The Best Luxury Cars of 2016

I drove some seriously amazing cars this year, and here are my favorites. (As good as they were, Tesla, Cadillac, Mercedes, and Audi didn’t even make the cut.)

Good news for carmakers: Auto sales will end 2016 on a strong note. And car sales in 2018-19 are likely to rise thanks to tax cuts and infrastructure policies anticipated for 2017, IHS Markit analysts told reporters Tuesday on a yearend recap and forecasting call.

“We have seen that the overall global economic outlook has somewhat improved over what we had a few months ago,” said Guido Vildozo, a senior manager at IHS Automotive, an auto industry analysis firm. “We are probably going to pick up steam over the next few years, primarily driven by the U.S. economy under President-elect Trump.”

In fact, U.S. car sales are on pace to hit 17.3 million units for 2016, and that number could reach 17.5 million. If that happens, it will be a record sales year, Vildozo said. Which makes sense—automakers have given us plenty to be grateful for in 2016, from new luxury SUVs and turbo-boosted supercars to bold convertibles and throwback racers. What’s more, as gas prices remain stable and even decline, it feeds directly into the thirst for light trucks like crossovers and SUVs.

“We expect a very strong finish for 2016,” Mark Fulthorpe, the director of IHS Automotive, said as he concluded the call.

The Sexiest Drop-Top: Lamborghini Huracán Spyder
1. The Sexiest Drop-Top: Lamborghini Huracán Spyder: Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg

As for me, I drove a different car every week in 2016, plus a few extras thrown in for good measure. Some I loved. Others I couldn’t wait to escape. But it’s more fun to focus on the most beautiful, thrilling, and intriguing ones than on the losers. So here are my 12 favorites

This is the year Lamborghini turned a corner. Mark my words: Effects from the cars and executive decisions it made in 2016 will be felt for decades to come. The Huracán Spyder embodies the change in mood. Some have criticized it as Lamborghini gone soft, both in styling and in driving character, but I see it as a thoroughly modern car (finally) from the Bologna brand. (The guys who criticize its driving capabilities typically are dilettantes or those who haven’t actually driven it yet.)

The Lamborghini Huracán LP 610-4 Spyder is the drop-top version of the excellent coupe we saw last year. Rather than making the car heavy or burdensome around corners, a common problem of convertibles, the alteration comes only as an improvement. The suggested retail price starts at $262,350; delivery and fees bring the number to $267,545, roughly on par with competitors from Ferrari and Aston Martin, and a bump more than the $238,500 coupe version. The Huracán Spyder has the same V10 602-horsepower engine as the hardtop, plus all-wheel drive on a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. (There is no manual option.) You can choose among three drive modes, plus launch control.

The Best to Impress: Bentley Flying Spur S
2. The Best to Impress: Bentley Flying Spur S: Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg
The Best for Surgical Precision: McLaren 570GT
3. The Best for Surgical Precision: McLaren 570GT: Photographer: Hannah Elliot/Bloomberg

I drove the new Flying Spur V8 S for a long weekend in upstate New York this fall, and I loved it. At the time, I wrote that it was a phenomenal driving sedan, plush inside like a British club room, and on the outside a little less square than the Rolls-Royce equivalent, the Ghost. It comes in two varieties: the $244,600 Flying Spur W12 S (626 brake horsepower and 605 pound-feet of torque) or the $205,000 Flying Spur V8 S (521 hp and 502 pound-feet of torque). Both are smooth, fast, and massively powerful on the road, outfitted with quilted leather, elite technology, and all the accessories of wealth you would want in the interior. Driving this supreme machine is a true joy. The only thing it’s missing? A USB outlet. Look for Bentley to introduce one with the next generation.

There’s a reason McLaren is having such an exceptional year. Sales during the first half of 2016 were up 81 percent from a year earlier, and the company had passed all of its 2015 sales numbers by July. It also recently sold its 10,000th vehicle ever. “It took us 42 months to build our 5,000th car and just 22 months to build the next 5,000,” McLaren Automotive Chief Executive Officer Mike Flewitt said in a statement about the accomplishment for the company, which started making production cars in 2011. “Much of that development is thanks to the introduction of the Sports Series family of cars.”

The Best Convertible for Wide Open Spaces: Rolls-Royce Dawn
4. The Best Convertible for Wide Open Spaces: Rolls-Royce Dawn: Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

The Sports Series includes the exemplary 570GT I drove this summer in Big Sur. This is the car with the gorgeous glass hatch that stretches from windshield to taillight and is enough to make you want to lie back and count stars, I wrote at the time. It’s basically perfect: McLaren’s 570GT comes with a 562-horsepower, 3.8-liter twin-turbo V8 engine that will hit 62 mph in 3.4 seconds. The seven-speed dual-clutch transmission and rear-wheel drive act together with the synchronicity of a symphony.

The Bike for Everything: Ural Motorcycle
5. The Bike for Everything: Ural Motorcycle: Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg

I’ll admit it. I wasn’t crazy about the (lack of) curves on this expensive Dawn convertible for four when I first saw it last year as a preproduction prototype. But the reason Rolls-Royce is so good is that it compels adulation the moment you drive, feel, smell, put on the car. One hour in it tooling up Highway 1 made me convert: “At $339,850, it has space for four, a generous trunk, a silky-smooth transmission, and enough Canadel paneling to outfit a yacht,” I wrote. “Top speed is 155 miles per hour, and the 6.6-liter V12 engine will hit 62 mph in a respectable 4.9 seconds. With the roof up, the cabin is cocooned in quiet and security; the massive brakes are firm like a vise. With the top down, you feel free. Forget gliding—you’re going to fly.” All this was true, and more.

BMW and Ducati both unveiled fun, fresh, interesting new light bikes recently, but what I really liked riding was the 2017 Ural Sahara Gear Up. I rode that thing everywhere. This is the latest sidecar model from the Seattle-based motorcycle maker that bought the branding rights from the original Soviet-era company 12 years ago. It’s more expensive than its brethren ($17,999, compared with the $12,999 Ural cT or the $15,999 Ural M70), but it’s also more capable. With the Sahara you get a patrol light, a spare-wheel-and-storage rack, and two-wheel drive on demand, which means the sidecar wheel can also be engaged when you’re in thick mud or snow. It has a 749-cubic-centimeter, two-cylinder, four-stroke boxer engine with 41 horsepower and 42 pound-feet of torque. It can carry more than 1,000 pounds and easily cruise at 70 mph. (Anything faster and you’ll feel too roughed-up.)

The Best All-Around Coupe: BMW M2
6. The Best All-Around Coupe: BMW M2: Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg

Everyone’s favorite thing about Urals, aside from the fact that you can ride them in any condition, year-round, is that there are so many ways to make it your own. The one I rode had a single seat (others come with a bench seat), a rounded LED headlight and LED sidecar fog lights, a sidecar nose rack, and the previously mentioned luggage rack with spare wheel. Handlebar guards, sidecar light guards, and the reverse foot pedal are all worth choosing, too. But you can really go in on the myriad hunting/fishing/adventuring accessories on tap with these bikes.

I call this the best “all-around” coupe because I want to emphasize how affordable it is. The BMW M2 packs so much value into its $51,700 frame, you’ll be happy forking over that much to drive it. It serves as the perfect completion of the thought that runs from the $32,850 2 Series coupe and the $44,150 M235i. The car comes with a seven-speed automatic transmission or a six-speed manual transmission on a 3.0-liter, six-cylinder 365-horsepower engine, plus M-tuned exhaust, dynamic stability control, brake fade regulation, and active M differential. It does zero to 60 miles per hour in 4.2 seconds on the automatic. Top speed is 155 mph. What’s more, most of its charms come standard: Xenon adaptive headlights, retractable headlight washers, “shadow-line” exterior trim, M badging, and that snarling front fascia are all included in the sticker price. Plus, I just love the look of that tight, compact body. It’s impossible to beat.

The Practical Supercar: Ferrari California T
7. The Practical Supercar: Ferrari California T: Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg
The Most Fun to Drive: Aston Martin Vantage GTS
8. The Most Fun to Drive: Aston Martin Vantage GTS: Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg

Ah, Ferrari. The company put out some nice new things this year, but what I spent the most time in—and had the most fun in, which is not necessarily the natural outcome of “most seat-time”—is the Ferrari California T. I took it north to the mountains, and I took the California T HS (shown in the photo) west to the Pacific Ocean. The $199,000 California T has a 553-horsepower V8 engine and a hardtop that drops in 14 seconds at the touch of a button. It can hit 62 mph in 3.6 seconds and has a max speed of 196 mph. And the stability control plus seven-speed dual-clutch transmission and carbon-ceramic brakes make the car as capable in inclement weather as it is on balmy days and hot, flat asphalt. That said, it’s the seductive beauty of its curved nose, high fenders, and muscled shoulders that garner the most attention. Drive the California T for even just an afternoon and you’re likely to fall in love.

Stick-driven manuals remain rare pleasures, so my delight compounded exponentially when I saw that this sexy beast had a proper shifter instead of paddles on the wheel. I drove it earlier this year in Los Angeles. It’s the only V8 manual vehicle you can buy from Aston, period. And there are only 100 of them. It comes with a 430-horsepower midmounted engine set on a six-speed rear-wheel drive. It’ll take you to 60 miles per hour in 4.6 seconds. As I said at the time, that’s not the fastest sprint time ever, but this is a clear case of qualitative excellence vs. on-paper specs. (The 361 pound-feet of torque does help.) Top speed is 190 mph. Among its many offerings are a thick sport wheel and tight steering; the turning radius is something to love. The gearbox is comfortable; the clutch is easy. Hill-start assist comes standard. It’s also incredibly good-looking in the way that only Aston Martin can look. This is the car you buy to show off when you don’t want to look like you’re showing off.

The Most Underrated: Volvo S90
9. The Most Underrated: Volvo S90: Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg

Volvo straddles the borderline between luxury and nonluxury, but the S90 will make you forget labels altogether. It’s just a good car. Volvo has worked hard on this $46,950 sedan, giving it standard-issue, well-thought-out conveniences that make a newcomer to arguably the most boring segment—sedans—fresh and exciting. The S90 T5 trim level that I drove came with a 2.0-liter, inline-four turbocharged 250-horsepower engine (a T6 turbo and supercharged 316-hp version is available with AWD) that also achieves 34 miles per gallon at highway speeds. It has an eight-speed automatic transmission with automatic stop/start and a shifting system that adjusts to your drive style. Pilot Assist, a semiautomatic driving aid that guides the car via lane lines and works up to 80 mph, comes standard. Premium rear air suspension costs $1,200 extra—and is worth it. The interior is even better. It’s a light-drenched space with a large vertical touchscreen, brushed matte wood that encircles everyone in a warm embrace. It’s smooth and soft and suited to match the blond comfort leather and general minimalism of the cabin. Sitting in the S90 is like relaxing in a blond-wood, dry-heat sauna cabin: pure Swedish delight.

The Power Sedan: Porsche Panamera
10. The Power Sedan: Porsche Panamera: Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg
The Best Throwback: Superformance Shelby Coupe
11. The Best Throwback: Superformance Shelby Coupe: Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg

Porsche finally did a bottom-up refresh on its flagship sedan, and the results are very good. Most notable are two new all-wheel-drive variants: the Panamera 4S and Panamera Turbo, each of which have more power and better fuel efficiency than previous models. The design changes are subtle—longer wheelbase, a new roofline—but effective. The $99,900 Panamera 4S has a 2.9-liter V6 gasoline engine that gets 440 horsepower. It will hit 60 miles per hour in 4.0 seconds. The $146,900 Panamera Turbo has a 4.0-liter V8 gasoline engine that gets 550 hp and will hit 60 mph in 3.4 seconds. Both come with a new Porsche dual-clutch transmission that has eight speeds and all-wheel drive. A new, $99,600 hybrid version—462 hp, zero to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds, 31-mile pure electric range—will make its debut in late 2017. It will get 70 percent better fuel efficiency than the Panamera 4S. So there’s lots to choose from here. (I drove the Turbo around Manhattan and loved it.)

11. The Best Throwback: Superformance Shelby Coupe: Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg

Earlier this fall, I drove a $109,900 Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe by Superformance. I had driven other cars from the California brand, so I was eager to get into this Ford icon. It didn’t disappoint. (Actually, the one I drove cost $180,000 with all the options I had on it, but if you buy one, that price tag is up to you.) The original versions were intended to beat the Ferrari 250 GTO that had been dominating endurance racecourses across Europe in the 1960s. They now cost more than $1 million. The new models, on the other hand, come with a Ford 525-horsepower V8 engine and other modern components that make them drivable on a daily basis. Plus, they’re fast: 60 miles per hour in 3.5 seconds. Like I wrote in the fall, the car is a treat to drive, like going back in time in the best way possible. The power steering is precise; the clutch has some weight to it but doesn’t require gargantuan strength to operate. This is the rawest driving experience—even with the power steering—that I’ve had all year. And I’d expect no less from a car built 50 years ago to beat Ferrari.

The Luxury Crossover: Porsche Macan S
12. The Luxury Crossover: Porsche Macan S: Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg

Luxury crossovers are the segment of the year. As I’ve said before, trucks and SUVs deliver better profit margins than sedans because of their size and prestige, which demand a price premium; the sheer magnitude of SUVs also allows more opportunities for upgrades and bespoke treatments. In fact, SUV sales rose 88.5 percent from 2008 through 2013, according to IHS, and were up 15 percent year-over-year from 2014 to 2015. So far this year, they’re on track to beat last year’s sales by nearly 7 percent.

One in every five vehicles sold worldwide is an SUV, according to IHS. And the most important growing market in the world, China, largely eschews sports cars in favor of large vehicles: SUV sales there rose from 5 percent of the market 10 years ago to almost 16 percent in 2015. So the Macan is important to Porsche in a way that belies its smaller size.

Lucky for Porsche, the company produced a winner. The one I drove cost $68,245, which included upgrades such as 20-inch sport wheels ($1,260), a heated sport steering wheel in dark walnut ($615), and park assist ($850). The base Macan S starts at $52,600. It comes with a 340-horsepower, 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 engine that gets 339 pound-feet of torque on a seven-speed dual-clutch and AWD transmission. Zero to 60 mph is 5.0 seconds; top speed is 156 mph. If you don’t need a big, bad SUV but do want something higher than a sedan, with more space and more power, this is the one for you. – Bloomberg

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