Payne: A Tesla is Detroit News Vehicle of the Year

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Hollywood is determined to expand its Oscars list to offer more diversity. But if it's diversity you want, check out the field for Detroit News Vehicle of the Year.

I tested more than 60 new vehicles this year. There's never been such a range of options for every consumer stripe. Let me count the ways.

There are pickups that range from midsizers to mega heavy-duties taller than my 6-foot-5 frame.

Then there are all the sport utilities: So crackers are customers for SUVs that luxury makers like BMW and Mercedes are making SUV “coupes” to mimic sports sedans.

The best SUVs are athletic, all-around value plays like the Acura RDX. Its doppelganger in the sedan segment is the $35,000 Mazda 6, which will make you think twice about spending $20,000 more for an equivalent luxury brand.

Tesla Model 3

In a sea of practicality there is still plenty of eccentricity. This year brought sequels to the Audi A7, Mustang Bullitt and three-door Hyundai Veloster. Speaking of threes, there’s even a Polaris trike out there for enthusiasts.

You want power? Dodge unveiled another Hellcat, the 797-horse Redeye. It does 0-60 in 3.4 seconds, which is still a second slower than the Tesla Model S P100, putting us on notice that batteries aren't just for tree-huggers.

EVs abound from affordable Hyundai Konas to bonkers Porsche hybrids. The new, new thing — 48-volt battery systems — is found in everything from Audi A6s to Ram trucks for smoother operation.

Like the Oscar judges, I’ve seen a lot of stuff this year. Some new, some small, some epic. 

Here are my top new vehicles of the year. The envelopes, please.

2019 Ford Ranger

Second runner-up: Ford Ranger

This was the Year of the Truck. Detroit's Big Three brought their best with the all-new Ram 1500, Chevy Silverado/GMC Sierra and upgraded Ford F-150 Raptor.

The smooth-riding coil-sprung Ram is in a style class of its own with a sculpted grille and Tesla-like 12-inch console touchscreen. The Silverado is an ugly duckling to the Ram’s swan, but its shrewd use of high-strength steel make it the lightest, best-handling truck in class — and I never tire of its push-rod V-8 bellow.

The Raptor is the most addictive truck made, and the addition of Recaro saddles and Fox Live Valve shocks make it even more irresistible. I rode this 450-horsepower stallion all over Utah and never got close to the edge of its considerable envelope.

But my biggest favorite was the smallest new entry, the $35K Ford Ranger. Think of the F-150's little brother as a compact pickup. In the Age of Ute, the Ranger gives ute families — say, someone with a Ford Escape — the viable option of a compact SUV with a bed, 7,500-pound towing and daily manners. The on-road ride of the Ranger is that good.

Now, if only Ford would give junior a Raptor option.

2019 Corvette ZR1

First runner-up: Chevy Corvette ZR1

The front-engine Corvette ZR1 is the last of the breed.

It's been stretched to the limits to compete against the pinnacle of mid-engine cyborgs: the V-12 Lamborghini Aventador, turbo-V8 McLaren 720S and hybrid Acura NSX. I tested them all this year, and they are sci-fi supercars from the future.

Chevrolet will soon follow these beauties — by May, I reckon — with its own mid-engine Corvette rocket. And no wonder. The front-engine design is pushed as far as it can go, with the engine literally bursting through the ZR1's skin. To squeeze 755 horsepower from the 6.2-liter V-8, the supercharger sticks out of the hood. An enormous rear wing anchors the beast to the ground.

For raw, unbridled pleasure, there is nothing to rival the $135K ZR1. At Road Atlanta Raceway it consumed asphalt at an awesome rate, the V-8 roaring in my ears like a T. rex.

It's the perfect automotive bookend to our winner ...

Winner: Tesla Model 3

Tesla made history in 2018. The first viable startup automaker in my lifetime, the American brand's first volume vehicle soared to the top of the luxury sales charts over Germany's formidable brands (I bought a Tesla to follow the journey first-hand. I also own a Subaru, Honda, Ram and Porsche).

To put the Tesla Model 3’s achievement in perspective, InsideEVs projects sales to eclipse 130,000 units this year. That's nearly double the next best-selling luxury vehicle, the Mercedes GLC SUV. And the Model 3 is a sedan in a sedan-averse market.

Tesla achieved this despite regular predictions by industry experts of its imminent doom, the near-meltdown of its mad-genius CEO, and manufacturing mishaps while rushing to fill a record 450,000 pre-orders.

The $55,000 Model 3 succeeds because it is Apple on wheels. Musk re-imagined the car like Steve Jobs re-thought the phone — as a study in design minimalism that is both gorgeous and more efficient than established platforms. Privately, other automaker execs tell me they admire Tesla for innovations that are pushing the industry forward: over-the-air updates, better connectivity, better user interfaces.

As different as the Tesla's operating system is, it sacrifices little in performance to segment athletes like BMW and Alfa. Despite its inherent weight disadvantage, the porky 80.5-kWh battery is integrated to the chassis low in the car, making for good vehicle dynamics. In a head-to-head track test by Motor Trend ace Randy Pobst, the all-wheel drive Model 3 Performance version was just a second off the class-best athlete Alfa Giulia Quadrifoglio.

The Model 3 is also notable for its shortcomings.

Now in wide use across the country — not just the sunny Left Coast — it exposes the disadvantage of EVs in cold-weather range and spare infrastructure. And with states like Michigan banning Tesla dealerships, customer service will be tested. If the $7,500 federal tax credit evaporates next year, Tesla will be challenged to maintain its galloping sales pace.

A showcase for autonomous features like summon and automatic lane-change, the high-tech Model 3 reaffirms the joy of driving.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.