Some Cars Just Deserve A Little More Love Than We Have Time To Give
You can say that we drive a lot of new cars, but that would be the understatement of the year. Here at Motor Trend, we drive every new car, every year. And truck, SUV, crossover, van — you name it. If it has four wheels and is all shiny and chrome, we’re spinning them, and forming an opinion about said four-wheeled thing. We also drive a heap of cars that aren’t so new. Classics, sure, but also cars that were new last year (or the year before, or before that one, etc.), like when we’re putting together a comparison test. Sometimes we get cars in just because it’s been a while and we need to remember just what we loved (or hated) four years ago.
This list is concerned with the latter. Specifically, what are the 10 cars that we collectively love but don’t praise nearly enough? As for why we don’t praise them enough, I can offer nothing but apologies for our dereliction of duty. Sometimes the days, weeks, months, and years just slip away. And before you address your angry letters/comments at my head, know that Scott Evans and Christian Seabaugh helped me with this list. Blame them, too! Without further ado and in no particular order …
The regular-flavored Chevy SS is a great car. Potent V-8, rear-wheel drive, handsome yet stealthy — a classic sleeper/Q-ship. It also is what it is — a way to keep the production lines humming at Holden factory in Elizabeth, Australia, until they slam the doors in 2017. However, add in a manual transmission and magnetic suspension, and suddenly the MRSS (Mark Reuss Super Sport — I made that up) is a special car. Here’s all you need to know: The Chevy SS manual is a better driver’s car than the BMW 5 Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Audi A6, Lexus GS, Infiniti Q70, Jaguar XF, and GM’s own Cadillac CTS. Also, I’m not talking the 528d (for instance). I’d take the row-your-own Chevy SS over an M5, any day of the week. Get ’em while they’re hot.
I still scratch my head whenever I look at sales figures and see that the Ford Explorer outsells the Flex approximately 9 billion to 1. The six-passenger Flex hails from another era. One when product planners thought people movers should look and function like people movers, not look like SUVs and function like cars. You can think of the Flex as a minivan for adults. Actually, I know the guy that engineered the Flex. He told me that initially, the rear doors slid. That got nixed at the last second, but you get the point. The other point is that if three couples want to go on a weekend getaway to wine country, there’s no better vehicle.
Good things come in small packages. I’ve always been a big fan of the Fiat 500. Great design, smart packaging, and inherently fun to toss around. Poky, sure, but it’s so cheap. I’m serious. I’ve seen deals that cost less per month than a cell phone plan. Well, for not a heap more money you can drive the snarling Abarth version. One hundred sixty horsepower never felt so angry. Or so loud. I knew the moment my wife told me she didn’t want one because the exhaust was too loud that this Abarth was one of the greats. Perfect? No, which is maybe why we don’t sing its praises enough. But dang, dude, what a riot of a car. Special shout out to the 135-hp Fiat 500 Turbo. If the Abarth is too noisy for you, you are too old. But hey, the Turbo’s great and shouldn’t be overlooked. Get the Abarth.
I can’t remember who said it first, but Scott Burgess, Scott Evans, and yours truly referred to the SL63 as nothing other than Torque Vader for the entirety of a California-to-Utah-and-back road trip. Not much to look at, sure, but dip the whole thing in black paint, and the car does take on an evil empire stance. Then there’s the engine: 557 hp is — obviously — totally awesome. But, I should point out, that’s less top-end power than, say, a BMW X6 M. Torque is another matter: 664 lb-ft of the stuff. That’s rarified, tire-killing air, indeed. Torque Vader’s all-aluminum chassis and slick, folding hardtop make for some epic drive potential. Will I ever forget blasting across rural Utah, frigid wind in my hair as I raced up to 155 mph? Not in this life.
I’m going to admit something here. I haven’t even driven the new second-generation X6 M yet, but I’m still putting it on the list. Why? Because sometimes, logic is overvalued. Impractical, obnoxious, and just about the opposite of handsome, there’s something so deranged about the X6 M that I can’t help but love it. Flaws? Many, but not what you’re thinking. I strongly feel the X6 M should be a single-seater with McLaren F1-style central steering. Instead of doors, I’d go with a hatch on the roof. And in place of a start button, I’d rather BMW require you to beat a Prius with a baseball bat before you can cruise to the mall. The X6 M is the flaming middle finger of the automotive world. And that makes me smile. Besides, here’s what Christian Seabaugh — who actually drove the 2015 model — had to say about the bizarre Bavarian: “I really got a chance to enjoy the X6 M on the track — words I never thought I’d write in the same sentence.” Come on!
I know, it’s called the LR4 in the U.S., but the rest of the world knows it as the Discovery, and when the new one comes out sometime next year, it will be Disco to us Yanks once again. You might say she’s a little long in the tooth (and she is; the LR4 debuted in 2009). But old-school works for a reason. The solution is tried and true. If anything, the Discovery is overshadowed by the fancier hardware Land Rover pumps out, namely the Evoque, Range Rover Sport, and Range Rover. Those eat up a lot of our ink. That’s too bad, because while all those British SUVs are good, if not better than good, there’s something grand about the throwback nature of the Discovery. And since we can’t have nice things in this country (i.e. the Defender), the Discovery is as close as we get to Land Rover’s main vein. Also, if you need to drive 1,000 miles across Russia, you’re going to want to do so in a Discovery. Ask me how I know.
There’s not enough praise for me to throw at Ford’s feisty little B-segment bastard above and beyond this: I bought one. People, this car is so good. It placed sixth at last year’s Best Driver’s Car. The BMW M4 was fifth. Developed in Germany by Ford of Europe, an actual world-class hot hatch has snuck into the USA, and no one’s buying them. Why not? Aside from us Motor Trend types not giving the car enough praise, the Fiesta ST only comes with a manual. That, sadly, makes it salesproof. Meaning they’re piling up on dealer lots, and the deals are scorching. The fully loaded sticker price is about $26K. But a buddy of mine in Tennessee got his for $19K. Brand-spankin’ new. And green. Very, very green. Note: Word is that in an attempt to boost sales, Ford softened up the 2015 version of the Fiesta ST, taking the handling down a notch while improving the ride. Mine’s a 2014, and Ford hasn’t given us a 2015 to goof around with (yet), so I couldn’t tell you. But caveat emptor. Odds are you can find a brand-new 2014 for very little cash. That’s a small price to pay for one of the world’s best-handling cars.
Sticking with Ford, the Transit is awesome. Specifically, the one with the mighty 3.5-liter, twin-turbo V-6. Vans shouldn’t be this quick, or this fun to drive. Starting with quick, all you need to know is that at last year’s Truck of the Year testing, an EcoBoost Transit with 10 (TEN!) grown men in it was trapping at more than 90 miles per hour in the quarter mile. That’s ridiculous. I also remember the grin on our handling guru Kim Reynold’s face after he ran one around the figure eight. The big van wants to drift. Only Ford’s undefeatable stability control system keeps it from doing so. What about the diesel? It’s fine/cool, but the gasoline-burning bullet van is the Transit to get. Need more proof? While the Chevy Colorado won Truck of the Year, the Transit beat the F-150 in our estimation, coming in an unofficial second. For years the standard of the segment was the Mercedes Sprinter. No more.
Yeah, it’s probably out of production, what with that all-new one based on the XE’s architecture coming soon. But the old XF can still be found at Jaguar dealers. What a fantastic car! All you really need to know is that it drives sweet. In the segment, I think the three best in terms of sheer driving pleasure are the Cadillac CTS, Lexus GS, and the Jag XF. We never managed to get the timing right and toss all three into a proper comparison test, but my gut tells me the XF would come out on top. Especially the supercharged versions. The good news is that with a new Mercedes E-Class on the way — as well as the new XF — that comparison will happen. Until that time, give the old one a whirl. You’ll love it. I promise.
You might be saying to yourself, “Dude! That thing wins every single comparison test it enters. That’s praise enough.” To which I’ll answer, “Yeah, but it sells in such small numbers that we never talk about it outside of said comparison tests.” For instance, because Toyota sells more than 400,000 Camrys every year, we call it the “Camry segment.” Also, with a car as good as the Mazda6, you just can’t praise it enough. I’m about to quote myself, but here we are: If Americans actually cared about driving, the Mazda6 would be the best-selling car in the country. They don’t, so the Camry is No. 1. Not that the Camry’s a bad car, but the Mazda6 is just so much better. And if you’re totally off your rocker, you can get it with a manual transmission! Let me try to praise it like this: Personally, I don’t like midsize family sedans. I can’t imagine a situation where I’d ever buy one. Save for the Mazda6, which I’d own in a heartbeat. What a great car.
The icon’s icon. Continuous production since World War 2. Defines the SUV as we know it. All that. But I think we take the Wrangler for granted. It’s become a known commodity, like water or air. Do you know that the current Wrangler is better than it’s ever been? From the engine to the ergonomics to its masterful off-road prowess, how many other anything can you think of that peak when they turn 66? That’s based on the year the current JK Wrangler was introduced: 2007. Oh, the doors still come off and if you feel like wasting an hour, you can still fold the windshield down. In today’s safety-obsessed world, that’s insane. Another reason for us not talking about the Wrangler enough is that it really doesn’t have any competition. The Toyota FJ is deceased (and let’s be honest, it was never a true competitor) and that’s it. In terms of capability, there are a handful of SUVs (Land and Range Rovers, Toyota Land Cruiser/Lexus LX570, and Mercedes G-Wagen) that can mountain goat the way the Wrangler can, but check the sticker prices. We’re talking double, triple, quadruple, and worse. So in addition to being iconic, it’s a bargain, too. Praise be!