Most surprising cars of 2021


Sometimes, the car industry can get predictable. Mazda Miatas are always a blast. Stellantis keeps stuffing big V8s in things. The Ford F-150 sells several squintillion units. So we’re always excited when a car turns out to beat our expectations and genuinely surprise us. We’ve gathered together the cars we drove this year that caught us off guard in a good way.

2021 Karma GS-6

2021 Karma GS-6

News Editor Joel Stocksdale: Until this year, I had never driven any form of the Karma GS-6, whether it was one of the originals when it was still called the Fisker Karma or just an earlier Karma model. And I was a bit worried, since reviews of the Fisker version weren’t great. So I was ecstatic when I took the latest GS-6 for a spin, and found not only to be good, but actually great. It’s really quick thanks to its dual electric motors making 536 horsepower. The BMW turbo three-cylinder is well-isolated so it’s unobtrusive for most of the time you’re driving. The suspension tuning is remarkable, delivering fun, flat cornering while also being shockingly comfortable. And of course, it’s so incredibly cool looking.

That’s not just me talking, either, as I got multiple compliments from friends and strangers on the car. Plus, it’s relatively affordable. I was tempted to put this down as my favorite car of the year, but my actual favorite is even more fun to drive, plus it’s cheaper. Now if I was actually spending my own money one of the two, I’d … have to keep thinking a bit more. 

2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe

Associate Editor Byron Hurd: When the Wrangler 4xe was first announced, I probably rolled my eyes. After years of lukewarm-at-best rhetoric about electrification, then-FCA hadn’t exactly fostered the impression that it was anywhere close to putting a competent PHEV system into production. 4xe had “compliance car” written all over it, and I bet plenty of other Jeep fans thought the exact same thing. Well, despite the practice afforded me by a year of trying to resist the lusty advances of DoorDash, I’ve yet to come up with a satisfactory recipe for crow. Yep, I was wrong, much to my surprise and relief. The 4xe isn’t just good; it’s the best all-around Wrangler.

It’s near-as-makes-no-difference just as capable as its gasoline-only equivalents in the lineup, while offering more power and torque in day-to-day driving. At worst, it’s a turbo model with half again as much power and the same fuel economy. At best, it’s 9/10ths of a 392 that you can drive for pennies if you’re smart about it. My archaic 2011 Wrangler Sport is just begging to be replaced by a 4xe, but can we please get it in Gladiator? Make mine blue.

2021 Ford Bronco Sport

Managing Editor Greg Rasa: I expected the Bronco Sport to be like its somewhat-bland fraternal twin, the Ford Escape. Wrong. It oozes with personality. It’s small on the outside but felt roomy on the inside. It’s great-looking. It drives nicely around town and is easy to park, and by all accounts it’s surprisingly capable off-road as well. And it’s filled with clever design touches inside and out. It’s not some cheap knockoff of a big-boy Bronco. It’s its own good thing, and I wouldn’t mind pairing an orange one in the garage next to my orange Mustang.

2022 Ford Maverick

Senior Editor, Green, John Beltz Snyder: I loved the idea of the Maverick. An affordable compact pickup with a standard hybrid powertrain sounds great (to me) in theory. I expected it to have some major flaws, or at least some not-insignificant sacrifices. Underpowered, maybe? A drab, cheap interior? An overpriced options sheet you have to pick and choose from to find any semblance of usability? Boy was I wrong. This thing comes out the box with character, content and drivability. Ford even encourages you to do what many pickup drivers do, and take customization into your own hands for a lot less money than you would with factory options.

Ford found myriad ways to make the Maverick work for its owner with clever storage, ample power and impressive fuel economy from the Hybrid, and cost-effective but interesting design. An incredible amount of thought went into the Maverick, and the customers will get to reap the rewards. And, yeah, you can get an all-wheel-drive version with a traditional automatic and even an FX4 off-road package if you want. You know you want those slick steelies, though.

2022 Mercedes-AMG GT 43

Senior Editor, Oregon Desk, James Riswick: Should it really be surprising that an AMG anything would be good? Well, no it shouldn’t, but the sub-brand does not consist exclusively of all-stars. Many of them have been eye-rolling affairs for one reason or another; carbon fiber-festooned silliness that went really fast and made loud noises but carried gigantic price tags that made you wonder “who is really going to spend all this money for a _______?” This C 63 S Coupe, for instance, but people do. Then there are the various detuned AMGs or “AMG Sports” that carry the badge and are certainly elevated over a regular Class model with a 0 at the end of their names, but are obviously not to the extreme level we had come to expect from the brand. AMG Lite, so to speak. This is what I was expecting with the GT 43, and truth be told, it is certainly a less hardcore experience than the full-bore GT 63. And you know what? That actually makes it better in some ways as you’re able to more fully appreciate the goodness of its chassis and overall athleticism without a gigantic turbo V8 constantly trying to light up the tires or make you go 145 in a 45.

At the same time, the “AMG Lite” engine in question is still a mild-hybrid turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six that produces 362 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. It goes from zero to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds, aided by an AMG nine-speed transmission and AMG-tuned 4Matic all-wheel drive. It is not slow whatsoever, and the inline-six is a treat: incredibly smooth, sounds terrific and the electric boost eliminates any semblance of the turbo. At to that the sensational road holding, feelsome steering and overall balanced attitude, and you get a superbly well-rounded driver’s car that’s more about the drive than putting on a silly show for the neighbors in North Hollywood. 

2022 Nissan Frontier

Road Test Editor Zac Palmer: I went into the first drive of the redesigned Nissan Frontier with a healthy dose of skepticism. Nissan tried hard to sell us on this truck’s newness, even though it was still using a massaged version of the previous generation’s frame. The totally revamped exterior and interior were just lipstick on a decades-old cow, right? Wrong. And I couldn’t have been happier to have been proven wrong, too.

The Frontier drives, rides and acts like a modern midsize pickup truck. It’s rugged and old-fashioned where it needs to be, but still quiet and coddling enough to be used as a daily. Nissan essentially made its own version of the Tacoma, except it’s better in most ways beyond the still unknown and unquantifiable “reliability” factor. The Frontier has my favorite styling of any midsizer, can be outfitted with a top-notch interior, has solid off-road performance with the PRO-4X and is simply a pleasant handling and driving truck to drive around. This truck may be ages-old underneath, but the final product is fit for 2022, easily making it my biggest surprise this year

2022 Ram 1500 TRX

Editor-in-Chief Greg Migliore: Stay with me here. A $91K truck (as tested) with 702 hp that’s named after the king of the dinosaurs probably should be pretty good. But I was surprised and impressed with the attention to detail, including the interior Easter eggs, like the T-Rex outlined in the bottom of the center console. All of the functional design elements work together to add character. My truck was done up in black and carbon fiber, so aside from the sound and the jacked-up suspension, it wasn’t immediately obvious this was something special beyond a sharp looking 1500. I liked that. Lay on the throttle, listen to the supercharger whine and away you go. The exhaust note is outrageous. Still, the TRX manages to be powerful, menacing and a little bit subtle.

With those strapping Bilstein shocks and all sorts of off-road gear, the TRX is way more capability than I need, but I was ready to be somewhat “meh” about this one. When it offers 10 mpg in the city and 14 on the highway, it’s easy to roll your eyes and look at this as a gimmick. I actually really enjoyed the TRX and think it could be the best use of the supercharged Hellcat engine.

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