In the year 2021, Motor1.com published hundreds of reviews, first drives, comparisons, and pro/con pieces. We handed out our first inaugural Star Awards. And through it all, our staff has been rotating through vehicles on a weekly basis, gathering context and producing content. But now, as the year is ending, it’s time to set aside our objectivity and name our personal best and worst cars of the year.
Before you read on to see the Motor1.com staff toss their journalist hats aside and write like the enthusiasts we are, be sure to check out our highest rated vehicles of 2021. And if you’re really behind, head back and take a peek at the winners of our first annual Star Awards, which includes a few of the vehicles mentioned here.
Whichever order you check out these stories though, do it knowing the Motor1.com team wishes you a very happy and fruitful 2022. And be sure to check back soon – we have a lot of exciting stuff coming up.
Seyth Miersma, Editor-In-Chief
Best Car: Honda Civic Hatchback
When the rest of the editorial team asked me to participate in the venerable tradition of the best/worst car piece, my mind immediately scampered to John Goodman’s classic line as Walter in The Big Lebowski. I drove about a dozen new cars last year… I have very little frame of reference.
Still, here I go.
Of the two, the Audi was undeniably the more impressive vehicle on Day 1. Sinuous power delivery and rapid acceleration were quite literally jaw dropping for the passengers I put in the big Audi, including my two-year-old Jack, who couldn’t get enough of it. Even better, the E-Tron somehow torque-vectored, and rear-steered me into believing it was a much smaller and lighter car on curvy roads; true evidence that EVs will represent the bulk of performance products, not mere outliers, in the very near future.
Still, I gotta give it to the Civic. Where the Audi is a six-figure love letter to driving fun and deep pockets, this new Honda proves there’s no reason to ever buy a boring car.
Honda gets everything right here, or at least does so with the spectacular specification of the hatch-backed, manually shifted car I drove. Precise steering and responsive brakes are the perfect companion pieces to the snicker-snack six-speed manual with a perfect clutch pedal and just enough engine character to reward my wringing it out. Oh, and the interior is huge, with a ton of cargo space, and the kind of spare, lovely interior design I thought we’d long since ceded exclusively to luxury brands.
Is there some recency bias on my part? Sure. But far be it from the new guy to step on traditions.
Worst Car: Incomplete
I don’t want to cop out completely, but to restate what I wrote above: I’ve only just jumped back into the new car world. I feel half-assed calling anything out.
I will offer that my Thanksgiving road trip from Michigan to Maine, complete with myself, my wife, our two babies, and seemingly all of our worldly possessions, left me with a few doubts about the Jeep Grand Wagoneer. Or, at least, all the technology packed into the cabin.
All of the screens and the streaming media, and the various ways to manage it all seem very impressive. But over 2,000 miles of stress testing, I’ll say that little of it worked exactly as advertised, and some bits of promised tech (mirroring say, an iPad, to the rear screens) left me Googling how-to videos and reading the fine print in the owner’s manual.
My “worst” car of the year? Honestly I’d be irresponsible in leveling that accusation. Suffice it to say there were a few bumps in the road to Grandma’s house.
Brandon Turkus, Managing Editor
Best Car: Ford Bronco
Each year, I assemble two lists of four or five cars. The first is what I’d buy were money no object (in 2021, it includes the Star Award-winning Porsche Taycan Cross Turismo and Bentley Continental GT Speed), but the second are products I could reasonably afford. At the top of that list and well clear of the rest of the pack is the Ford Bronco (a two-door Badlands Sasquatch, in either the now-discontinued Antimatter Blue or the new-for-2022 Eruption Green, if anyone with deep pockets is feeling generous).
A recent trek through snow-covered deserts and across frosty mountain trails on a cold, cloudless day outside Las Vegas, Nevada reminded me why I’m so fond of the Bronco. The drive was a sort of amuse-bouche from Ford, before it previewed a few new variants set to debut next month (you can probably guess what those are).
Off-roading in the snow is something I’ve never done before. But even while the temperature sat at a chilly 26 degrees Fahrenheit and fresh powder clung to the rocks, the Bronco felt as poised and capable as it did the first time I drove it, on a hot, humid June day in Texas. In fact, it all felt easy thanks to the tech on the two-door First Edition I was driving.
A twirl of the GOAT Mode dial or a tap on the rubberized hero buttons on top of the dash is all it takes to set up for off-roading, even in slick conditions. And once I cleared the rocks and hit wide-open desert trails, the power, disconnecting sway bars, and independent front suspension allowed high-speed running. The Bronco is great at managing these different types of terrain, but it stands out for me because, whether on slick, snowy rock or rough, dusty routes, the capability feels accessible for all experience levels. So long as the driver has a basic understanding of the tech on board, they can get pretty much anywhere.
I’d be lying if capability was the only reason I liked the Bronco. I adore the retro design. Hopping behind the wheel (especially with the doors removed) and gazing out on that long, flat hood is refreshing. And from outside, the Bronco cuts an impressive figure. The two-door’s proportions are perfect, while every body style has an instantly identifiable face. I drive a lot of capable vehicles with impressive designs and smart tech, but there are few I like as much as the Bronco.
Worst Car: Nissan 370Z
Yeah, I know, I’m punching down. I’ve been writing about cars for nearly 12 years, but the Nissan 370Z as we know it has been around longer than that. This wouldn’t be an issue if Nissan had kept up development beyond a minor 2013 facelift – the Dodge Challenger is nearly as old, but its 2015 facelift was far more substantial and the regular stream of new trims and higher-output models has kept it from going stale. The Z, though, may as well be a 13-year-old piece of bread.
When I ran the Z through our Star Rating system, the score was so low I originally thought something had gone wrong with our formula. The tech, fuel economy, safety, and comfort scores were all incredibly poor, which makes sense for a car whose core components date back to the early 2000s.
But other automakers have also outpaced the Z’s mechanicals. The engine is coarse, with less power than the V8s in similarly priced muscle cars and less torque than turbocharged alternatives. The six-speed manual transmission is clunky and the clutch vague, while the ride is brutally stiff relative to similarly priced performance cars.
This is not the Z’s fault, though. And hell, there’s an argument that it’s the perfect vehicle for all you commenters and online enthusiasts who complain that modern cars are “too soft.” Step on up, badasses, your ride has arrived.
Me? I’m simply counting the days until the new Z arrives. Nissan has been on a roll with its crossovers, and I have every hope that the success of the Rogue and Pathfinder will trickle down to the company’s iconic sports car. At the very least, it can’t be worse than what we’ve seen for the past dozen years.
Brett Evans, Senior Editor
Best Car: Hyundai Sonata N Line
I’ve got a big ol’ caveat attached to my pick for the best car, and that’s because I drove the Porsche 718 Boxster 25 Years this year as well. Obviously that vehicle would take the nod from me for the best vehicle I’ve driven in the past 12 months, offering brilliant performance, a scintillating exhaust note, retro-inspired styling, and a posh cabin. But of course, it costs a whole lot to be cool – more than $100,000 in the case of my tester.
If, however, you told me I had to pick a vehicle that’s somewhere in the realm of ownership possibility, I would probably pick the Hyundai Sonata N Line. My first few days behind the wheel were uneventful in a good way, with the four-door delivering decent fuel economy, plenty of cargo space, reasonable comfort over my neighborhood’s broken roads, and a comprehensive suite of safety and driver-assistance tech. However, when the weekend came and it was time to enjoy some spirited driving, the two-faced Sonata N Line betrayed its other personality.
The sporty mid-size sedan is a totally different animal that delivers a decidedly Germanic driving experience from its well-tuned suspension, turbocharged 2.5-liter inline-four, and eight-speed dual-clutch transmission. The steering is direct and accurate, and the Sonata turns into bends with plenty of grip courtesy of my tester’s optional summer tires. Perfect damper tuning keeps the wheels connected to the road while still dispatching midcorner bumps with composure. And in spite of the Sonata N Line’s front-drive-only layout, it’s easy to balance through corners with either the throttle or the brakes – wrong-wheel drive never felt so right.
With 290 horsepower and 311 pound-feet on tap, there’s also never a shortage of grunt when it comes time to throttle out of a corner (or race the Cayman sitting next to you at the stoplight). In addition to quick gear changes, the transmission boasts an internal oil bath to improve operating temperatures and durability of its twin clutch packs, and it delivers a satisfyingly crackly BLAT with each full-throttle upshift. Mid-size sedans were never this fun. At the end of my week with the Sonata N Line, I was very seriously considering purchasing one of my own, something I could only say about the Boxster in my wildest dreams.
Worst Car: Infiniti QX55
When it came time to pick my stinker of the year, I had a hard time picking one, because most modern cars are pretty good. But when my boyfriend and unofficial reviews consultant asked how I felt about my time in the Infiniti QX55, my only response was, “Oh yeah, I forgot I drove that one.”
The QX55 has one thing going for it. It’s got some pretty fantastic design cues, with a roofline that Infiniti says is inspired by the beloved FX. However, while the “bionic cheetah” styling may carry over from that late, lamented crossover, its impressive performance does not. The QX55’s variable-compression, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder is responsive, but it’s mated to a joyless continuously variable transmission that sends power to an understeer-prone, front-biased all-wheel-drive system.
Adding to the QX55’s shallow appeal, interior materials are a step below competitive crossovers. The sliding gear selector in particular feels like that of a Rogue (because it is, although the QX donated its shifter to the Rogue, not the other way around), and if it’s too chintzy for a Nissan, it has no place whatsoever in an Infiniti. And while the QX55’s front row is pretty spacious, passengers in back will have to contend with a sunroof and sloping roofline that eats into rear headroom far too much. Not even a sliding seat base and reclining backrest can compensate. If your friends or children are headless, you’ll be fine.
There aren’t many bad cars on the road nowadays, but there are forgettable ones. And unfortunately, the QX55’s beauty is merely skin deep. As gorgeous as it is, once the fastback Infiniti disappears from view, it’ll slip your mind every time.
Jeff Perez, Senior Editor
Best Car: BMW iX
Last year, the best car I drove in 2020 was the Genesis G80 – and it wasn't even close. The luxury sedan was miles above anything else in its class, in my opinion. But picking the best car I drove in 2021 was a bit trickier. Sure, obvious front-runners like the Porsche 911 GTS came to mind, as did the new Toyota Tundra, and even the Hyundai Sonata N-Line made an appearance. But when it came down to it, the best, most memorable thing I drove in all of 2021 wasn't technically a car at all.
The BMW iX electric crossover nudged its oversized nose ahead of Porsche and Toyota as the best thing I drove in all of 2021. It has one of the most amazing interiors of any vehicle on the market today, highlighted by two massive displays – a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster and a 14.9-inch central touchscreen – and featuring high-end materials like wood trim, gloss black accents, and crystalized buttons.
Beyond that, the iX was pretty great to drive, too. The xDrive50 model (the base model in the US) used a 105.2-kilowatt-hour battery pack and two electric motors, giving it a potent output of 516 horsepower and up to 300 miles of driving range. And with the Dynamic Handling Package equipped, the crossover felt agile and precise, unexpected for such a large, heavy vehicle.
All in all, the BMW iX was a surprising standout for me this year. And after driving it through the gorgeous Bavarian Alps, I'm excited to see what the company has in store for the rest of its EVs in the near future.
Worst Car: Mini John Cooper Works Convertible
These days, there aren't really any “bad” vehicles on sale. And even looking through the list of cars, trucks, and SUVs I drove this year, none of them immediately stood out as an awful option for a new-car shopper. But there was one that felt like the “worst” in the context of what you can get otherwise.
My issue with the Mini John Cooper Works Convertible is not necessarily in the way it drives. The drop top is quick off the line, fun to fling around, and sounds pretty awesome. My main gripe is the value-for-cost proposition when you look at what else is available at this price; the JCW Convertible asks nearly $40,000 and offers less than many of the alternatives.
The Mini has outdated technology, a chintzy cabin, and a harsh ride. The 228 horsepower that the top-end Mini offers, meanwhile, is fewer than what you get on the Ford Mustang EcoBoost convertible, and way down compared to the Chevrolet Camaro. And while the Mazda MX-5 Miata may not be as powerful as the Mini, I would argue that the Mazda is still more fun. The JCW Convertible is definitely a tough sell when there are better options out there for less cash.
Clint Simone, Director Of Video
Best Car: Audi RS E-Tron GT
“Ok, if you had to buy any car, what would it be?”
I can’t count the number of times that I’m asked this question after telling somebody what I do for a living. Caveats and budget limitations aside, my answer is the Audi RS E-Tron GT. It’s a car so fantastic, that I (almost) forgive its rather confusing name.
In Audi speak, RS means fast, E-Tron means electric, and GT means sedan. While that certainly sticks less in the mind than the Porsche Taycan, the good news is that the unsexy name is the worst thing about the car. Not only is it the best looking Audi on sale today, but it’s also the best looking car on sale, period end of story. Audis have always looked sleek and futuristic, but the RS E-Tron GT’s design will look cutting-edge for years to come – I love it.
Atop the sinister good looks, this high-horsepower EV is mind-bending quick. With it’s two-speed gearbox, the Audi accelerates hard both from a stop and while on the move at highway speed. It’s also softer-sprung than the Taycan, making it more comfortable during everyday commuting. In my eyes, it’s the perfect blend of sports car and grand tourer.
Worst Car: Nissan Armada
Earlier this year, I shoved three of my closest friends in the back of a Nissan Armada and headed across the state of Florida to see the west coast. The car ended up being the worst thing about the trip.
Even though Nissan gave the Armada a facelift for the 2021 model year, it still feels much older than some of its siblings like the Rogue and Pathfinder. That starts with its massive body-on-frame weight of almost 6,000 pounds, which is motivated by a 5.6-liter V8 making 400 horsepower. This combo makes for a city fuel economy figure of 13 miles per gallon, which is worse than pretty much everything it competes against. Similarly the available tech – despite being new – is slow to respond and difficult to interact with.
In short, nothing about the Armada is class-leading, and there isn’t a compelling reason to buy one over a Tahoe or Expedition. Nissan is building better cars again, and we look forward to the Armada joining that club… whenever that time comes.