Sometimes a change of scenery makes all the difference: After a dreary Detroit in January, which featured one of the barest new-car cupboards we’ve seen in years, the New York International Auto Show restored some of the luster and sizzle that we expect—nay, demand—from a major auto extravaganza. A good 15 brands unveiled cars that were worth talking about, sitting in and dreaming about driving, or owning. Design, performance, technology and consumer value all got their due. “Expert” bloviating about the self-driving future was held to a blessed minimum, in favor of actual news and progress: Google’s Waymo division showed its autonomous version of Jaguar’s sexy electric I-Pace SUV, and announced it will buy up to 20,000 units for its expanding ride-hailing test in Phoenix and likely other cities to come. In another positive development, not a single sentient Uber pilot managed to run over a jaywalking journalist outside of the Jacob K. Javits center, where the public show runs through April 8.
Sharp-elbowed SUVs still dominated the show floor, as you’d expect when nearly two-thirds of Americans are choosing a new SUV or pickup at shopping time. But even here, automakers (with one glaring exception) seemed to bring their A-game, including surprisingly convincing redesigns of such stereotypical yawners as the Toyota RAV4, Acura RDX and Lincoln Aviator. Even the much-maligned American family sedan, its sales under attack from SUVs, received a solid defense from the 2019 Nissan Altima, with a groundbreaking engine, slick driver-assistance technology and the optional AWD that’s rare among mainstream sedans. And while Ferrari, McLaren and other penny-pinching exotic brands again refrained from mounting official exhibits – among the discouraging trends that’s sapping energy and buzz from auto shows around the world —area dealers stepped up by displaying such hypercars as the Koenigsegg Regera and Rimac C Two, along with the Lamborghini Urus SUV that we’ll be testing in Italy in two weeks. With worthy rides and cool surprises around every corner—including a stylish VW pickup truck—New York proved to be an auto show worthy of the name. Check out these dozen show highlights, along with an unlucky thirteenth, the show’s biggest dud.
2019 Acura RDX
The RDX has always been “this-close” to being a great little luxury SUV, but something always screws it up. On paper and on stage, this striking 2019 RDX finally showed some personality and presence to justify a price jump from a Honda CR-V. A 2.0-liter turbocharged four with 272 horsepower and 280 pound-feet mates with a 10-speed automatic transmission, adaptive dampers and Acura’s Super-Handling AWD. Up to 70 percent of power can drive rear wheels or vector 100 percent of that power side-to-side. The interior brings more space and pizazz, including notably improved materials, a concave-shaped touchpad controller and a rocking, 710-watt audio system.
2019 Cadillac CT6 VSport
Cadillac is likely being forced to replace the ATS and CTS sedans—beloved by critics, but not by nearly enough luxury buyers—with a single CT5 model. But the flagship CT6 will steam ahead with General Motors’ first-ever, twin-turbocharged V8, a 4.2-liter with 550 horsepower and 627 pound-feet of torque. (Are you getting this, Mercedes-AMG?) This CT6 had us licking our chops with its understated menace and performance potential, including its mesh-black grille, 20-inch wheels with summer tires, 10-speed automatic transmission and unique, 19-inch Brembo brakes. The CT6 will also offer a 500-hp, 550 pound-feet version of the engine, for people who don’t need to annoy friends by constantly repeating “627 pound-feet.”
Genesis Essentia Concept
I’m not sure if Genesis realized that the name was already taken by a fancy bottled-water brand. But Hyundai’s luxury division quenched our thirst for cool concepts with the Essentia, a kickass carbon-fiber GT with a transparent hood, motor-operated butterfly doors and electric motors powering all four wheels. Luc Donckerwolke, the former Bentley design chief who now heads up Hyundai and Genesis design, told us that while the Essentia was inspired by classic GTs of the past, its elegant design hints at the future direction of Genesis. Donckerwolke said the Essentia itself is likely to spawn a two-plus-two GT in Genesis showrooms; though surely this mega-dollar concept will need to be toned down significantly to fit the brand’s value-oriented lineup. And Genesis wasn’t done yet, also unveiling the handsome production version of the G70, its eagerly awaited BMW 3 Series fighter.
2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid
I had an introductory drive in the Clarity’s new plug-in hybrid version (as opposed to fuel cell and EV models) during the show. I enjoyed a thrifty 50 mpg over an hour of city and highway driving, not even counting the Clarity’s 47-mile, all-electric range on a full battery charge. Among plug-in hybrids, the Chevy Volt can cover a few more miles on electricity alone; but it can’t match the midsize Clarity’s roomy, five-passenger interior or its Accord-level accommodations. If you’re cool with the Honda’s aerodynamic-yet-frumpy shape, and you’re into big-time fuel savings, the Clarity is already on sale at $34,290 to start.
2019 Jaguar F-Pace SVR
The F-Pace is already one of the prettiest SUV’s in the luxury game. That game gets a whole lot faster with the F-Pace SVR, with 550 horsepower from the same supercharged V8 that shrieks, gargles and spits in Jaguar Land Rover models including the F-Type sports car and Range Rover SVR. Jaguar figures a 4.1-second rip from 0-60 mph and a 176-mph top speed, which will surely get the attention of SUV rivals including the Porsche Macan Turbo and Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio. An active exhaust system trims 14.5 pounds, and the suspension, brakes, transmission, wheels and tires all get the high-performance treatment.
2019 Lincoln Aviator
With the hugely hyped Lincoln Continental sedan falling kersplat with buyers, Lincoln’s future must apparently be built on models like this great-looking Aviator SUV. Looking like a successful genetic cross between the larger Navigator and a Range Rover Sport, the three-row Aviator showed an impressively rich interior; a plug-in, twin-turbo V6 powertrain; and a smartphone app that can lock, unlock or start the truck. Lincoln says the Aviator will offer both a conventional twin-turbo V6—likely the 3.5-liter Ecoboost, but possibly the smaller 2.7-liter—along with a plug-in hybrid option.
Mazda Kai Concept
Mazda consistently delivers the most compelling exterior designs of any Japanese brand, and the Kai Concept takes things to an even higher level. If Mazda can get even 80 percent of this car’s design aesthetic into showrooms, including on a next-gen Mazda3 due in 2019, we have the makings of the world’s most beautiful hatchback. I mean, just look at that smooth, minimal, hot-buttered shape. If anticipation wasn’t already running high, the Mazda3 will adopt the brand’s pioneering, 2.0-liter Skyactiv-X engine, whose spark controlled compression ignition makes this gas engine operate like a diesel.
2019 Nissan Altima
The all-new Nissan Altima brought a lot to this Manhattan party: The optional AWD that you can’t get on most family sedans; a generous suite of safety gear and semi-autonomous ProPilot tech; and the world’s first variable compression engine in production, shared with Infiniti. That fuel-saving 2.0-liter VC turbo engine spools up 248 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. A base 2.5-liter, direct-injection engine manages 188 horses. To enthusiasts’ dismay, both engines can only be had with a continuously variable transmission. The bright side includes a spiffier design and appealing cabin that, especially on high-end editions, does its best to mimic BMW’s interiors.
2019 Porsche 911 GT3 RS Weissach Package
The show version was painted “Lizard Green,” and you’ll need more green to drive this 520-hp, naturally aspirated, flat-six masterwork: A standard GT3 RS costs $188,550. This Weissach Package trims flab via an unpainted carbon-fiber hood, roof, wing and side mirrors, along with carbon-fiber anti-roll bars and couplers. That 13 pounds of weight savings costs a gut-check $18,000, but with that telltale carbon fiber, your track buddies will at least know who they’re dealing with. Drop another $13,000 on magnesium wheels that save 25 pounds of critical unsprung weight, and voila, you get a $220,000, 3,153-pound 911 that can dispatch 60 mph in three seconds flat, and doubles the downforce of a standard 911 GT3.
2019 Subaru Forester
Ah, Subaru, the cars that sell themselves. Subaru’s American sales have tripled – yes, tripled – over the past 12 years, as the market for AWD cars dropped into Subie’s lap. You’ll be forgiven for thinking that this all-new Forester looks a lot like the last one, aside from a gussied-up interior and cool orange trim on the Sport version. Oh, the 2.5-liter boxer four does add direct injection for 12 extra ponies, now at 182 horses, with a continuously variable transmission. This Forester actually drops its turbocharged engine option, with Subaru saying that only five percent of buyers were choosing it. Yet AWD and the EyeSight safety suite are standard on all models. And the big tech news is “DriverFocus”: This facial recognition system will monitor and alert a sleepy or distracted driver, with the ability to identify up to five drivers and memorize individual presets for seat position, climate and infotainment settings.
2019 Toyota RAV4
You know an auto show is a resounding success when you’re actually driven to care about a Toyota RAV4. The RAV4’s toughened-up exterior continues a welcome industry trend toward more rectilinear, traditional SUV shapes. The interior looks and feels more serious and robust, including a thick-sectioned steering wheel that looks like something out of a German luxury car. The RAV4 itself is more robust, including a 57-percent more-rigid chassis, a half-inch more ground clearance and shorter front and rear overhangs. A nifty new torque-vectoring AWD system on uplevel models gets an industry-first, fuel-saving “rear driveline disconnect” that uses dog clutches to decouple rear wheels when AWD isn’t needed. There’s a hybrid version of course, which uses electric motors to power rear wheels on the AWD version. Toyota sold nearly 408,000 RAV4s in 2017, more than the Camry or Corolla, and its sales are already up 16 percent in 2018 – and that’s for a model at the end of its lifecycle. Care to venture a guess as to how many all-new RAV4s Toyota can move?
Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport Concept
Count the uber-stylish Cross Sport among the many pleasant surprises at the show, including the Nissan Altima, Toyota RAV4 and Lincoln Aviator. Infinitely better looking than the three-row shipping container known as the Atlas, the smaller Cross Sport was shown in plug-in hybrid form, with a 3.6-liter V6, lithium battery, a claimed 355 horsepower and 26 miles of all-electric range. VW is spending $340 million at its Chattanooga, Tenn. plant to ready this five-passenger SUV for production, though with conventional four- and six-cylinder engines to start; though a hybrid version could join them down the road.
And Finally, The Dud: 2019 Cadillac XT4
For this we waited? After dithering for years to get a compact SUV into showrooms, and watching rivals carve up this exploding market, Cadillac’s XT4 was easily the biggest face-plant among new cars in New York. The Cadillac looked like it had been aging in a design-studio basement for five years, but not like fine wine. The exterior is simultaneously dull and played-out, a family album of Cadillac design cliches. The equally perfunctory interior failed to make any luxury statement, aside from one of old-school GM mediocrity and the status quo. Someone had better direct Cadillac to the nearest drawing board. And judging by showgoers’ reactions – which ranged from “meh” to outright scoffing – the XT4 will be scheduled for emergency surgery with all due speed.