By on December 19, 2019

Jeep Wrangler JK towing old Jeep Kensington - Image: © Timothy CainFrom 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.

1996 Isuzu Hombre in Colorado wrecking yard, manual gearshift - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars1. 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.

2019 Ford F150 SuperCab Magma Red - Image: Ford.com7. 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.2019 Acura RDX9. 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.2020 Ford Escape - Image: Ford11. 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.Image: Hyundai13. 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. 2013 Scion FRS blue - Image: © Timothy Cain16. 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 and the founder and former editor of Follow on Twitter @timcaincars and Instagram.

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23 Comments on “A Year in Review – 17 Observations From a 2019 Spent Watching the Automotive Industry...”

  • avatar

    Quick fix to the headline mis-spelling. (Now for the scrolling fiasco…..ahem)

    To (3), the two pick-ups I’ve owned have been RCLB; it works the best for me but I’m still at 2:1 SPO at a minimum. It’s not my DD and I’ve learned to ignore those who gripe about hauling a box of air…they don’t see it when it’s hauling crushed stone, towing a trailer or bringing home project materials.

    As to (7), the 4-door P/U has become the de novo family car especially since Dodge/RAM civilized it in 2009. When I rode to lunch in one with some workmates I thought a limousine should comport itself as well. It’s no mystery to me why FCA is killing it in this marketspace.

    Yes the Aztek was/is that bad. It started the styling trend to Cthulhu-looking hideousness.

  • avatar

    As much as I love my Dakota Quad Cab you are right – trucks look best in extended cab form.

  • avatar

    As to super cabs, take a ’71 Nova or Malibu done up in proper classic muscle car trim, stance and rumble. When they’re 4-doors, I just want to scream.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    My dad bought a new Magma Red F-150 XLT a couple of months ago. I believe it’s a SuperCrew, not a SuperCab, however. I’ll get to see it in person when I visit for the holidays.

  • avatar

    Wrong on #7. Extracabs have always come off awkwardly proportioned to me. They’re the 4-door sedans of pickups, just frumpy, ungainly, and compromised. The ONLY one that looks right is the F-150 Raptor combo of supercab and the supercrew’s ‘shortie’ bed. It preserves the limber and athletic proportions of the classic RC/SB or CC/shortie bed setups. Extended cabs look well suited to geezers, farmers, contractors, etc but style-wise they fail pretty hard. Especially if in a sport/offroad oriented package such as the Rumblebee, Rebel, etc.

  • avatar

    Heated Steering Wheel:
    I have been told by people who should know that heated steering wheels drive a lot of vehicle purchase decisions by ex-NFL players (heated steering wheel helps your beaten-up sore hands). The cost (not price) of a heated steering wheel is surprisingly low (if you think less than 30 bucks is low). The manufacturers (in general) jealously guard access to the heated steering wheel and hide it behind upper level trims or luxury vehicles. [EV’s have changed this somewhat, since adding a heated steering wheel was one straightforward workaround for inadequate heating systems on early EV’s.]

    • 0 avatar

      Aa an aging Boomer with a severely arthritic hand, it’s surprising that I’ve never thought of that.

      My normal purchase has been one level above the base model, but I will remember a heated steering wheel for my next car.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      My first heated steering wheel was on a 12 Leaf – amazing, and I haven’t had one since.

      Unfortunately, my 19 Ioniq EV can’t be fitted with a heated steering wheel except in the Canadian market (stupid), and it’s a feature I really miss.

      BTW, the cabin heater in both of these EVs are excellent. I love the instant heat available in an EV vs waiting for an ICE car to warm up.

      • 0 avatar

        “I love the instant heat available in an EV vs waiting for an ICE car to warm up.”

        This could almost be adjacent to the “what did we learn” post. The number of freeze babies who wants gobs of heat immediately in an ICE and turn the temp gauge all the way up, while also turning the fan all the way up is laughable. In my experience it takes far longer for there to be any heat because you’re robbing the engine of any accumulated heat with the fan maxed out, and it never heats the cabin.

        Lately I’ve taken to leaving my CX-5 set to 68° with the fan on the second lowest setting. It gets plenty warm, at least for me, plenty fast and doesn’t create the same amount of racket. Even when it was -15° a few weeks ago in Minnesota, this worked exceedingly well.

  • avatar

    Re: #9 / Acura RDX

    Acura may have made a compelling-to-drive vehicle with a great interior, but it’s 100% let down by its exterior styling. It simply does not look up market or expensive. In fact, to my eyes the styling is more downmarket than Mazda CX-5, GMC Terrain, or even Honda’s own CR-V.

    Same goes for the RLX, ILX, TSX, MDX. Styling is too pedestrian and unsophisticated.

  • avatar

    I’ve seen more V8 Kia Borregos and hybrid Chrysler Aspens than I’ve seen Acura RLXs

  • avatar

    Extended cab looks good with rear hinged clamshell doors. With the abortive not quite a double cab door it looks terrible. This is why an extended cab F150 4×4 STX stays high on my personal desirability list.

    Number 17 is just sad because you can have a nice quite decently riding car that does then wake up when you drive it hard. I’ve got one, I’m guessing that the new Sonata N-line will be like that, a GTI is like that, or a Charger 396. Do they have mid-engine supercar performance? No. Are they perfectly acceptable to drop kids off at school and then burn down a backroad on the way to your job? Yes.

    For anyone who follows TTAC to accept that is just a cop out.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      @Dan re #17: Isn’t that where a nice shifting manual comes in? I have driven some pretty awful cars, but if they have a fairly nice shifting manual transmission you can still have some decent fun, when you are out in some back country roads (or when I was young in suburban streets).

      People pay massive amounts of money for 1960’s muscle cars, or 1960’s/70’s exotics that are noisy, smelly, hard riding, often unreliable, uncomfortable and comparably not much faster (or even slower), less responsive and handle worse than a modern CamAccord.

      • 0 avatar

        You know I’ve got my 67 Mustang but it’s largely a nostalgia thing. I’m tempted to ask dear old Dad to swap me for his 1996 Caprice sedan because it’s much easier to live with. Either that or enough cash infusion to make the Mustang TBI so I can stop fiddling with that @#$(ing carb.

        Manuals can make a slow car fun but our authors act as if it is a binary choice between bland vanilla CVT 4 cyl econo vehicle with lots of sound deadening and a McLaren. I’m simply arguing that you could have fun in a Regal or Camry XSE or a Maxima or heck even a 4 cyl Stinger.

        • 0 avatar
          Arthur Dailey

          @Dan: “I’m simply arguing that you could have fun in a Regal or Camry XSE or a Maxima or heck even a 4 cyl Stinger.”

          I agree. How many TTAC readers, who by definition are auto enthusiasts, are able either due to traffic congestion, bad roads or lax driver training to actually push a CVT equipped Sentra up to its full road handling and performance capabilities? I would guess a small majority, and even then only sporadically.

          As they say, “more fun to drive a slow car fast”.

    • 0 avatar

      #7: I think the real door, just small sized on my Sierra looks great, the suicide doors look weird to me. I would guess this is just personal preference.
      I do think it’s undeniable that extended cab trucks look better, and to boot the truck bed is much more useful at 6 1/2 feet than the typical crew-cab short box. I find particularly amusing those who choose to also put a tool box in the short box.

  • avatar

    Re: 2. The Ford Transit

    I spent a couple of days driving rented ones this summer and, even though I usually find driving anything bigger than a minivan a chore, I have to agree with you.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    @Arthur Dailey–I enjoyed my 99 S-10 extended cab with an I-4 and 5 speed manual which is hardly a performance vehicle. It handled well and the manual transmission was more engaging. It was one of the most reliable vehicles I ever owned and the longest I have owned a vehicle (20 1/2 years). I gave it to my nephew when I bought the Lacrosse which I enjoy but I miss the S-10. My nephew plans on keeping it and is housing it in his new barn. He is amazed at how well it runs and it looks brand new with 120k miles–doesn’t burn or use a drop of oil.

    @Dan–You could probably convert your Mustang to fuel injection without breaking the bank. Might want to look into that if you want to keep it and I am willing to bet the mpgs would improve.

  • avatar

    “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.

  • avatar

    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 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.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m not as such because:

      1. Hyundai/KIA have had an angle for years where they will give you high luxury options in a lesser cost class.

      2. The Telluride is an enlarged Sorrento from what I can tell.

      Maybe its just me but I am big on build quality, materials, and structure. For my money, a big Sorrento isn’t doing it for me BUT I could be persuaded depending on lease or resale (which historically is not good on KIAs).

      • 0 avatar

        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.

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