By Hannah Elliott
A longtime New Yorker, I am deeply missing the beautiful, messy, glorious humanity of crowding into the concerts, airplanes, museums, bacchanals, and bars that coronavirus has rendered unsafe.
But at least the highway is open.
One of the bright spots in this most surreal year has been the fact that, for those of us interested in cars—for that matter, interested in any escape whatsoever, however brief—we can still get in our vehicles and drive.
And while the automotive shows and glitzy world debuts that traditionally launch new products have stalled, that doesn’t mean car manufacturers aren’t selling new products. Far from it.
They punched back with everything from unveilings via livestream video feeds, as Lamborghini did for its Huracán STO, to one-on-one journalist viewings in airplane hangars at near-abandoned airports, as General Motors did with its new Hummer EV.
I’ve driven 66 (by my count) of those new vehicles so far in 2020: such coupes as the Chevrolet Corvette, SUVs like the Genesis GV80 and Land Rover Defender, convertibles such as the Lamborghini Huracán RWD Spyder, wagons like the Audi RS6 Avant, and even some motorcycles and electric bicycles.
Plenty were forgettable. (More about those in an upcoming column.) Some, like the Volvo XC90 and Audi A6 Allroad achieved the right things:
Thoughtful design, fair pricing, intuitive technology, and performance that live up to whatever their manufacturer has promise in advertising and marketing.
A very few, including the delicious Corvette C8 and decadent Ferrari Roma, also added to the mix of sex-appeal, thrilling driving excitement, and engineering references that show the cars knows their places in the brand’s future—and history.
One or two cars each year combine all that and add a certain X factor that makes them memorable for generations. Scroll down for the ultimate winner. But first, here are the best in their class of what I drove in 2020.
Best Grand Tourer: Ferrari Roma
The Roma is the car that made me the happiest to be around, inside and out, all year.
And although it ultimately didn’t win top spot, since it’s arguably not as all-around practical, nor as affordable, as that just-as-thrilling-to-drive car below, it’s nearly perfect—and the most beautiful Ferrari to roll off the line since forever.
It marries impeccable elegance with 612-horsepower performance, refreshingly intuitive technology, and enough creature comforts to make it doable on a daily basis.
Best Electric Vehicle: Polestar 2
The Porsche Taycan may have been the one car I most wanted to drive this year, but the Polestar 2 wins the electric beat.
Impressively quick and nimble for about a third of the cost, the 402 hp, all-wheel-drive hatchback offers the solidity of Volvo safety systems, an ingeniously unique cabin, and a body style that combines the practicality and ride height of a small crossover SUV with a front end that looks like a sedan.
Driving range: 233 miles.
Best Family SUV: Volvo XC90
In a segment laden with boring appliances, the XC90 manages to be quietly elegant, memorable, and moreover, fun to drive.
Plus its values are applicable for many families: sustainable materials, laudable efficiency ratings, beaucoup safety systems, and sensible entertainment technology.
Best Monster SUV: Cadillac Escalade
The king of American SUVs is not for the faint of heart: It’s nearly five inches longer than the previous generation, and the same ride height as a UPS truck, although with a new independent rear suspension that improves handling.
In the maximalist, upscale SUV market (the cabin of one I drove was covered in glamorous, delightfully impractical white leather), you could spend a half-million dollars on the exceptional Rolls-Royce Cullinan or a fraction of that on the redesigned Escalade.
Best Wagon: Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG
In the sledgehammer-shaped E63 AMG wagon, Mercedes finds a way to make a grocery-getter feel like Darth Vader.
It has 602 horsepower, a 3.4 second sprint time, and a silky smooth, nine-speed transmission with massive sport brakes that bite the instant you hit them.
The raw, roaring intensity outmatches the Porsche and Audi wagons in its class, while cool new factory paint colors and prohibitively small production volumes spell out b-a-d-a-s-s without saying a word.
Best Track Star: Lamborghini Huracán EVO RWD
Driving this volatile rear-wheel-drive Huracán feels like a throwback to days when Lamborghinis were wild, gas-gulping bulls meant to impose themselves on anyone and anything in their path.
A thoughtful, cockpit-style interior and intuitive entertainment systems make it comfortable to shuttle between your home and its true home: the track.
The 631-horsepower V10 engine and zero-to-62 mph sprint time of 2.9 seconds match a body chiseled to aerodynamic, aggressive perfection.
Best Convertible: Ferrari F8 Tributo Spider
Ferrari revved it up in the convertible category this year, too.
The F8 Tributo Spider has jaw-dropping body styling, leather handiwork unparalleled within the segment, exciting rear wheel drive, and a hardtop that drops in just 14 second at speeds of nearly 30 mph.
But the refined engine note on its 710 hp V8 is the most commendable thing about it, having left me refreshed—not buzzing and frayed—after hours of driving, as other screaming machines in the segment do.
Best Sedan: Rolls-Royce Ghost
There’s a reason the phrase “it’s the Rolls-Royce of [insert appliance here]” exists, and the next-generation “post-luxury” Ghost does nothing to dispel that.
The powerful V12 engine, imposing new grille, deep-pile lambswool carpeting, and blessed silence has road presence enough to satisfy the heads of state who ride in it, while my multi-day test drive felt like joining a regal club that has stretched a century.
No other production sedan approximates the upscale accoutrement, total exclusivity—or price tag.
The Best Car of 2020
Even with all those winners, the single best car I drove this year will be memorable for years to come.
It combines performance, looks, cost-to-value, and comfort with a true X factor that made me fall in love. It’s the 2021 Porsche 911 Turbo S. (If you’re tracking, this also makes it the year’s best coupe.)
The eighth-generation installment updates an iconic design that started in 1964 with new modern cabin and safety technologies but without rendering it unrecognizable. Most of all, it provides intoxicating performance in a package that is drivable every day—arguably more capable over uneven or steep terrain, and in inclement weather, than that Roma—while still feeling special every time you slip behind the wheel.
It is faster and more powerful than previous generations, with a 640 hp, twin-turbo, six-cylinder engine (60 hp more than the previous 911 Turbo S) and 590 pound-feet of torque (37 pound-feet more). It goes from zero to 60 mph in 2.6 seconds, a 0.2-second improvement.
Top speed is 205 mph—the same as the scintillating, track-targeted 2021 McLaren 765LT.
Impressive stats. But the truly brilliant side to the car is its control. With the 911 Turbo S, driving becomes a meditation on a knife’s edge.
It is the roaring, gas-gulping embodiment of power controlled by precision, like those muscled
Lipizzan stallions that seem to pirouette on a thimble. It’s a balance that evades many sports cars with more cylinders, more horsepower, and more torque.
I love the 911 Turbo S because it made me a better driver than I actually am—better able to dip into corners and carry speed faster through them, braking later and getting back on the gas sooner than I normally am able to do.
But instead of being scary or reckless, forcing me to drive beyond my ability, it instilled utter confidence from behind the wheel.
Plus, there are (a few) cup holders.
There’s also a usable trunk and rear “seat” for storage, all-terrain capable AWD, a beautiful interior cabin, ingenious infotainment, and enough ride height to handle cobbled and messy streets.
Call it the Swiss Army Knife of sports cars wrapped in a legendary package; for 2020, the Porsche 911 Turbo S is the clear winner.