal reach) to a practical, all-electric American offering to a sub-$25,000 compact mainstay, not to mention two decidedly different apex stalkers from Germany and a refreshingly original and elegant Scandinavian.
The voting was closer than in many years past, but in the end none of our crew disputed the results with much vigor. The six winners proved over the course of a week that they are undoubtedly special. These, then, are the 2017 Automobile All-Stars.
A Force for Good: Acura's supercar delights with its tech-friendly approach
Despite its Rube Goldberg-like drivetrain and bogglingly complex electronics, the Acura NSX earned its All-Star status the old-fashioned way: by consistently putting a grin on drivers' faces. The prevailing concern regarding Acura's techy two-seater was that 21st century overthinking and automation would diminish the basic joys of turning a wheel and hugging a curve. The NSX's myriad computers, motors, and clutches certainly make that threat more possible.
But Acura's flagship delighted on both public roads and race circuit because it defies its 3,803-pound curb weight by conducting its three electric motors and longitudinally mounted, twin-turbo V-6 so they work together harmoniously. That inscrutably satisfying sensation is difficult to achieve at any level, let alone in a car intended to challenge superstars (and past All-Star winners) such as the McLaren 570S, which is priced tantalizingly close to our NSX tester's $199,200 sticker.
With its glued-to-tarmac handling and effortless acceleration, the NSX devoured the winding stretches of Deer Creek Road on Mount Charleston, seemingly defying physics as it sorted corners. But it also delivered in the most demanding setting: the racetrack. "The surprise of the week for me and a huge sigh of relief," features editor Rory Jurnecka said. "The NSX isn't all whirring motors and butt-saving technology. There's a real driver's car in there." Online editor Ed Tahaney raved about it. "The mid-engine marvel can make a track star out of almost anyone with its ridiculous precision, handling, and sporty grace," he said. Although the NSX leaps when prodded, it also has an understated side. "I like the Quiet mode and ridiculous economy," contributor Andy Pilgrim remarked. "I got 33 mpg on one 35-mile drive, including stop-and-go rush hour."
Despite its aspirational target demographic, the NSX's whiz-bang technology begged comparison to the other supercar contender from Japan, the Nissan GT-R. "Think less Ferrari, more GT-R in a tailored suit," suggested daily news editor Conner Golden. "No-drama Acura," added Detroit bureau chief Todd Lassa. "Like the GT-R, far more digital than analog and only two pedals but conversely, it's quick, smooth, and steady around corners instead of the Nissan's point-and-shoot digital nervousness." Its semisensible functionality and easy-chairlike usability flow with its capable athleticism, inspiring contributing writer Nelson Ireson to observe, "The NSX spans a breadth of performance, from quiet daily commuting to raucous weekend track work, that few if any supercars can match."
Although its elevated dynamics inspired us, the NSX's mystique remains debatable. "A great car, no doubt," automotive design editor Robert Cumberford said. "But distressingly disappointing in beauty and ferociously high-priced." Senior digital editor Kirill Ougarov called the NSX a true All-Star with a "brilliant drive, smart interior, and distinct styling." But, he also suggested, "Badge snobbery is real, and I don't know too many people outside of hardcore enthusiasts who would pay almost $200,000 for an Acura just because it drives well. The original NSX was a success in part because it offered Ferrari looks and driving ability for a lower price with Honda reliability." Putting that thought in perspective, Ougarov added, "Ferrari reliability is no longer a joke, and a 488 GTB is only $50,000 away, as is the Lamborghini Huracán. And there's also the Audi R8."
Despite its fearsome exotic-car competition and our inherent instinct to compare the modern car to its wonderfully organic, quarter-century-old predecessor, the NSX scores
its All-Star status by using technology for the forces of good — an amazing driving experience rather than automatonlike sterility. The self-proclaimed New Sportscar eXperimental is exactly that. In the case of the NSX, the venture succeeds brilliantly.
- Basem Wasef
2017 Acura NSX Specifications
|PRICE||$157,800/$199,200 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||3.5L twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6/500 hp @ 6,500-7,500 rpm, 406 lb-ft @ 2,000-6,000 rpm; two front electric AC motors/36 hp, 54 lb-ft; one rear electric AC motor/47 hp, 109 lb-ft; 573 hp combined|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 2-passenger, mid-engine, AWD coupe|
|TRANSMISSION||9-speed dual-clutch automatic|
|EPA MILEAGE||21/22 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L X W X H||176.0 x 87.3 x 47.8 in|
|0-60 MPH||3.4 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||191 mph|
Back in the Groove: M2 proves BMW still has plenty of that old black magic
"Just when you thought BMW had lost the thread, it finds it again and wraps that thread around the compe-tition," contributor Steven Cole Smith noted. "What a wonderfully balanced car, certainly the best all-around BMW in years." He's right. The M2 is one hell of a grin-inducing package. It's a welcome turn back down the right path for BMW's M division.
We were beginning to wonder if the German company's long-standing reign as the king of engaging cars was coming to a close. Rewind to All-Stars 2015. BMW sent an M3 and M4 to the battle, but both unexpectedly departed sans a trophy. So many of us were skeptical as we gazed upon the Long Beach Blue Metallic M2 staged in a parking lot filled with a substantial collection of formidable contenders, all vying for a 2017 Automobile All-Star award.
All it took was a blast up Mount Charleston to bring us back to BMW M adoration. Actually, some of us didn't even need to depart the Las Vegas city limits. "The M2's willingness to move around on the road at sane speeds is what makes it such a blast to drive," Jurnecka said. "Paired with great steering and a hair-raising soundtrack from the turbocharged straight-six, even around-town driving is something to look forward to."
The mischievous, $54,495 M2 is also quite the smokin' deal — about the same, in fact, as an equivalently optioned wannabe M, the M240i. And the 365-horsepower M2 looks better, too. Chunky 19-inch wheels and tires complement its menacing stance and wide fenders, improving the somewhat frumpy profile of the lesser 2 Series. It's still not pretty, but it's not meant to be. It's a focused tool built for hooligan fun.
Zero costly extras are needed on top of the base price to obtain the full, undiluted experience. How refreshing. The M2 comes standard with everything you need, unless you're looking to water down BMW's smallest M car with frivolous luxury items or, gasp, pay extra to bin the six-speed manual. BMW's M DCT gearbox is a $2,900 option, and, yes, the dual-clutch version swaps ratios faster than the three-pedal setup. But the M2 is about pure driving pleasure. "Livelier than expected on public roads, so much so that it wanted to kick the tail out gratuitously in third gear," contributor Basem Wasef said. "While its rambunctiousness may rub some the wrong way, I think it's a riot."
All of this praise came before we played with the M2 at Speedvegas. "On track, the M2 comes alive, cohering to the driver's will in a way no recent M car has," Ireson gushed. Fully disable the overly intrusive stability control, and the stubby little BMW coupe really shines. It's not a laser-precise circuit dancer like Porsche's 718 Cayman S, but it offers boundless fun nonetheless. The short wheelbase and torque-rich engine made thrashing the M2 around the tight track an absolute blast. Massive, childish drifts are only a wiggle of your right foot away.
The BMW M2 is an overdue reappearance of what M car enthusiasts have been waiting a long time for. It may not be perfect — it shouldn't weigh almost 3,500 pounds, for one. But the M2 isn't about perfection. It's about honest amusement in a reasonably priced package. Consider it BMW's more expensive take on the Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ — or a less pricey take on Porsche's Cayman GT4. It's about producing an automobile that is, first and foremost, entertaining. Please, please, BMW, remember the M2 when you develop future M models. You got this one right.
- Marc Noordeloos
2017 BMW M2 Specifications
|PRICE||$51,700/$54,495 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||3.0-liter turbo DOHC 24-valve I-6/365 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 343 lb-ft @ 1,400-5,560 rpm|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe|
|EPA MILEAGE||20/27 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L X W X H||176.2 x 73.0 x 55.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||4.4 sec|
|TOP SPEED||155 mph|
Chevrolet Bolt EV
EV for All: Chevy's Bolt is a real car for real people
A long-time proponent of electric drive, I've enjoyed every electric car I've ever driven, but the only one I ever have been willing to use on a daily basis, Tesla's groundbreaking Model S, is absurdly overpriced for me. All the others, however pleasant in use, were impractical for my personal needs. Until now.
Chevrolet's Bolt, specifically designed and engineered as a battery-electric, all-purpose, all-weather vehicle with enough range to make running-out-of-juice anxiety a thing of the past, is not only a perfectly adequate small commuting and grocery-getting family car, it's actually very agreeable to drive. Our consensus was represented in phrases such as, "drives like a real car," or, "I wouldn't hesitate to recommend a Bolt as a daily driver to many people I know." A clear statement of why was summed up with, "The Bolt can be used like a normal gasoline-powered vehicle."
Ever-acerbic contributor Michael Jordan stated, "Now that we've all driven the Chevy Bolt, it's clear that anyone who still doubts the era of practical EV motors is upon us should be awarded honorary membership in the Climate-Change Denial and Flat Earth Society." He went on to say, "A low center of gravity from the battery packaged under the floor sounds like a good deal, but often the price is a high step-in height and heavy-footed dynamics. However, the dynamics of this package are as impressive as the cruising range."
Not all comments were completely positive. Associate editor Jonathon Klein said, "While I applaud General Motors for delivering a cheap mass-market electric vehicle before Tesla, the interior feels like a rushed afterthought and far too cheap for the price point. It has none of the essence that makes Tesla such a dominant force in the public's mind. It won't outsell the Model 3." Meanwhile, Pilgrim and executive editor Mac Morrison returned from our mountain route chuckling about the driver and passenger seats, which Morrison compared unfavorably to "low-end, turret-style removable seats common in the bows of aluminum fishing boats."
Lassa found the Bolt to be much more confident on the mountain road than the Toyota Prius Prime. "The Bolt's impressive range makes the BMW i3 pretty much obsolete, even with the bigger battery pack for 2017," he said.
For me, this was the most compelling car in the group. I drove it back from Mount Charleston to Speedvegas. When I took the wheel, the dash readout announced 114 miles of range remaining. When I arrived at the track, having maintained a good pace all the way — being passed by only one of our All-Stars contenders, the Aston Martin DB11 — I was astonished by the stated remaining range: 113 miles. The power regeneration switch really works well. Yes, on average the drive was downhill, but even so, that was amazing. The Bolt is an electric car that I — and tens of thousands of others — could easily live with. Dynamics, ergonomics, and comfort are perfectly satisfactory for a daily driver. I was slightly cold on the drive from the mountain because I didn't want to use power to heat the cabin, but that was totally unnecessary on my part.
If I was told I could take home any one of our candidates, could keep it as long as I liked, and maintain it at my expense, but when I was through I could not realize any income from selling it, the Bolt would have been my choice. Its size, utility, and simplicity are ideal for my real-world needs in a personal car for local driving. As Golden declared, "Such a damn good car and absolutely deserving of the All-Star designation."
- Robert Cumberford
2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV Specifications
|PRICE||$37,495/$43,905 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||Permanent magnet drive motor/200 hp, 266 lb-ft|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-motor, FWD wagon|
|EPA MILEAGE||128/110 mpge (city/hwy); 238-mile total range|
|L X W X H||164 x 69.5 x 62.8 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.3 sec|
|TOP SPEED||91 mph|
Honda Civic Hatchback Sport
Baby's Come Back: More utility, better platform, and improved overall performance pay off
The arrival of a new Honda Civic is always kind of, you know, momentous. Ever since it first appeared in 1972 with its 50-horsepower, 40-mpg CVCC engine, the Civic has made it possible for car enthusiasts like us to embrace clean air and socially responsible practicality without losing our souls. Sure, we're impressed that the Civic is always one of the most popular cars in America, and it reached the highest sales volume in the model's 44-year history during 2016 with 366,927 examples sold. But what matters is that the all-new, 10th-generation model is fun to drive even as it delivers solid fuel economy.
Honda engineers might be among the nerdiest on the planet, but with the 2017 Civic Hatchback Sport, they tried hard to transform the Civic into something that even the young and dumb like us can appreciate. By stretching the wheelbase of the Civic's new platform to 106.3 inches, they created not just a more spacious passenger package with 97.2 cubic feet of passenger volume here in the four-door Hatch but also a more poised platform for serious driving. The Civic Hatch Sport also reflects the reawakened appreciation for the utility delivered by hatchbacks, a configuration Honda has always promoted, with 22.6 cubic feet of cargo volume. And it delivers a new kind of Honda performance with a 180-horsepower, 1.5-liter turbocharged engine.
On the slopes of Mount Charleston, our drivers were quick to appreciate the Civic Hatchback's unique appeal. "This is the Civic we've been waiting for in the U.S. for a long time," Jurnecka said. "Built in the same factory in England where the awesome Civic Type R comes from, the Hatch Sport is very good dynamically — excellent road manners with a comfortable though taut ride." Executive editor Mac Morrison added: "This is a revelation. Great steering feel, great handling, and a smooth manual gearbox make for about three times more fun than you might expect just seeing this car drive past you on the road." And Ireson said: "Honda hasn't lost its magic. Instead, it apparently just decided not to use it except on the Civic Hatchback Sport. The turbocharged engine is powerfully elastic yet revvy, and the chassis is balanced and fun to drive at any speed." Pilgrim concluded: "Giggle factor off the charts, and yet I also got 37.8 mpg driving it back to L.A."
We predictably liked the car's interior, especially the hugely expansive forward field of view of 84.3 degrees. "Packaged very nicely with good head- and legroom both front and rear, plus generous cargo room," Jurnecka said. Contributor Marc Noordeloos noted the comfortable driving position. Unfortunately, our admiration doesn't extend to the exterior. "Sure is a strange-looking car," contributor Ronald Ahrens said. Smith chimed in, "If there is an uglier car from the rear, I haven't seen it — nor would I want to." Wasef observed, "Something out of 'The Transformers,' the Saturday-morning cartoon version."
Design lashings aside, the Civic Hatch Sport is a new favorite of ours. Lassa put into perspective why we named it an All-Star: "The new Civic remains best in class, combining the Mazda3's appetite for twisty roads with refinement and comfort. This is a car I'd consider buying with my own money."
- Michael Jordan
2017 Honda Civic Hatchback Sport Specifications
|PRICE||$21,300/$22,135 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||1.5L turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4/180 hp @ 5,500 rpm, 177 lb-ft @ 1,900-5,000 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD hatchback|
|EPA MILEAGE||30/39 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L X W X H||177.9 x 70.8 x 56.3 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.9 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||126 mph (est)|
Porsche 718 Cayman S
A Day at the Office: There's no place we'd rather work than in a 718
I do understand how there are car enthusiasts who don't quite understand the apparent journalistic love affair with the Porsche Cayman, never mind agree with it. So, let's see if I can shed some light on this with the help of the army of editors on hand for All-Stars.
Driver connection with the 718 begins at standstill. I'm talking cockpit feel, seat, steering wheel, pedals, gauges, control placement, road view — even smell. From my vantage point as a professional racer, the 718 is a functional driver's office. Even before I set off, I know I'm in the correct position for doing my job. If you've never sat in one, I suggest you do it sometime. And make sure you close the door.
Then we get to the driving. Klein said: "Every automaker looking to build a small, lightweight, mid-engine sports car, you can stop now. The 718 wins." Smith was more measured: "All-around athlete, all 350 horses are usable, housed in a forgiving chassis." My take? The 718 provides a wonderfully rewarding driving experience, affording a connection to the car and road seldom found in a contemporary vehicle, regardless of price.
The 718's suspension is more refined than the previous Cayman's. It is well damped and compliant while taking nothing away from the sports-car feel. Approaching the absolute handling limit with any vehicle on the street is risky in more ways than one. However, driving the 718 enthusiastically on our test route was a total joy at less than the limit. On-track performance allowed me to work the car however I wanted. I wasn't the only one. "It's hard not to giggle out loud when you're tackling a technical road or a tight section of track with the 718," Wasef said. Morrison concurred: "The Cayman S allows you to push it incredibly hard, and whether you're on the road or a closed circuit, it grows your confidence at an exponential rate without ever feeling sketchy or out of shape." A couple of notes mentioned understeer when pushing the 718 hard on the track. I found the chassis allowed me to counteract that reasonably easily with some left-foot braking and by varying my steering speed.
The Automobile team might be split on the manual-versus-dual-clutch-gearbox debate, but the Porsche PDK transmission is the benchmark for providing fast, seamless shifts. I do, however, understand that many people enjoy shifting gears and using the third pedal. As Noordeloos admitted, "I love manual gearboxes, but Porsche's magical PDK reminds me why they are on borrowed time."
There was a remarkable spread of opinion and emotion about the new flat-four turbo engine and how it sounds compared to the old flat-six. In the red corner: "Brilliant chassis, brilliant gearbox, and an engine that sounds like butts," Ougarov said. "Lovely car, absolutely horrible sound," Cumberford added. In the blue corner: "Criticize the new flat-four all you like, but this is the future, and I think it sounds just fine," Jordan said. To my knowledge no blows were traded, but I'm adding, "Don't mess with the flat-six" to politics and religion as things not to bring up at the Thanksgiving dinner table.
Regardless of how it makes power, the 718's light weight, coupled with the 350-hp boxer-four, make for a measurably quicker package than the old car. I particularly like the way the power continues to pull high into the rev range, unlike other turbocharged engines that quickly fall off the boil.
Although most of the talk around the campfire concentrated on how well the 718 drives and on the new engine, thoughts on its design, look, and presence were plentiful as well. "This is the best-looking thing you can buy with a Porsche badge, including wristwatches," Jordan said. I had about as many strangers come up to ask me questions about the Cayman as I did when out and about in the Acura NSX. That speaks volumes.
There are always questions about whether any Cayman is worth almost $100,000. Views on this were mostly yes but not overwhelmingly so. The answer will ultimately be in the eyes and wallets of the buyers.
The Porsche 718 Cayman S ignites the passion for driving like few cars do. Hell, it ignites passion, period. It is a true driver's car and a true All-Star. A story to prove the point: It wasn't until day three of four that I actually got to drive it. The keys were constantly absent from road test editor Eric Weiner's beloved key safe. It seems nobody could get enough of the 718.
- Andy Pilgrim
2017 Porsche 718 Cayman S Specifications
|PRICE||$67,350/$95,925 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||2.5-liter turbo DOHC 16-valve flat-4/350 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 309 lb-ft @ 1,900-4,500 rpm|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 2-passenger, mid-engine, RWD coupe|
||7-speed dual-clutch automatic|
|EPA MILEAGE||20/26 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L X W X H||172.4 x 70.9 x 51.0 in|
|0-60 MPH||4.0 sec|
|TOP SPEED||177 mph|
Two Timer: Volvo's stunning sedan scores another well-deserved honor
With Automobile's 2017 Design of the Year award already under its belt, it should come as no surprise the Volvo S90 is also worthy of All-Star status. But this sculpted Scandinavian is more than a pretty face. It's a powerhouse of thoughtful engineering and brilliant balance.
As I noted in my first drive of the car in June 2016, the S90 shakes up the luxury segment not with Hellcat-conquering power or sports-car handling but with ride quality rarely seen in the luxury segment in recent decades. Comfort, grace, and control are the best descriptors for the S90's driving characteristics. They're standout features in a segment populated primarily by harsh-riding if well-handling luxury four-doors. Unlike the competition, which transmits not only road feel but also vibrations, jarring bumps, and undue noise to the cabin and its occupants, the S90's unflappable suspension absorbs the harshest aspects of often-broken western pavement without deviating from the driver's intended line.
Indeed, during our days of All-Stars testing in the mountains above Las Vegas, the S90 stood out among the year's best luxury sedans for its comfortable, controlled ride. But its design came even more to the fore, looking like one of the more expensive cars in our multimillion dollar fleet of test vehicles, despite its sub-$50,000 starting price. From the subtle simplicity and graceful lines of its exterior to the elegant wood, leather, and metal interior surfaces, the S90 pleases the eye with an aesthetic that's at once Scandinavian and global chic. Gone are the days of boxy, awkwardly lovable Swedish bricks. There's a sensuality to go with the sensibility that underlies every modern Volvo.
"Most of the pleasure to be found in this car comes from simply being in it," Jordan said. "The cabin is filled with light and trimmed with natural materials, a breathtaking exercise in Scandinavian design. The Volvo S90 is simply modern, and German cars look tired and stodgy in comparison."
Sensibility is still a core trait, too, however: Under the hood of the all-wheel-drive T6 model is a turbocharged and super-charged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. Small and high-tech for greater efficiency, the inline-four still generates six-cylinder levels of power and torque, with 316 hp and 295 lb-ft on tap. Even the entry-level front-drive, turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder T5 model manages a respectable 250 hp and 258 lb-ft. A plug-in hybrid option is also available, packing a combined 410 hp.
While some editors took issue with the four-cylinder's power, others disagreed. "It does the job well enough to make the S90 scoot as quickly as you need it to. But don't let the performance part distract from this big sedan's ultimate mission of delivering a unique design experience, first and foremost," Wasef said. Editor-in-chief Mike Floyd echoed those sentiments. "This car has more than adequate power. With the S90, it's not about how fast it gets you there; it's about how it makes you look and feel as it does," he said.
More sensible yet is the S90's suite of safety features, building on Volvo's reputation for putting safety at the forefront of its engineering. Standard on all S90 models is Volvo's latest in semi-autonomous driving technology, Pilot Assist, which gives steering assistance to keep the car within its lane of travel at speeds up to 80 mph. Combined with IntelliSafe Assist, Volvo's name for its adaptive cruise control and distance-alert systems, the S90's semi-autonomous driving aids shoulder much of the load of highway driving. For those who live in deer, moose, cattle, or elk country, the S90 also adds large-animal detection to its City Safety obstacle detection suite, which warns drivers and offers braking assistance to help avoid or mitigate crashes.
Rolled into one cohesive package, the 2017 Volvo S90's safety, style, sensibility, and supple ride make it not just a standout luxury sedan, but a car truly worthy of All-Star standing. Jordan summed it up well: "This is one of only a handful of modern cars that persuades me there's a future for the increasingly irrelevant four-door sedan."
- Nelson Ireson
2017 Volvo S90 Specifications
|PRICE||$55,450/$66,105 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||2.0L supercharged and turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/316 hp@ 5,700 rpm, 295 lb-ft @ 2,200-5,400 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5 passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||22/31 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L X W X H||195.4 x 79.5 x 56.8 in|
|0-60 MPH||5.7 sec|