When looking back at the cars we drove in 2015, one thing stood out: There wasn't a lot that wowed us. That has less to do with the quality of vehicles and more to do with simple luck of the draw. The cars we test-drive come from the automakers and are maintained and delivered by independent fleet companies. We're often asked: "Why haven't you driven Model X?" Well, we drive what's sent to us. Many vehicles never trickle down to the press fleets and then to us. (Hello, new Mustang?) With that bit of explanation out of the way, here are our favorite rides of the past year.
'16 Honda Pilot
Boxy is out and sleek is in. The redesign shed the Pilot's frumpy and outdated look in favor of an aerodynamic and sophisticated design. The ride is also much improved with more carlike mannerisms. In the upper trim levels, you get a nine-speed automatic transmission and a slew of safety features. Finally, this Pilot is flying high.
'16 Jaguar F-Type Coupe R
The introduction of the coupe came in the 2015 model year, lagging its convertible sibling, and it brings out the best in the two-seat sports car. Besides being one of the most attractive cars on the road today, the R model's 550-horsepower V-8 is a sensory delight with its loud popping and cracking exhaust. All that power is mated to an eight-speed automatic with rev-matching downshifts that performs flawlessly. And new for 2016 is all-wheel drive. Even better news: Now there's a manual transmission option for the V-6 F-Types. We can't wait to drive one.
'15 BMW M3
The M3 has long held a legendary reputation among car enthusiasts for its blend of performance and luxury. The engine is a bit smaller now — a 3.0-liter twin-turbo 6 instead of an 8 — but it still packs the powerful punch of 425 horses. That's enough to pin you back in the seat under hard acceleration, especially with the six-speed manual transmission and its short throws. Our tester came with a blinding Austin Yellow Metallic paint. Wallflowers need not apply.
'16 Mercedes-Maybach S600
The price may be the most amazing thing about the Mercedes-Maybach S600, especially when compared with other high-end luxury cars. The base starts at $190,275. That's nothing short of a bargain for a V-12-powered car that is a stately Mercedes-Benz S-Class on steroids: Its wheelbase has been stretched 7.9 inches to accommodate the luxurious appointments in the rear of the cabin that include executive rear seats, embroidered throw pillows and a Champagne fridge. All that luxury is bathed in solitude, from the Swiss timepiece-quiet 523-horsepower 6.0-liter biturbo V-12 to the silent cabin. Rolls who?
This is our favorite family sedan for its blend of looks, driver engagement and, in the Touring trim, refined interior. The 6 got a refresh in 2016 and if we have one disappointment it's that the sporty sedan doesn't come with a turbo or 6-cylinder option like some of its competition. That said, Mazda's Skyactiv-G 2.5-liter 4-cylinder is a 184-horsepower workhorse that returns an estimated 28 MPG in the city and 40 on the highway.
'15 Mercedes GLA 45 AMG
It's the Mercedes for the The Fast and the Furious set, which may be why it got a lot of admiring glances from millennials. Simply put, this SUV is really a hot hatchback in luxury clothing. Need proof? How about that rear wing? Then there's the hand-built 2.0-liter AMG turbo 4-cylinder with direct injection that puts out 375 horsepower. And each quick snap of the paddle shifters results in a loud crackle and pop from the exhaust. Paging Vin Diesel.
'15 Alfa Romeo 4C Spider
There aren't many high-tech amenities, it's loud and it's uncomfortable, but this Alfa is a head-turner with a stunning Ferrari-like exterior. The lightweight carbon-fiber body makes the car's 237 horsepower feel like twice that output, and the handling is track-ready. It's a true enthusiast's car that we'd bet is perfect for track-day excursions.
'15 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat
Everything seems exaggerated with the Hellcat: the bold and menacing grille, the 700-plus horsepower, the otherworldly, rubber-burning acceleration. The most powerful production sedan on the planet is all about raw power without any apologies. Horsepower addicts, look no further.
'16 Ford Escape
It just may be the best-looking small SUV on the market — especially in the top-level Titanium trim. Not only that, but the Escape has carlike handling and is fun to drive, especially with the available 2.0-liter EcoBoost I-4. The tech options include hands-free liftgate and Active Park Assist. Even Ford's once-glitchy SYNC infotainment system has been improved.
'15 GMC Canyon
If a full-size pickup is too much truck or price tag for you, consider the new midsize offerings from General Motors: the GMC Canyon and Chevy Colorado. The GMC we drove came in a crew-cab configuration with four-wheel drive, which meant the rugged truck could tow or haul a payload and still be practical for a family. Best of both worlds? You bet.
' 15 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop: What's better than a Mini Cooper Hardtop? One with the John Cooper Works package that packs more power and attitude into the fun go-kartlike ride. This is one where having an automatic is no penalty; it just gives you more time to focus on wheeling the car. Driving it is exhilarating.
'16 Mitsubishi Outlander: The complete overall for the 2016 model year finally puts Mitsubishi in crossover contention, especially if you need three rows.
'15 Kia Soul EV: Kia's first electric proved to be all that we liked about the gas-powered model with only a few drawbacks.
'16 Kia Sorrento: The crossover has been redesigned and is bigger and more sophisticated— both inside and out. We especially like Kia's usual user-friendly controls and wealth of standard features.
'15 Volkswagen Eos Final Edition: Too bad we have to say farewell to the Eos. This compact hard-top convertible is going to leave a big hole in that segment. It's not very powerful – 200 horsepower from the 2.0-liter turbo 4 – but the handling is athletic, if not sporty. Still, it's a bundle of joy.