TTAC’s Best and Worst Vehicles of 2020

The end of a brutal year is upon us, and I thought we could celebrate the end of this dumpster fire that is/was 2020 by having arguments about cars.

You might remember we did a best/worst cars thing in 2018. We surveyed you, the reader, and it was fun, but also a lot of work. Too much work relative to the impact each list had. So for 2019, we were just going to do a staff list. Then I dropped the ball – I got distracted by other projects and we didn’t bother with a post.

We’re going to give it a go here this year, just a brief staff list among those of us who have chosen to participate. Because this year has been so weird, there are no formal criteria. We won’t even be able to cover every category.

That said, Chris and Tim C. and I – the only staffers who choose to partake – have a few ideas about the best and worst cars we drove this year. We also want to hear from you. Feel free to chime in down below in the comments.

Tim Healey

I’ll start – I have three bests and one worst.

Hyundai

My first best is the Hyundai Venue. That may shock you, since a boxy little urban runabout is not the kind of vehicle that gets the blood pumping. But for what it is, the Venue is great. It’s more engaging to drive than its closest competitor, the Nissan Kicks, and it seems to be slightly better packaged. I’d never go out of my way to own a boxy little mini-utility like this, but there’s a use case for these kinds of vehicles that centers around young city dwellers as well as active empty nesters, and there’s a lot of utility and practicality to be had here for not too much money. Furthermore, the driving experience doesn’t leave you numb.

2021 Ford Bronco Sport

Next up for me is the Ford Bronco Sport. I was prepared to write it off as a cynical marketing exercise – a 4×4 compact SUV sharing the Escape platform and attempting to capitalize on the Bronco name. But while it has flaws – it needs more power and refinement – it’s one of those vehicles that’s greater than the sum of its parts. It’s packaged well, it is quite capable off road, and it makes being boxy look cool. Toyota’s RAV4 may be the best all-around small SUV (an argument can also be made for the Honda CR-V), but the Bronco Sport has a cool factor that others will struggle to replicate. It’s not cheap, but for many, it will be worth it.

I close out my bests with a perhaps predictable choice – the Chevrolet Corvette C8. I was prepared to be let down. I had mixed feelings when I first saw the car up close in a huge airplane hangar in California in 2019, and those didn’t abate even after I read positive review after positive review, including Chris’s for this very site. Then I drove it.

The styling still leaves me a bit cold, and the interior aesthetic takes getting used to, but that doesn’t matter when you punch it, or fly into a corner. The car induces giggles and evokes pure joy. But what really impressed me is how easy the car is to drive when you’re on your best behavior. I expected the mid-engined ‘Vette to be fast and handle well. I didn’t expect it to be so easy to trundle around town or so relatively relaxed on the highway. With only two seats and limited luggage capacity, it will never be a daily driver, but it’s practical enough that you won’t suffer should you take it to dinner or Cars and Coffee. Nor will it punish you en route to that curvy road you love so much.

It’s also, relative to its abilities and competition, affordable. Consider me won over.

2020 Volkswagen Passat R-Line

Alas, I will close with the worst car I drove in 2020 – the Volkswagen Passat. The Passat is not a BAD car, per se. It does what you ask of it competently enough. It is no chore to drive, it is not ugly, the interior is functional. But it has no panache, no pizzazz, and it feels dull and boring. It’s completely unmemorable and unremarkable.

That’s a problem, considering the Passat plays in the highly-competitive mid-size segment, home of the excellent Honda Accord and superb Toyota Camry. Even with the segment shrinking somewhat, the Passat gets left behind by better choices.

If VW insists on keeping the Passat available in this market, it would be wise to consider adopting the Euro Passat for our shores. It would probably be better than this big, boring, bland mess.

I had other contenders for best – the Shelby GT500, Kia’s K5, the Genesis G90, Kia’s Seltos, the Hyundai Sonata, and the Lincoln Aviator. And the Nissan Frontier nearly got a worst-vehicle nod – it’s old, and it shows.

But those four vehicles were the ones that really stood out to me, good or bad, to this point. I say “to this point” since as I write this, a Land Rover Defender is sitting in the garage, and my initial impression is that it would be in the conversation for best vehicle, but I’ve only taken it around the block so far. I’ll have more seat time this weekend. It wasn’t worth delaying publication over one vehicle.

That’s all I got. Take it away, Chris and Tim:

Chris Tonn

Editor Tim emails me in the middle of vacation, you see, demanding that I take time away from a family respite from the ‘rona-ravaged Midwest and talk to you about the best and worst cars I’ve driven this year.

Best is tough, as it’s been a good year for debuts. I have to give my vote, however, to the Corvette. Despite the impossible expectations heaped upon the first mid-engined car in the model’s history, it overwhelmingly exceeds each and every one of them. It’s quick, natch, but it’s a remarkably docile car when not being flogged.

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Worst car is another tough one. I’ve driven something like 75 new cars this year, and while no car is genuinely perfect, most tend to manage their duties respectably. My vote, then, goes to the Nissan Pathfinder…which is a decent enough vehicle when you compare to the market a few years ago. Nearly every vehicle in its class has been updated if not fully redesigned in the past few years, while the three-row softroader from Nissan is plain old. It needs something to renew its place in driveways other than being an easy-credit last resort.

Image: Nissan

Timothy Cain

South of the border, the least expensive Kia Rio hatchback includes air conditioning and a continuously variable transmission. In Canada, the least expensive Rio does not include air conditioning but does run a six-speed manual transmission, heated front seats, and a heated steering wheel.

It is a delight. I mean, to be honest, a/c would be a must for me at least five months out of the year, and it’d be helpful the other seven from a defrosting perspective. But forget that. The Rio’s 120-horsepower 1.6-liter is a lively little unit. The clutch is light and friendly and easy to learn. The shifter doesn’t belong in a Miata, but the throws aren’t terribly long and there’s a pleasant notchiness. On cheap tires and small wheels with no sporting intention, the Rio doesn’t want to blast through an on-ramp, but it’s an inoffensive cornerer and could be buttoned down quite easily with very little effort.

Best of all, it’s quiet. I dare say it’s refined. During a two-week span when my personal car was undergoing post-accident bodywork, I was pleased every day to see the Rio waiting for me.

It’s not just me. The entire market concluded that the Acura RLX isn’t worth it. This is now a discontinued car. In the RLX’s case, that means you’ll go from never seeing one in the flesh to…never seeing one in the flesh. (Across America, Acura averaged 85 RLX sales per month last year.)

There are two main issues with the RLX. First, it’s boring; visually insipid even after its facelift. See, you may have actually seen one, but you didn’t perceive it because the RLX camouflaged itself into traffic.

Second, the RLX is a $54,900+ sedan that feels like a very nice Honda Accord. And I don’t mean that the RLX feels like an Accord turned into an extra-nice Accord. Rather, the RLX simply avoids linkages to the Accord LX by manifesting EX-L worth, at least. On a good day, it can even muster Accord Touring levels of panache.

Tim H: There you have it. Happy holidays, everyone.

[Images: Acura, Chevrolet, Ford, Hyundai, Kia, Nissan, Volkswagen, Chris Tonn © 2020/TTAC]

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