Have you ever driven a car that just tickles your fancy and delights the soul? We’ve had a few of those this year, and we want to take a trip down memory lane to remember all of the best cars Jalopnik reviewed this year.
Do note that we’re limiting this to vehicles driven and reviewed in 2021 — not specifically cars that were released for the 2021 model year.
Looking for a solid entry in the coveted hot hatch market? The Volkswagen Golf R is your treat. Here’s what the Big Boss Rory Carroll had to say:
I haven’t been in the practice of recommending the last several Golf Rs. The GTI was so good that it was hard to imagine taking the price and weight penalty to get all-wheel drive, especially when the system didn’t offer the same performance benefit that you’d get from going to a WRX. For the first time since the Mk IV, I’d be less apt to automatically recommend forgoing the R. For a buyer who could afford both, my early thought — not having driven the GTI, or done an extended drive in the R — is that the Golf R is worth it. Unless, of course, the new GTI turns out to be pure magic, or the Golf R drastically under-performs the expectations I built during an admittedly short drive in admittedly unusual circumstances.
The Volkswagen Arteon is a masterclass in style, and it left Jason Torchinsky suitably impressed.
I’d suggest someone looking for a new car being pushed into a crossover or SUV by default should at least consider an Arteon. There’s something about owning a really striking-looking car that, I think, improves your quality of life. You show up places and feel good about how awesome your car looks. You look back at it after you park it and you feel a little better about yourself in general, and I believe that has to have some beneficial effect on your life over a crossover.
If I were rich, I’d definitely be driving the luxurious box that is the Land Rover Defender 90. Here’s what reviewer Erik Shilling thought:
It’s maybe a little too nice for a car that Land Rover ostensibly wants you to dirty up a bit. This is because Land Rover wants to have its cake and eat it too, in that it wants a car that it can sell as ready-for-the-rough-stuff and also a car that it can sell as luxury. The 2021 Land Rover Defender is that, perhaps especially the Defender 90.
It’s a car for childless urban couples who aspire to have a sense of adventure or for single persons with disposable income who already do. I can’t vouch for Land Rover’s dependability (or undependability, if you believe J.D. Power), but, again, that probably won’t matter for the people who actually get a 2021 Land Rover Defender, many of whom will be leasing.
Is it a crime to include the Subaru BRZ without adding the Toyota GR 86, too? Maybe not, as reviewer Adam Ismail posits:
Subaru would like you to think the modifications it made to the BRZ’s dynamics were done to promote “stability” and “precision.” (Those are words the company used in its own presentation materials, I assure you.) I’m paraphrasing, but I imagine Toyota would probably like you to think the changes it made were done in the interest of visceral feedback and livelier antics.
I don’t think one pair of ideals is inherently more righteous than the other. Even granting the slight ways each car embodies those virtues, the gap is marginal. These are both wonderful little sports cars, and we’re lucky to have them at a time when everything’s getting big, expensive and spiritless.
If you experienced the original Toyobarus, you’ll appreciate the new engine for its increased responsiveness and usability low in the range; you’ll also probably be happier with the punched-up interior and its more modern, techy amenities. And if you never drove either of those cars, well — don’t make the same mistake twice if you can help it.
The Ford Maverick is one of those vehicles that kind of has it all. It’s fairly small but still capable. It’s cute while still being rugged. And Jason Torchinsky truly enjoyed it:
In case I hadn’t made it clear, I love this thing. It’s fantastic and fills a hole in the car market that has desperately needed filling: not just the hole for a small, affordable truck, but the hole for a small, affordable, do-anything family vehicle that gets great gas mileage.
I meant it when I said this thing should be competing with RAV4s and CR-Vs and Rogues and Tiguans and Escapes and all those other indistinguishable crossovers. In a rational world, the Maverick will eat all of their lunches, lustily and sloppily.
Derek Powell’s Lamborghini review was criminally under-read, but that’s likely because most folks who read reviews are doing it because they can kinda-sorta picture themselves affording that car one day. Nevertheless, it remains an exceptional vehicle and an exceptional review:
One of the world’s biggest travesties is that most supercars spend the majority of their entire lives in captivity. Ferraris snoozing in heated garages. McLarens parked on Rodeo Drive. And Lamborghinis? Imagine a cavalcade of them bumper-to-bumper along A1A, slowly inching forward. If these cars are very, very lucky, some of them will achieve redline in a gear other than first.
While no modern supercar should ever suffer this indignity, confining the Lamborghini Huracán STO in a similar fashion should be a punishable crime. So raw and feral, yet utterly, brilliantly capable, it goes without saying that the STO should never be found in any of these situations. It deserves to spend every second of its existence on a racetrack. Thankfully, that’s exactly where I got to sample Lamborghini’s latest monster.
The Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Redeye Widebody is a vehicle as impractical as its name — and that’s what makes it such a goddamn delight. Here’s what I thought:
I’m not going to lie: if I had throwing-around money, I’d absolutely buy the 2021 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Redeye Widebody, and I would be awful about it. I would read off every single word of the name every time someone asked me about it like I’m out here reciting my bougie bitch Starbucks order because I want you to know it’s the top-of-the-line machine. I’d drink out of a Hellcat water bottle and wear nothing but one of seven Hellcat shirts I would also own. I would wake up every neighbor in the morning when I take off to Target before all the rabble arrives. I’d let the damn thing idle for a few minutes when I got home because everyone needs to know who’s the badass in the neighborhood.
The Charger Hellcat is not a subtle car for subtle people. It exudes big-dick energy and demands you turn your head to follow it down the road. It’s a conversation piece. It’s the car equivalent of a gym bro grunting as he drops his weights so everyone knows how hard he’s working. It’s going to boost your confidence one thousand fold every time you even think about it. It’s ordering the largest steak on the menu because you’re a goddamned red-blooded American, and you’re going to flex that at every opportunity.
What makes the Rivian R1T such an incredible vehicle? Well, reviewer David Tracy was so stoked about it that he couldn’t help calling Jason Torchinsky to gush:
The Rivian R1T is imperfect. Its software has bugs, there are some mild build quality issues on the preproduction trucks that I drove, the front-facing camera is grainy, the four-wheel drive system kicks up rocks when you don’t want it to, pedal modulation can be tough to get used to off-road, articulation isn’t amazing, and the truck costs a lot (the ones I drove were over $70 grand) and weighs a lot (roughly 7,000 pounds).
Despite all of this, the Rivian R1T is a masterpiece and a true enthusiast’s machine for people who like to daily-drive their trucks and who aren’t in it for long-range heavy towing/hauling. It’s exceptional off-road and great on road, it looks awesome, its interior is stunning, its useful and sometimes superfluous gadgets are incredibly charming, and acceleration is absurd.
Another masterclass review from EV legend David Tracy, the Hyundai Ioniq 5 is here to make a massive impact:
I can go on and on about the car’s good-enough steering feel and its excellent-as-you’d-expect-from-an-EV pedal response, but I don’t want you to miss the whole point of this car. It’s not about dynamics or speed; it’s about style.
Seriously, just look at this thing. Look at those sharp creases in the body that give the vehicle an almost industrial stamped look; check out the upright proportions; behold the futuristic lighting. Combine all that with a simple, no-bullshit cabin, and you’ve got a car that exudes confidence.
How many more five-cylinder sports sedans are we liable to see in this world? They’re probably on the out. And that’s part of what left Jason Torchinsky so keen on this machine:
It’s a sports sedan in every sense of what those words mean: a practical enough daily driver that lets you go about your mundane daily life in something that always reminds you of how much more it can do. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll find time to confirm all those feelings, and, as a result, you’ll be happier.
It doesn’t need to make rational sense. That’s just how it works.
Do you need a BMW? Reviewer Adam Ismail argues you could use a little more 2-Series in your life:
What you need — what we all need — is a 2 Series. I know that’s not a novel take by any measure; the 2 has long been hailed as the purest expression of what BMW used to be. That’s fortunate because it also happens to be one of the more reasonably priced weapons in the German marque’s arsenal. Nevertheless, it’s important I reassure you that the new one hasn’t lost its spirit, even if it looks like it has lockjaw.
There was a brief period of time this year where I strongly debated forgoing the purchase of a house and instead spending my down payment on a new Corvette. Here’s why:
Take this car on the track, and you’re in for a treat. The weight distribution of the Corvette is so sublime (thank you, whoever decided to make this vehicle mid-engined) that you’d have to really be throwing it around to get it to spin out. I had a few wiggles that in any other car would have sent me off into the gravel.
But not in the C8. No, sir. I was able to hold it on the track, which gave me the kind of confidence I needed to continue experimenting with ways to put together faster laps. The C8 has a way of holding your hand and coaxing you into really letting your inhibitions fall away.
When you want an honest, reliable car, you want a Honda Civic. As reviewer Erin Marquis put it:
If you dig a new sedan, it’s hard not to dig this one. I can’t wait to see how they hatchback and Civic Type-R-ify it. There’s a reason Civics are lauded by buyers from across the spectrum from your average car buyer to enthusiasts: versatility in purpose and appeal. The Civic reminds me of the character Janet from the show The Good Place — every time you start over, the Civic gets a little better.
If you haven’t driven a new Prius lately, you’re missing out on one hell of a solid vehicle. Per Raphael Orlove:
There was never any real change that came from the Prius because there was never any real sacrifice. That’s the whole reason the Prius took off; it offered you better gas mileage (enough to say that you were making a real difference compared to the 14 MPG Ford Expeditions and whatever else was clogging the roads back in the Bush Years) but you didn’t have to hypermile it like the little Geo Metros that skyrocketed in price after the Recession. The Prius wasn’t electric; you didn’t have to charge it overnight or re-think your road trip plans. It wasn’t underpowered, with a tiny engine offering great MPG if you stayed away from the accelerator. The Prius, as a hybrid, gave you as good mileage anywhere, no matter how hard you drove it. There’s a real appeal there. It works on the same level as how Tesla finally offered people an electric car with so much range and power that they didn’t have to think about how it’d fit into their life.
The appeal is still there. The Prius still works. Compared to a regular car I had driven just a week before, a Mitsubishi Outlander, the Prius returned literally twice the fuel economy of that thing. It is still leagues better than normal, non-hybrid cars on sale today, even decades into its tenure.
It’s me, Rory chiming in to say that leaving the Blackwing cars off this list is a travesty and I will not stand for it. Look at this gushing:
If we live to see the EV takeover that’s been promised, I’ll be glad for it. It’s a necessary part of fixing the only world we’ll ever live on so, the sooner the better. But based on the EVs I’ve driven to date, I don’t expect I’ll ever drive one that delivers the experience as this car does. The things I enjoy about driving, and really a lot of the things I find appealing about cars from a mechanical standpoint aren’t present in EVs as they exist today.
I’m not saying that the same engineers that built these things won’t figure out how to make an EV that’s fun to drive, I’m sure they will. The EV era will bring plenty of opportunities to make all kinds of incredible cars, this is a particular kind of incredible car they’ll never have another opportunity to build. This V8 manual sedan isn’t the last of a dying breed — this car is that breed coming back from the dead. And, if Cadillac hadn’t nailed it so emphatically with this thing, I’d say that was a shame.