Throughout the year, your friendly auto experts here at Tareqhassan put our butts in a lot of cars. And while we all keep open minds about performance before we actually start turning a wheel, there are certain givens that we know to be true: supercars are fast, pickups can haul and subcompacts are thrifty on fuel. But every so often, we come across a vehicle that, after a bit of time behind its wheel, has us shaking our heads in wonder in a ‘never-saw-that-coming’ kind of way. From 2017, here are some of the ones that really took a few of us by surprise.
Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk
Sport-utes weighing more than 2,400 kilograms shouldn’t be this fast. Sure, Jeep’s Grand Cherokee Trackhawk is essentially a Hellcat for the 4×4 crowd, a 707-horsepower, supercharged 6.2-litre V8 stuffed under the hood, but, still, being pinned to the seat as the beast blasts to 100 kilometres an hour in 3.7 seconds is beyond reasonable expectations. This is high-buck sports car fast!
More to the point, 2,400-kg SUVs shouldn’t be able to tackle race circuits, especially one with four kilometres of fresh tarmac, 15 turns and an elevation change of some 80 metres, which just happens to describe New Hampshire’s Club Motorsports, a private facility that just recently opened. With way more finesse than expected, the $110,000 über-Jeep blasted along the pit straight at about 200 km/h. As Turn One loomed, I nailed the brakes — 15.75-inch, two-piece vented rotors with six-piston callipers up front and 13.78-inch vented rotors with four-piston calipers at the back — released and then clipped the apex. The Trackhawk took the proper line like a champ and then asked for more. The other 14 turns were more of the same.
On the road, the Trackhawk is both surprisingly docile and stylistically restrained. But, as I said after the drive, this Jeep is “a 45-gallon drum of whoop-ass just waiting to be released.” – Brian Harper
Honda Civic Type R
It was not the fastest, certainly not the loudest, nor the most expensive car I drove all year; but the Honda Civic Type R was definitely the biggest surprise. Perhaps my expectations were too low since so many auto writers suspected the Type R would not be much more than a quicker Civic Si.
But 30 seconds into a drive at Circuit Mont-Tremblant, it became immediately clear the Type R was indeed a special Honda Civic — light on its feet, able to rip up a race track just as well as performance cars costing twice as much. The bigger delight was just how much fun the Type R was to drive fast, its strong Brembo brakes, rev matching downshifts, accurate steering and excellent handling only encouraging me to go far faster than Honda’s corporate officials would have liked.
That Honda OK’d a car like this for production, and was able to bring it to market for $40,000, is a testament to some genuine performance blood that had missing from Honda for a long time. Well done, everyone. – Derek McNaughton
1917 Peerless Green Dragon
The most surprising car I drove was a one-hundred-year-old beast named the Green Dragon. I’ve driven some old cars before but nothing even close to this. The Green Dragon is a home-built race car that was constructed in the 1920s to go board track racing. It started life as a 1917 Peerless passenger car but was re-bodied with slim two-seat coachwork to go racing. It has a 100-hp 5.4L V8, open pipes, no seatbelts, no synchros, and no regard for anything that wasn’t winning races. It stands about 5-foot-5 and weighs more than 4,000 pounds. I expected it to be a slug, honestly, but was surprised by the mountain of torque the big V8 had. The non-synchro three-speed manual wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be and highway speeds were possible if you were brave enough. It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable drives of my year, even though I never once exceeded 80 km/h.
I had always written off pre-war cars as overpriced trinkets for those with too much money, but after that drive I finally “get” them. It’s like wrestling a dinosaur. It’s a primal, mechanical joy the likes of which I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced. – Clayton Seams
BMW M760Li xDrive
When given the opportunity to strafe the mountain passes of the Alps, an extended-wheelbase limousine is not the first car to come to mind with which to enjoy those harrowing hairpin corners. And yet, there I was in this big Bimmer, and not at all regretting passing up a perfectly good M6 on offer. Four-wheel steering and air suspension, among other tidbits, help the 5,248-millimetre-long, 2,326-kilogram M760Li take corners like a smaller, lighter coupe – so much so that it was difficult holding myself in the supple-leather driver’s seat around tight bends on steep declines. With virtually no understeer, sharp, controlled swings of the rear end around corners and brakes equally up to the task of hauling this luxury leviathan down from speed, the entire handling package was, to say the least, unexpected.
And if the handling was unexpected, the acceleration was downright shocking. You get that with a 600-horsepower V12 nestled in between the front wheels; powering out of a turn brings you with almost terrifying pace on to the next sharp corner. Brake hard, steer, give ’er gas and repeat. And back down on the Autobahn in Germany? Officially, the M760Li is listed with a 3.7-second zero-to-100km/h time, but we were almost blowing the doors off the M2s and M6s that were accompanying us on the drive. The act of pushing the throttle to the floor seemed to be linked to how wide your eyes can go.
Who knew that a car with options such as a champagne cooler and perfume atomizer could be so much fun to drive? – Neil Vorano
Nissan 370Z Nismo
It’s neither the newest nor lightest; neither the most advanced nor powerful sports car out there. But the one truly surprising car from this year – aside from the Honda Civic Type R; thanks for stealing my thunder there, Derek – is hands-down the Nissan 370Z Nismo. I don’t care if it’s been around largely unchanged for nearly a decade; it’s endearing that the Z skips out on forced induction and driver-assist tech, instead focusing on delivering a surprisingly pure driving experience through a loud and responsive normally aspirated engine and a manual transmission. It’s the best new old car on the market, and that Nissan hasn’t yet pulled the plug – despite flagging sales – needs to be celebrated. I just wish it weren’t so damn expensive. – Nick Tragianis
I probably shouldn’t be so surprised that the newest-gen 2018 Jeep Wrangler in hard-core Rubicon guise can perform other-worldly off-road feats, but when strapped in and crawling up a boulder-strewn incline with a small army of “spotters” guiding you every inch of the bone-jarring way, it’s hard to imagine you’re driving an “out-of-the-box” production vehicle.
And despite this new Wrangler’s improved on-road civility, the 2018 Rubicon is actually more capable in extreme terrain. It gets more ground clearance, better approach and departure angle, a tighter turning circle, new 33-inch all terrain tires and 76 cm of water fording capability.
It takes a bit of prep to get the Rubicon two-door (starting $46,345) ready for all this. First, you have to take the doors off and flip the windshield forward. Okay, you don’t have to, but really, how cool is that? A button on the dash electronically disconnects the sway bars for ultimate axle articulation (now heavier duty Dana 44 front and rear), and there’s still a a good-old fashioned lever for engaging the Rock-Trac 4:1 transfer case with an improved 84:1 crawl ratio. Another toggle locks the front and rear differentials, and you’re good to go.
Just keep your eyes glued to the spotters, follow their every direction, and don’t tell them you have the optional heated steering wheel. Probably not cool. – Peter Bleakney
Lexus LC 500h
Okay, so the new Lexus LC 500h is good-looking. Very good-looking, actually, and pictures don’t do it justice. It’s one of those cars that looks flat and distorted in two dimensions, and yet is all liquid and sinewy and startling in real life, to the point that it almost overcomes that weird Lexus “spindle” grille stuck on its nose.
The interior is the same – not that flashy in photos, but when you get in, that cockpit curves around you, the seat hugs your butt, and everything just feels spectacular.
It’s a hybrid, and although that’s certainly not unknown among sports cars, its 354 horsepower is nowhere near supercar territory. And then you get in, and start it up, and hit the throttle, and holy crap. This thing is seduction on a stick. It’s fast. It’s smooth. It obeys your steering like it’s reading your mind. It’s perfectly balanced, it’s flat on the corners, it’s strong on the straightaway. Of course, it starts at $101,600, and for that it damn well should be good, but it really lives up to its promise. When I win the lottery, I’m gettin’ me one o’ these. – Jil McIntosh
Mazda MX-5 Cup
And after gorgeous fall morning spent tossing a six-speed MX-5 GS around the 5.5-kilometre, 23-turn Calabogie Motorsport circuit west of Ottawa, I’d reached peak driving nirvana. Could it get any better than this? As it turns out, yes it can. Imagine an MX-5 stripped down to its purest elements and available as a turn-key race car and you’ve got the Mazda Cup, a 2,130 lb., track-ready version of our favourite two-seater. When funnelled through a full-race header and stainless steel exhaust, the Skyactiv four-cylinder snorts and rumbles, even though its output is only 15 horses over the regular variant. This tiny but ferocious coupe may not be the most powerful car I’ve ever driven, but it’s by far the most telepathic, and despite its hard-core race car demeanour, is as easy to drive as any stock Miata off the production line. – Lesley Wimbush