Although not faultless, these cars all won us over in ways we didn't anticipate.
A large part of our work as automotive journalists involves car reviews. Automakers lend us those cars directly and not, as some people believe, dealerships. Typically, that loan lasts for seven days, during which we have time to log enough miles for evaluation, explore the features, poke around the interior, and take notes and photos so we can prepare a review.
Of course, we sometimes spend a week with super exciting cars or great family cars we would love to keep. Sometimes, we spend a week with a car that bores us, but we're still interested as consumer advocates and would like to be able to recommend to people they do suit. Then there's another category, and that's the cars we don't expect to like. As a subcategory of those cars, there are the cars that we end up handing the keys back begrudgingly while wishing we had chosen a better-paid career so we could just buy all the cars we want. These are the cars that have left the biggest marks so far.
A new 4Runner is coming to replace the current long-in-the-tooth model. The current model shows its age on the road with vague steering and slow acceleration. Its naturally-aspirated engine is thirsty, the interior isn't in any way sophisticated, and its technology is woefully out of date. It's impressively practical, though. Then, off the road, it's a reliable and surprisingly agile performer. However, even hardcore off-roaders spend most of their time on the road to get to the trails. We did some off-roading in the 4Runner and enjoyed it, but it also totally charmed us as a daily driver and road trip vehicle. That doesn't mean the 4Runner is an excellent vehicle for everyone, but despite its significant flaws, it can quickly become part of the family.
We expect even an Alfa Romeo crossover to express itself on a back road, but we weren't prepared for a crossover that can deliver the driving dynamics that impress us in other vehicles. "The Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio proves that an SUV can be a sports car," says CarBuzz editor Jared Rosenholtz, "Its steering will put any modern BMW to shame, and the twin-turbo V6 engine wails like an Italian opera singer. To this day, it's among the best SUVs we've ever driven."
That 2.9-liter twin-turbocharged V6 propels the Stelvio Quadrifoglio to 60 mph in just 3.6 seconds, and we found it even more fun to drive than our previous benchmark for corner-carving compact crossovers, the BMW X3 M.
The Hyundai Kona is one of our favorite budget compact crossovers. Hyundai packs a lot of value for money into a tidy, stylish, and fun-to-drive little vehicle. When we heard an N version was coming, we expected a bit more horsepower, stiffer suspension, and some sporty seats and styling embellishment. What we didn't expect was a brutal little hot hatch with 276 horsepower and the kind of grip and agility you expect from a modern Golf GTI. The suspension is stiffened but within an inch of its life, and the N Corner Carving Differential controls torque steer with what seems like magic. However, that extra power and torque will still bite and break the Pirelli tires loose as the transmission cuts through early gears. It's an absurdly fun little car that we were still grinning about days after it left us.
For a long while, Cadillac wanted to be able to go toe to toe with BMW. The idea that Cadillac, of all the American automakers, could compete with BMW in terms of style, dynamic focus, and technology inspired derision. The ATS was a fine four-door sedan and got Cadillac into the ballpark in 2012. Then, in 2015 the automaker dropped the ATS-V. The CTS-V already existed and was thoroughly bananas, but the ATS-V took BMW's then untouchable M3 and gave it a good spanking in performance and style. The CTS-V was a sledgehammer, but nobody could be blamed for pulling out a cliché for the ATS-V. It was a scalpel.
We expected the Kia Soul to be a characterful and endearing little car. We didn't expect it to bring anywhere near as much joy as it did, though, or for the GT-Line Turbo version to be much more than a sporty body kit and a few extra horses. What we found, though, was something way more fun than it should have been to drive. With the turbo motor, it produced 201 hp, and this was paired with a decent seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
"The one from the hamster commercials? Yeah, that one," says Jared, "With the turbo engine, which has since been discontinued, the Kia Soul felt like a hot hatchback with more practicality. It was cheap, peppy, spacious, and a hoot to drive fast. We are sad that Kia no longer offers it."
We've never been wholly convinced by an all-wheel-drive hot hatch. Adding that cost defeats the point and the Golf R starts at a pricey $45,000, albeit for what is a fully loaded model. Its chassis tech is so good you can drive fast with little skill and a lot of confidence, but when you push the latest Golf R hard, you can feel the torque vectoring helping you, and it becomes a little unpredictable. On top of that, the Golf R has the issue of an infotainment system that makes anyone trying to interact with it feel like finding some gasoline and a match. That was this writer's opinion after a few days, and for the following review, written after the car was back with Volkswagen.
But, it was such an excellent daily driver with easily accessible performance and a kick to its drivetrain that we instantly missed it. The Golf R is small for the city, but a consummate and comfortable cruiser on the freeway, despite its size, and keeps up with much more aggressive cars on the backroads. What makes it such a great all-rounder is its variable suspension that can go from racer hard to freeway-loving soft, but even in its comfort setting, the Golf R loves to run a tight and twisty road.
How good can a four-cylinder Mustang really be and does this car really need a V8 to be enjoyable? Well, we found out in 2019 when Ford introduced its High-Performance Package for the 2020 model year. Essentially, the 2.3L High-Performance Package started as a skunkworks project within Ford when someone decided it might be a good idea to try putting the high-revving Ford Performance-tuned 2.3-liter engine from the Focus RS into the Mustang. By adding the EcoBoost Handling Package as well, the four-pot Mustang becomes quite a performer with its MagneRide dampers.
Ford created a Mustang with a light front end that makes 330 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque. That translates into a supremely agile rear-wheel-drive sports car that could track faster than previous generation GT models. It was a revelation, and we wanted to keep the keys so we could take it to some autocross events.
Until 2021, we regarded the Lincoln Nautilus as something for people who were only buying American despite the existence of the Lexus RX. However, we handed the keys back wishing we could keep it so we could arrive in style and comfort at posh parties. Granted, we would then need to be invited to bougie parties, but the new Nautilus gave us a fresh appetite for shrimp.
"We didn't think much of the Lincoln Nautilus before its most recent refresh. But what an update it was," Jared says. "The Nautilus hides its Ford Edge roots beautifully with plush massage seats, smoother transmission tuning, and subtle but attractive styling. We like to think of it as the Lexus RX for people who think the new Lexus RX is too extreme."
The Karma GS-6 is a beautiful car, but when we were delivered one in 2021 to test drive, we didn't expect much. Its hybrid system is made up of a turbocharged BMW three-cylinder range extender engine to boost the range of the electric drive system. Just like the BMW i3 that was available with a gas engine that acted as a range extender, it carries the engine just to charge the batteries to drive the motors. There's a reason no other automaker approaches hybrids in that manner. Then, we peered inside to see that the rear seats had absurdly little legroom and a massive transmission tunnel ate up space down the middle of the car. It's snug inside the Karma GS-6, to say the least.
Overall, the Karma GS-6 is a hard car to recommend to anyone but we just didn't want to give it back. The two electric motors deliver 536 horsepower and 550 lb-ft of torque to the back wheels, and its fast as a result. The engine adds weight and doesn't make a nice sound, but we didn't mind as we were having so much fun cruising over the mountains to get coffee as an excuse to drive it again. And we're not even going to pretend it wasn't all about style over substance.