10 most memorable cars and SUVs of 2019

·9 min read

It's no surprise that a car reviewer will drive a large number of cars over the course of a year. Indeed, when the clock strikes midnight on Dec 31, I will have driven 75 new cars, trucks and SUV this year (and one old Peugeot) over the course of weekly evaluation loans and first drive events. That sure seems like a lot. Some definitely got more attention than others, and some came and went without leaving much of an impression – I completely forgot I drove a Kia Forte.

Yet in the spirit of this day, I thought I'd pick the 10 that I would love to see under the Christmas tree tomorrow morning. You know, just in case you were looking to get me something. I'll also throw in a couple disappointments that were memorable for the wrong reasons. They'd get sent back to the store on Boxing Day.

Lexus LC 500

Pictured below and resplendent in its Flare Yellow metallic paint, the car that would reach highest on my list is the divine Lexus LC 500. As a devout lover of GT cars, the LC ticks all the boxes. Muscular and characterful engine? V8, check. Beautifully made and memorable interior? It's gorgeous, to hell with Remote Touch. Check. Comfortable and reasonably practical? Superb seats and, uh, yeah. Makes me want to stand there and stare at it? You bet.

Though I long figured my heart would say LC but my head "Porsche 911," after this go-around, that's no longer the case. LC, pretty please.

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Polestar 1

I actually feel lucky that I got to drive the Polestar 1. Only 150 will be produced each year, and it's a far more special thing than it would initially appear. And that's despite initially appearing to be a beautiful, classic two-door GT car with a roof so rakish it's only possible because it's made of carbon fiber. That it’s a massively powerful plug-in hybrid with more all-electric range than any other PHEV is a thick dollop of whipped cream on a slice of Toscakaka. You know, Swedish dessert, Swedish car. Fine, I'll stick to Ikea references. 

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Volvo V60 Cross Country

Speaking of Sweden, did I drive this car off the road there? Sure did! And despite this, the V60 Cross Country scratches that certain wagon itch and looks sensational to boot. I wish it were available with the T8 plug-in hybrid powertrain, but it's best not to get greedy at Christmas.

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Ford Explorer

This one would be getting returned (think I could exchange for a Mustang?). The new Explorer held such massive promise given specs that jumped off the spreadsheet: class-destroying power, class-leading towing and a massive interior. Oh, and it's now on a rear-wheel-drive platform. Driving fun assured, right?!? Alas, the Explorer first drive revealed disappointingly springy driving dynamics and a rather cheap, ugly interior with space that didn't quite live up to the specs. It certainly didn't help that the new, game-changing Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade also arrived this year.

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Mazda 3 Hatchback

"The 2019 Mazda3 Hatchback is quite simply one of the best cars I've ever driven."

That's probably sufficient.

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Mercedes CLS 450

The latest CLS proved to be just as desirable as its two predecessors even if the clever mild-hybrid inline-six doesn't tickle one's fancy quite like the 6.2-liter V8 found in the old CLS63 AMG. That would be on the all-time Christmas list. The new CLS, however, impresses with its beautiful styling outside that makes a glamorous statement everywhere you go and a high-fashion interior that pleases your eyes along the way. I also drove an E 53 AMG this year – I'd happily pay extra for the CLS.

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Range Rover P400e plug-in hybrid

When a Range Rover silently wafts around town on electricity, it suddenly seems a lot less indulgent. Less, but the mack-daddy Range Rover is still as indulgent as they come. You sit up wonderfully high, gazing out over a broad patio-worth of hood, and with your elbow resting casually on the down-low window sill. The interior is pure class, and it makes you happy just looking at it, even if the touchscreen infotainment system has quite the opposite effect. The driving experience can best be described as "stately." This is a brilliant car, and I was sad to see it go.

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Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro

If I was sad about the Range Rover, I was basically in mourning for this sensational 4Runner. Its Voodoo Blue paint – a color borrowed from the FJ Cruiser back catalog – perfectly balanced the TRD Pro's overtly tough look as if saying, "I'm tough as hell, but I don't take myself too seriously." It's the Dwayne Johnson of SUVs. Beyond aesthetics, any 4Runner stands as one of my personal favorites. It's just so pure and honest. In a world of spork-like crossovers that try to be a lot and end up succeeding at little, the 4Runner knows exactly what it is. Sure, its handling is appalling and the acceleration glacial in the heavy TRD Pro, but by feeling so different behind the wheel, it's actually quite charming. At the same time, the ride is surprisingly pretty good, the cargo area is gigantic and the back window rolls down. That Toyota finally modernized the in-car tech for 2020 makes it that much yummier. Sadly, Voodoo Blue is no longer available this year. Happily, Army Green is.

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This one can go back. Having read such soaring praise for the little M2, this one's arrival was circled on the calendar. And yet, it left me cold. Perhaps it was high expectations or memories of the glorious 1M Coupe that really was as great as you've read. Yet, I think it was this particular M2's automatic transmission. A fun BMW should have a manual. Don't believe me, check out the used values of M3's with three pedals versus two. I actually think the M2's automated manual transmission is well-executed, and the extra effort required to engage the paddles provides a refreshingly mechanical feel. But it's not the same. You just don't connect to it in the same way. My post-drive notes are effusive with praise and yet, when the M2 left, I didn't miss it. I still miss the 1M Coupe.

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Porsche 911 Carrera 4S Cabriolet

This one literally went back. After only a modest highway trip to take pictures, I parked the 911 Cabriolet overnight outside my Airbnb in Studio City, Calif. (I was there for Thanksgiving). I came out the next day to discover the damage shown below. Someone had seemingly taken a saw to the front bumper to (I assume) rip out one of the adaptive headlight units. They either realized they were going to be unsuccessful or were scared away, who knows.

In the end, I got to make a fun call to Porsche and can at least report that the 911 Cab's wind deflector works really well on the highway.


Porsche 718 GT4

Speaking of manual transmissions, the Porsche 718 GT4 only comes with one for the time being.

(wait for applause)

This car is a masterpiece, and although I also drove a GT3 RS and GT2 RS in 2019, the ultimate Cayman with the correct amount of cylinders is just so stirringly balanced, forgiving, and well, fun, that it's the car I'd most want if the sole purpose at hand was to go fast on a track or winding road. I'd rather have one of these than (NAME YOUR SUPERCAR).

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Kia Niro EV

If, on the other hand, I just needed something to putter around town, the Kia Niro EV would be a top choice. You get in, everything is exactly where it should be and works exactly as you'd expect. The driving experience is vice-free and, as an electric car, smartly gets up to speed (its heavy regen braking mode also offers one-pedal driving). Space is just-right for errands with or without passengers, the features list is enormous, and although not a great-looking thing, it's not ugly, either. My heart would say "get a BMW i3" but my head would yell "No you idiot, get the Niro."

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That would be my own 1998 Z3 down there, so I'm quite obviously biased. That said, my goodness the Z3's a better-looking car than its great grandson, the 2019 BMW Z4. Oh sure, the Z3's slower, less comfortable, has the fuel economy of a V6-powered Ram and the torsional rigidity of Jell-O, but it sure is pretty. The Z4? There's a whiff of kabuki mask about it. More important, however, the Z4's just not fun enough. It seems to put a greater emphasis on all the needless doo-dads in the car than driving fun. Now, the Z3 was dynamically stomped in its day by the Boxster and Miata, but it was still a playful weekend toy. The Z4 is way too daily driver. Perhaps I'm just being an old man yelling at a cloud here, but I'll stick to the old girl. Or a new Boxster.


Honda Civic Type R

Sometimes you get in a car, get it moving and find it only takes about 100 feet to render a verdict. "Hell yeah," I exclaimed to an empty red-festooned interior, slotting the perfect shifter into third and feeling the car do its thing through the snug-but-comfy driver's seat. Power, handling, steering, brakes, drivability … my post-drive notes are gushing with praise. Unlike the M2, this is a car that exceeded lofty expectations. It's absolutely brilliant. It's also pretty embarrassing to drive. Perhaps Santa could include a wing removal kit.

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