By on December 24, 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 chose 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.

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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46 Comments on “TTAC’s Best and Worst Vehicles of 2020...”


  • avatar
    Lie2me

    I’ll take everyone’s word for the “best and worst” of 2020 since I have no personal time with any of them. The one I’m looking most forward to and can actually see in my driveway is the Bronco Sport. All the good stuff about the Escape with the added bonus of an upright, boxy off-roader. Everything I require in a car at this point in life. I am surprised that you thought the 2.0 turbo lacked power, I’ve never heard a reviewer make that claim about that engine

    • 0 avatar
      Tim Healey

      It may be a matter of power to weight or just a laggy throttle, but the 2.0-liter in the Bronco Sport is a bit lackluster. Fine enough for most driving, but a bit lacking nonetheless.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Agreed on the Bronco Sport. I saw one last weekend and it looks good – good enough that yours truly, who has a SERIOUS aversion to compact CUVs, would actually check it out. Overly-ambitious pricing aside, I think Ford is going to sell a ton of these.

      And maybe that’s how automakers get enthusiasts into CUVs – bake in something for us to latch onto, whether it’s performance, style, or off-road capability. Think Escape ST, with an uprated version of the 2.3 and suspension tuning (and maybe a nicer-looking front end). I’d be down to look at that.

      • 0 avatar
        Lie2me

        I have yet to see a Bronco Sport in the wild and I pass a rather large Ford dealer several times a day. I crank my neck for a quick look, but none so far :(

        I also think that a 3600 lb. car with 245 hp and 275 torques going from 0-60mph in 7 seconds is more then enough for me

    • 0 avatar
      RedRocket

      What “good stuff” is found in an Escape? For being all new this past year it is a seriously disappointing vehicle that is stacked up like cordwood on dealer lots.

      • 0 avatar
        Lie2me

        I have a fully optioned 2017 Titanium Sport that has exceeded all my expectations in comfort and convenience and is a blast to drive. A more rugged, off-road versatile package would be an improvement, enter Bronco Sport

      • 0 avatar
        Lorenzo

        Ford got too swoopy with what should have remained a boxy tall wagon. The design is totally undistinguished and is anonymous in a sea of other compact/subcompact SUVs.

        • 0 avatar
          Lie2me

          I agree, that’s why the Bronco Sport is a welcome alternative to the uninspired design of the current Escape

        • 0 avatar
          brn

          Lorenzo, I don’t disagree with anything in your statement, but Ford knew the market. That generation of the Escape was a very nice balance and very well executed. The center locking differential alone made it stand out compared to the Rav4 or the CR-V.

          Having said that, I’m delighted with the Bronco Sport. As Lie2me states, I feared it’d be a tarted up version of the Escape, but they did it right. If you want to pretend to have an off roader, this beats it’s competitors by a long shot.

  • avatar
    ajla

    For obvious reasons I didn’t drive many vehicles this year but:

    Best: ’20 VW GLI Autobahn. I actually think I’ve downplayed how good this car was. It doesn’t have the fancy materials of the Mazdas, the features list of the H/K products, and it needs better factory tires. However, everything else is really well done. The performance is solid (I’d say class-leading), the rear seat is roomy, the trunk is big and the opening isn’t too bad for a 2020 car. Visibility is good. It has analog gauges, the screen is integrated into the dashboard and doesn’t control 100% of the car’s feature. The top trim is available for under $30K and the lower trim can be had for under $25K. You can even get it with a manual-transmission for people into such things.

    Worst: ’19 Buick Encore Sport Touring. I’ve always been an Eggcore basher, and the current version has all the same problems of the past. Escape pod driving position, weak A/C, handling of a Transit van (I’m not thinking it should be “sporty”, but it should at least match its competitive set). I also still find the styling terrible. I drove the Encore GX and Trailblazer this year as well and both are better than the OG Encore so now I can’t think of any reason to buy the original spud.

    • 0 avatar
      Tim Healey

      I love the GLI. But I haven’t driven one since 2019. So I couldn’t list it.

      • 0 avatar
        ajla

        It’s weird. I’ve liked almost every VW I’ve ever driven but I’ve never shopped for one personally. I’m #Blessed enough now to have a bit higher price range than the GLI but I really should check out the S4/S5 next time I’m looking for something.

    • 0 avatar
      theflyersfan

      I just bought (after a lot of looking and test driving) a new GLI right before Christmas. Pure Gray with the DSG – couldn’t locate a manual GLI in my area. With a bit of dealing and incentives, paid just over $23,000. It doesn’t have the leather and ventilated seats, virtual dash, Beats stereo, adaptive suspension and other odds and ends as the Autobahn model, but it gets the job done. Plenty of power, great gas mileage, lightning quick shifts, and pretty quiet on long drives makes for a excellent car. Yes, the interior isn’t as rich as the GTI – the plastics at the lower levels of the dash and doors is child’s toy quality – but that is the only real demerit I can toss at it right now. And Ajla is 100% right – the trunk is massive and the gauges are easy to read and make the virtual dash just a frill that isn’t needed.
      I’ve already gotten a lot of compliments on the color – the Pure Gray looks wet all of the time – and the styling is very much like an Audi A3.
      I can see why this and the GTI twin were named to C&D’s 10Best list. It wasn’t originally on my list of cars to buy, but when my job role expanded a bit to require some hauling of computer and networking equipment to sites or back to the office, that took the MX-5 off of the list (need a trunk!) and the poor roads and potholes in the area make the 20″ rims/wheels on the CTR I love so much a constant $2000 repair just waiting to happen and I didn’t want to live like that. Plus the redesign is coming soon.
      If an update to your 2019 GLI reviews is wanted, reply back.

  • avatar
    slavuta

    Tim Healey

    Is this some kind hypocrisy?
    Passat – “But it has no panache, no pizzazz, and it feels dull and boring.”
    RAV4 – “may be the best all-around small SUV”

    If there is definition of “no pizzazz” it is RAV4. Moreover, it is loud with transmission that shifts harshly. And slow.

    • 0 avatar
      Tim Healey

      Not at all. I don’t find the current RAV4 dull or boring. I grant you it’s never going to be on someone’s bedroom poster, but I think the current one has some character in a way the previous-gen didn’t.

      • 0 avatar
        Daniel J

        The RAV4, out of all the SUVs we drove before getting our CX5 Grand Touring Reserve, was bar far the worst to drive. The Hybrid power train in normal traffic was just awful. Didn’t shift well and when slamming on the gas the Engine sounded like it was going to blow up. We test drove another Hybrid at a different dealer thinking that it was just a bad sample, but nope. The CVT in the Forrester, even as bad as we thought it was, was more pleasant than the RAV4 Hybrid.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      Tim loves the RAV4 Adventure. If he was buying something new I think it might even crack his top 5.

    • 0 avatar
      gasser

      +1. I have to agree. I had a RAV 4 for a week as a rental and I would not buy one. Performance was slow and the interior “Outdoorsman wannabe” was not for my age cohort. Comfort, styling, performance, price…..it didn’t do anything well.

      • 0 avatar
        slavuta

        gasser,
        Yes – the price! Highlanders were moving with as much as $6000+ discount on high models and I took $5500 on lowest LE AWD. RAV was not discounted at that time. And more expensive vs Highlander.

        Vs RAV4 it is like heaven. You’re correct. Comfort… no, the ride. The ride in RAV4 was not so good as well. No-no-no. I can quickly tell a good car vs bad. What struck strong from the start is the noisy engine. Its just extremely buzzy in RAV4. And most reviewers mention it.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      And yet the RAV-4 is the best selling car in the US outselling the Highlander by a mile, even with the big discounts on the Highlander and none on the RAV-4.

      • 0 avatar
        slavuta

        Scoutdude,

        you just brought such an argument!!! wow!!! Looks like you’ve missed a lot. You know, Ford Taurus once was also best selling car. But it was one of the most unreliable at the same time. Accord sells ok. But is it better than slow-selling Mazda6 – no way. So, what is your point? May be your argument is that sale numbers of RAV4 somehow take away engine noise? Or fix harshly-shifting transmission?

        • 0 avatar
          HotPotato

          Is there really that much engine noise? I rented one for a few days use on a road trip and didn’t think so. There is an exhaust drone, which I took as Toyota trying to “sporty up” the vehicle with a louder exhaust — the same mistake BMW made with the original x3.

          But on the things that matter to sensible buyers, it scores well, e.g.: is it roomy for its size? can I operate the handles and controls with gloves on? does it get good fuel economy? are the seats and ride comfortable enough? etc.

          It’s not my cup of tea though.

    • 0 avatar
      SpeedyMcGoo

      Not one mention of the CX-5 either. Way better looking, much more luxurious, and more engaging to drive. Having driven both (2020 CX-5, 2019 Rav4) there’s no way I’d choose the Rav4. The CX-5 is on another level.

    • 0 avatar
      jimmyy

      I live in a Newport Beach hood where homes run from 3M to 11M. And, the RAV4, especially the hybrid model, is on so many driveways. I have never seen a normally priced vehicle become trendy in this area. The RAV4s proudly parked next to Bentlys and Range Rovers. Not a single Escape and only 1 CRV is in the same hood. People are saying that they have to wait for the RAV4 model they want because they are nearly sold out at the local Toyota dealer. There is something going on with the new RAV4.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Interesting call on the Venue. From a distance, it seems to continue the mission of the Scion xB1, with more refinement

    I loved my xB, but at this point I’d be looking for something with more seat comfort.

    • 0 avatar
      The_Imperialist

      I’ve owned my Venue for five months and am quite pleased so far. At its price point nothing else comes close in terms of technology, safety features,and warranty. As was noted, it’s not terribly handsome and the driving dynamics won’t raise any pulses, but it’s a good, honest car that doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t.

  • avatar
    Maymar

    Like many others, my exposure to pretty much anything was minimal for obvious reasons. Other than my own car, I’ve driven just about nothing but a handful of demo Mazdas my work had in February. Of those, the CX-5 was a minor highlight. Despite being an avowed member of the True Enthusiasts Crossover Hater club, it drove nicely, was decently sized, and plenty comfortable and usable. I’d actually be tempted to place that at top of class – the RAV4 is fine, but at least from the 10 min drive I had, seemed a little noisy, a little boomy compared to the prior generation model (I drove the two back to back). I’ve been really impressed with the TNGA Camry and Corolla, but the RAV4 was imperfect.

    Also from that batch of Mazdas, the CX-30 was a small disappointment. It looks good, drives fine, and the infotainment improvements are excellent, but there’s some cheapness below the surface, it’s a little tinny. It reminded me of older Jags, where it was the nicest leathers draped over some noticeably cheap components.

    Outside of that, I’m intrigued to check out the Genesis GV80, which looks properly premium, and seems to have prioritized comfort.

  • avatar
    EX35

    After driving a few rentals with turbo 4s (Malibu, escape) I can’t imagine owning a NA 4 cyl. Blah. Even very modest non performance turbo 4s have so much more torque off the line compared with their NA cousins. I recently drove a Kia with the NA 2.4. Yuck.

    • 0 avatar
      ect

      When I moved this year, I bought a new Sportage SX. The 2.0 turbo (together with whatever suspension mods go with it) transforms the vehicle, makes it very drivable.

      When I last bought a car in Canada, we tested (at my late wife’s insistence) a number of CUVs. The 2 that stood out, from a driving/handling perspective, were the Sportage SX and the Tiguan. The rest were, to my mind, very pedestrian, if not downright boring.

      This time out (me alone and with little time to devote to this project), I tested the Sportage SX against the Q3. The latter is a good car, and has a lot of electronic “snazziness”, but the Sportage SX was both more fun to drive and at least as well equipped. We’ll see how it lasts, but reality is that I live in a very walkable neighbourhood, so (especially with Covid) I don’t do a lot of driving.

      One man’s experience.

  • avatar
    Lightspeed

    Interesting choices, nice to see it’s not all high-end German cars. Hmmm, my own choices, nothing built since the advent of touch screens and track-pads.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    My last rental of the year was a new Passat. If I had need of a beige mid-size sedan it is the only one I would even consider. It looks good inside and out. It’s quick enough for what it is, it drives like a German car should. It has good German seats. They are deeply discounted and cheap to start with.

    The Camry is hideous inside and out, and I have never liked Hondas. None of the Japanese cars have seats that agree with me.

    My best for the year? Probably the best rental was Hemi Challenger I drove around DC and Baltimore for a week. Nothing I would ever buy, but they sure are fun to rent. Or the minty fresh 128i convertible I bought in KS and then drove to ME for the summer then home for FL. My worst for the year? The RAV4 by a mile. Yuck.

  • avatar
    Polka King

    Any reviewer that calls any car “boring” should be fired and banned for life. “Boring” is the word that they use for “tasteful” and “tasteful” is not a bad thing. It is a good thing.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    The second and fourth paragraphs offer an alarming level of insight into the current workflow at TTAC.

    [TTATTAC: The Truth About The Truth About Cars]

  • avatar
    Ryoku75

    I never thought that family sedans were supposed to get the blood pumping. In my family the “boring” cars were always the best ones in the long term.

  • avatar
    EX35

    I recall the days when threads like this had 100s of comments. How far this site has fallen. I wish RF would come back and resurrect this place from the dead.

  • avatar
    EX35

    Once this site went corporate it died in my eyes. Kick the corporate owners out, bring back RF, and get rid of all the crap sponsored posts. Make it indy again with great writing.

  • avatar
    JMII

    I owned a B5 Passat (’00 model) and it felt very German: tight, fast, solid, etc. I rented the newest version on a business trip last year and “boring” does sum it very well. It was completely dull. While this is fine for your average family sedan, ala the Camry, isn’t the point of getting a VW to have something “better”? If so the Passat is a fail.

    Sadly the lack of C8 production is holding back what would have been a clear home run. After years of teasing a mid-engine exotic with amazing performance at a bargain price GM finally delivered. Only to have various problems beyond their control to hamper production.

    I believe the Bronco Sport will be a massive hit. The general population have clearly shown that the CUV is the preferred vehicle type. Having a more “butch” version can only help sales. My parents have an Escape and its a fine vehicle that handles every driving condition you can think of – grocery getter, long range cruiser, multiple adults fit comfortable, plenty of storage… heck my father even tows a small boat with his. Plus it gets good gas mileage and moves along quick enough with the EcoBoost.

  • avatar
    EX35

    I loved the B5 except for the fact that it needed repairs on the way home from purchasing it from the dealership. VW lost many future customers after owning that heap.

    • 0 avatar
      JMII

      Ours was fine for awhile (aka the warranty period) but then it starting falling apart… literally. The day we traded it in the knob to control the sunroof broke off. The handle to the glove box broke, a headlight fell out, a spring under the seat dropped out, roof antenna, coolant leak, dash display, other things I long forgot about it. Seemed every day something broke including each and every power window regulator, some of them twice! Still we managed over 100k as I could DIY repair most interior bits, but yeah – no more VeeDubs for us.

      • 0 avatar
        EX35

        I just wish I could find a newish car that drove and felt like the B5 but didn’t fall apart. I even miss the door clunk sound it made. So solid and heavy, like the wonderful steering it had.

    • 0 avatar
      HotPotato

      My B5.5 Passat wagon was the best and worst vehicle I have ever owned. It was like a modern take on an early 1980s Mercedes Benz…”impeccable taste” sums it up. Richly handsome inside and out, almost indescribably good to drive and to ride in, and beautifully built from the standpoint of perceived quality — it absolutely made me feel like a king.

      But. The ignition would randomly fail on a road trip. We’d fix one oil leak on the V6 to find, when the car still smelled of oil a month later, that there was another leak two inches beneath it. Just as water leaks would fry the idiotically located fuse panel on my old Jetta 1, water leaks would fry the body control computer in the Passat. My mechanic finally took me aside and confided that much as he appreciated me paying for his boat, it would probably be in my best interest to either trade the car, or set aside $6000 or so for the next round of expected repairs.

      This was on a car with just under 70,000 miles.

      I did the smart thing and traded it. That was, what, three cars ago? I still miss that goddamned Passat. Every. Single. Day.

      • 0 avatar
        EX35

        Nice write up. You ever find something that drove and felt like the Passat? I assume BMWs and Benzes (if I could afford one) are reliability nightmares like the Passat.

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