Oct 22, 2021 - Economy

What we're driving: the year's best vehicles

Image of Axios' Joann Muller in the driver's seat of the Hyundai Ionic 5 battery-electric vehicle

Joann Muller in the battery-electric Hyundai Ionic 5, which has a futuristic interior. Photo: Miles Johnson for Axios

This week, I spent two glorious fall days evaluating dozens of cars, trucks and SUVs on the roads near Ann Arbor, Michigan, to determine the best of the best.

Why it matters: The annual comparison drive brings together 50 professional automotive journalists from the U.S. and Canada who are jurors for the independent North American Car, Truck and Utility Vehicle of the Year awards.

  • I test drive new cars all year long, but the opportunity to compare vehicles back to back, on the same routes — and to share impressions with my fellow jurors — is invaluable.
  • It's also a great opportunity to talk to the engineers who designed them, to learn more about what makes each model unique.

How it works: There are three rounds of voting to winnow down the list of new or substantially changed vehicles each year.

  • This week we compared the 23 semifinalists — eight cars, six trucks and nine utility vehicles (many with multiple powertrains or trim levels) — to pick the finalists. These will be announced Nov. 17 at Automobility LA, the preview event for the Los Angeles Auto Show.
  • Winners in each category will be announced in January.

I'm still weighing my picks, but here are some key takeaways after two days of comparison driving:

  • Touchscreens are getting bigger and more distracting.
  • Knobs are actually useful — please put them back!
  • Battery electric models are becoming mainstream.
  • Assisted driving systems are getting more intuitive.
  • Luxury models are really just like your family room on wheels.
  • More to come on all these trends soon.

I'll leave you with two surprise contenders from the week:

  • Rivian's R1T electric pickup truck. At $73,000, the first vehicle from the EV startup surprised many journalists for its quality and attention to detail. It's still early, though, and the question is whether this newcomer can master mass production.
  • Ford's Maverick hybrid pickup. There's a ton of value in this little pickup, which starts under $20,000 and gets 42 miles per gallon in city driving. It's the answer for climate-conscious drivers on a budget who want a truck but have been priced out of the market.

The catch: Only one can be truck of the year.

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