How do you pick the right Car of the Year when so many cars are so good? You can choose the car you’d drive if you had Wall Street money (Flash: Porsche 911 Named Car of the Year Again). You can award the vehicle that drives over boulders (Flash: Jeep Gladiator Honored). You can call on your must-be-Motown roots (Flash: Corvette Wins Car of the Year Again), especially this year when the Corvette is a legit choice. But in the hands of others, that mindset also gave us the Chevrolet Vega, the Mustang II, the Chevrolet Citation, and the second coming of the Ford Thunderbird in 2002.
What about us? At ExtremeTech, we’re looking for a highly competent car that is forward-looking on technology, safety, and driver assists: a car that has still-desirable features and tech when it comes off lease and goes to the next owner at three our four years of age. Seventy percent of cars sold each year are previously owned. As for criteria, we have no price cap; some pubs say no more than 2.5X the average new car price, which average price in November was $38,400 according to KBB.com, excluding incentives, but we’d expect a lot more technology in a $100,000 car than a $25,000 car. Our preference is the car be available to buyers by the beginning of the year, not vaporware. Plus, it should be fun to drive on top of the technical merits. Here’s the 2020 ExtremeTech Car of the Year and, in alphabetical order, the rest of the top 10.
Car of the Year: 2020 Hyundai Sonata
In yet another Year of the SUV, where seven in 10 sales go to SUVs, crossovers, and pickups, the best new vehicle is a sedan: the 2020, eighth-generation Hyundai Sonata. Really. Sonata. Only once you have a) seen how good-looking the 2020 model is, b) gone through the list of standard safety technology and c) driven the Sonata can you fully understand the very neat trick Hyundai pulled off.
For starters, the following Hyundai SmartSense driver-assist features below are standard on all four trim lines of every 2020 Sonata (and the last is standard on the trims above SE that account for 85-90 percent of Sonata sales):
- Stop and go adaptive cruise control (Hyundai’s term: “advanced smart cruise control”)
- Forward collision warning, auto emergency braking, pedestrian detection (“forward collision-avoidance assist with pedestrian detection”)
- Auto high beams (“automatic high beam assist”)
- Lane keep assist (steers the car back from the lane edges)
- Lane centering assist (“lane follow assist”)
- Driver drowsiness detection (“driver attention warning”)
- Dynamic backing guidelines for the (federally mandated) rearview camera
- (SEL, SEL Plus, Limited:) Blind-spot detection (“blind-spot collision avoidance assist”) / rear cross-traffic alert (“rear cross-traffic avoidance assist”)
This is every bit of driver assistance tech you’d expect on any 2020 car, even high-end cars.
There’s more driver assistance, if you want it: On the top two trim lines, Hyundai has Level 2 self-driving called Highway Drive Assist. It works well. On the top line, Sonata Limited, Remote Smart Parking Assist self-drives your car into and out of a parking space or garage with you out of the car, for about 30 feet worth of self-drive parking. Also on Limited is a Blind Spot View Monitor (photo above) that shows left and right rear video views in the instrument panel, twice as wide as what you’d see from the side mirror, and you still get warning chirps and lights. All in a mainstream car, not a Lexus or Mercedes.
There’s also phone-as-key (just what it sounds like) called Hyundai Digital Key using NFC (near field communications). There’s also a separate NFC proximity card that opens and starts your car and costs about $20 (not $250) for a physical wireless remote key if you lose it. Hyundai Digital Key works with Android phones, and would work with iPhone if Apple allowed NFC for more things than Apple payments. Hello, Apple?
Hyundai knows navigation is a tough sell on lower-cost cars, so it makes standard Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and an 8-inch color touchscreen. Plug in your own phone for navigation. On the upper SEL Plus, Hyundai makes optional a 10.25-inch center display and onboard nav, and it’s standard on Limited because everything comes standard on Limited.
A performance Sonata, the N Line, follows in 2020 (announced), then most likely a hybrid Sonata (widely expected) that will provide e-power to the rear wheels and give the Sonata all-wheel-drive without creating a space-robbing transmission tunnel for mechanical rear-wheel-drive. Of the top-selling sedans perceived as midsize, the No. 1 Toyota Camry will offer AWD in the spring after 27 years as front-wheel-drive only, No. 2 Honda Accord is front-drive only, No. 3 Nissan Altima got AWD with the 2019 model, and the Sonata is on the verge of being the No. 4 seller as soon as the current fourth- and fifth-place Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu hurry up and kick the bucket (never mind that they are very good sedans).
You get all this core safety (the bullet list above) in the Sonata for $26,430 including freight, or $28,830 for the SEL that has BSD, ten grand under the average selling price of a new car today. The Sonata Limited, maxed out with every option-that-is-actually-standard, sells for $34,530: The Car of the Year, loaded, at four grand under the price of the average new car sold today.
Hyundai’s new equipment-and-options scheme is nice: Features are fixed (no options offered) on entry and premium lines. The least expensive trim has no extra-cost options because shoppers are buying a low payment plan, such as a Sonata SE lease for $219 or 1.9 percent purchase financing; in late December, in some areas, it’s as low as a $99 lease or 0 percent APR 72-month loan. The middle trims offer options. At the top trim, most buyers want every option, so they’re all baked in. And the Sonata is made in America: Montgomery, Alabama, to be specific. Auto manufacturing is transforming the New South in Alabama, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Mississippi, and if the jobs aren’t in Michigan, they are in the US of A.
While the Sonata’s length of 192.9 inches says midsize, the interior volume of 120.4 cubic feet (104.4 feet passenger, 16.0 feet trunk) says full-size in EPA numbers (120 cubic feet and above). In every way, our Car of the Year is a cut above. And Hyundai is poised to pick up the slack as US-flagged automakers cut their sedan lines. Thirty percent of 17 million new vehicles is still 5 million sedans.
Anybody can make a great $75,000 car. It takes genius to engineer a great car for $30,000. Hyundai did it and that’s why the Sonata is the ExtremeTech Car of the Year for 2020.
Below, the rest of ExtremeTech’s top 10 cars for 2020:
BMW X5: Safe, Fast Fun Has Its Price
If you want one higher-end vehicle that does it all – ultra-composed highway cruising with the family or back-roads carving on your own, carpooling or towing 7,200-pound trailers – that’s the 2019 BMW X5 midsize SUV. This the most balanced vehicle in the BMW lineup and offers more of the good stuff and good-life stuff – driver assists, entertainment, safety technology – albeit for a price. It rides well, handles well, and just feels good to be in. It’s the second year of the fourth-generation X5 that debuted as a 2019 model.
The 2020 X5 offers three engines: a 335-hp inline-six and a 0-60 time of 5.2 seconds, a 456-hp V8 (0-60, 4.6 seconds) and for 2020 an X5 M50i with a 523-hp V8 (0-60, 4.1 seconds). Near-perfection has its price: $59,895 for a rear-drive X5 (a whopping seventeen large over the compact X3), to $83,000 for the base X5 M50i (meaning parts from the BMW Motorsport bins), to $133,825 for the X5 M Competition, an all-Motorsport vehicle, fully optioned.
The six-cylinder X5 comes standard with dual 12.3-inch displays, LED headlamps, front/rear parking sonar, Active Driving Assistant (blind spot detection/rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, forward collision warning/city collision mitigation, and daytime pedestrian protection). You pay extra for adaptive cruise control (BMW’s standard “dynamic cruise control” sounds like ACC but really it’s cruise control), for the satellite radio tuner chip (it’s in packages starting at $1,050), and for nine of the 11 paint colors that add $550-$1,950. You may want things like laser headlamps, the rear air suspension, or ultra-premium audio, because why not? You must get the Driving Assistance Professional package ($1,750) with adaptive cruise control, lane centering, auto lane change (just flick the turn signal and it happens if it’s safe), and steering/traffic jam assistant.
A well-equipped X5 will run you $70,000-$75,000. Compared with the equally luxe, equally new Mercedes-Benz GLE, the Bimmer is more fun to drive. Compared with the Audi Q7, Audi still has a great interior but trails otherwise because it’s a five-year-old platform with a 2019 facelift.
Chevrolet Corvette Stingray: Mid-Engine Magic
Corvette songs peaked in the sixties, give or take Prince and “Little Red Corvette,” and even that was 1982. Now Corvette culture is back, this time without gold chains, as the 2020 C8 (eighth-generation) Vette arrives. The engine is finally mounted behind the driver, something Corvette chief engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov dreamed of in the 1950s. There’s a seven-speed double-clutch transmission. The 491-hp V8 engine has variable valve timing, gasoline direct injection, and Active Fuel Management (cylinder deactivation) to make the car a responsible citizen that also hits 60 mph in 2.9 seconds with the Z51 package. A turbocharged, overhead-cam, hybrid – yes, hybrid – engine is reportedly in the offing for more fuel efficiency and more power, more power because the electric motors act as additional turbochargers that have zero lag.
The new Corvette offers magnetic ride control shocks – MR, or magnetorheological dampers – that can be sporty or soft. Testers who’ve had the C8 Corvette on the track find it quicker than the C7 Corvette of 2014-2019, and easier to drive. Amazingly, the list price (excluding freight) starts just over $61,000 with freight, $7,500 more for the hardtop convertible. Bring on the Porsches and Ferraris. Most people will pay more and the $100,000 Corvette is an easy possibility. The online configurator is addictive: You want orange seat belts, or Tension Blue, or Torch Red? That’s $395, please, if you don’t want black. You’ll discover front lift with memory, $1,495, that remembers via GPS up to 1,000 speed bumps and steep driveways and lifts the front end 2 inches before you get there. Hey, that’s cheap compared with replacing the front spoilers.
Hyundai Palisade: So Good, So Affordable
If not for the Hyundai Sonata, the Hyundai Palisade might well be Car of the Year. The Palisade is the BMW X5/Mercedes-Benz GLE for $20,000 less, all of them with outstanding interiors and a raft of safety features and driver assists, and very different price points. With the Palisade, a slew of safety features come standard on all trim lines. The three rows fit seven (middle row captain’s chairs) or eight (bench), with semi-passable room in row three for adults. The 291-hp V6 and eight-speed automatic are plenty quick, if not in BMW’s league. (The $20K extra has to go for something, such as less body lean.) Hyundai Drive Assist gives you Level 2 autonomy, meaning the car drives itself on highways as long as you keep your hands lightly on the wheel most of the time.
We loved the Blind View Monitor on the premium trim line, Limited, with its 12.3-inch digital instrument panel. Rear-side-facing cameras bring up a view to the left or right rear. depending on which directional signal is activated. That’s on top of a blind spot warning light in the side mirror, a pleasant chirp from the speakers, and what was a Hyundai/Genesis first, blind spot warnings in the head-up display. You can’t have too much of a good thing, especially for older drivers who can’t, or younger drivers who won’t, turn their heads to check traffic. (Editor’s note: Ignore the Consumer Reports early review that calls Palisade Blind View Monitor “clever … but some of our drivers considered this feature a mere novelty while others thought it could be distracting.” No way. It’s a feature that makes blind-spot detection even more useful.)
A loaded Palisade comes in at less than $48,000. The Palisade resets expectations on what you must pay for a great family-size SUV. Shop this (and sibling Kia Telluride, below) if you’re looking at best-seller Ford Explorer or Lincoln Aviator for that matter, as well as Chevrolet Traverse. It’s competitive with Audi/BMW/Mercedes SUVs as well.
Jaguar I-Pace: Charm of the Un-Tesla
If you want a sports car that’s quick, comfortable, great-looking, and comes with a $7,500 tax credit, that’s the Jaguar I-Pace. Most of all, it’s exclusive: Jaguar was bringing only about 3,000 to US shores for 2019, which is also about what demand is for a vehicle that’s snug in back relative to the Tesla Model S, Model X, or Model 3 and with a more modest range, 234 miles on the EPA test cycle or 292 miles for Europe’s WLTP (Worldwide Harmonized Light Vehicle Test Procedure). To push range over 300 miles, you need several hundred more pounds of battery, and that hurts performance. And range. The US needs more cars like the I-Pace, our ExtremeTech Car of the Year a year ago, to make EVs sexier and more desirable.
At the $70,000 base price, it’s a great deal, as high-performance SUVs go. Or high-performance hatchbacks, which the I-Pace also closely resembles. Some people find it annoying when they spend a lot of money on a Black Sapphire Metallic BMW X4 and find the same X4 next to yours in the company parking lot, even if the other one is Carbon Black Metallic or Jet Black. (BMW sells a lot of black cars.) Won’t happen with the Jag.
The Kia Telluride is a fraternal twin to the Hyundai Palisade. Engineers say every body and interior panel is different. But the drivetrain is the same, the EPA numbers are the same at 21 mpg combined city/highway, pricing is similar, and interior finish is first-class on both. The Telluride has four trim lines (LX, S, EX and SX), while the Palisade three (SE, SEL, and Limited). Entry models are about $33,000, both with full-range adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-centering steering, rear parking sensors, and a trailer stability system.
The Telluride (only) comes standard with blind-spot detection/rear cross-traffic alert and safe exit assist (alert sounds if you open a road-side door with traffic approaching). So if you shop the entry model, the Telluride is a better choice than the Palisade. Both offer a blind spot monitor (display) in the instrument panel, with Kia’s taking up the middle of the screen and Hyundai’s taking up the left-side circular speedometer or right-side tachometer, depending on whether the alert is on the left or right side. Kia has a traditional console shifter; Hyundai uses buttons that set aside more space for cupholders, phones, and keys. Fully optioned, the top trim line is about $47,500. (A Ford Explorer can hit $65,000.)
Subjectively, reviewers say the Kia looks ruggeder, in part with the rectangular grille shape and the Telluride name. The ride is about the same. The Telluride in the fall was outselling the Palisade by 20 percent, and Telluride was Motor Trend’s SUV of the Year; both are candidates for the NACTOY (North American Car and Truck of the Year) utility vehicle award to be announced Jan. 13. Either way, the two are shaking up the market, with the Telluride marketed as a sporty/rugged vehicle and the Palisade emphasizing a luxe interior. To us, the biggest difference is Telluride has blind-spot detection even on the entry trim line.
Lincoln Aviator: Ford’s Luxury Brand Takes Off
The Lincoln Aviator represents the resurrection of the Lincoln Motor Company, which for more than a decade breathed Cadillac’s exhaust fumes. The midsize Aviator builds on the Ford Explorer (the best-selling midsize SUV in recent years) with luxury touches that resonate with buyers who, unlike X5 shoppers, don’t yearn for the chance they might one day want to autocross a 2.5-ton vehicle. Still: The Aviator, with a 400-hp twin-turbo V6, hits 60 mph in close to 5 seconds; the Aviator Grand Touring PHEV adds a 100-hp electric motor and batteries good for 18 miles. Inside, the cockpit is rich, refined, and tasteful. High-end trims get 28-speaker Revel audio and 30-way massaging seats. Or maybe it’s the other way around. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra created short musical chords that take the place of harsh beeps on other cars.
Standard safety is good: Co-Pilot 360 comprises forward-collision warning, automated emergency braking, pedestrian detection, blind-spot detection, lane-keep assist, and automatic high-beams. But standard safety could be better: The Aviator line that runs $53,000 (Aviator) to $90,000 (Aviator Grand Touring Black Label) does not include, on lower trims, Co-Pilot 360 Plus with full-range adaptive cruise control, traffic-sign recognition, and self-parking (parallel and perpendicular). The Aviator (formerly MK-something, MKT we believe), flanked by the bigger Navigator (always called Navigator), the smaller-midsize Nautilus (formerly MKX), and the compact Corsair (formerly MKC), is finally gaining momentum. For a Lincoln to advance from best-of-the-year for 2020 to models that are best of every year, it needs to work on quality control (the Aviator/Explorer rollout was messy) and give thought to some sporty variants.
Mazda CX-5: So Good in So Many Ways
How often does one model surpass half an automaker’s sales? That’s the Mazda CX-5 compact SUV, with 151,000 of Mazda’s 300,000 US sales in 2018, a runaway success since the second generation arrived as a 2017 model. It’s nimble, seats four or five very comfortably, and now has a Grand Touring Reserve and Signature models with a 250 hp turbo engine and even nicer cockpit trim. Every mainstream automaker flaunts the term “class above,” but it’s Mazda that actually delivers. (Okay, the Hyundai Palisade/Kia Telluride in this story as well.) Fit and finish are first-rate and several Mazdas, including the CX-5, are cited among Consumer Reports’ most reliable vehicles.
Vehicle development engineer Dave Coleman says, “Mazda makes slow cars that are fun to drive fast.” Meaning there’s more fun pushing a normally powered car to its limits on a back road than carefully modulating the throttle on, say, an X3 to find you’re always holding back to avoid being 20 mph over the limit and having to lean hard on the brakes going into a curve. Mazda sweats the details on how the driver blends with the seat, even how his or her head bobs going over bumps or in turns, all to in the name of jinba ittai, or making horse and rider as one. The first time you hear jinba ittai, you wonder if this is more marketing BS. Over time, you realize this is what Mazda is about, and why a comparatively small company slays so many dragons.
The entry CX-5 Sport with cloth seats, blind-spot detection, 187 hp, and front-drive is a sporty runabout at $25,000, while the top-of-the-line Signature AWD adds adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist (but not lane centering, because Mazda wants to keep it a driver’s car), suede seat inserts, and gorgeous wood dash panels for $38,000. Now that it’s winter, you can mount winter tires and test Mazda’s belief that nobody does better predictive all-wheel drive.
Ram 1500/Ram HD: 48-Volt eTorque Boosts Power
Redesigned for 2019, the Ram 1500 offers a very good ride, the ability to carry or tow big loads, and a wide range of engine choices. Most interesting is eTorque, a mild-hybrid option on V6 and V8 engines that uses a 48-volt battery pack and a belt-drive electric motor (which doubles as a generator) for brief bursts of extra power, or torque. In city driving, eTorque engines boost fuel economy by almost 20 percent. There’s also a V6 EcoDiesel that is matching V8s on power and towing capacity. Inside, the cab is roomy, has lots of storage, and useful tech features, including an available 12-inch portrait display and the easy-to-use UConnect interface and navigation system. The Ram’s coil-spring suspension improves the ride over leaf-spring pickups and the top-line Limited has a four-corner air suspension that emulates the ride of an upscale luxury sedan or SUV.
Naturally, there’s an array of cab types (regular with one row of seats; quad with two rows and snug rear legroom; and crew with two rows and the same 41-inch legroom as the front seat), bed lengths (5’7″, 6’4″, 8′), trim lines (seven), engines (V6 and V8 gas with and without eTorque, V6 diesel, Cummins inline-six diesel), an off-roader (Rebel), heavy-duty versions (2500 HD, 3500 HD), and rear- or four-wheel-drive. The most common driver assists – blind spot detection, adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist – are offered as options, and some features such as adaptive cruise control are only available on higher trim lines. All this made the Ram 1500 America’s third best-selling vehicle in America, albeit behind the Ford F-150 and Chevrolet Silverado.
Subaru Forester: Solid, Safe, On and Off Paved Roads
The fifth-generation Subaru Forester that debuted in 2019 remains true to its roots: rugged, reliable, standard all-wheel-drive, and easily cleaned inside and out with a fire hose (first remove the golden lab), or so the faithful claimed, except now the rubber floor mats are carpet. And there’s a lot of safety, standard, via Subaru EyeSight, a system using stereoscopic cameras. For 2020, lane centering assist comes standard, in addition to full-range adaptive cruise control and forward-collision warning/mitigation braking. DriverFocus tracks head movement and sounds an alert if you appear distracted; usually, it’s right.
Compared with our top ten Mazda CX-5, the Forester occupants sit more upright and have more legroom, and there’s more cargo room in back. The CX-5 is more fun to drive, while the Forester’s higher ground clearance make it better off-paved roads. The Mazda, even with the non-turbo four, is quicker, while the Forester easily gets fuel economy in the 30s. Both are great in the snow, especially on winter tires.
With almost 300 different models on sale, there are plenty of just-about-as good cars, SUVs, and pickups. All are standouts overall, with very good technology. They include:
Audi A4. The best compact, upscale sport sedan, in a field crowded by BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-Class, Infiniti Q60, Lexus IS, Volvo S60, etcetera. Plenty of tech, as you’d expect.
Ford F-150. No. 1 selling vehicle (nearly 1M this year). Ford’s turbo (EcoBoost) V6 makes buyers forget V8s. Sync works well.
Honda Accord. The longstanding benchmark in midsize sedans has fought off challengers before and rivals higher-end cars for cabin quality.
Honda Odyssey. Write this on your hand when you shop: No 200- to 205-inch inch SUV carries as many people in comfort, in all three rows, as a minivan. The 2020 Odyssey has its extensive HondaSensing safety suite and blind-spot detection (which is not part of the suite) standard on all but the low selling-entry trim line. It’s the best choice for a family. If you need all-wheel-drive, the Toyota Sienna is the only choice currently (a very good choice), and if you do a lot of around-town carpooling, the upscale Chrysler Pacifica PHEV covers the first 18 miles on battery power.
Hyundai Kona. A solid upscale subcompact crossover. Want the same size from Hyundai, only less expensive? Check out the just-shipped Venue, a Nissan Kicks competitor.
Mazda CX-30. CX-30 finds room in the foot of length between the aging CX-3 and never-grows-old CX-5.
Porsche Macan. The compact SUV is a gem, priced to match, and with great technology. It is the best-selling Porsche.
Subaru Ascent. A very, very good midsize SUV the second time around. A decade ago, Subaru couldn’t click with the similarly sized B9/Tribeca SUV. This time, magic happened.
Subaru Crosstrek. The go-anywhere AWD (of course) subcompact hatch with a sporty flair, solid off-paved-roads driving, and the excellent optical driver-assist system, EyeSight. Now has a hybrid option.
Tesla Model 3. Forget the Tesla hype machine for a moment: Tesla knows EV batteries best. The Model 3 is a smash sales success compared with every non-Tesla EV.
Toyota Avalon. The best big, midprice sedan for those who don’t want SUVs. Really a good car, and not just for retirees. There’s a hybrid (of course) and a performance model (OMG!) TRD Avalon sedan.
Toyota Camry Hybrid. Camrys are great, Toyota hybrids are great. Perfect when you need more room than a Prius and don’t want a RAV4 (a great small SUV which comes in hybrid).
Toyota Prius. Year in, year out, the standard-bearer among small hybrids. People have (almost) stopped asking how long the batteries might last.
Toyota Yaris. Yes, that’s a lot of Toyotas on this list. Except the best subcompact sedan is actually the Mazda2, rebadged.
Volvo XC60. In a crowded field of upscale compact SUVs, the Volvo stands out for safety and a classy cockpit.
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