This year was dominated by headlines about the driverless future. Chevy rolled out its autonomous Bolt fleet in San Francisco, I drove a Caddy hands-free across Texas, then hailed a headless Uber in downtown Pittsburgh.
Yet, the number of driver-focused cars multiplied like rabbits. Make that jackrabbits.
Looking over the 40-plus entries for 2017 Detroit News Vehicle of the Year, there wasn’t a dog in the lot. Even five-door, family-friendly SUVs often advertised their athleticism first, utility second. Credit in part the same electronics that are pushing autonomy with making cars more engaging to drive.
Vehicles today are routinely equipped with electronic-controlled steering, shocks, all-wheel drive and transmissions that can be altered for performance on-road or off with the push of a button. Quick-shifting 10-speed Honda Accords, twin electric-motor torque-vectoring Acura MDX hybrids and spool-valve damped Chevy Colorado pickups feature hi-tech goodies you’d expect to find on supercars.
SUVs continued their march to world domination with everything from the quick Alfa Stelvio to quirkbox Kia Soul turbo to rolling condo Lincoln Navigator. But the endangered sedan species isn’t going quietly. Kia debuted a saucy Stinger sedan hatchback that conjures Audi A7 performance numbers for half the price. Another $10,000 below the Stinger is another, all-wheel drive five-door stunner — the Buick Regal Sportback.
From the get-go this year the headliners were performance models. Self-drive? No, no — let me drive. Dodge’s Demon eclipsed “Hamilton” as the most talked-about show in New York City when it bowed in the Big Apple with a mike-dropping, 9.65-second quarter mile run. There was the Lexus LC 500 and Porsche 911 GTS and Ford Mustang GT and Tesla Model S P100D. Pardon me while I pick my jaw off the ground.
Our three finalists were old nameplates with new twists. The envelope, please ...
First runner-up: Ford GT
No, you can’t have one. Priced north of $450,000 with all 750 copies spoken for, the GT is a rare beast. But it is a street-legal manifestation of the industry’s state of the art.
It is the most beautiful car made today. From its heritage GT40 beak to its scissor doors to its inspired twin-flying buttresses, it is Ford’s Mona Lisa. Lap any auto show floor in the world and it will be the image that is burned into your brain.
Its performance is even more breathtaking. Flogging its 647 horses around Salt Lake City’s Utah Motorsports race track just three inches off the ground, I was at one with a piece of automotive history. The GT’s carbon-fiber chassis was purpose-built to do one thing: win LeMans again 50 years after its grandfather GT40 drubbed rival Ferrari.
The keel-wing design is right out of modern racing, with its long, stiff spine optimized to force air through huge channels under the skin and suck the car to the ground. The twin-turbo V-6 behind your ear lacks the raw ferocity of the GT40’s V-8 but eclipses its power and fuel efficiency. Sitting in the sparse interior, everything I needed was on the Formula One-style steering wheel, even the windshield-wiper widget. This is a sci-fi Jedi machine from the future — a future where driving is still prized.
Runner-up: Honda Civics
I was sure Honda’s finalist would be the 2018 Accord. The brand’s pole-star mid-size sedan is an astonishing vehicle for a mainstream sedan. With its sweeping design cues, 10-speed transmission, Audi-like interior and laundry list of features, it’s a premium machine hiding behind a Honda mask.
But I’m smitten with the Civic triplets.
This entertaining bag of bobcats is proof you don’t have to have a bag of loot to have fun in a car. Base on Civic’s new-generation, low, stiff chassis, the hatch Sport gets you in the performance door at just $22,175. With a manual transmission, revvy turbo-4 and hatchback utility, it beats any computer game — and you get to play outside.
Step up to the Si coupe or sedan (what, no hatch?) for just another couple grand and you get 25 more ponies, limited-slip differential and a lime-green paint option that will burn your eyeballs. It’s the first Si I’ve coveted since the free-revving 2006 Si that still sits in my garage.
But the icing on the triple-layer cake is the 306-horsepower, $34,000 Type-R which came to our shores for the first time thanks to Honda’s globally-produced platform. Built in England (its siblings are birthed in Indiana), sprayed white with black mascara, and festooned with wings, it looks like Daryl Hannah’s replicant somersaulting towards you in “Blade Runner.” Stunning and lethal.
These bargain toys aren’t for everyone with their polarizing wardrobes. But with stick shifts available, they are some of the most affordable fun on four wheels.
Winner: Jeep Wrangler
The Wrangler perfectly encapsulates 2017 in one vehicle.
Once the rough, Army-brat descendent of the World War II Willys workhorse, the Wrangler has matured into the icon of the hottest SUV brand on the planet. When Marchionne & Co. took over Chrysler in 2009 they saw the world coming to Jeep’s doorstep. With the Wrangler as its beacon, the off-road niche brand has exploded into a global juggernaut with more than 1.5 million in annual sales.
As Jeep extends its reach for every ute need, Wrangler has expanded its bandwidth, too, while not forgetting its rugged roots. A Swiss Army knife in the Outback, I used its multiple tools — detachable sway bars, locking differentials, four-wheel drive, 33-inch tires — to scale ridiculous terrain in Arizona.
But for 2018, the Wrangler also takes advantage of modern electronics and engine design to become a tool for all roads. It features the latest smartphone connectivity apps, a smooth eight-speed automatic tranny and even a cutting-edge, 48-volt battery usually found in luxemobiles to extend fuel economy.
West Coast car buyers have long turned their backs on American-made cars in favor of their Japanese competitors. Not anymore. I’m struck in my visits these days how many Jeeps — Wranglers, Renegades, Grand Cherokees, Cherokees, Compasses — cram the coastal states.
From truck-platform Jeeps to carbon-fiber Ford GTs. From Silicon Valley-crafted Teslas to Indiana-built Civics. The American automotive landscape has never been richer. And in a Wrangler, you can reach just about every inch of it.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.
2018 Jeep Wrangler
Front-engine, all-wheel drive,
3.6-liter V-6; 2.0-liter
turbocharged, inline-4 cylinder
with battery assist
6-speed manual or 8-speed automatic
4,175 pounds/4,485 pounds (Rubicon
2-door/4-door V-6s as tested)
$28,190 base ($38,190 2-door/$38,540
4-door Rubicons as tested)
285 horsepower, 260 pound-feet
torque (V-6); 270 horsepower,
295 pound-feet torque (turbo-4)
0-60 mph (NA); 3,500-pound towing
EPA mpg est. 18 city/23 hwy/20 mpg
combined(V-6 automatic); turbo-4 TBD
Icon of international Jeep brand; can climb Everest
Reliability concerns; can get pricey
Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★