At times this year at The Verge, it feels like we already live in the autonomous future in our transportation section. It’s not entirely clear whether the momentum that drives us will be dystopian or delightful. But like our readers, we must get by in the present, where human-driven cars that we own, lease, buy, or ride in via our ridesharing drivers are still by far the dominant form of mobility. How can we write with knowledge about what’s coming in cars if we don’t know where we’re at? We launched our series ScreenDrive this year to show that many elements of cars are just like the gadgets we cover in our sister tech section — perfectly flawed.
In order for us to keep our feet on the ground, or at least close to the pulse of the current day pedal, as transportation editor, I try to drive as many cars as I possibly can, which can be a challenge, considering I live in a town where public transportation (when it’s actually working) and walking are options I enjoy. But I managed to squeeze in seat time in these 62 new cars this year, sometimes on race tracks, a Sunday drive, or in the real-world task of schlepping my kid to day camp. Modern cars are accused of looking and feeling very much the same — kind of like smartphones — they are tactile, three-dimensional rectangular objects loaded with sensors. What I see is an industry in transition, scrambling to find the most attractive functional path toward connectivity and convenience, but not clear on how to keep up with the pace of our more expendable gadgets. Here’s how I spent my year test-driving cars.
In 2017, the Chrysler Pacifica was in the spotlight as the go-to car for Waymo public-road self-driving testing. What I admired most about the Pacifica, as a family minivan solution, was the attention to obsessive detail. Our staff drove two Pacificas at the North American International Auto Show in January, and while some would say their favorite element was the in-car checkers game, what struck me as clever were the second-row seats that fold flat into the floor, making a minivan into a truly mobile living room.
The Audi S3 was our first experimentation with how to ScreenDrive a car. Much of the experience focused on how Audi has expanded Virtual Cockpit across its vehicle lineup. On the S3, Audi built an attractive, modern looking interior that’s stupid fun to drive. It has responsive ride and handling, even for a small car on bumpy city streets. Though some tech functions are not intuitive, like the scrolling wheel, its connected features are still among the best approaches in the industry.
Back in February, I took the Toyota Camry Hybrid for a spin. The ‘17 model year added the Entune Audio Plus entertainment system, automatic emergency braking, and wireless smartphone charging. The Camry maneuvers smoothly from electric to gasoline power, but faces stiff competition in this growing segment of mid-sized hybrids.
The Lexus IS200T is an entry-level luxury car that isn’t afraid to make a statement. It has a polarizing, but memorable grille. Unlike many luxury automakers, Lexus opts to go its own way rather than mimic German luxury design. It’s not always successful, but on the IS200T, that’s a good thing. What it lacks is space in the rear interior — even kids’ legs were cramped. It also comes short in the performance numbers of its competitors.
The Mazda 6 is what I call the ultimate sleeper car. Mazda lacks the big overstated presence of larger brands, but its handsome design coupled with peppy performance makes it a solid choice for consumers to consider. What contributes to this 6’s savvy is a driver’s seat positioning that borrows from the sports car DNA of its Miata.
I didn’t read the fine print on the offer to drive the BMW 330e, and was pleasantly surprised to see the e-for-quasi-electric when the final paperwork crossed my desk. The 330e doesn’t scream “look at me, I’m driving a plug-in!,” but instead, “look at me I’m driving a BMW!” that has the essence of performance that makes everyone want to drive this present-day icon.
The Lexus GS350 F Sport is a bit of a metal mouth. Its grille takes familiar proportions and stretches them in into a bulbous form. But it’s been around so long that this observation is no longer a revelation. The Lexus’ Remote Touch interface requires a light touch, and can be frustrating. Its interior is spacious, and like other Lexus models, uses rich materials.
Sure, strong, snow-ready and steady, the Subaru Forester didn’t receive a major refresh in 2017. It remains a true sport utilitarian. That’s why people keep buying it, as I was reminded when driving it through slippery wet spring conditions. Subaru added better…