Something you hear a lot today is there are no bad cars anymore. Sure, subjective taste reigns supreme. But in terms of Is buying this new car going to ruin my life?, the answer is generally no, not unless you've got an eight-year note at 20%. Almost every mass-market car today is good at being a car. Getting from A to B safely and comfortably. Melding with your phone via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Not leaving you stranded on a long bridge in the middle of the night. I mean, let's take a step back and appreciate that you can get radar cruise control on the cheapest econoboxes today, you know?
At the same time, well, that's not really true anymore. A funny thing is happening—bad cars are making a comeback. A century-plus of manufacturing advancements and socioeconomic forces got us to a point in the last decade where it was nearly impossible for an automaker to put out a true clunker. Just a real piece of crap. Now, the crush of new technology, the race to develop electric vehicles, and good old fashioned cost pressures have opened the window again. Recalls are exploding. Reliability is all over the map. No wonder new car buyers are less satisfied than ever.
It's against that backdrop that we set about building our list of finalists for The Drive Awards. In 2023, our team drove almost 200 vehicles to separate the wheat from the chaff, then put the highest-scoring new or heavily updated models in five key categories through a staff-wide debate and vote. Even in this deeply weird moment, there is still true excellence to celebrate. Porsche's heavily revised Cayenne reinforced the idea that no one else should bother making luxury SUVs. Chevy followed up the Corvette Z06 with the phenomenally good hybrid E-Ray. The Hyundai Ioniq 6 proved a cheap, sharp-looking EV can be done.
But in the end, and we're as surprised to write it as you are to read it, the new Toyota Prius wins the Golden Slash for best car of the year. Frankly, it wasn't even close. There are two simple and intertwining reasons. One, look at it. And two, Toyota's decision to beautifully update a super-efficient hybrid model at a time when there's so much pressure to develop EVs is very important, as we've written about before.
Here's how the finalists stacked up.
Runner-Up: Porsche Cayenne, The Best SUV
We're now two decades out from Porsche launching the first Cayenne, and we are finally at a point where its flagship SUV is dialed into the true P-car experience. As I found in my review, this year's extensive mid-cycle refresh presented three new high points: a twin-turbo V8 instead of a lousy V6 in the Cayenne S, a much-improved E-Hybrid system with 45 miles of electric range, and a comprehensive rework of the Cayenne Turbo GT that makes it the best-handling performance SUV you can buy right now.
"In the Cayenne S, the V8 has a fat power band between 2,000 and 6,000 rpm that’s a joy to explore. Few owners will take theirs canyon carving, but if they did, they’d learn how much fun can be had locking it in third gear through a nice set of sweepers. The engine singing through the optional sport exhaust, the myriad suspension and handling improvements, the wonderfully direct steering rack… emotive indeed. It’s planted and firm yet playful and baiting. Even the standard steel brakes will send everything inside flying toward the windshield, and they hold up to an extended run down a good road.
A drive in a nicely optioned Cayenne S is so satisfying that you might emerge wondering where the Turbo GT goes from here, or how it justifies a starting price around $200,000. One stomp on the accelerator and one huck into a sharp turn will set you straight. It’s brutally quick; the freed-up V8 launches the Turbo GT to 60 mph in 3.1 seconds while the transmission flies through the gears with a healthy blat each time. Twist the wheel and the widened front track, active sway bars, and reworked rear-axle steering send it diving into a turn with the agility and flatness of a hot hatch. I’m not exaggerating, it changes direction that deftly. It’s almost confusing."
The Chevrolet Corvette E-Ray made the Golden Bowtie our first repeat winner after the Corvette Z06 snagged Best Performance Car last year. We're not wanting for choices here—the other finalists included the Acura Integra Type S, McLaren Artura, Porsche 911 Dakar, and Ford Mustang Dark Horse. But as Peter wrote in his review, the Corvette E-Ray is simply a massive achievement. It's an everyday hybrid supercar that can hit 60 mph in 2.5 seconds and outgun cars costing three times as much while weighing only 260 pounds more than the Z06. GM's engineers managed to blend the electric front axle with the 6.2-liter V8 in a way that makes it just pull, pull, pull.
"It's also a joy to drive, irrespective of straight-line performance. There may be more technology going on here than anyone could reasonably perceive, but all the basics are handled. The steering is tight and feels great. Despite the AWD, it's well-weighted, springy, and communicative. The ride is also excellent thanks to GM's latest magnetic ride control, which can make even the very tightly-sprung Z06 more than acceptable on rough roads. The noise, vibrations, and sensation of having a big V8 under your foot also make this car more fun and involved than any EV.
There's some magic going on here. I've been saying for a long time that hybrid performance cars have all the potential in the world to be more involving and exciting than their pure ICE or pure EV counterparts, and that shines through in the E-Ray. The Corvette team didn't just get to add two different drivetrains to America's sports car, they got to decide how they interact, which is really where the special stuff happens. The responsiveness going on here between the instant gear changes and equally spontaneous application of electric power is unlike the hybrids and PHEVs you're used to driving. This is a performance machine. That interaction isn't supposed to blend into the background, it's meant to be in your face."
Runner-Up: Hyundai Ioniq 6, The Best EV
The synthwave Hyundai Ioniq 5 has gotten most of the attention, but we're standing up to say the Ioniq 6 and its striking pseudo-streamliner design is the one to get. Not just because its absurd 0.22 drag coefficient helps give it an excellent 361-mile max range, and the spacious and smartly-designed cabin is an excellent place to spend time ("a big ol’ road couch," Chris wrote in his first drive review). But because for the millions of people out there still buying Hyundai Elantras and Sonatas, Honda Civics, and Toyota Corollas, the Ioniq 6 represents the shortest and easiest jump into an EV. It takes everything good and almost nothing bad from the budget sedan experience. It shows it's possible for legacy automakers to build more affordable, more accessible, and more usable electric cars. And it got cheaper for 2024, now starting at around $38,000. As Nico wrote in his follow-up review, it's not clear why every other company isn't doing this.
"A car like the Hyundai Ioniq 6 is a delight to drive and live with because it gets the fundamentals right before it gets to the EV bits. It drives well, it looks cool, and it has a feature-packed interior. It has great visibility, a good seating position, and helpful technology, without anything superfluous, like clairvoyant drive selectors or a steering yoke.
However, there are a few highs that stand out among its many pros. The interior space is up there with its best traits, as it’s genuinely shocking just how roomy it is inside. But it also drives wonderfully, with sporty steering and handling that comes close to its competitors from Europe. Its spacey looks make it feel special, and interacting with it is interesting, not something that can be said for every EV out there."
Runner-Up: Chevrolet Silverado HD, The Best Truck
I wish you all knew Caleb like I do so you could hear him speak the headline on his review of the Chevy Silverado HD: Dang, this is nice. He's right—Chevy's exterior and interior design teams are apparently on speaking terms again, as the Silverado HD has evolved into a truly handsome pickup with a really nice cabin. Caleb's tester was also specced with the 6.6-liter Duramax diesel V8 (470 hp/975 lb-ft) which, combined with its independent front suspension, made it a smooth operator. And as a strong mid-cycle refresh, it's proven more reliable than the new-generation Ford Super Duty.
"It's true that the Chevy's 6.6-liter Duramax diesel is down 30 horsepower and 125 lb-ft of torque to the mightiest Ford Power Stroke. It's also true that the Bowtie only got a refresh this year whereas the Blue Oval's workhorse technically entered a new generation. But the Silverado HD was able to do so much with a host of thoughtful upgrades that it not only became competitive with the Super Duty—I'll argue that it's better."
Chevy also rolled out the Silverado HD ZR2 this year—magic Multimatic DSSV spool valve dampers standard—that Chris sampled on a particularly mad-sounding off-road drive.
"Get the HD ZR2 on some dirt, and you’ll find that partying attitude I mentioned. The thing boogies. On the Johnson Valley dry lake bed, the dampers absorbed the rapid, small bumps with shocking ease. And the truck was not overwhelmed by any of it, mostly evidenced by the easy powersliding at speed. That colossal diesel power plant would spool quickly, light up the rears in two-wheel drive, and create a large enough dust cloud that it might trigger localized climate change."
Winner: Toyota Prius, The Best Car
And here we are. I'm not sure how Toyota was able to see the future and launch a sexy new Prius right at the moment electric vehicle adoption began to stumble, but the fifth generation of the OG hybrid icon has pulled it back from irrelevance and put it squarely in the middle of the conversation. The new sheet metal is worth appreciating, but so is Toyota jacking the power by 60% to 194 hp while still hitting 52 mpg combined. Most of all, the new Prius' myriad upgrades provide exceptional value to an even wider swath of buyers. It's still the hybrid GOAT, as Maddox wrote in his review.
"The Prius slips into your life rather than the other way around. It does pretty much all the things most people need a car to do and asks very little in return. Before long, you barely notice it’s there, and I mean that as a high compliment.
You’ll barely notice the fuel bills, that’s for sure. I picked up the Prius with a full tank, added 650-ish miles, and returned it half full (or half empty if you’re a pessimist). In between, I added 30 bucks of 87 octane. I didn’t think once about whether I’d make it to my destination, or where I’d charge when I got there. I just sat down, put my phone in the wireless charging slot, and went. The infotainment system in the Prius Limited is intuitive, and the interior materials are of above-average quality. Highway road noise is present but not excessive, I didn’t observe any squeaks or rattles, and the JBL sound system indeed bumps. It was the lowest-stress driving experience I’ve had in a very long time."
The world definitely needs less stress, and it also needs more hybrid cars. Back in July, James took a hard look at Toyota's claims that hybrids—not just EVs—should play a central role in lowering emissions in the near term. He did the math and found they're right: the fastest way to cut the most emissions is to get as many people driving hybrids as possible. The material used to make a single large battery pack for one pricey EV could be used for dozens of smaller batteries in more affordable hybrids, depending on the model. And as a group, those dozens of hybrids would pollute far less than a few EVs and a bunch of straight-ICE vehicles, which is what the market looks like now.
"It comes down to this: By using its limited battery supply on a small number of (expensive) EVs, the auto industry gets plaudits from investors and the public despite implementing an inefficient decarbonization scheme," James wrote. "It gets to greenwash itself with a handful of flashy products, while in fact not cutting CO2 emissions nearly as much as it could. The numbers strongly suggest that hybridizing as many new cars as possible is more effective, and to increasing degrees as battery technology evolves and supplies hopefully go up. That would allow hybrids to graduate to PHEVs, before being superseded by full EVs where appropriate."
It wasn't too long ago that hybrids were dismissed as a temporary bridge between gas and electric. Now they're one of the fastest-growing segments in the industry, so congratulations to Toyota for sticking to its guns, seeing the payoff, and winning The Drive's Best Car of 2023.