These cars all improved more than we expected.
When we first get behind the wheel of a new car, we normally have some idea of what to expect based on last year's model or other vehicles from that manufacturer. But every now and then, a new car arrives that shatters any preconceived expectations we might have had. The winner of the Carbuzz Surprise of the Year award is a vehicle that has improved tremendously from a previous generation or succeeds in its mission more than we predicted. Think of it as the most improved award.
Vehicles that just missed the cut include the Cadillac Escalade, Hyundai Sonata, Kia K5, and the Toyota Venza. The winner of Surprise of the Year and our nine other award winners will be announced on December 21.
Here are this year's three finalists:
The 2020 Buick Encore GX is an all-new model, despite sharing its name with the smaller Encore. Comparing it to the old Encore, the GX is a massive improvement and a major surprise from the Buick brand. The exterior looks much more attractive and for a subcompact crossover, the interior feels plenty roomy. It also packs tons of impressive tech features, including self-parking, Amazon Alexa integration, and for the 2021 model year, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Though its pair of three-cylinder engines leave a bit to be desired in terms of performance, the Encore GX rides nicely and we came away surprisingly enamored by its continuously variable transmission. The Encore GX drastically undercuts all premium crossovers on price, starting at $24,100 and topping out over $30,000.
General Motors won last year's inaugural Surprise of the Year award with the Chevy Blazer and hopes to make it two in a row with the Buick Encore GX.
The 2020 Nissan Sentra easily makes our list of finalists based on how much this latest eighth-generation car has changed compared to the outgoing model. We wouldn't even pick the old Sentra out of a rental car lot, but this new model is now one of the best value compact sedans on the market. Nissan threw away everything we hated about the old Sentra, opting for a handsome design, premium cabin, and stellar driving dynamics.
It may not have anything special under the hood with a 149-horsepower four-cylinder engine, but the CVT is smooth and responsive while the steering is pinpoint accurate. Nissan also replaced the old torsion beam with an independent rear suspension, gifting the Sentra with hot hatch-inspired handling. Prices are also very affordable, starting at $19,310 and topping out just over $25,000.
It's tough to make a great sedan these days, but the 2021 Acura TLX is one of the better ones we drove this year. The outgoing TLX felt dated and lacked the magic of its TL predecessor. The second-generation model manages to recapture what used to make Acura sedans feel special. Acura altered the design, making the car longer and giving it the dimensions of a rear-wheel-drive car. It's still based on a front-wheel-drive platform, but Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive can send up to 70% of the engine's torque to the rear wheels.
A gutsy 2.0-liter four-cylinder is borrowed from the Civic Type R producing 280 hp, and a more powerful Type S variant will arrive next year. Pricing starts at a reasonable $37,500, and even when loaded up with options, the TLX undercuts its German rivals at $46,300.