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Dan Heyman's Top 5 drives of 2017
We all love fun hatches and muscle cars, but when a car can represent a genuine step forward in its segment, well, that’s a thrill in itself.
This was a year filled with some thrilling performance drives for me, to be sure, but while many of those are going to appear on this list, some of the notable drives I took this year are here because of how much they surprised me.
We all love fun hatches and muscle cars, but when a car can represent a genuine step forward in its segment, or call attention to a body style that may have fallen by the wayside a little these last few years, well, that’s a thrill in itself.
Here are my top 5 drives for 2017.
FIFTH – Ford Expedition 2018
No, “Mulholland Drive” and “Expedition” may not be the first combination you would imagine when you consider the sinewy network of hairpins that make up the part of the road North of LA – more like “Mulholland Drive and “Porsche” or “Mulholland Drive” and “Corvette” – but that’s what was just so impressive for me when I was dispatched there to test Ford’s latest big ‘ute.
For 2018, the Expedition now gets the aluminum-body treatment originally bestowed on its F-150 sibling back in 2015. It’s about 300 lbs. lighter as a result, meaning the EcoBoost turbo motor and new 10-speed automatic transmission have less to haul around.
The results, if you can believe it, are felt right away. The response time once you depress the throttle is surprisingly brisk as the big 7-seater starts swallowing up the ground ahead of it. It’s so quiet you may not realize just how fast you’re going until that next hairpin is upon you. The weight loss comes sharply into focus here, too, as the Expedition is able to scrub speed quite quickly and remains nicely planted through turns. This is a truck that drives a whole lot smaller than it should and remains a remarkable piece of engineering, showcasing just how far the full-size SUV has come. So much so that while we were also given the chance to sample the latest Mustang on these same roads, it was actually the big, lumbering Expedition that was the more memorable drive of the event.
FOURTH – Volvo V90 Cross Country 2017
What is it about station wagons that have so many of us journos gushing all the time? It can’t be the boxy shape, can it? Can’t be the performance, can it? What about a wagon’s people-packing capabilities? Well, most minivans and crossovers do a better job of that. Same goes for the cargo.
Or is it all of those things?
Well, I was lucky enough to be dispatched to the home of Volvo and what many would call the home of the modern European station wagon, Sweden, to find out. It was here that we’d be sampling Volvo’s latest in a long line of station wagons: the Volvo V90 Cross Country.
On looks alone, it kills that first stigma I mentioned; this is not your grandfather’s boxy wagon. This is an exercise in classy, luxurious European styling that the bestselling SUVs would love to be able to match. The lines are nice, but the front-fascia with its “Thor’s Hammer” headlights and chrome dot front grille are the real highlights.
Then again, it doesn’t take much to standout in the arid clime of Northern Sweden in January, about 700 or so km south of the Arctic Circle. It’s like you’re perpetually at sundown here, so you can understand how a wagon with some slightly rounded edges and a somewhat avant-garde front end could stand out.
Of course, looking good is one thing, but being able to handle yourself in these types of conditions is entirely another. To prove that their car had what it takes, Volvo took us to a frozen lakebed on which we were to drive and drift to our hearts’ content.
It was here, sliding among the snow drifts in the dying light of a Swedish winter that I once again experienced why we all like these wagons so much, and it’s pretty darn basic. They may be able to pack a load, but they are cars and they drive like cars. They’re athletic, they’re responsive and most of fall, they’re fun. As I grew more and more confident with the car, the drifts would get longer, the angle of attack more aggressive.
We had a chance to put the latest XC90 – a fantastic, award-winning SUV in its own right – through its paces on the same track (if you can call it that) and it felt so far removed from the V90 in the dynamic sense even though they share platforms. Given the choice between the two I’d take the wagon, without hesitation, every time.
THIRD – Lexus LC500 2018
A look at all our writers’ lists shows a recurring theme – the Lexus LC500 is very good. It starts with its looks, which almost exactly reflect those of the concept from which it was born. While that’s becoming more and more common in the car world today, it’s a big deal for Lexus because they’ve been so conservative in their styling for years.
I’m not just saying the LC looks good against the Lexus stigma, either; it looks fantastic in general, with wild wheels, ultra-long hood that would be a good fit for Batman’s next sled and spot-on detailing, from the wing mirror shape, to the exaggerated “hockey stick” LED DRLs and on to the very sci-fi clear taillamps. This is not a car that looks like a production model, but there you have it.
All that comes before you even look inside. Sure; the “Shrek ears” stalks sprouting from the gauge hood are a little overly funky, but the rest knocks it out of the park; gorgeous, supple leather and suede seating, cool, slick aluminum detailing sprinkled throughout the cabin, modifiable digital gauge cluster that echoes that which is seen on the LFA supercar and flowing panels here, there and everywhere make for a cockpit that easily matches the futuristic exterior.
Which would all be moot if it didn’t drive as fast as it looked, but it does. Oh, it does.
Power from that glorious, naturally aspirated (naturally aspirated! Yay!) V8 is rated at 471 hp and 389 lb-ft and while that may not be as much as, say, the much less expensive Shelby GT350, it’s about right for the LC which has to act a bit the grand tourer from time to time. Plus, it’s not like it feels lethargic upon leaving the line; indeed, it springs forward with gumption and a proper, deep-chested bellow from the engine and dual-tip exhaust. Then, when it’s time to tackle the twisties, sport-tuned suspension (that can be modified a number of ways, of course) and rear-wheel steer keep things copasetic on the handling front. If this is the future of Lexus then I am absolutely 100 per cent all in.
SECOND – Honda Civic Type R 2017
I just knew I had to do it.
While the Duffey Lake Road – one of the best driving roads in my home Province of British Columbia – is about a two-hour drive from my Vancouver apartment, it’s the only place to properly test a firecracker of a hot hatch like this. Typically, I’d spend the night at my in-laws’ place in Whistler before tackling this ribbon of heavenly hash, but alas they had company – how selfish of them! — and that wasn’t going to be an option.
That didn’t matter to me here, though.
This was a car that we North Americans have jealously watched be thrashed through the wilds in Europe and Japan for years; now it was my turn, and nothing was going to get in my way.
So I set off at a crisp 4 AM, turbocharged four-banger buzzing away excitedly ahead of me. Even the grind of having to cross two bridges and the whole downtown core didn’t phase me as this is a car that’s a blast to drive in even the most boring circumstances. Aside from the somewhat aggressive seats it’s actually quite comfortable, too; to the chagrin of many, the Type R actually drives a little softer than it looks.
Thanks to my early departure – yeah, let’s stick with that — I actually arrived at the Duffey a little earlier than I normally would have. Having said that, I wasted no time as I started to attack – I still had to get all the way home later, after all.
Woooooooaaaaannnng—vvvv—wooooaaaannnng—vvv—pshhhh-pop-pop-pop went the Type R, turbos breathing, exhaust spewing unused fuel (and perhaps flames, too, for all I knew) as I clipped apex after apex, dropping a wheel just a little onto the shoulder here, a little over the centre line there. As gorgeously bendy as this road is, the sightlines are actually pretty good, allowing you to use that much more of it.
You never get tired of the Honda. The perfectly-weighted steering, the responsive throttle, the trick front diff that keeps everything in check as you stomp the carpet, the vacuum-like shift action; compact hatches shouldn’t be this good but the Type R is. It’s one of the best ever, in fact.
FIRST – Mercedes-AMG GT C 2018
Some may struggle to understand the logic of wanting to test a drop-top sports car in (almost) the dead of winter, but those that do probably have never experienced something as feral, fire-breathing and downright sexy as the 2018 Mercedes-AMG GT C. Also, topless motoring in the ‘dead of winter’ in my hometown of temperate Vancouver is often totally doable. So, naturally, I jumped at the chance in early December when presented with it. Glad that I did; when it was all said and done, no chilly cheeks or watery eyes could make me forget just how epic this drive was.
So what, then? What is it about this particular roadster that makes it just so epic and all- (or is that “other”?) worldy?
I’d like to say it starts with the styling, but that’s not really it. To be sure, it looks the part of a cross-continental bahn burner in a similar vein to the 300 SL of old with which the GT C shares some of its DNA: special vertical-bar Panamericana front grille sporting a pizza-sized version of the Three-Pointed Star; flat, almost flying saucer-like profile; long hood; dinner plate-size brake rotors; pick any one of these, and you can see where I’m coming from.
That’s not it, though. Not entirely.
Indeed, even with a stylistic report as eye-opening as this, it’s the power within that you just know is there that really gets the “fizz” going.
That’s 4.0 litres of twin-turbocharged motive force, to the tune of 550 hp and 502 lb-ft of torque all channeled to the fat 305-section rear tires via a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission. Considering the super-sexy body in which that’s all wrapped is constructed mostly of lightweight aluminum, you can bet schnitzel to sheckles that you’re going to have to hold on tight once you flatten the “go” pedal.
You had better. The closest thing I can think of when considering how the GT C reacts once you let the shackles off in either “Race” (bone-dry road or track only, thank you very much, as this mode heavily reduces traction control intervention) or the two “Sport” modes would be that of one of those twin V8-powered cigarette boats you’ve seen in the likes of Miami Vice or Bad Boys 2; the car squats back on its haunches and thrusts forward, making you look for the trim control only to find none. A fleeting feeling of panic is quickly assuaged by the adaptive dampers, which do a fine job of making sure your front end stays planted, but you get the picture. This is a powerful, lightweight car that’s not to be messed with.
It’s not like it goes about its business quietly, either; AMG V8s have always had one of the most aggressive exhaust notes in the biz, but it’s taken up to 11 here, especially when passing through tunnels where it will rattle your eardrums upon full accel. It’s a boiling, gutsy, angry report, too, both on accel and decel, with the twin tailpipes pop-pop-popping on the overrun as you slow for the next turn. It really is a sound that burrows its way right into the depths of your body cavity.
I could talk about the handling. How those adaptive dampers keep everything in check and have the car moving together as one like few convertibles ever have. I could talk about the creature comforts like the roof that stows in about 12 seconds or the Airscarf headrest vents that made it so I could drop the top and experience that wonderful exhaust note even in sub-10 degree temps. I could wax poetic about the gorgeous aluminum switchgear, carbon fibre and brown cowhide that finishes the interior. This isn’t about that, though. This is about the work done by the man who signed the engine cover, the one engineer that made sure this was the best, most balanced and gobsmacking V8 it could be.
Also Read: Top 10 Mercedes-Benz of all-time
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