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Hail the Underdogs – Reference Mark
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Hail the Underdogs – Reference Mark


Watching automotive backmarkers elbow their way into the conversation


Watching automotive backmarkers elbow their way into the conversation

I’ve always had a place in my heart for the downtrodden. I attended Northwestern University back when the football team was so awful that defeating equally cruddy Illinois was cause for tearing down the goalposts and for the campus radio to play Tom Petty’s “Even the Losers.”

I’m also a fan of the Cubs baseball and Tottenham soccer clubs—organizations with well-worn records in futility. But rejoicing when your lovable losers finally succeed is that much sweeter. As a sports journalist earlier in my career, I much preferred interviewing the losing team—more pathos, more pithy quotes, and more determination to get back out on the damn field the very next day. Eventually, they know they’re gonna win it all.

For that reason, I’ve enjoyed watching automotive backmarkers elbow their way into the conversation. Sure, it’s easy to join the 350,000-plus people every year who dutifully buy a reliable appliance such as the Toyota Corolla. But it fills me with glee when the folks from Hiroshima roll out a Mazda3 that’s cooler, looks better, and is more fun to drive than the sales leader.

Which is why, during this year’s Of The Year competitions, it was so gratifying to see the blazing entrance of Alfa Romeo, the resurgence of Honda, and the rise of Kia.

Had a couple votes gone the other way, we could have seen either Alfa Romeo or Honda take both the Car and SUV of the Year Calipers. Both automakers showed consistent excellence with vehicles in vastly different segments. Meanwhile, although not winning any awards, Kia showed newfound strength in creating innovative vehicles across disparate price bands.

Alfa’s Giorgio platform that supports both the Giulia sedan and Stelvio crossover gives both vehicles fine bone structure, but it underpins vastly different vehicle types. Trying to balance dynamics and comfort for both a passenger car and an SUV might be the toughest assignment for a chassis and suspension engineering team—yet both vehicles do so flawlessly. Combine that with a 2.0-liter engine that delivers class-leading horsepower and acceleration numbers, and BMW might have to relinquish its Ultimate Driving Machine tagline.

Then there’s Honda, which won the calipers with its CR-V compact crossover and was in the finalist conversation with its Accord midsize sedan. Like the Alfas, both the CR-V and the Accord share underpinnings, with the Accord stretching the astonishing 2016 Civic platform into midsize dimensions—again another magnificent engineering feat. But it’s more than just the engineering. Look back a few years. The last two generations of Accord were competent but unexciting. The rest of the lineup was in disarray. This was a company that had lost its mojo. The 2018 vintage Accord brings back the original Honda idea of giving owners a sense they bought a snazzy car that should have cost a lot more money, loaded with a supple suspension and full of elegant touches. The CR-V, meanwhile, is plain excellent—from its remarkable packaging efficiency to its ride and handling. It should be a blueprint for all others to follow. And don’t get me started on the Civic Type R, which looks like a Tooner Karz cartoon but has incredible performance while being absolutely serene in traffic.

Had a couple votes gone the other way, we could have seen either Alfa Romeo or Honda take both the Car and SUV of the Year Calipers

Which brings us to Kia—which 20 years ago was claimed off the insolvency scrap heap by Hyundai Motor. Confined to “cheap and cheerful” branding by a new parent wanting to ensure its higher status in the order, Kia has found its footing in recent years as the noisy neighbor to Hyundai’s more refined status. We at Motor Trend cling to the belief that it is orders of magnitude harder to build a great $20,000 car than a decent $40,000 one. So although Kia’s creation of its rear-drive fastback Stinger sedan is a magnificent assault on the dominant German triad, we were even more impressed by the affordable brilliance of Kia’s Rio econobox. It shows how far, how quickly, Kia has come.

What about Tesla as the ultimate disruptor, you ask? Well, there are many questions still to be asked about its “affordable EV” entry, but a successful launch of the Model 3 could shake everything we know about the auto industry off its foundation.

So be wary, those who believe in the stability of the status quo. There are newcomers and resurgent automakers barking at the gate.

Read about our winners here:

Hail the Underdogs – Reference MarkHail the Underdogs – Reference MarkHail the Underdogs – Reference MarkHail the Underdogs – Reference MarkHail the Underdogs – Reference MarkHail the Underdogs – Reference MarkHail the Underdogs – Reference MarkHail the Underdogs – Reference MarkHail the Underdogs – Reference MarkHail the Underdogs – Reference MarkHail the Underdogs – Reference Mark

By Mark Rechtin

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