A Year in Review - 17 Observations From a 2019 Spent Watching the Automotive Industry

Timothy Cain
by Timothy Cain
a year in review 17 observations from a 2019 spent watching the automotive industry

From the characters that control it to the engines at the heart of it, from the history that hems it in to the future that waits for it, from the designs that define it to the manufacturing that fulfills it, the automotive industry has something for everyone.

That’s why we cover it. That’s why we read about it. That’s why we drive and research and analyze, why we memorize specs and memorialize eras, why we wax eloquent when given the opportunity to explain the inherent balance of an inline-six, and why we correct people when they say, “CVT transmission.”

It’s also why we develop deep-seated automotive opinions that have as much chance of coming undone as your Jordan versus LeBron GOAT verdict. (Jordan, obviously. Gretzky, Federer, Mays, and Brady, too, for the record.)

Despite the fact that there was no shortage of automotive opinions dancing around in my head in those twilight moments before sleep each night at the beginning of the year, I nevertheless developed more conclusions over the course of 2019. After having little time to think of much else, and after driving hundreds of different cars, here’s an exhaustive (and exhausting) 17-part sampling.

1. Many Manuals Suck

The three-pedal layout is a gift to the human race, which is why my last three daily drivers have all required me to operate a clutch. But it’s no wonder the world is turning away from DIY shifters. While automotive journalists’ collective exposure to manual transmissions is often limited to fine-tuned performance machinery or even the more humble MX-5s or Civic Si Coupes of the world, many drivers get their first taste in a fifth-generation Hyundai Elantra or a 2015 Toyota Corolla. Dreadful long-throw shifters with zero feel and a clutch bent on providing no information to your left foot are not the stuff of which Save The Manuals fervor is fomented.

2. The Ford Transit Is Impeccable

Hey, non-Blue-Oval automakers, listen up. Need something to benchmark? Choose the Ford Transit, which absolutely nails the ride/handling balance, feels remarkably nimble, and could easily be used as a daily driver. This is the category of vehicle an automaker could mail in, and could likely get away with doing so. Ford didn’t. Pound for pound, few vehicles fulfill their mission so precisely.

3. SPO

Ever hear tell of Seats Per Occupant? Sure you have, albeit perhaps without realizing it. You’ve all heard the complaints from the zealots who can’t comprehend why parents of, say, two young children would drive a three-row seven-seater. “Whatever will they use their third row for?” Yet that family of four is running at a rather low 1.75 on the SPO scale. If the idea of extra seats is so heinous, why shouldn’t a single person be more harshly judged for purchasing a five-seat Civic? Oh, the horror of it all: they’re operating at a profligate 5.0 SPO.

4. Was the Aztek That Bad?

Okay, yes, the Pontiac Aztek was that bad. But one questions just how jaded we’ve become through a conditioning process made up by gaudy, over-the-top, chrome-infested, grille-centric designs. Yes, I know, I know: style is subjective. But if the rather unfortunate 2021 Chevrolet Tahoe had debuted two decades ago, I wonder if we wouldn’t have laughed it out of production. Now, we look at it and sneer, but we’re no longer surprised by ungainly design.

5. Heated Steering Wheel Is No.1

Heated seats are good. Ventilated seats are great. But a heated steering wheel is tops. In fact, I’d consider sacrificing heated seats if I knew I could combine a heated steering wheel with remote start, proximity access, automatic climate control, and a heated windshield.

6. Buick Wasn’t Kidding Around

Remember that “Mistaken Identity” commercial Buick ran where the company basically made fun of its own cars? The storyline was awful, too. But the core message seemed to be that the brand’s cars ought to be overlooked. It was a fair preview – the cars are now toast.

7. Extended Cab Trucks Still Look Best

I drive past a Magma Red 2019 Ford F-150 XLT SuperCab 4×4 every day. The proportions are spot on. We’ve grown accustomed to crew cab pickups over the last two decades – odds are it’s either what you own or quite likely what you’ll buy if you become a truck shopper. But shouldn’t we admit there’s an inherent awkwardness when a gigantic cab and short bed are blended? The increasingly rare extended cab gets it right.

8. The F30 BMW 3 Series Really Needed to Go

Perhaps more than most cars, BMW’s 3 Series can afford to execute a lackluster generation on the merits of its reputation. It can even do a formidable job of convincing first-time BMW drivers that, “Yeah, this is what everybody was talking about.” But take a step back now that the F30 is expired. Go check out a pre-owned 2012-2018 3er. The cabin is chintzy. The steering is light and uncommunicative. The suspension is soft in all the wrong places. The four-cylinder powerplants sound awful. And M variants aside, there’s really very little fun to speak of.

9. Acura Made a Desirable Vehicle

NSX aside, the third-generation Acura RDX is the first desirable Acura in a decade. Not since the second-generation TL and first-gen TSX has an Acura really grabbed me. Bold exterior design and a distinctly non-Honda cabin give the RDX a whole ‘nuther level of appeal.

10. The RLX Is Still Comically Unappealing

It’s easy to forget the RLX. Few cars are more forgettable. Plus nobody, really very close to nobody, buys an RLX. But hop into the big Acura sedan more than half a decade since it was released and you encounter a bizarre $54,900 experience. The RLX comes across like a previous-generation Accord, only with some extra features and less than half the fun.

11. The New Ford Escape Is a Paradox

How can something look so much like a new Aston Martin, yet be such a disappointing design? The Escape is all soft curves where you don’t want soft curves, and it’s visually much too low. If Ford wanted to create in consumers the belief that the new Escape was a de-contented move into a lower segment, then Ford succeeded. But yeah, at the same time, it does look an awful lot like a $189,900 DBX.

12. The Kia Telluride Could Work at $65K

Not as a Kia, of course. But strip the Kia badges off the Telluride, slap a $65,000 window sticker on it, and sell it through an established premium brand network, unchanged. The $41,490 Telluride SX has the chops.

13. Hyundai Design Is… Out There

Give credit where it’s due – Hyundai is trying some stuff. The new Sonata has a seductive body and the face of an ugly fish. While Kia took Korea’s big SUV platform and turned out the stunning Telluride, the Palisade is more of an acquired taste. There’s also very little brand design cohesion: consider the Venue, Veloster, and Elantra. They could just as easily come from three automakers as from one Hyundai. Maybe this is a good thing – aren’t we all a bit tired of designers running a car through the photocopier at 90 percent and again at 110 percent?

14. Nothing Gets In the Way of Wrangler Desirability

Why is it that the more Jeep Wranglers I’m exposed to, the more I discredit all of my own exposure? Sure, the new JL is better than the JK. But the tops are fiddly, highway driving remains rather miserable, reliability is more than questionable, there’s not as much space inside as there should be, the fuel economy sucks, and they’re not all that quick. Forgetting all of that reason, I still want one.

15. The Flex Felt Old

In fact, the Ford Flex felt old for quite a while precisely because it was old for so long. Ford didn’t apply much in the way of significant updates to a vehicle that went on sale way, way back in 2008. Bemoan the Flex’s demise all you will, but you almost certainly didn’t buy one. The Flex was ponderous, the cabin was low-rent even when optioned up, and in 2019 as in 2008, you still sat so low that it felt like you were driving a tomb.

16. RWD Is a Winter Answer

Now that snow is beginning to fall, I’m beginning to regret my sale of the Scion FR-S I used as a winter beater last year. With a good set of winter tires, the FR-S had traction when I needed it, or absolutely no traction when I wanted tail-out action. The FR-S was, perversely, at its best in adverse conditions. All-wheel drive is appealing but undeniably over-rated in inclement weather. Perfect balance, a low centre of gravity, and a manual transmission are definitely under-rated as qualities to look for in a winter vehicle.

17. But Usually, Cars Aren’t Fun

Usually, the quality you want in a car is quietness. After all, usually, you’re not actually in a position to really enjoy the act of driving, no matter what you’re driving, whether because of speed limits or traffic or occupants. In fact, cars that have the capability of delivering the most fun-per-mile are the very cars that often do the opposite, as they prove their inadequacy in traffic or at 65 mph or when frost heaves and potholes bite.

The diagnosis is serious, but there is a prescription: get up frighteningly early on a summer’s Saturday morning and drive for the sake of driving. Get out of town. Go nowhere in particular.

It’s worth it.

[Images: Tim Cain, Murilee Martin, Honda, Ford, Hyundai]

Timothy Cain is a contributing analyst at The Truth About Cars and Driving.ca and the founder and former editor of GoodCarBadCar.net. Follow on Twitter @timcaincars and Instagram.

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4 of 23 comments
  • Brn Brn on Dec 19, 2019

    "Heated Steering Wheel Is No.1" Where do you live? As someone who lives in Minnesota, remote start is #1, heated seats are #2, cloth seats are #3 . Heated steering wheel, is a couple of steps down. If you park outside, a block heater pushes it's way up to #1 on days when it's -40. "Hyundai Design Is… Out There" I've long considered Hyundai to be wildly overrated and am tired of the automotive press lauding them, but never owing them, especially a 10 year old Hyundai (cause they're crap). However, I appreciate their willingness to design a little bit different. It doesn't always work, but sometimes it does.

  • Newenthusiast Newenthusiast on Dec 20, 2019

    RE #12 Had a chance on 12/10 to get up close and personal with a Telluride. A professional colleague....who I KNOW makes far more than just about anyone else I've met in my field since I moved here....bought a Telluride SX. Moss Green with the Dune Brown (light tan) interior. All the bells and whistles. Had to get it shipped here from a dealer in NJ (his home state..so maybe he has a contact?) because the dealer here wouldn't play on finding that color combo for him or inquiring about a custom order. But he loved the test drive. I got to sit inside. I owned an 2007 Audi Q7 until this past February, and the Kia was just as nice a place to sit. The interior fit and materials punch way above its class, and of course, it has much newer tech than my old Audi. And that color combo is the best. Its a REALLY nice green, and the comfortable (ventilated) seats I'm guessing are probably a wonderful way to make traffic suck less here in the tropics. I asked him why the Kia? He said there was nothing else this size and with these features that had a 5yr/60k basic warranty (10yr/100k on the powertrain), at anywhere near the same price. I'm not sure of every feature he may have, but the SX starts at 41k and tops out with AWD and fully loaded at around 48k on the website. He asked me what I think he paid (which I hate to answer, because there are so many variables, etc), and I know Kia is willing to wheel and deal, so I guessed maybe 45k, plus the shipping costs. 41k, for everything...taxes, title, 90 day temp registration (pending inspection), shipping. He had to get the inspection done here, so that's like $20. Its mind blowing what he got for the money. I didn't get to ride in it, just sit in it parked, so I can't speak to that, but it at least looks the business in my limited experience.

    • See 1 previous
    • Newenthusiast Newenthusiast on Dec 20, 2019

      @28-Cars-Later Well, I can only give you my impressions of it based on limited time siting in the front passenger seat and the driver seat. I can't speak to my colleague's idea of what re-sale value plays into his decision. If he does this every 3 -5 years, then it should. If he buys and holds to 100k more more miles, then I guess it doesn't matter much, if at all. I know I am in the latter category, so re-sale is not something I consider, personally. To the touch, the materials that occupants (at least up front) would be in contact with seem to be of higher quality than I have experienced with H-K family in the past (admittedly, that experience has always been rentals). I saw no obvious build quality issues on the inside or outside. Like odd gaps, etc. The doors felt solid and thunked nicely when the closed. But...he had it for about a week or so when this happened. How it holds up is going to determine how well its designed and built. I think I need to test drive one myself to get a fuller impression.

  • ScarecrowRepair "Rivian will replace the component for free" -- Where does Rivian come into the picture? The cars are by Lucid, the part supplier is Sensata.
  • PickupMan Please change the cab dimensions and seating position, Toyota. If you do another sheet metal refresh and slap a large screen on the dash like last time, you're dead to me.
  • Matthew When someone slows down for seemingly no reason at all...and then turns on their blinker and makes a painfully slow turn. It frequently makes me chew them out in Spanish. Spanish just sounds angrier than English.
  • Peter 100% of new Tacomas are now made in Mexico. More of Japan’s ef you sea kay USA.
  • Kendahl A very complicated VW that's 11 years old. A money pit even if it's been well maintained.