Rolling forward to the second segment of our car-of-the-year package, we look at the best of the crossover and sport-utility models we test-drove in 2018. We also recall, perhaps more fondly than usual, the year’s most fun car.
We’ve always liked Jeep Cherokees, and it’s no wonder Fiat Chrysler brought back the badge after a 13-year hiatus in 2014 to replace the Jeep Liberty. We described the 2019 Cherokee Overland 4×4 as “a nicely proportioned midsize SUV…We were thoroughly satisfied with its handling, comfort and performance.” With the smooth, powerful turbocharged 2.0-liter Four, the Cherokee is rated at 20 mpg city, 27 highway. It’s more rugged and off-road-capable than its major competitors from Ford, Chevrolet, Mazda, Toyota and Honda, and its towing capacity of as much as 4,500 is class-leading. But the competition offers better fuel economy and cargo room. Also, the Jeep uses premium gasoline when equipped with the optional turbocharged engine.
The base Cherokee, with front-wheel drive, starts at $23,995. Our top-of-the-line test car had a sticker price of $43,510.
Midsize Three-Row Crossover
Subaru has made a decent living in the U.S. market with subcompact and compact sedans and wagons, all featuring one of the best-performing all-wheel-drive systems available. Subarus are great winter cars that have grown more civilized over the years, but the brand hasn’t been able to run with the big, or even medium-sized, dogs. Its midsize B-9 Tribeca, discontinued after the 2014 model year, wasn’t a bad car, but the original 2006 version was the ugly duckling of the Subaru lineup.
Now comes the Ascent, a nice-looking three-row crossover and the biggest model Subaru has sold in the United States. Priced between $31,995 and $44,695, it’s “well thought out and well executed,” we observed in our review. The Ascent borders on full-sized, with 86 cubic feet of cargo room and up to 5,000 pounds of towing capacity. “The Ascent struck us almost immediately as a right-sized vehicle, balancing sticker price, seating capacity, cargo room, fuel economy interior comfort and technology.” Specifically, it’s rated at 20 mpg city, 26 highway, uses regular unleaded gasoline, and boasts a 19.3-gallon fuel tank.
The Ascent reached 36,211 units sold in 2018, despite not having hit the U.S. showrooms until June.
We drove three full-sized SUVs in 2018 — a Cadillac Escalade, Nissan Armada and Ford Expedition — and continue to view them as limited-use vehicles. The full-sized GMC Denali pickup truck we drove late in the year left the same impression. They’re simply too long for urban use, and their width seemed excessive even on interstate highways. Yes, they can transport seven or eight people in comfort, but so can the typical minivan. Their biggest asset is their towing capacity — 8,500 pounds for the Armada, 7,900 for the Escalade and 6,000 for the Expedition. With the ever-increasing girth of more manageable models like the midsize Chevrolet Traverse and Honda Pilot, however, we find ourselves unable to recommend a full-sized SUV. Among pickup trucks, the Honda Ridgeline, which we test-drove in early 2017, remains our favorite.
With our primary driver coming off knee surgery, the Fiat 124 Spider — a two-seat roadster with a convertible top and 6-speed manual transmission — seemed the least desirable test car we could have taken on. But we enjoyed it immensely, bad knee and all. Thanks to the wide doors, access and egress were fairly easy, and once inside, the fun began in earnest. We described it as “a Mazda MX-5 with an attitude,” built in Hiroshima, Japan, with Italian body design, engine and suspension tuning.
The Spider starts at about $25,000; our test car, in top-of-the-line Abarth trim and options, had a sticker price of $37,410. There isn’t much competition at this price point. The MX-5, Subaru BRZ and similar Toyota 86 round out the segment. For a lot more money, sport coupes and roadsters can be had from Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche.
Steven Macoy ([email protected]) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.