Payne: Corvette C8 tops the 2019 Detroit News Vehicles of the Year

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Note: This article has been updated to correct that it was the Ford Explorer, along with the Toyota Highlander, that debuted with three rows this year.

A decade that began with two Detroit automakers emerging from bankruptcy and doubt about the future is on course to end with a bang. Defying experts’ predictions, U.S. sales are on track for a fifth straight year over the 17 million sales mark with a flood of new products coming from an unprecedented diversity of segments: SUVs, sedans, sports cars, trucks, electric cars.

I tested 65 new cars this year, from the wee $25,000 Toyota Corolla hatchback to the epic $270,000 Lamborghini Huracan.

The 2020 Lamborghini Huracan EVO derives some aero tricks from the Performante model. The EVO costs $270,969.

Two badges that began the decade in doubt — Corvette and Jeep — introduced the year’s most lusted-after products: the first-ever mid-engine 'Vette and Jeep Gladiator pickup. I mourned over the last of two of my favorite small cars, the VW Beetle and Ford Fiesta — and with them concern for affordable cars under $20,000. Ford, for example, does not offer a new ride for less than 20 grand (the Ford Ecosport SUV starts at $21,095).

The SUV revolution rages on, but cars are not dead. Hyundai (Sonata), VW (Arteon), and Dodge (Charger Widebody) were among the brands that introduced sexy sedan cures for the common SUV. Sports cars like Toyota's sassy Supra and Mustang High Performance Ecoboost make quick weekend getaway cars.

Nothing is unworthy in the market today, but three stood out: the Mazda 3, the Kia Telluride/Hyundai Palisade twins (I count them as one, because their closest competition is each other) and the Chevrolet Corvette C8.

All set new benchmarks for their respective segments, and are my 2019 Detroit News Vehicles of the Year.

Modern meets classic. The 2019 Mazda 3 shows off its sleek, 21st-century lines in front of a classic from the last century. Photo taken in front of the Sacramento Auto Museum.

Third place: Mazda 3

All hail the year’s most attractive car. At a cost of under $30,000.

With its deft handling, the Mazda 3 hatchback has always been a favorite of enthusiasts, along with the Volkswagen Golf and retired Ford Focus. But the 2019 version took the compact segment to a different level by setting standards for styling and affordable technology, while sacrificing none of its athletic ability.

Dressed in Mazda’s signature Soul Red, the curvaceous 3 looks like Mazda and Mercedes GT had a love child. The interior is beautifully sculpted with simple horizontal lines that rival premium interiors by Audi and Tesla. On the Premium trim level I recently tested, those looks are complemented by standard safety features like adaptive cruise-control, blind-spot assist, sunroof, 18-inch wheels, head-up display, automatic windshield wipers and surround-view monitoring. My friends guessed it cost thousands more than its $28,000 sticker price.

More:Payne: Mazda 3 hatch has the looks and moves

Mazda has recognized that a select few will pay extra for stick shifts, so they’ve made it available at a premium rather than in throwaway base models. Enthusiasts will pay for pleasure. As will Michiganians who want all-wheel drive but not a sport utility (the Mazda 3 and Subaru Impreza are the only compact cars available with all-wheel drive).

All the Mazda 3 lacks is a 200-plus horsepower engine option like competitor Golf GTI. But among base engines, its 186-horse 2.5-liter is still tops.

At just $43K, the 2020 Hyundai Palisade SEL is loaded with features that cost thousands less than a comparable Toyota Highlander or Ford Explorer.

Second place: Kia Telluride/Hyundai Palisade

The Georgia-made Korean twins set a new bar for three-row family SUVs with their affordable, luxurious chariots.

The accomplishment gains added respect because longtime segment pioneers Ford Explorer and Toyota Highlander also debuted all-new three-rowers this year. The Telluride-Palisade upstarts showed the establishment how it's done.

More:Payne: Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride twins battle for best 3-row SUV

The 2020 Kia Telluride may come from a Korean brand, but its character is all-American. Designed in Los Angeles and manufactured in Georgia, it carries Cadillac styling cues and plenty of room for a big Yankee family.

Boasting exterior-interior designs that would befit the luxury class were they not fronted by Kia and Hyundai badges, the two SUVs also offered standard features like adaptive-cruise control and blind-spot assist — craved by safety-conscious families — for thousands of dollars less than their peers. The wardrobes made segment mainstays like the Honda Pilot look dowdy, but the ergonomic detail was Honda-esque as the Koreans introduced such innovations as seat-back mounted USB ports and driver-to-third-row communication.

Bottom line, the Telluride and Palisade closest competition is each other. The Telluride wins the beauty contest with its timeless, chiseled design. But if you can live with Palisade’s Mad Max grille, you’ll find its console easy to live with, from its careful attention to detail to thoughtful storage space.

The 2020 Chevy Corvette C8 is the iconic badge's first mid-engine layout. Handling and traction benefit mightily from the new architecture.

First place: Chevy Corvette C8

You had me at mid-engine.

Despite its $59,995 starting price, the Corvette — like the Mazda 3 and Telluride/Palisade — is a remarkable value in its own right. The first 'Vette to ever stick its V-8 behind the passenger seats, the C8 offers supercar value for a fraction of the price of comparable European exotics.

I could buy four Corvettes (outfitted with the performance Z51 package) for the price of the Lambo Huracan. The Corvette would match its 2.9-second 0-60 mph time while lounging in a digital interior that puts the Italian to shame. The Corvette’s price point means that — just five years from now — you’ll likely be able to find a C8 (just like a C7 today)  in good condition with 50,000 miles for less than $35,000. That is, the average price of a new car.

More:New Corvette hits 60 in 2.9 seconds ... but won't arrive until March

The Corvette makes a larger point about the industry. The 'Vette is proof that U.S. automakers emerged from the Great Recession making the world’s state-of-the-art vehicles. The Toledo-made Jeep is the world’s SUV standard. The California-assembled Tesla Model 3 is the most tech-forward car in the industry and outsells the BMW 3-series. And pound-per-dollar, the Corvette is the world’s premier sports car.

On the road, the C8 manages to achieve the traction of the similarly sized, rear-engine, $100,000 Porsche 911 at the price of the smaller mid-engine Cayman. Like the Cayman, the Corvette rotates beautifully around the driver into turns.

The signature push-rod eight-cylinder is a carryover from the front-engine C7, as is the knife-edge body styling and luxurious cockpit. But the C8 refines them further: The well-proportioned exterior is complemented by an available hard-top convertible — again, jaw-dropping technology previously available only on $250,000 exotics – optioned for a mere $6,000. The interior also pushes the envelope — it's a sci-fi sanctuary of digital screens, trigger shifter and over-the-air updatable software.

Mid-engine toys bring athletic gains, but packaging usually suffers. Somehow, Corvette’s elves managed to maintain ample interior space, room for two golf bags, plus a “frunk” for suitcase storage.

More:First drive, mid-engine Corvette lives up to hype

The C8 is the gift that will keep on giving with the C8.R race car debuting at Daytona in January; a Ferrari-like high-revving flat-plane crank engine is in the offing for the Z06 model; a planned hybrid configuration may push (gasp) 1,000 horsepower. With its new life, I expect the Corvette to spin off a front-engine SUV in the next few years.

Not bad for a badge that was on the bankruptcy chopping block at the decade’s dawn.

2020 Chevrolet Corvette C8

Vehicle type: Mid-engine, rear-wheel drive, two-passenger sports car

Price: Base price $59,995 including $1,095 destination charge

Powerplant: 6.2-liter V-8

Power: 495 horsepower, 470 pound-feet of torque (with $5,000 Z51 performance package)

Transmission: 8-speed dual-clutch automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 2.8 seconds (Motor Trend); top speed, 194 mph

Weight: 3,600 (est.)

Fuel economy: N/A

Report card

Highs: Sci-fi interior; improved handling, traction

Lows: Trigger-tranny learning curve; no adaptive cruise-control

Overall: 4 stars

2020 Hyundai Palisade/2020 Kia Telluride

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- or all-wheel drive, seven-passenger SUV

Price: Base price Palisade $32,595, including $1,045 destination charge; base price Telluride $32,735, including $1,045 destination charge 

Powerplant: 3.8-liter, V-6

Power: 291 horsepower, 262 pound-feet of torque  

Transmission: 8-speed dual-clutch automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.8-7.0 seconds (Car and Driver); tow capacity, 5000 pounds

Weight: 4,387-4,255 pounds 

Fuel economy: EPA mpg, 19 city/24 highway/21 combined 

Report card

Highs: Palisade's interior flexibility, Telluride's exterior design

Lows: Palisade's polarizing face

Overall: 4 stars

2019 Mazda 3

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- and all-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan and hatchback

Price: $21,895 base sedan, $24,495 for hatchback, including $895 destination fee

Powerplant: 2.5-liter, inline-4 cylinder

Power: 186 horsepower; 185 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic, 6-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.9 seconds (Car and Driver est., AWD); top speed: 130 mph

Weight: 3,255 pounds (AWD hatchback as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 26 city/35 highway/30 combined (FWD auto); 25 city/35 highway/29 combined (FWD manual); 24 city/32 highway/27 combined (AWD auto, as tested)

Report card

Highs: Best compact design yet; ditto interior design

Lows: Infotainment controller learning curve; 250-horse turbo-4, please?

Overall: 4 stars

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