Best Car To Buy 2021: What didn’t make the cut
The Car Connection’s annual Best Car To Buy faces the daunting task of winnowing down nearly 50 new or significantly updated cars for 2021 into our top 10 or so most deserving of your consideration.
With nearly 100 collective years of test-driving new cars, our editorial team logged thousands of miles in nearly 100 car models, including some 2020 models that arrived too late last year to qualify for our testing. We’ve found no bad cars, and the good cars merit consideration for a wide range of reasons. But they have to be great to make our final cut.
MORE: Follow all our Best Car To Buy 2021 news as we name a winner
At The Car Connection, we try to focus on value, practicality, roominess relative to the segment, performance and capability, efficiency, safety, easy-to-use infotainment, and a design that advances what is meant by modern.
We test and review every car, but our Best Car To Buy testing is limited to cars that cost less than $50,000; performance and luxury vehicles park in the garage of our partner Motor Authority and its Best Car To Buy testing. The eliminates from our consideration luxury barges such as the 2021 Cadillac Escalade, as well as Cadillac’s latest performance sedans such as the CT4-V and CT5-V. Audi’s RS 6 Avant and the Aston Martin DBX were far out of our range, as was the Mercedes-Benz GLS600 Maybach. We wanted to keep the 2021 Genesis GV80, but it exceeds the price threshold in all but the rear-wheel-drive base model.
Additionally, we evaluate all plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles, especially as they increase in offerings and availability. But we focus on high volume models, so many electrics and plug-ins charge up at our other partner, Green Car Reports, and its distinct Best Car To Buy awards. For that reason we won’t consider the 2021 Toyota Mirai fuel-cell electric vehicle because of its limited availability, or the 2021 Polestar 2 electric car, for its expected low sales volume. The 2021 Volkswagen ID.4 would have been considered, but pandemic-induced delays prevented most of our team from driving it.
Here are the cars we considered, and why they didn’t make the final cut. Seven of the 13 vehicles on this list are small crossovers, which is the largest growing segment for 2021. None of them are bad, but none of them add anything new to this homogenous, oversaturated segment.
We’re still scratching our heads over why there are two Buick Encore models on sale for 2021. The GX version is the new one, slightly larger, and with a choice of two turbo-3 engines that are slightly more potent and more efficient than the Encore. It also comes with either a 9-speed automatic or continuously variable automatic transmission and standard safety features. The GX is more than an overdue update of the Encore, but it’s still small, relatively slow, and pricey for its mission.
The revival of the nameplate births an attractive small crossover that, like the Buick Encore GX, is a necessary improvement over the smaller Chevy Trax destined now for cookie-cutter fleets. GM equipped it with standard safety features like most rivals in this booming class, but a four-star crash-test rating from the NHTSA gives us pause.
2021 Hyundai Santa Fe
We’ll revisit the redesigned five-seat crossover SUV next year, as it arrived too late this year for it to be tested.
Like the Mazda CX-30, this little one arrived a little late last year, but it is one of the more value-packed feature-filled small hatchbacks. Smaller than the Hyundai Kona, this entry-level is one of the better vehicles in this class. But value alone doesn’t merit consideration for our Best Car To Buy award.
Like the Chevy Trailblazer, the Seltos small crossover cuts an attractive shape but rivals offer a better value based on the odd structuring of its available features. The base LX comes with all-wheel drive but lacks automatic emergency braking; the S does the opposite. It’s a more proper crossover than the smaller Kia Niro and boxier Kia Soul, and it’s good, but not great. It needs to be great to make our list.
We’re surprised the three-row crossover SUV gets redesigned for another life cycle while living in the formidable shadow of the Kia Telluride, which was The Car Connection’s Best Car To Buy 2020. We’ll revisit it next year, when more of us get seat time in this year’s late arrival.
A late arrival of Mazda’s newest crossover SUV excluded it from last year’s consideration, and the CX-30 corrects the prohibitively small proportions of the CX-3, which is essentially a hatchback. Like so many other small crossovers, however, the CX-30 doesn’t move the needle.
The redesigned luxury cute ‘ute gets a little roomier for 2021, and the interior is stylish as it should be for the entry-level Mercedes-Benz. The long list of options erode the value proposition and exclude it from our list.
2021 Nissan Rogue
The redesigned compact crossover SUV upgrades the interior with a new Platinum trim, but the value can be found in the standard safety and convenience features. But its lone powertrain pales to hybrid and plug-in hybrid options in the Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape, and Honda CR-V.
2020 Nissan Sentra SR, left, and SV, right, trim
Launched late last year with more roominess, sportier steering feel, and an independent rear suspension, the redesigned Sentra is a solid compact car with a lot of merit. But there’s nothing revolutionary about it.
2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum
The redesigned Highlander three-row SUV could be mistaken for the Sienna minivan from the windshield rearward. The all-wheel-drive hybrid version gets the exact same 35 mpg combined as the Sienna, except those sliding doors on the Sienna make it more functional. Still, the Highlander comes loaded with standard convenience and safety features. It still exists in the shadows of more compelling three-row SUVs such as the Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade.
An all-wheel-drive hybrid minivan that gets an EPA-rated 35 mpg wins for functionality alone. For most families, this eight-seater is the true utility vehicle. There’s a lot to like about the redesigned Sienna, but it still lacks the refinement and creature comforts of the Chrysler Pacifica.