Car Lists

Vehicular Valedictorians: The Top Cars of Our Most Recent Big Tests

Motor Trend routinely pits two or more cars against one another in comparison tests, but when we want to compare most or all of the vehicles in a given class, we put on a much bigger production. We call this the Big Test. It’s a chance for us to sample nearly everything in a particular vehicle segment and gather a surplus of hard numbers in our quest to definitively pick the best car of the bunch. We’ve conducted quite a few over the years. Here are 12 of the top finishers from our most recent Big Tests.

Subaru XV Crosstrek

Performance isn’t everything. Sometimes it’s about having the best all-around package. That’s how the XV Crosstrek wooed editors in the subcompact crossover Big Test. A naturally aspirated, 2.0-liter I-4 making 148 hp and 146 lb-ft of torque drives all four wheels via a continuously variable transmission. This setup didn’t impress at the test track but did deliver a decent drive on the road and good fuel economy. Combine that with a nice ride and usable cabin space, and you have the recipe for a winner.

Mazda CX-3

This newcomer came close to taking home the prize but ultimately missed it by this much. The CX-3 is fun to drive, had the highest-quality interior, and got the best fuel economy, but high cost of ownership and limited cargo space relegated it to second place. The CX-3 is powered by a naturally aspirated, 2.0-liter Skyactiv I-4 making 146 hp and 146 lb-ft of torque. The miniscule CUV can be had in either front- or all-wheel drive, but a six-speed automatic is the only transmission offered.

Cadillac Escalade

After going seven years without significant updates, Cadillac‘s SUV was reborn to show the newest crop of luxury utes it’s still top dog. The Escalade’s blend of good looks, high-quality interior, and strong performance earned it a first-place finish in our large luxury SUV Big Test. It handily bested longtime rival Lincoln Navigator, which finished second to last. The Escalade is powered by a 6.2-liter V-8 making 420 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque.

Mercedes GL450

The GL, which was named Sport/Utility of the Year in 2013, showed its age in this Big Test. Still, being runner-up isn’t bad considering it placed ahead of the Range Rover HSE, Lexus LX 570, Lincoln Navigator, and Infiniti QX80. We liked the GL for its spacious third-row seat, relatively good fuel economy, and smooth ride. The GL450 is powered by Mercedes‘ new twin-turbo V-6, which makes 362 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque.

Kia Sedona

In our minivan Big Test, we crowned the newcomer of the group the winner. Against all odds, the second-generation Kia Sedona placed ahead of segment stalwarts Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna. The Sedona surprised with its smooth ride and the best driving dynamics of the group. We also liked the interior quality and trick folding captain’s chairs. In the end, practicality, style, and fun made the Sedona the one to beat in the minivan category.

Honda Odyssey

The Odyssey may have lost to the new kid on the block, but that in no way means it’s a bad choice. Despite being five years older than the Sedona, the current Odyssey held its own and came in second place. The interior is showing its age, but we like the packaging of the second- and third-row seats and the industry-first HondaVac onboard vacuum. The Honda was also among the safest in the group, having earned a Top Safety Pick distinction from IIHS.

Volkswagen Golf

We named the Volkswagen Golf our 2015 Car of the Year, so it’s no surprise that the German hatchback cleaned up in our compact hatchback Big Test. We like the Golf for its impressive ride and handling, transmission response, and plentiful-feeling 170 hp from its 1.8-liter, turbocharged I-4. But performance wasn’t the only thing the Golf excelled at. The VW also happened to have one of the nicest interiors and represented the best value despite its slightly higher cost. The Golf fell short in our Real MPG tests but overall showed that VW is serious about taking the hatchback mainstream.

Mazda3

If the Mazda3 is second best, then we’ll take a silver medal any day. Although it couldn’t beat the Golf, the ‘3 is a fun, practical choice that’s sure to meet any hatchback buyer’s needs. Unsurprisingly the Mazda3 was one of the top handlers in the test, though at the expense of ride comfort. Still, with a high-quality interior and convenience features such as a head-up display, the Mazda3 offers a lot more than just sporty appeal. In addition, its hatch was the easiest to open for shorter folks. That’s worth something.

Dodge Durango

This test was conducted some time ago, and if we were to do it again with the current crop of large, three-row crossovers (the Honda Pilot was redesigned for 2016, and we like the new one quite a bit; watch out for the revamped CX-9 due soon, as well), the results would likely be different. With that said, the Dodge Durango emerged the victor from a field of six large crossovers. We liked its spacious interior, which allowed for easy access to any row. We also liked its responsive 290-hp, 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 engine and eight-speed automatic transmission. Ride quality was very close to the most carlike crossover in the test, the Nissan Pathfinder, and yet the Durango was easily the most rugged-looking of the bunch.

Toyota Highlander

The Highlander was a good all-around crossover, but nothing in particular stood out to the judges. The three-row crossover performed consistently well in all the tests, earning high marks for its interior, performance, and safety. But overall, the general consensus seemed to be that this was a bland choice in a category with many other options. Although it’s high on value, the Highlander lacks style, and that cost it the win in this Big Test.

Mazda6

It’s no secret that we’re Mazda fans, and the Mazda6 simply checks all the right boxes for both enthusiasts and your average family car shopper. The ‘6 was easily the most fun to drive of the group, and it was surprisingly quick, too. The sedan had the second quickest 0-60 time and was also the best-sounding, with the most responsive transmission. The Mazda6 is powered by a 2.5-liter I-4 making 184 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque and has an available six-speed automatic with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

Kia Optima

The refreshed Kia Optima that’s set to arrive soon has some big shoes to fill, as the model it replaces has been a favorite since the current generation’s introduction. With its good looks, abundant features, and high value, the Optima is a major player in the midsize sedan class. We liked the Optima’s comfortable cabin and smooth, quiet ride. That ride quality came at the expense of handling, however, as the Optima suffered from considerable body roll. But that shouldn’t concern those who plan on cruising mostly on the highway. That group of buyers will benefit from the Optima’s relatively high fuel efficiency. An Optima EX with the 192-hp, 2.4-liter I-4 scored the highest Real MPG rating of the group despite its low EPA numbers.