Despite all the madness of 2020, one thing managed to stay pretty similar to previous years: We at Autoblog spent a lot of time driving a lot of cars. Things were different, though. Uniquely, our editors spent this year driving one car per week from home rather than cycling through multiple choices during the course of a week as they passed through our Michigan headquarters. This meant we generally spent more time in each car, but we’d inevitably be missing out on key new cars, trucks and SUVs introduced for 2020 and 2021. Not everyone got a chance behind the new Corvette’s oddly square wheel or an opportunity to launch the Hellcat-powered Ram TRX in a field. This is not a complaint, merely a reality.
As such, it was basically impossible to come up with useful consensus about the cars we drove in 2020. Instead, we shall embrace our individual experiences by providing a cornucopia of selections: best, favorite, most surprising and most disappointing. The “best” is the car that objectively did its job better than any other. Our “favorite” is a personal choice that could easily be “I liked this because it’s blue paint is pretty.” “Most surprising” and “most disappointing” should be pretty self explanatory.
As crummy as the year was, we at least found quite a few bright spots in the car world.
Associate Editor Byron Hurd
Favorite: 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 R – This one will come as no surprise to frequent readers, as I’ve been extolling its virtues since my second-chance sampling back in August. With the GT350 being discontinued and fading into the shadow of the new GT500, I can’t help but think that this, not its supercharged sibling, will be the S550 Mustang that we look back on most fondly. The 5.2L “Voodoo” V8 is one of the most impressive and satisfying engines America has put into an automobile in recent memory, and it’s easily worth the cost of admission.
Best: 2020 Ford F-150 Hybrid – The term “game changer” gets thrown around quite a bit, but in this case, it actually applies. Hybrid trucks have been done before, sure, but never like this. Not only does the PowerBoost hybrid powertrain operate completely seamlessly, but it delivers a ton of power, offers fantastic half-ton fuel economy without any of the diesel headaches (or fuel prices) and it actually does something interesting, new and useful with what is, at its core, an incredibly versatile onboard generator. This is a hybrid done right in a truck done right, and that’s a killer combination. Not only is this the best all-around vehicle I drove, but it’s perhaps the single most important vehicle launch of 2020, period.
I’d also like to take a moment to throw an honorable mention to our long-term 2020 Volvo S60 T8 Inscription. If it weren’t for the F-150, that would have been my pick.
Most Surprising: 2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon – I’m a Jeep owner and fan, and I liked the idea of the Gladiator long before FCA decided to build it. But in my mind, it was always a toy. Interesting, fun, and somewhat more versatile than a Wrangler? Sure, but still a toy. Then I spent a week with one. At its core, the Gladiator is the truck small-pickup buyers claim to want. While its fenders and rock rails may push its width out a bit on paper, it actually fits where other compact trucks won’t, including in my own driveway, where a passenger couldn’t extract themselves from the cab of a Colorado or Ranger. Gladiator? No problem. It still hauls, it still tows, and yeah, when the going gets really tough, it’s the truck you want to be driving (with an honorable mention to the Colorado ZR2 in that narrow category). It’s expensive, but it’s sneaky good for being little more than a beefed-up Wrangler with a bed.
Most Disappointing: 2020 Audi A6 Allroad – The Allroad is not the worst car I drove in 2020 by a longshot, but I had high hopes for this big, jacked-up wagon, and by that measure, it was a letdown. It’s soft, wallowy and uninspiring. The whole point of a wagon is to do crossover things without being a crossover, but to put it plainly, a Mazda CX-9 wipes the floor with the Allroad dynamically for half the cost. The interior’s great and the tech is impressive, but the drive leaves a lot to be desired.
News Editor Joel Stocksdale
Favorite: 2020 Mini Cooper SE – I think this may actually be the best Mini you can buy. The Cooper SE does so many things surprisingly well. It looks and feels just like a regular Mini, by which I mean, it’s cool and fun. It has quick, excited handling, a low, sporty driving position, and loads of style. And it’s enhanced by loads of instant torque, sharp throttle response, and an even more balanced feel thanks to the more even weight distribution. The range is a tad short, but it comes with standard DC fast charging and it’s rather efficient and hits its range targets reliably. It’s even quite affordable. It’s all the Mini fun, but slightly better and guilt-free. I even found myself seriously figuring out if I could and should buy one. That’s mighty high praise.
Best: 2021 Mercedes-AMG E 63 S Wagon – Yes, yes, the car journalist picked the expensive fast wagon as his favorite. I’m totally playing into the stereotype, but the thing is, it does basically everything extremely well. Well, maybe not fuel economy, but other than that, it has no real weak points. Do you want something that’s not just enormously fast and nimble, but also is communicative, engaging and good sounding? Get an E 63 S Wagon. Do you need something that carries lots of stuff? Get an E 63 S Wagon. Do you want something that’s extremely plush, quiet and gadget-laden? Get an E 63 S Wagon. Do you need all-wheel drive? Do you need something stylish? Do you need something unusual? You get the picture. It’s pretty much the perfect do-everything car.
Most Surprising: 2019 STI S209 – I was seriously considering this for my favorite car of the year, but since I actually came away thinking about how I might make a Mini Cooper SE work for me, I gave it the nod for my favorite. The good news is that the STI S209 was also a giant surprise for me, so I can talk about it here. When it showed up, I was prepared to be hugely disappointed. I just couldn’t imagine that a mild power increase and a slew of chassis and aero upgrades could justify the $60,000+ price tag of the S209. You can buy so much more car for that. But the moment I got to rip it around corners and up onramps, it immediately made sense. I have not driven a modern car with such incredibly talkative steering. It has monumental grip. It has a rock solid chassis and unflappable suspension. The engine is old-school, with a fairly slow-spooling turbo, but it revs eagerly and high, and you never want to drive it anywhere below the boost threshold. It’s still really expensive, but shockingly, I completely get it.
Most Disappointing: 2021 Toyota Corolla Apex – I didn’t have an especially high bar for this lightly upgraded Corolla, and it still managed to fall way short of it. Its sins are many. While the suspension upgrades do give it quite a bit of grip and hardly any body roll, it rides extremely harshly. The vast majority are saddled with a CVT that’s not remotely sporty feeling and sucks away any of the fun from the completely stock 169-horsepower engine. The cat-back exhaust that’s on it adds no power, just noise. And on top of everything else, it’s more expensive than more powerful, better equipped and better balanced competitors. I’m not sure why Toyota even bothered making the Apex.
Senior Editor, Green, John Beltz Snyder
Favorite: 2020 Polestar 2 — This vehicle reminds me of when Daniel Craig debuted as James Bond. It’s an entirely modern sedan, handsome and muscular, but with a dark edge that suggests some sort of meanness just under the surface. It’s clean-cut, but hits hard. This all-electric sedan forgoes the unnecessary, but executes all the things you need with precision and ease. I loved the unique materials, the eager powertrain, stable handling and slick Android Auto infotainment system. It may not offer the range of the competition from Tesla, but I’d much rather live with the P1 day to day.
Best: 2021 Genesis G80 — You hear that? I know, this car’s quiet, but listen close. That’s the distant crack of a bat from a team of designers and engineers that put together an absolute home run of a luxury sedan. The new G80 carves out its own space in the segment, combining excellent driving dynamics, cutting-edge technology, and a handsome look inside and out — all for less than the well-established competition. Bring your best suit and your athletic attire. The G80 does it all.
Most Surprising: 2020 Audi SQ8 — I didn’t think I’d like the Audi SQ8 as much as I did. I was expecting luxury and performance, but this offered a lot more personality and versatility than I expected. I found myself taking the SQ8 further and further off the beaten path as I came to enjoy its subtleties on as many different types of roads as I could. I got lost in the refined little details, enjoying the styling touches and little technological treats it offered. It’s hot, but not too hot; posh but not pretentious; comfortable but not isolating. I can now more fully embrace the idea of performance crossovers. Thanks SQ8!
Most Disappointing: 2020 Maserati Quattroporte — It had been a long time since I’d been in a Maserati Quattroporte. I didn’t know what I was missing. The answer: not much. The styling is humdrum and a bit stale. The drive experience does little to keep you engaged. And perhaps the biggest shame, the wonderful Ferrari engine under the hood is as isolated as can be. The name Maserati might conjure whiffs of some fiery Italian recipe, but the real thing isn’t nearly as special as we want it to feel.
Road Test Editor Zac Palmer
Favorite: 2020 Lotus Evora GT — I had more fun behind the wheel of the Evora GT than any other car this year. There’s no better driver’s car on sale today for pure joy behind the wheel (Riswick might have something to say about the Cayman GT4, but I haven’t driven it yet). Every element of the drive is just how I want it: notchy six-speed manual, wailing high-revving engine, lightweight (and balanced) perfectly-tuned hydraulic steering and just enough compliance in the suspension to be livable on the street. It all adds up to an experience greater than the sum of its attributes, making me want to forgive its less attractive qualities like the glitchy Alpine infotainment and suspect build quality.
Best: 2020 Chevrolet Corvette — No matter how you stack this one up, the Corvette is the absolute best performance bargain of the year. Even the $86,860 Corvette I drove is a bargain for what it’s capable of, which only goes to show how wild the deal is at the $59,995 base price. You have to spend over $100,000 on a Porsche to match the capabilities of the Corvette. A similar case could be made for the C7, but Chevy can quiet naysayers who rejected it on grounds of poor interior quality and engine placement. It’s genuinely premium and refined inside the C8, and it goes and turns how a mid-engine supercar should. Anyone could drive back and forth to work everyday in total comfort, and then drive it straight to the track and have boatloads of fun. Perhaps the best compliment I can give to this car? It’s truly everything everybody hyped it up to be. Bravo, GM.
Most Surprising: 2021 Ford Bronco Sport — While the world paid most of its attention to the big Bronco 2-Door and 4-Door, the Bronco Sport made a much smaller splash. The little Escape-based unibody Bronco Sport deserves its time in the sun, though. It’s far more capable than you might expect given its bones, and Ford did a whole lot to make the driving experience a memorable one. It feels like a tiny truck from the driver’s seat. The long, flat hood, upright A-pillars, tall seating position and truck-like controls all do a convincing job of making you think Ranger or F-150. Add legitimate off-road chops to this, and you’re left with a vehicle that does a great mini Land Rover impression (without the luxurious interior and high price, of course). And sure, I had expectations going in, but this little Ford surpassed all of them in the end.
Most Disappointing: 2020 BMW M235i Gran Coupe — Small BMWs are brilliant machines. The M2 and M2 Competition are my favorite BMWs of the last few years. The M240i is a superb M Sport effort that is oodles of fun on its own. After driving the new M235i Gran Coupe, though? Pass. I wanted a BMW WRX, or Civic Type R, or Golf R. For the price (over $50,000 as tested), it falls flat. This car is plenty quick, but it’s a soulless engine with unexciting sound. Like most other new BMWs, steering feel is rather synthetic, though it does have a super capable chassis. The all-wheel drive system is all grip and no tail-wagging fun. Unfortunately, it fails to capture the small BMW magic the two-door rear-drive BMWs are capable of. At the price, I’d much rather have a 330i.
Consumer Editor Jeremy Korzeniewski
Favorite: 2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave — I’ve always been a fan of the Jeep Wrangler, so it’s no surprise that I’m also a big fan of the Gladiator. Of all its available models, the Mojave is my favorite. The suspension upgrades transform the Gladiator from a rock crawler into a high-speed desert rig, and despite its solid axles front and rear, the Mojave actually manages to handle the transition rather well. Plus, the Gladiator’s long wheelbase mean it’s more suited to this kind of terrain than a rock-strewn trail. Add the open-top capability plus the reasonably sized passenger compartment and truck bed and you end up with a vehicle that covers a wide spectrum of fun automotive pastimes.
Best: 2021 Ram 1500 TRX — No matter which way you slice it, the Ram TRX is the ultimate off-road pickup truck. With a 702-horsepower supercharged V8 engine, a beefy frame and suspension bits, a capable four-wheel-drive system and a luxuriously trimmed cabin, the TRX manages to overtake its (also very good) competition from Ford. Simply put, the Ram TRX is the pinnacle of high-performance gasoline-fueled pickup trucks.
Most Surprising: 2020 Subaru Crosstrek — I’ve always liked the Subaru Crosstrek. It’s a reasonably sized hatchback with good ground clearance, all-wheel drive and an attractive sticker price. It’s not sporty in any way, but it strikes me as a very good option for outdoorsy families looking for a one-car solution to daily driving and light off-road expeditions, like finding the perfect off-grid camping spot or getting to an isolated fishing or floating location. The biggest drawback has been a marked lack of power and a transmission that drones when accelerating at highway speeds. The new 2.5-liter engine on the top two trims is just what the Crosstrek needed (so long as you don’t live in the mountains at high elevation) to address its only significant shortcomings.
Most Disappointing: 2020 Nissan Titan — It’s easy to see why Nissan trails every other automaker in full-size pickup truck sales. There isn’t a single category where the Titan excels past its competitors. The fact that it was recently refreshed makes it even worse, especially considering that its one unique selling feature — the Cummins-made turbocharged diesel V8 engine in its not-quite-heavy-duty XD trim — was nixed from the menu.
West Coast Editor James Riswick
Favorite: 1999 Honda Civic Si — Old cars are the rare thing that let you live history. They let you see, feel and hear what it was like to be in another era. This ’99 Civic Si took that concept to another level as with only 1,178 miles on its odometer, it was nearly as minty fresh as it would’ve been had it been dropped off at my house back in the fall of ’98. In fact, it had fewer miles on it than the 2020 Civic Si that I concurrently had in my driveway. As I described in my retro review, this was hardly a car I idolized in my youth and it certainly isn’t worth the rose-tinted hype that’s put upon it, but I still treasured my week spent living in 1999 again. My wife and I weren’t together back then, but going for a drive in that Civic still made us feel like we were back in high school and taking a drive somewhere. That she was 8 months pregnant made the experience a little bit Juno, but hey, it’s an old Civic Si, not a DeLorean.
Best: 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime — My heart is saying Corvette here. It’s a masterful achievement, yet it ultimately feels like GM finally getting around to unfinished business, to truly nailing a Corvette reimagination that should’ve happened long ago. It moves the bar forward for Corvette, but does it really move the bar forward for cars in general? No, and for a car to be considered “the best” car I drove in 2020, it needs to. As such, my head says Toyota RAV4 Prime, a well-executed game changer that adds a plug-in hybrid powertrain to the best-selling SUV. With its ample electric range, it can meander around town for much of the day doing errands on electricity, while its gas engine means you don’t have to spend 45 minutes waiting to recharge in a Chili’s parking lot during a road trip. It loses very little practicality relative a regular RAV4, it’s surprisingly good to drive and government tax rebates make the actual price much lower than the MSRP would indicate.
Most Surprising: 2021 Kia Seltos — At first glance, this is just another compact SUV; a weed in a field of weeds. Yet, the Kia Seltos surprised by doing so much so surprisingly well. It’s surprisingly spacious given its exterior size, surprisingly well-equipped (check out that widescreen infotainment system), surprisingly good looking, surprisingly fun to drive and with the 1.6-liter turbo engine, surprisingly quick (Car and Driver clocked it from zero to 60 in 6.6 seconds). Are there a few too many hard plastics? Sure, but that’s one of the rare areas where the Seltos’ low price shows. This is a winner.
Most Disappointing: 2020 Cadillac CT5 — It’s sized like a BMW 5 Series, but priced like a BMW 3 Series. Unfortunately, the CT5’s interior design and quality are not good enough to compete with either … nor myriad other luxury offerings. You climb in the brand-new CT5 and it looks like it’s been on sale for several years. So disappointing, especially considering the handsome, tasteful exterior that should age quite gracefully. Then there’s the driving experience. The handling is truly sensational and as a driving machine, the CT5 is a sports sedan with few equals for its size. This seems like a moral victory, however. I’m unconvinced that anyone looks to Cadillac to be such a mountain-road-attacking performance brand despite years of trying to convince them of such. Something more akin to Lincoln’s transformation has always seemed like a more appropriate direction for Cadillac: grand in size and aesthetic, comfortable and refined in driving dynamics, stylishly luxurious inside and forward thinking as much as possible. The CT5 is none of those things.