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Test Drive

Best of 2017

What makes an automotive journalist swoon? These three cars stand out as the year’s top contenders.

By Jeff Rundles

There is no other possession in a person’s life that expresses their desires more than a car, and vehicles have been the driving force behind everything from novels, movies and favorite songs, to marriages, midlife crises and even life itself. It is said that any red-blooded American man can tell you more about his first car than his first kiss, which pretty much sums up the American romance with the car.

There are 66 car shows in North American that showcase the dream each year from September through April, and here’s where we put our finger on the pulse of the industry. To show you how the buzz at the shows went, the national automotive journalists at the Detroit Auto Show named the new Chevy Bolt North American Car of the Year, going with this all-electric, 200-mile range, under $40,000 technology wonder over such competitor stalwarts as the Audi A8, Mercedes-Benz S550 Maybach and the venerable Toyota Prius Prime. Taking the heavy-metal awards at the show were the Honda Ridgeline, Truck of the Year, and the Chrysler Pacifica, name 2017’s Best Utility Vehicle.

I’ve had the chance to get my hands on the steering wheels of some impressive offerings for 2017, and my three favorites—so far—really display the overall trends in the industry. Let’s take a brief closer look at the Chrysler Pacifica, the BMW X5 xDrive40e, and the Volvo XC90 T6 AWD—heavy metal, heavy metal/tech, and tech personified.

For car of the year, I’m choosing the Chrysler Pacifica with, however, reservations. Brand new this year, the Pacifica is Chrysler’s new take on the venerable and much maligned minivan. If they had offered a model with all wheel drive—which Chrysler officials at a press unveiling were very coy about—then the choice would have been a no-brainer. My only other reservation is that “Pacifica” is a rehashed name that Chrysler has used in the past for, first, a minivan concept that never reached production and then, from 2004 to 2008, a crossover SUV.

Gone from the downside of minivans is the mushy suspension which made so many minis ride like a sponge—the Pacifica is tight—and the look, with the long front hood, is much more reminiscent of an SUV. My test-drive Pacifica, second from the lowest price, carried a base price of $30,495 and with a minimum of options, had a bottom line of $33,475. This is one of the top reasons why it’s my favorite: there are very few cars on the market that are this equipped and versatile, and virtually none others at this price.

Included, of course, is all the technology—keyless entry, Bluetooth with voice commands, all of the smart-phone hookups, backup camera, power doors, etc.—and the relatively inexpensive options included a power rear liftgate and blind spot monitoring with cross-path detection.

But the best thing about Pacifica is the ride: powered by a robust 3.6-liter V6 with 287 horsepower, this may just be the ultimate road car. Rated at a respectable 18 mpg city/28 mpg highway (22 combined), this vehicle rides smoothly, corners like a dream, has plenty of power, and does all of this in a very quiet cabin that’s perfect for listening to the excellent sound system.

Not to mention the room: the second- and third-row seats easily fold into the floor, leaving the most amazing amount of room; you could take two kids to college in there. Couple that room with the cup holders, cubbies and storage bins and there’s pretty much nothing that this vehicle can’t handle. Oh, and the built-in vacuum is one of the best ideas ever.

Now the BMW X5 xDrive40e is another story, This is a luxury SUV, mid range, that has everything imaginable in technology. The leather is stunning, and although the “fineline pure wood trim” leaves something to be desired, all the rest of it is as fine as could be.

It’s a BMW—it drives beautifully and is the perfect size for around-town driving and road tripping. But what makes this 40e model special is the powerplant: a 2.0-liter, TwinPower turbo gasoline engine couple with a lithium-powered eDrive electric motor to produce 308 horsepower that feels like twice that. Yup, it’s a plug-in hybrid, although BMW doesn’t use the term hybrid. They added an 8-speed Steptronic automatic transmission that delivers the perfect response for any situation; it can be lightning fast (0 to 60 in 6.5 seconds) or cruise with comfort. The best thing is that if you keep it charged, the combined gas mileage is rated at 56 MPGe.With just gasoline operation it is rated at 24 mpg combined, which is also impressive.

At night, when you enter the vehicle a warm, inviting blue light greets you, and as you approach the vehicle there are outside lights on the door handles and mirrors to the light the way. BMW has thought of everything.

This doesn’t come cheap, of course, which these days describes just about any BMW. The base price is $62,100, and on my test-drive model they added a ton of nice extras to bring the bottom line to $76,720.

Then there’s the Volvo XC90 T6 AWD Inscription, the most technology-packed vehicle I have ever driven—in fact, the press pool delivery drivers had to give me a tutorial before I could drive it.

This is as luxurious a vehicle as I have been in, with wonderful leather, the most quiet cabin ever, a 19-speaker, cutting-edge Bowers & Wilkins sound system with audio levels for a concert hall, a stage or a recording studio (the sound is awesome!) and, of course, all the modern bells and whistles. But at the heart of Volvo is safety, and this wagon/SUV is packed with all the latest technology for warnings and crash avoidance. I have never felt safer in any car. Plus, with Volvo’s emerging autonomous driving technology this XC 90 is already equipped to park by itself. This technology has been around for a time and it’s a little weird, and to be honest, slow compared to just parking it yourself, but with all the cameras and automatic braking and sensors, you can easily see that the era of self-driving cars is upon us.

This XC 90, with all wheel drive, features a 9-inch dashboard screen with which you swipe up or down or side to side to access the various controls. It’s like driving a smart phone. Climate control, apps, sound system, traffic reports, news can be easily found and taken care of with minimal distraction. Plus, there really is a smart phone app, Volvo on Call, where you can control certain systems remotely from your phone—remote start, preheating/precooling, roadside assistance, local search for restaurants, etc.

Once again, it’s not inexpensive: the base price on this model is $51,600, and they added another $21,000 in upgrade packages that make this into the safest, most luxurious vehicle experience I have ever had. The engine here is a 316 horsepower, 2.0-liter super- and turbo-charged direct inject four cylinder engine, and it is extremely quick if you want it to be. My only complaint was a nagging turbo lag at slower speeds, which bugged me more than once.

However, if I had a spare $72k just burning a hole in my pocket, I must admit that buying this XC90 would be highly tempting.

So there you have it, my Mini Car Show of some of my favorites for 2017. I get to drive cars for a week at a time, one car at a time, so I am kind of a serial monogamous car lover, one love at a time, some more intense than others.

These three were intense loves.