This is our second successive unusual MotorTrend Car of the Year contest. Once again, judges, photographers, videographers, and support staff were subjected to nasal swabs and remaining socially distanced outdoors in 90-plus-degree heat, and we all suffered the indignity of not sharing Costco-sized jugs of candy with one another.
Stranger still? The skinny field of new cars competing for MotorTrend‘s Golden Calipers. Our entry criteria are generous: Vehicles must go on sale by the first of the year, cost less than $150,000, and be either all-new or significantly updated or refreshed—typically with a powertrain change.
Just 16 contenders and finalists—represented by 25 individual variants—fit into that box this year, which says more about the state of the American car market than it does the pandemic. After all, the 2022 SUV of the Year group was bigger than ever amid the same health crisis and industry shortages. Tell us if you’ve heard this one: Trucks and SUVs now gobble up a greater share of new vehicle sales, so automakers are creating fewer new sedans, hatchbacks, coupes, and minivans. So here’s how things went at one of the smallest Car of the Year contests we can recall:
Judges arrived at the initial walkaround briefings on each of the contenders and immediately glommed onto the Karma GS-6. Once upon a time, this now decade-old, homemade-feeling, big-wheeled concept for the road was the Fisker Karma, the plug-in series hybrid that debuted for 2011 and flamed out one year later. Company ownership has changed and so has the car’s gasoline engine, and its EV-only range has nearly doubled. But it’s essentially the same showboat. That it functions at all feels like a coup. Buyer’s guide director Zach Gale summed it up best: “Honestly, I was expecting worse.”
OK, the Karma isn’t saving cars as a species. Surely the new Lucid Air, an electric engineering marvel reaching years into the future, takes up that mantle? It’s popular at the walkaround, with everyone poking and prodding its cushy interior and exploring its cavernous and clever storage solutions. Maybe there’s hope yet for vehicles that don’t ride high like bloated family trucksters. And hey, this new Honda Civic isn’t bad, either, plus it’s way less expensive than one of those similarly equipped SUVs of similar size.
The next day, judges hopped behind the wheels, sampling cars on the Hyundai California Proving Ground’s large vehicle dynamics area, high-speed oval, handling course, and special surfaces section and its horrifying array of broken pavement and punishing expansion joints. Other than the hot weather—hey, it’s the desert in mid-September—not much out of the ordinary transpired. A few judges had odd experiences with the Lucid, starting with being locked out; repeated swipes of the key card on the door pillar failed to open it. Pressing the button on the included fob also didn’t work. The problems faded and the driving continued.
There was another half a day before we wrapped up our proving ground drives ahead of the judges’ sit-down to select finalists. It was once again hot, both literally and figuratively. Executive editor Mac Morrison learned firsthand that the Karma’s phone holder, designed a decade ago, isn’t sized for modern smartphones. His iPhone got stuck in the cubby, with no extra space to reach in and grab it by its sides. Luckily, it was lunch time; an incredulous Morrison paused to eat a taco as staff photographer Brandon Lim pried his phone loose with a plastic fork.
Not long after, the Volkswagen Golf GTI suffered a blowout on one of the rough road course’s brutal sunken manhole covers. Technical director Frank Markus insisted he was driving normally. We believe him; the VW’s stiff ride had caught other judges’ attention. We knew it was a matter of when, not if one of those low-profile tires on one or more of the cars died. After jacking up the left side and pulling the front wheel, which bent while the tire suffered a sidewall failure, and sweeping it off to a local tire shop for repair, we remounted it only to realize the front right tire was flat, too.
The double failure derailed nothing, as the GTI and its higher-output and more expensive Golf R sibling were among the first cars ruled out of contention for the finalist round. Digital director Erik Johnson, a lifelong GTI fan, initiated the mercy killing at the outset of the finalist selection. Besides their bouncy, overly firm rides, both Golfs’ inscrutable touch-sensitive controls and oddly organized touchscreens sealed their fates.
After the finalists shook out—there weren’t many surprise cuts beyond the VWs—we kicked off two days of real-world drive loops outside Tehachapi, California. General mayhem was on the wane. Several editors bemoaned the Toyota GR 86’s loudness and ride, but it likely had something to do with their cycling out of the Mercedes-Benz EQS and Lucid Air electric luxury sedans, as well as the benchmark S-Class. All three—a third of our finalist field—delivered soothing silence and adept seat massagers.
Finally, after two long days of real-world driving loops, we sat down to crown a winner. It wasn’t an easy choice, and it took several hours to agree upon the result. The chosen vehicle might surprise you.
2022 MotorTrend Car of the Year Contenders | Finalists | Winner
2022 MotorTrend SUV of the Year Contenders | Finalists | Winner
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