Stunning Rides: The Surprises And Delights Of 2017

2017 Lincoln Continental

We spent 2017 sampling some incredible machines like the Jaguar F-Type SVR, the Ford Raptor, and the last of the gas-powered Smart cars. But as we drive a new car a week, we don’t always get the time or space to highlight all the vehicles that truly impress us.

This is our attempt to remedy that. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it does represent a fine selection of cars that not only made us smile, but captivated us in a way that made us want to drive them all again. And again.

Perhaps 2018 will provide us with a new list of automotive loves. But for now, here are some of our favourite cars of 2017, from the most luxurious to the most economic.

Lincoln Continental

Perhaps the most surprising car of the year was Lincoln’s new Continental. It seems like only yesterday that the brand was stuck selling Fords with slightly different headlights, but finally the company is back with a true luxury car it can call its own. And better yet, it’s actually really good.

This is classic American luxury, updated for the new millennium. It’s big, brash, and it rides like a boat floating through a cloud. It’s got a ton of chrome, some really cool door handles, and looks a bit like an amalgam of the classic ‘60s Continental and the similarly named Bentley. It’s got seats that massage, a user interface that’s heavy on warm tones, plus all the connectivity and driver assist technologies that are expected these days.

No, it’s not fast. And no, it will never impress on the Nurburgring. But that’s okay. Sometimes all you want to do after a long day of work is glide home on a pillow, and that’s the type of experience this Continental provides. Just as the original CTS marked a new era for Cadillac, this Continental has the potential to do the same for Lincoln. Well, if they can keep the car out of the airport shuttle pool, that is.

Audi S3

It may be based on the smallest car in Audi’s lineup, but few cars feel as perfect as the S3. Yes, it’s the “boy-racer” version of the entry-level A3, but it delivers a truly impressive—and sophisticated—driving experience.

Outside, the S3 gets the same crisp lines seen throughout the four-ringed fleet; the inside gets the same high-resolution, all-digital cockpit found in the high-grade trims, too. But it’s what’s under the hood that counts. Its 292-horsepower, turbocharged four-cylinder is the perfect match for this compact four-door. Acceleration feels hammer-to-the-face powerful, the all-wheel-drive quattro system makes darting around corners feel like second nature, and the suspension keeps things feeling totally stable when blasting down the open freeway.

Throw in things like quilted leather racing bucket seats, satin-metal trim, and a 705-watt Bang & Olufson sound system—all at the same MSRP as a fully loaded (and slower) A4—and the S3 represents what may very well be one of the best cars currently coming out of Germany.

Mazda CX-9

No matter what the new corporate tagline may say, Mazda will forever be the “zoom-zoom” brand. And that’s a good thing — the brand’s focus on driving purity has endeared it to gearheads everywhere, with entry-level cars like the CX-3 offering a similar amount of fun as the revered MX-5. But it’s the new full-size CX-9 SUV that’s launching a daring new direction for the brand.

No, the driving fun isn’t going anywhere — it’s more that the CX-9 is Mazda’s first attempt at moving the brand upmarket. It’s hitting all the right bases, too. The sheet metal is sleek and genuinely beautiful, with a finesse and precision to the details reminiscent of recent Audis. This craftsmanship extends to the interior as well, with supple Nappa leather, a center console crafted from rosewood, and satin aluminum accents.

The chassis, as is expected, puts a premium on handling — to the slight detriment of those looking for a “point-and-forget” driving experience. A little more low-end grunt would be nice as well, whether it be from a bigger engine or an electric-motor assist. But for any parent who had to sell the sports car to haul the kiddos, the CX-9 makes for a welcome driving partner.

FIAT 124 Spider Abarth

The 124 Spider Abarth is everything an Italian roadster should be. It’s beautiful to look at, and with the raspy exhaust note coming from the 164-hp turbocharged 4, it’s even more beautiful to listen to. Standard go-faster bits include a Bilstein suspension, Brembo brakes, and a limited-slip differential, helping ensure that this roadster handles as well as it looks. And besides, it’s essentially a Miata in an Italian suit, so perfect handling is pretty much a given.

Those looking for a premium Italian experience inside will likely be disappointed. Save for the FIAT badge on the steering wheel, this cabin is all Mazda. But as mentioned above, Mazda has been stepping up its game on the interior front. This cockpit is still a very nice place to be — even if it is a bit cramped for taller folk. Should you ever get the opportunity to drive one of these, do it. You won’t be disappointed.

VW Tiguan

Crossover Utility Vehicles (CUVs) are where it’s at these days, which is why Volkswagen released two major CUVs this past year: the Atlas and the second-gen Tiguan. Both vehicles were designed with the North American market in mind and are built atop VW’s new MQB architecture, featuring available third-row seating, and both can be equipped with the same digital gauge cluster one finds in high-end Audis. In photos, both vehicles look pretty much the same. And they both drive like, well, a VW. But if you’re seriously looking at one of these German trucksters, the Tiguan’s the one to get.

There’s no other way to say it: the Atlas is massive. And with this size brings problems with outward visibility; it’s a hard vehicle to drive through tighter spaces. Not so with the Tiguan. Though much larger than the version that came before it, the newest Tiguan is just as comfortable cruising through the city as it is covering mile after mile of desolate highway. Its quiet ride and superb fit and finish make the cabin feel more Audi than Golf, and there’s still plenty of space for stuff behind the back seats. True, some may lament that the Tiguan no longer feels like a Golf on stilts, but then, that’s what the Golf Alltrack is for. The Tiguan, finally, is the crossover VW needs to compete—and possibly dominate—the growing CUV space.

Honda Civic Hatchback Sport

From the economical Hybrid Sedan to the over-the-top Type R, one can say that there’s a Honda Civic for everyone. And while the Type R is a technological tour de force, the Civic that really captured our hearts is the humble Civic Hatchback Sport. For those of us who still quote The Fast and the Furious a bit too often, it’s the Civic we always wanted.

This is the first Civic (in North America, at least) to feature both a turbo and a slick-shifting six-speed manual. It’s got the fun-to-drive nature that has made the Civic a favourite with the tuner set for decades, and thanks to that bit of forced induction, it’s also got something that past Civics have lacked: low-end torque.

Sure, the Civic Hatchback Sport isn’t the fastest thing on the road, but when it’s this fun to fling around, who really cares? Civics have always been about balanced performance, practicality, and fun, and the hatch has all of these in spades. And with a starting price of just a hair over $21K, this may very well be the Civic to get. We dare say we even prefer this one to the mighty Type R.




Justin Kaehler
Justin Kaehler is a Los Angeles-based writer, photographer, and auto enthusiast who has been sharing his passion for cars for over 15 years.