In an era when all cars are pretty good and all cars are pretty safe, these 10 cars, SUVs and pickups stand out as the best of 2018. They advance the state of the art in technology as well as driving refinement and driving pleasure. Life is too short to drive boring cars. That’s why there’s a special place in our hearts for the likes of Audi, BMW, and Lexus for those whom He has honored with affluence, as well as Honda, Mazda, and VW for those of us of in the mainstream. Heck, even a minivan is an exciting car decked out with cellular-to-Wi-Fi streaming Internet and a half-dozen USB jacks.
To be eligible for Best of the Year 2018, the car had to be on the market this year or available as production-level cars in 2018. There’s no hard cap on price but we looked askance at vehicles costing more than $ 100,000 or roughly 2.5-3X the average transaction price of a new car this year, around $ 36,000. Since we’re ExtremeTech, we took technology advances into consideration, as well as the vehicle’s overall quality, and bang for the buck. It’s a truism that any fool can design a good $ 100,000 car, but it takes genius to make one for $ 25,000.
There are a lot of hybrids, plug-in hybrids and EVs on our list for a reason: No reason not to buy a hybrid when the Toyota RAV4, one of our winners, is just $ 800 more as a hybrid (and got 40-plus mpg actual economy in the hands of lead-foot journalists).
Not every American believes we’ve got climate or pollution issues, but automakers also need to sell in places like China, now the world’s biggest auto market, a place where pollution can be life-threatening to children in big cities. Automakers have to sell in the 40 megacities with 10-million plus populations, mostly in Asia and Africa. North America has only two: Mexico City <cough-cough> and New York City. Also: Many of the hybrid or EV winners have combustion-engine versions, too. They’re great cars, too:
Our Winners of ExtremeTech’s 10 Best Cars for 2019
Technology of the Year: Honda, Toyota Safety Suites
Cameras, radar and sonar sensors help good and bad drivers alike. (Even good drivers aren’t so good at the ends of long trips, and they can be looking at the radio display when a kid runs into the road.) They’re cheap, just not free, so much so that cars as inexpensive as the 2019 Toyota Corolla will have the core functionality built into even the models costs $ 20,000. Honda is pushing its safety suite down its cheaper cars as well.
Many automakers offer the parts of a safety suite. Honda and Toyota do it best, with named suites – Honda Sensing, Toyota Safety Sense – that make it easy for buyers to tell dealers what they want.
Every one of the 32 brands sold in the US has all or part of the core safety features that are considered driver assists. Honda and Toyota stand out because they have the features on a high percentage of their cars and they have a memorable name that makes it easy for buyers to remember it (or at least write it down before they visit the dealer), ask for it, and tell the sales associate they’re not interested in a car unless it has the features. Honda calls it Honda Sensing. Toyota calls it Toyota Safety Sense, or TSS.
The core features of the safety systems and safety suites are:
- Lane departure warning, lane keep assist, or lane centering assist (each builds on the previous feature). A camera watches the lane markings and warns or reacts if the car drifts toward the lane edge. LDW beeps or vibrates the steering wheel (or seat) if the car crosses onto the lane markings. LKA nudges the car back if the car crosses onto the lane markings. LCA keeps the car centered so the car doesn’t drift.
- Blind spot detection. Radar/sonar sensors, typically four in the rear bumper and or side body panels, that watch for cars coming up in the adjacent lanes. Some give you a couple seconds advance notice of a car overtaking; others don’t alert you until the car is almost alongside. Some automakers give it different names: blind spot information system, or BLIS, for Ford/Lincoln as well as companies (Volvo) that Ford used to own; or Audi Side Assist, which isn’t all that clear what it does (we say). (Some Hondas have LaneWatch, using a right-side-only camera that projects an image onto the center stack screen with distance-gauging lines overlaid, but it doesn’t work well at night.)
- Adaptive cruise control or radar (or smart) cruise control. A radar unit embedded in the front grille tracks the distance to the car ahead and, when ACC is on, maintains a set distance, speeds up and slows down as the car ahead does, but never goes faster than the cruise control speed you’ve set. Subaru uses a pair of cameras at top of the windshield and triangulation to track the closing distance.
- City safety, pedestrian detection, forward collision warning, low-speed automatic braking. Radar and/or a camera watches for potentially hazardous situations at lower speeds and warns the driver, slows automatically, and (with most cars) brakes if the driver doesn’t. It can avoid running into the back of the car in front if the driver ahead brakes suddenly, saving damage and a traffic ticket (most state laws say running into the car in front is automatically the fault of the car behind).
Lane departure warning is the cheapest to implement. It just needs an automotive grade camera, typically costing $ 50 or less, and software. The same camera can typically handle pedestrian detection, forward collision warning, and low-speed automatic braking; traffic sign recognition; auto high beams; and rain-sensing wipers.
Virtually every safety suite, whether it has an easily remembered name, has lane departure warning and some form of city safety/low-speed braking. Some have adaptive cruise but not blind spot detection, or vice versa. Some have all three. Some omit ACC or BSD from the entry trim line. At ExtremeTech, we believe every car should have all of the features on all cars, but we understand if the entry trim line doesn’t have it, in order to hit an attractive price point, and if the entry grade has less than 10 percent sales share for the model. We also believe every automaker should have an umbrella term for the safety suite. In these areas, Toyota and Honda stand out. They’re also supporting future used-car residual values when their cars wind up in the hands of new drivers. The other 30 automakers should up the ante and offer fuller, easily explained safety suites.