For the first time in my decade-long tenure at MotorTrend, I began the Car of the Year finalist debate—the one where we pick the winner—having no idea what car would win. In my heart of hearts, I wanted the electric Porsche Taycan to emerge victorious, mostly because the air quality from the seemingly eternal fires burning around California mean that my 3-year-old was forced to remain indoors for a five-day stretch. Anything to mitigate that.
That’s just how I felt walking in. Our Of The Year awards use specific criteria, however, to ensure that a person’s feelings don’t dominate the process. We vote for the cars based on the results of our evaluation process. Trouble was, this year five of the six finalists in our Car of the Year competition were exceptional. Normally, it comes down to this car versus that car, or one vehicle is the clear favorite. This year? Wide open. I think the reason why is because even as the car market shrinks as consumers keep turning to trucks and SUVs, the offerings are much improved.
Take this year’s winner, the 2021 Mercedes-Benz E-Class. I went on the Lisbon launch of the then-brand-new 2017 model-year W213 E-Class and spent much of the resulting review talking about taxis. Sure, the E-Class was a fine automobile, but good enough to be our Car of the Year? Four years ago we picked the Chevrolet Bolt. Although I found that redesigned 2017 E-Class to be “sturdy” and a worthy successor to the E that came before, the car wasn’t all that exciting. I assumed the same would hold true for this 2021 refresh of the same basic car. Then we all drove it.
A little inside baseball for you: We actually spend a bit too much time each year writing up “walkarounds” for every Of The Year contender. These never-to-be-published internal briefing documents list a vehicle’s reasons for being in the competition: vital stats, technical data (like powertrains and suspensions), competitive sets, and a list of cool facts or features. It’s essential info for our judges to get up to speed on the myriad vehicles we are about to test in quick succession. I happened to write the walkaround for the 2021 E-Class, and let me tell you, it was a struggle. Because on paper not much had changed. Once we all got behind the wheel, we discovered how Mercedes had made the refreshed E that much better.
But the winning Benz wasn’t alone in this regard. Take the new Nissan Sentra. Based on the previous Sentra, if you’d told me before the competition that the new version would be a finalist, I would have laughed at you. Then if you’d told me before the final judges’ vote this year that the Sentra was in fact our winner, I would have nodded yeah, that makes sense, for not only is the eighth-generation Sentra a great compact car on its own, but the value-packed little Nissan was also able to hold its own against the German titan brands: BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche.
Speaking of which, we had a hell of a time not giving the Golden Calipers to the BMW 840i, as there simply wasn’t anything wrong with it. Relevance, perhaps, but that’s not one of our criteria. And man, is it a good car. Same story for the Porsche, and same story for the Mercedes CLA, which, like the Sentra, is a massive improvement over the previous generation.
Even the cars that weren’t finalists were pretty dang great. Both the Audi S4 and the BMW M440i had no glaring flaws, the BMW’s nose notwithstanding. They didn’t move the needle enough within their given market segments to move on. But, boy, are those two excellent automobiles. The same can be said of two offerings from Genesis, the G80 and G90. How about the Cadillac CT4, and especially the CT4-V, the one car that didn’t make the finals that broke my heart (a little)? Much better than the ATS it effectively replaces.
Even the Chrysler Pacifica—a minivan, one of my less favorite car breeds—was better than before. Best minivan ever? Runaway, unfounded nostalgia for AWD Mitsubishi Delicas notwithstanding, oh my yes!
Trucks and SUVs are crowding cars out of the marketplace, true. But if this year’s Car of the Year field is any indication, automakers are putting forth cars that are better than ever.