Ars Technica’s favorite cars and SUVs of 2019

Well folks, we made it to the end of the decade, apparently. Since we’ve only been covering all things automotive since 2014, we’ll save you having to read a tortured “best car of the decade,” particularly since there have been some pretty huge changes during that time. Like the fact that electric vehicles are now a viable product.

I’ll also spare you bold proclamations like “this was the year of the EV!!”, although it was good to see more variety on sale in 2019 than the year before.

Over the past 12 months we’ve driven a whole lot of cars and SUVs, and some of them have been really rather good. Of course, we’ve also driven some vehicles that failed to impress us, so Eric Bangeman and I have each put together a list of the 10 best things we drove in 2019, and the five worst. Now, enough with the preamble; on with the show!

Jonathan Gitlin, automotive editor and lover of wagons

10. Nissan Leaf Plus

Years ago, a man had a dream about building half a million affordable electric cars a year. That man was Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn, and the car was the original Nissan Leaf. Those heady sales predictions were a little ahead of the technology curve, but Nissan still sold a heck of a lot of Leafs even though everyone said the battery pack was too small. The Leaf Plus solves that problem with a 62kWh battery pack. It’s a very competent battery EV, and the best car in Nissan’s lineup.

9. Lotus Evora GT

Driving the Lotus Evora GT at this year’s Monterey Car Week was one of those “meet your hero” type things. I spent my formative years reading about the company’s legendary abilities when it comes to making a car handle, as well as almost perpetual financial problems. It turns out the former is definitely true, because the Evora GT is a magical car to drive down a winding road. Now it is owned by Geely, under whose stewardship Volvo has prospered, which means I am extremely eager to see what a properly funded Lotus can do.

8. Mazda 3

The Mazda 3 is the first car to use Mazda’s new Skyactiv vehicle architecture, which takes the brand’s philosophy—horse and rider as one—to the next level. You needn’t drive it flat-out to enjoy it; the fluid way in which it responds to control inputs even at low speeds is something surprisingly few cars manage. It looks good as a sedan and great as a hatchback, particularly in Mazda’s deep Soul Red paint. The interior is a huge step up from the old 3 and better than pretty much any other car in the class. One of the best steering wheels in the business, too. I wish I’d had more than an hour with one. If you have one already, do make sure to get the automatic emergency braking recall done please.

7. Kia Soul EV

We managed to get a little bit ahead of the curve on this one. US imports of the Kia Soul EV are delayed until at least next year due to strong demand in other parts of the world, but a Kia Soul EV was on hand for the annual World Car of the Year test drives in Los Angeles in November. Like the 1.6L turbocharged Soul, it boasts 201hp (150kW), and even though it’s a heavier car you don’t notice the weight thanks to that near-instant electric motor torque. The 64kWh pack should give between 240-260 miles of range.

6. Mazda CX-30

I’m not sure what they’re serving in the Mazda cafeteria in Hiroshima, but whatever it is, it works. The new CX-30 shares the new Skyactiv architecture with the Mazda 3, but I’m ranking this one higher because it’s a crossover, and they’re not supposed to be this good to drive. The interior looks great, and the infotainment is easy to use without taking your eyes off the road. As you might expect, I often get asked for car recommendations, and until last month if someone wanted a crossover, my advice was to get a Mazda CX-5. Now I tell them to get a CX-30.

5. McLaren 600LT

I drove a few supercars in 2019, but the McLaren 600LT is the only one to make my top 10. The company’s carbon fiber sports cars are sometimes accused of being too anodyne, but that’s not a complaint you could direct at this one. It’s a track-focused version of McLaren’s entry-level 570S, with a 592hp (441kW) twin-turbo V8 that will shoot flames from the rear deck-mounted exhausts. (Yes, they did have to add heat treatment to the rear wing to stop it catching fire.) Its electronic safety net will flatter you on track without you even knowing.

4. Audi RS7

Audi, like McLaren, is also accused—not without merit—of building cars that are a bit dull to drive. That almost never applies to an Audi wearing an RS badge, like this new Audi RS7. The recipe is simple: take all the bits I love about the normal A7, then make it wider, add better suspension, bigger wheels, stickier tires, a clever all-wheel drive system, and a 591hp (441kW) twin-turbo V8. I drove it a week before returning to Europe to drive the Porsche Taycan, which felt like a changing of the guard from extremely rapid four door sedans powered by dino juice to extremely rapid four-door sedans powered by sunshine and wind. They won’t make them like this much longer.

3. Tesla Model 3

The Tesla Model 3 isn’t the only reason people aren’t buying BMW 3 Series anymore. But it’s a big reason people aren’t buying 3 Series anymore—you only have to compare this year’s sales charts for the two cars to see that. And with good reason—if you want a sporty sedan for about $50,000 it’s hard to argue with Fremont’s finest. It’s also the default choice if your number-one priority is getting the most range for your dollar. The more expensive Model 3 Performance will show a clean pair of heels anything that comes with an M, AMG, or Quadrifoglio badge.

2. Polestar 1

The Polestar 1 is an esoteric car, and I just happen to adore esoteric cars, particularly if they’re electrified. Polestar is an electric performance brand spun out of Volvo, and you should think of the Polestar 1 as a calling card or marker to tell the world what it’s about. It’s a plug-in hybrid and uses the same tech that impressed us in the Volvo PHEVs we’ve tested, but this time it’s wrapped up in a carbon fiber body. The way the Polestar 1 drives belies its hefty 5.170lb (2,345kg) curb weight, and it’s one of the few PHEVs to carry enough battery for most people’s daily needs. Buy one of these instead of that Bentley coupe you were considering.

1. Porsche Taycan

Porsche said its first BEV had to be a real Porsche first and foremost, and the Taycan is certainly that. Forget Model S comparisons, and don’t expect it to drive anything like a fully electric Panamera either; it’s more like an electric Porsche 928 than either of those cars, except it’s more practical than a 928 because the rear seats are bigger and there are rear doors to access them. The interior looks dramatic and is screwed together in typical Porsche fashion. It’s not the best BEV when it comes to range, but that only matters for road trips, and as long as you plan to stop at 350kW chargers, each pit stop should only take 22.5 minutes.

The driving experience is pure Porsche sports car. The range-topping Taycan Turbo S goes the way you hope a $200,000 Porsche performs, but I have a suspicion the best version will be the cheapest—at some point in the next couple of years we’re pretty sure a single motor, rear-wheel-drive Taycan should show up at under $100,000.

Bottom five:

Now for the less good drives of the year.

5. Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV

It’s a plug-in hybrid, and it’s relatively inexpensive, but it’s also extremely long in the tooth—the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV went on sale in Europe in 2013.

4. Nissan Maxima

The Maxima is Nissan’s full-size sedan, and truth be told I really like the way it looks. But it’s not as good as the Honda Accord (or even the Toyota Camry), and our test car’s steering was so heavy I thought something was broken.

3. Rolls Royce Ghost

When a car arrives with a Monroney proclaiming it costs $428,900, you expect a lot. Sadly the Rolls Royce Ghost did not deliver, either from the front seat or the rear. Perhaps some of that was how it was specced; rear picnic tables would have been more useful for working on the go than the champagne fridge in the arm rest.

2. Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross

If you have fond memories of the Mitsubishi Eclipse coupé, prepare to have them tarnished by this compact crossover. Even if you don’t care about the name, it’s outclassed by most of its competitors.

1. Polaris Slingshot

I was upfront in the review—I drove one because I was curious what the fuss was about. Now I know—it’s a three-wheeled machine for starting conversations with bystanders and attracting stares, not all of them good. Heavy, slow, expensive, and only a bit less dangerous than a motorbike.

Eric Bangeman, managing editor and SUV aficionado

With my beat consisting primarily of SUVs, crossovers, and other… SUV-like vehicles, you’re not going to find much in the way of sedans, coupes, or convertibles in my year-end list. But just because I stick to SUVs doesn’t mean there’s not a wide variety there. After all, I did drive the $400,000 Rolls Royce Cullinan and $26,000 Nissan Rogue in the same year.

Before I get to the rankings, a note about how I approach reviews. With there being so much variance between models (say a Maserati Levante and a Ford Edge) and design philosophies, I approach my reviews like a judge at a dog show. Dog show judges don’t compare the dogs to one another. Instead, they judge each breed according to the standard for that breed. It doesn’t matter if the Miniature Bull Terrier is “better” than the Lakeland terrier in the show ring. What’s important is how close each dog is to the Platonic ideal for the breed.

Likewise, it’s tough to compare a Volvo XC60 with a Jeep Cherokee toward the end of determining which is better. Sure, they’re both compact SUVs with inline-four engines, but the differences are far greater than the commonalities. So they get judged differently.

With that out of the way, here are the best vehicles I drove this year.

10. Maserati Levante GTS

I’ve come to the sad realization that I love Italian styling. The downside to that is that Italian styling is paired with Italian engineering and reliability, which has been a hurdle some car buyers don’t bother jumping. I loved the six-cylinder Levante last year, and I loved the V8 GTS just as much. Its Ferrari-made power plant cranks out 550hp, sounding glorious all the while. Maserati made a couple of trips to the Chrysler parts bin while putting the Levante together, and it’s missing things that other SUVs in its price range have, like a heads-up display, but if you’ve got $125,000 to spend on an SUV, the good far outweighs the bad on this one.

9. Ford Edge

Fords are a mixed bag for me. I absolutely hated the underpowered, rickety-feeling EcoSport I drove last year, and I was nuts about the Lincoln Nautilus (see below). But the Edge checked all the right boxes for me. It comes with either an inline 2.0L four-cylinder engine or a 2.7L, 24-valve EcoBoost V6 power plant. My test car had the former, and while it was slightly noisier than I would’ve liked, the Edge never felt underpowered. Other pluses include a smartly designed interior and a solid suite of driver-assist technology.

8. BMW X7

BMW finally got into the three-row, midsize SUV game this year with the X7. At first glance, it looks like an X5 on steroids with a laughably large grille. But on the inside, it’s all about space and comfort, albeit with a couple over-the-top touches. The biggest downside to this one is the price—the V8 model I drove sports an MSRP of $112,000. You can get the x40i with a V6 starting at $74,000, but you’ll definitely want the V8 if you’re towing or just want a massive SUV with some oomph.

7. Audi Q8

With the launch of this midsize, two-row SUV/crossover, Audi has shifted its flagship model away from sedans. The Q8 interior is an exercise in quiet comfort, with the German automaker taking advantage of its new, two-screen infotainment system to create a minimalist cabin that offers all of the luxury touches you’d expect from an Audi flagship. The Q8 is one of the quietest cars I’ve ever driven, as well. My only complaint about it is that it lacks soul on the highway.

6. Jaguar I-Pace

Full disclosure: I liked this car so much I bought one.

BEVs are at an inflection point. Tesla has done a fantastic job getting the public used to the idea of electric vehicles as an option for everyday driving, and now the competition is trying to play catch-up. The Jaguar I-Pace lacks the range of a Tesla, but it offers so much else, including eye-catching style and the creature comforts you’d expect from a Jaguar. Plus it’s an absolute blast to drive.

And with a $449 Electrify America home charging station in my garage, my days of range anxiety are behind me.

5. Porsche Cayenne S Turbo E-Hybrid

I only got to spend about 90 minutes in the Porsche Cayenne S Turbo E-Hybrid, about half of which were in the driver’s seat. That was enough to convince me that it belonged on this list. When I went out to Oregon last summer, the V6 Cayenne E-Hybrid was the main attraction, but the V8 PHEV blew me away. You can drive up to 20 or so miles just on the battery with it, but true joy comes when you drop it into Sport+ mode and cut it loose. At $161,000, it’s not for the faint of heart and light of wallet, but driving it is the closest I’ve come to recapturing the feeling I had behind the wheel of the Urus.

4. Subaru Forester

What can you say about the most popular Subaru? It got a makeover for the 2019 model year, and Subaru wisely used a light touch on the compact crossover. Solid mileage combines with a strong suite of safety-focused features for a car that you’ll feel both comfortable and secure in. I could quibble about the continuously variable transmission and strained acceleration, but that’s not what driving a Subaru is about. If you’re a fan of the Subaru badge and are ready for an upgrade, check it out.

3. Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio

I gave the Stelvio Quadrifoglio the full treatment last year when we road-tripped through California in one. I spent a week with one again this year, and to be honest, I could’ve made it my number one car of the year. [] The 505hp V6 makes sweet music every time you tap the accelerator, and the Stelvio QV truly embodies everything that I find compelling about Alfas. There’s a refreshing design unity to Alfa’s sole SUV, where each component works together to make it a true driver’s car.

2. Lamborghini Urus

At the other end of the price spectrum is the Lamborghini Urus, a 641hp beast capable of going from zero to 60mph in 3.2 seconds. While the Urus is all raging bull on the outside, the interior offers everything you’d want from a luxury SUV. Since it’s part of the massive Volkswagen empire, the Urus can reach into the Audi parts bin for a great two-screen infotainment system. With six drive modes, the Urus can be as aggressive or sedate as you want it to be. It sounds glorious at all times and handles just as well, even on twisty mountain roads. If I had a spare $250,000 in my change jar… well, I can’t imagine spending that much on a car. But the Urus would tempt me.

1. Kia Telluride

The Kia Telluride arrived right after I had finished up with a Range Rover Sport. Moving from English luxury to a brand-new three-row SUV from a Korean company meant I needed to recalibrate my expectations. I needn’t have bothered—the Telluride surprised me in all of the best possible ways.

Priced around $46,000 for a fully loaded model, the Telluride is spacious, quiet, and comfortable in the same way that an Infiniti QX80 or Audi Q7 is. The infotainment system feels like a well-executed but budget version of BMW’s iDrive. It easily conquered a challenging off-road course at the 2019 MAMA Fall Rally at the Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, Illinois. And there was some stuff you just don’t expect in a mainstream SUV, especially at the Telluride’s price point. If I was in the market for a three-row, midsize SUV, I would be all over the Telluride.

Look for our full review in January.

Bottom five:

1. Infiniti QX80

Just about everything on the three-row Infiniti QX80 SUV feels dated, starting with the monochromatic LED in the instrument panel. While it offers a very smooth and quiet ride, that’s about the only thing to recommend the QX80. The infotainment system is a mess, Nissan’s excellent ProPilot Assist driver-assistance tech is missing in action, and there’s no coherent design philosophy to be found—aside from “put buttons everywhere.” The Kia Telluride is a far superior car at half the price of a kitted-out QX80.

2. Nissan Rogue

I get why the Rogue is popular. It’s got more cargo space than the competition, and it gets better mileage to boot. But boy, is it a dog on the highway. The Rogue feels sluggish on the highway, and there’s too much noise, in part because Nissan’s continuously variable transmission requires higher revs at cruising speed. ProPilot Assist is a bright spot, but the infotainment system is dated, and the Rogue offers a bland and insipid ride at best.

3. Lincoln Nautilus

The Nautilus is a new addition to the Lincoln lineup for 2019, replacing the MKX. It’s a sharp-looking car built on the same platform as the Edge (it’s about two inches longer), but the interior choices leave a lot to be desired, especially with the $67,000 Black Label edition I drove. Some of the interior finishes looked out of place in a luxury SUV, and Ford swapped out the analog set-up in the Edge for an all-digital instrument panel, but the end result feels pointless. I’d rather drive a fully loaded Edge than a fully loaded Nautilus—or a bare-bones Nautilus for that matter.

4. Mercedes GLC300

I just drove the GLC300, so it’s fresh in my memory, although I haven’t written a review yet. The GLC300 is… fine, and “fine” doesn’t cut it when you’re spending $60,000 on a Mercedes. It’s comfortable enough and it’s quick enough, but it doesn’t excel at anything. And Mercedes’ infotainment system is a confusing, twitchy mess. At this price point, you could get a BMW X3, Audi Q5, or just about any other compact luxury SUV and be much happier with it.

5. Porsche Macan S

Another recent drive for me. As much as I liked the Cayenne, I disliked the Macan. On the plus side, the 3.0L V6 cranks out 384hp and can make it from zero to 60 in under five seconds. It has some of the most comfortable car seats I’ve ever sat in, and the cabin is really quiet. But this car is long overdue for an update, and the only way to change stations on the radio is via the massive touchscreen—there are no steering wheel media controls or knobs on the dashboard, aside from volume. And a quiet and calm ride is not what I’m looking for in the Macan. And performance wise, the Stelvio QV leaves it in the dust.


Mercedes G63

Out of my way, peasants! That’s the general vibe when you’re high up behind the wheel of this massive Mercedes. It’s an exercise in bling and ostentatiousness, with a cabin full of carbon fiber, leather, and brushed metal—name an accent material, and the G-Wagen’s got it. But when you get past the flash and the whole is-this-car-really-necessary feel, the G63 is kind of fun, if only because of the flashiness of it all. And don’t sleep on the V8 engine, either. It can make it from zero to 60mph in 4.4—which is kind of unsettling for a car that top-heavy.

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