I’ve upgraded a vintage Porsche with a state-of-the-art, fuel-injected Porsche GT3 motor. My uncle converted his ’60s sports car to a Tesla-like, all-electric drivetrain. But why should vintage cars have all the fun?
My 1962-vintage frame is wearing out, so in January I replaced my left knee to keep playing racquet sports into old age. I am now fully bionic, having replaced my other knee two years ago with the same made-in-Michigan Stryker suspension piece.
Unlike modern, smart automobiles, my new knee is decidedly old school. There’s no chip inside. No remote app so I can warm it up in the morning. It’s just chromium and polyurethane.
Also, unlike an auto repair, I can’t just drive it off the lot after surgery. Knee recoveries are a laborious process. Not only will it be six months before I pick up a racquet, but I couldn’t drive a car for three weeks due to knee stiffness (and the cocktail of pain-killing narcotics I was on).
Transporting a knee patient in the dead of Michigan winter isn’t an easy challenge. Stiff as a two-by-four, my knee needs to be comfortable, as does my driver. Surgery is a team sport. So my tireless chauffeur, the saintly Mrs. Payne, and I set about finding the best post-surgery getaway vehicle.
Seating access and comfort is key for any patient — especially leg invalids — so award candidates are inevitably an advertisement for seat innovation. And versatile seating is not just a solution for stiff knees — it’s good for other challenges as well (carrying wide-screen TVs, giving birth while stuck in LA traffic, etc.).
In addition to class-leading seats, all-wheel drive was preferred — getting stranded in a snowstorm was not an option.
The envelopes, please.
1st runner-up: Acura MDX
Acura’s three-seat, midsize crossover shares a platform — and ingenious seating — with a 2015 best post-surgery finalist, the Honda Pilot. Nothing in the luxe market rivals MDX’s third-row access. Push a button and the middle seat collapses forward like Rhonda Rousey after an Amanda Nunes’ punch. Better yet for stiff-legged third-row passengers, the middle seats fold flat. I simply dragged myself over the second row and spread out like I was on a fold-out couch.
Well, not simply. The SUV’s “stadium seating” meant that I had little headroom either for entry or for when I was settled in back. The Acura is also, oddly, a generation behind Honda products in console features. While my wife liked the Acura’s signature, push-button gear selector, the twin infotainment screens made for a blizzard of buttons — none of which features Apple CarPlay or Android Auto smartphone connectivity like the Honda CR-V that I recently drove.
That said, the $59,340 MDX was a beauty inside and outside. Its face has ditched the much-maligned “bottle-opener grille” for a more pleasing design adopted from the Acura Precision Concept.
Runner-up: Chrysler Pacifica
Speaking of pretty faces, the stunning $49,450 Pacifica Limited is once again on a best-of list. I voted it North American Utility of the Year this year as well as 2016 Detroit News Vehicle of the Year.
For old peg-leg here, the minivan’s seating access is unmatched. A sliding side door means no entry barrier. Stow ’n’ Go second-row seats mean no obstacle to crawling into the third row. Once there, the middle seats can be reconfigured as ottomans — or I could just keep them in the basement and stretch my legs.
Up front, Pacifica’s console is state-of-the-art with plenty of storage space for my wife’s purse and accessories. What the big Chrysler does not have, alas, is smartphone apps or all-wheel drive.
Winner: Buick Encore
The Encore is not only our No. 1 pick but is also the cheapest of our three finalists. At $35,757 fully loaded, Buick’s wee ute matched its larger competitors in amenities with heated seats, moon roof, leather appointments — plus crucial Apple CarPlay connectivity and all-wheel drive. Add Buick’s updated “wing” grille (giving the upright Encore a more horizontal appearance), and it’s no wonder Encore has led a brand renaissance.
Most important to my aching leg, however, is a feature the Encore shares with Chevy sibling Trax: a passenger seat that folds forward flat. The Trax advertises this feature to millennials as a way (with middle seats also leveled) to carry a surfboard. For older, empty-nest Encore buyers, perhaps it’s an advert for a grandfather clock?
It’s not quite as nifty as 2015 winner Honda Fit’s unique, back-folding front seat, but it had the same effect — a continuous, forward-facing bench on which to extend my aching knee.
Encore’s looks, maneuverability and sippy fuel mileage won over my practical wife. And I had my ottoman with an unobstructed view out the windshield. The trophy, please.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.