Each year I have the good fortune of driving roughly 100 brand new vehicles, ranging from humble econoboxes all the way up to tarmac-searing exotics. It’s a random mix — I can never quite predict what keys are going to end up in my pocket — and at the same time there are often surprises lurking in there that I never would have expected. Sometimes a car you thought would ignite a fire within you simply leaves you cold, while other, ostensibly boring designs strike a chord.
So what were the cars and trucks that left an impression this year? Here are my 10 favorite test drives of 2019.
The Best Daily Driver: Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Widebody
Have you ever wanted to do doing smoky burnouts while you sit in the morning coffee drive-thru and then commute to work in absolute comfort trailed only by the faint odor of aerosolized rubber mixed with scofflaw truancy? Or longed for the opportunity to brag about 707 horsepower to your buddies in the same breath as you mention how easy it is to put a car seat in the back?
The Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Widebody is the kind of car that only exists because each of the engineers at FCA moved the posters that were on their childhood bedroom walls into their office cubicles and hid them from the bean counters. It’s rare to find a 200-mph automobile that’s almost completely invisible to your insurance agent, so grab one of these four-door daily driver monsters before they’re legislated out of existence.
The Best Family Mule: Hyundai Palisade
The evolution of Hyundai from also-ran to budget-friendly bargain to class-leader is complete with the Palisade. This three-row family hauler not only offers styling that’s a welcome break from the boring blobs that typically dominate this segment, but its interior delivers luxury and detail that leap-frogs any number of “premium” badges at a much more affordable ask. Lexus, Acura et al. — you’ve been put on notice by the brand you least expected.
The Best Out-of-the-Box Track Car: Subaru STI S209
If you haven’t placed your order for the very first fully-STI-sourced Subaru to come to America, then it’s probably too late: only 209 of these track-tuned beasts will be offered to the public. Put together entirely by the Japanese automaker’s long-time performance partner, the S209 is the best-handling edition of the STI to have graced U.S. showrooms, and a car that sheds the street version’s occasional awkwardness to munch road-course miles with phenomenal poise and balance.
The Best Rolling Swiss Army Knife: Ram 1500 Limited
Looking for a fearsome tow rig, an off-road rebel or a luxury penthouse on wheels? The Ram 1500 is your “yes” answer to all of the above, a full-size pickup that’s available in a bewildering array of shapes, sizes, equipment levels and drivetrain choices. The 1500 Limited is the last word in big rigs, what with its air-spring ride, enormous 12-inch infotainment display and the kind of cabin trim that was once only found in high end premium sedans. Oh, and there’s plenty of grunt under the hood to haul your boat, captain.
Best Out-Of-Nowhere Performance Car Surprise: Hyundai Veloster N
Remember what I said above about the Palisade’s impact on the world of SUVs? That goes double for the Hyundai Veloster N, a pint-size, asymmetrically styled three-door that, when equipped with the optional Performance Pack, delivers the kind of raucous character that the hot-hatch segment was missing. With 275 horsepower on tap and suspension and exhaust systems that have been tuned to maximize fun while minimizing social restraint, the Veloster N is a car that goes beyond the numbers to paste a smile on your face.
The Best Sports Car at Any Price: Mazda MX-5 Miata
With the roof open and a treacherous set of curves ahead, the Mazda MX-5 Miata remains the purest expression of motoring available in a modern context. Lightweight, affordable and remarkably responsive to your every input, the Miata has the ability to elevate a morning drive to a religious experience.
The Best BMW That Isn’t a BMW: Genesis G70
The Genesis G70 proves that you don’t need a German badge on the hood — or a time machine — to pick up that classic combination of a responsive chassis and superlative luxury experience in a reasonably sized sedan. Genesis is the only upscale automaker still focused on democratizing driving dynamics across its entire entry-level lineup, rather than saving it for super-focused sport editions. This isn’t just an alternative to the still-solid 3 Series: it’s a worthy replacement for anyone who favors the long way home.
The Best BMW That IS a BMW: BMW M850i
If you’re craving a Bavarian fix, might I recommend the M850i? The newest full-size coupe from BMW is a healthy improvement on the 6 Series it replaces, and it provides not just a handsome profile and strong street presence but also the kind of staggering straight-line performance that will make you question the laws of physics every time you mash the accelerator. A twin-turbo V8 engine makes short work of the M850i’s considerable bulk as you power past lesser luxury rides, safely ensconced in one of the quietest and most isolated BMW cockpits available.
The Best Reason to Take Your Top Off: Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
The two-door Jeep Wrangler might be overshadowed by the popularity of its more practical four-door sibling, but flip the top back, fold down the windshield and make sure you tick the box for the Rubicon package, and you’ll find yourself at the center of a “fun” vortex that quickly sucks up everyone around you. It’s impossible to have a bad day behind the wheel of this good-times machine, particularly in bright red with its excellent turbocharged four-cylinder engine option under the hood.
The Best Argument That Brits Do It Better: Aston Martin Vantage
Because everyone else you went to dental school with bought a Porsche 911. German-engineered V8 fire (courtesy of AMG) married to a British aluminum body and the kind of drive-all-day interior that road trips were designed for. If you’re going to spend the money, why not on something you won’t see coming and going on your way to the country club?
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