Test Drive — Looking back on 2016: Part I
2016 was a good year for automakers, who set new sales records for the seventh year in a row. It was doubly good for the industry because low gasoline prices bumped up sales of pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles, which deliver bigger profit margins than the fuel-efficient subcompacts that dominate when gasoline prices creep toward $4 a gallon.
We drove upward of 50 cars, crossovers and trucks during 2016. Some, naturally were more memorable than others. This week and next, we’ll reprise our comments on the best of the bunch – starting this week with subcompact, compact and midsize sedans, with a nod to sports models and cars we can't quite pigeonhole. Next week, we’ll reveal our favorites among midsize and compact crossovers and SUVs, pickup trucks and luxury sedans.
We fell in love with the redesigned 2016 Honda Civic during the 2015 Connecticut International Auto Show, and got an opportunity to get up close and personal with one a few months later. “The new Civic is a model of refinement, creature comforts and attention to detail,” we wrote. Among the details that caught our attention were the superb fuel economy – 42 mpg on the highway – the uncharacteristically quiet ride and the roomy interior. The Civic also was rated a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Sales were strong in 2016, as 483,425 Civics were sold – a 16.6 percent increase. Our Civic Touring test car had a rather daunting price of $27,335, but less lavishly equipped examples can be found for $18,640.
Who else but Hyundai? The Korean automaker made its name building small, well-equipped, bargain-priced sedans; the difference today is the Accent and Elantra are very good cars, too. “With a bold hexagonal grille and aggressive styling, our Elantra Limited test car looked the part of an upscale compact sedan and matched it with exceptional performance,” we wrote after test-driving a 2017 Elantra Limited. Like the Civic, the Elantra was loaded with features, especially telematic gear, and was priced at $27,710. A base model can be had for nearly $11,000 less than that. Elantra sales were down for the year compared with 2015, but December delivered a significant upward move. The IIHS rated the 2017 Elantra a Top Safety Pick Plus.
Maybe if we’d been able to spend a week with the leading American stalwarts in this category, the Chevy Malibu and Ford Fusion, we’d have reached a different conclusion, but neither was on our list for 2016. The most compelling car in the group we did test drive actually straddled the line between compact and midsize: the $49,200 Jaguar XE 35t R-Sport, a new model from Great Britain. “The chief pleasure to be found in driving this Jaguar is in the exercise of power and control,” we wrote. “The XE handles flawlessly, providing plenty of road feel despite a nearly complete lack of road noise.” We were surprised to discover Jaguar now powers some of its smaller models, including the XE, with 4-cylinder engines, and a base model starts at just $34,900. For the record, some of the Japanese and Korean sedans we drove were in that price range or higher, though their standard-equipment lists were longer. Still … the XE’s Jaguar lineage sets it apart from everything else out there in terms of style, refinement, performance and character.
This was an easy call. The redesigned Chevrolet Camaro is lighter, with a stiffer frame and nicer, curvier lines. Our Camaro was equipped with a 2.0-liter turbocharged Four, a feature muscle-car aficionados may find appalling. But that little engine cranks out 275 horsepower and moves the Camaro with spirit and determination. Just in case anyone doubts its capabilities, “Camaro’s standard 2.0L Turbo engine is as powerful as any Small Block V-8 offered from 1971-1995,” according to Chevrolet. The base Camaro also is capable of cruising 31 miles on a gallon of gasoline, and more muscular engines – all the way up to 650 horsepower, at the top of the V-8 offerings. Last year, Chevy sold 7,000 Camaros, a 30.5 percent increase over 2015 – no doubt a tribute to its power, styling and moderate price of less than $30,000 for the base model.
What’s a MINI Clubman? It’s a MINI Cooper that’s truer to its 1960s roots than any of the brand’s other models. That is, it’s functional. The 4-door Countryman can accommodate four adults comfortably, quite unlike the other MINIs we’ve driven over the years. It also boasts 47.9 cubic feet of cargo room when the rear seat is lowered, and all-wheel drive, which wasn’t available at the time we drove our front-wheel-drive test car, now is available. The Countryman doesn’t quite match the go-kart personality of the smaller MINIs and costs more – our test car had a sticker price of $30,750, with a base price of $24,100. But it’s still a blast to drive, even with the 3-cylinder turbocharged engine bolted into base models. The Countryman received the top rating of “Good” in all of the IIHS crash tests.
Steven Macoy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.