The Durango is truly an impressive SUV and one of the most surprising models our staff has driven recently. It inspired us with its vast family functionality that's combined with a surprisingly refined, comfortable drive. It has all the bells and whistles of some more expensive competitors, but does so at a reasonable price, and it can multitask as a muscle car, SUV, family-hauler or boat-tower, not to mention daily driver, all in one package. It's hard to find a vehicle that does all these things fairly well, but the Durango checks just about every box.
The three-row Santa Fe was a runner-up for our top award last year because it fits large families like a glove. There's a low step-in height that allows youngsters to climb in at early ages. Child-safety seats are easy to install, and there are optional second-row captain's chairs, a popular feature for minivan-averse shoppers. There are other great crossovers on the market that do a lot of the same things well, but for us the Santa Fe wins because of how natural its controls feel and how easy the multimedia system is to use.
Hyundai has been winning over car shoppers with impressive designs teamed to equally impressive lists of features for the money. The Santa Fe Sport checks those boxes and adds impressive utility to the mix with a large cargo area and spacious backseat. It won us over with its composed road manners, luxurious cabin and accessible tech features that any parent (or grandparent) can easily master. A few editors even called it "fun to drive," which is a nice surprise in a class where the driver often isn't the top priority.
Off-roading never looked so good. The latest Range Rover model is a high-tech masterpiece of materials, science and stylish panache -- equally at home among the tony shops of Beverly Hills as it is traversing the muddy jungles of Borneo. Made primarily out of aluminum, the base model Range Rovers feature supercharged V-6 engines but V-8-level performance; opting for one with a supercharged V-8 just makes a good thing better. Onboard electronic systems enable these rolling luxury spas to do things off-road that will shock and amaze you, should you ever decide to take one into the dirt.
There are legions of fans of classic British sports cars out there, drivers who love a minimalist approach to sports-car fun: a small engine, a light chassis and only enough sheet metal to keep the wind and rain off. For them, the MX-5 Miata is perfect. It's proof that you don't need a huge V-8 engine to have fun or 22-inch tires to experience grip. Light, direct steering combines with a precisely shifting transmission and traditional rear-wheel drive to provide endless motoring fun without busting your wallet.
Yes, it's expensive, but the 911 remains one of the most amazing sports cars on the planet, and the latest versions are reliable, comfortable and easy to drive on a daily basis. Few cars are as engaging to their drivers as the 911: You do more than just drive it; it involves you in an intimate way that quickly makes you realize just what everyone else gushes about when they get behind the wheel of one. Decades of refinement, racing heritage and sports-car engineering knowledge go into making a new 911, which becomes immediately apparent to us every time we drive one.
Audi challenged the idea of what a luxury hatchback could be when it launched the A7, and the car remains an icon to this day. With sleek lines and a rakish sensibility, it proved practicality didn't need to be boring; it's both elegant and utility minded. A supercharged V-6 is standard while a turbo-diesel V-6 that's EPA-rated at an impressive 38 mpg highway is optional. Audi's characteristic attention to detail is evident in the cabin, and the luggage area is a sizable 24.5 cubic feet. Other automakers have dabbled with luxury hatchbacks, but none have matched the A7's execution.
The Land Rover Range Rover is an SUV of many talents. In Supercharged V-8 form, a 510-horsepower V-8 serves up ferocious acceleration. At the same time, the Range Rover is a comfortable, quiet cruiser. The cabin is richly appointed in leather, aluminum and wood trim, and even though high-tech features abound -- like a 12.3-inch screen for the instrument panel -- there's a simple elegance to the interior design. There aren't many vehicles with the cachet to snag the valet's best parking spot and also ford nearly 3 feet of water, but that's what makes the Range Rover special.
The XC60 flies a bit under the radar compared to its luxury competition, but this crossover SUV delivers a refined driving experience and an available digital gauge cluster gives the cabin a high-tech feel. It's also relatively efficient; with the base 240-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive, the XC60 gets an EPA-estimated 24/31/27 mpg city/highway/combined. Occupant safety is a centerpiece of the Volvo brand, and the XC60 offers features designed to keep people inside and outside the SUV safe. Volvo's low-speed collision-avoidance system -- City Safety -- is standard, while pedestrian and cyclist detection with automatic braking is optional.
The Volt is the only one of our three finalists that gets plugged in, and there's one reason it's here: because it doesn't need to be plugged in. Sadly, plug-in vehicles have been a tough sell, and continued low fuel prices have hurt sales. Certainly, the Volt should be plugged in and charged or there's no point in buying one, but the car's gas backup saves it from the range limitations that have narrowed battery-electric cars' appeal. As plug-ins go, the Volt is the best one to prevent the purchase of a second car. Sounds eco-friendly to us.
The company that introduced the first gasoline-electric hybrid in the American market with the 1999 Insight, Honda hasn't seen the hybrid success enjoyed by Toyota. The reason is in the numbers: Honda's hybrids just haven't delivered the mileage. The Honda Accord Hybrid seems to change that with EPA-estimated mileage of 50/45/47 mpg city/highway/combined, tops for a hybrid sedan and great for city drivers. The mileage comes with adequate power and good, if characteristically quirky, hybrid-driving behavior. Having seen electric cars' underwhelming appeal in the market, we're more appreciative than ever of eco-friendly choices that have no strings -- or cords -- attached.
Editor's note: With the news of Sept. 18, 2015, that the EPA has accused Volkswagen of misrepresenting the emissions of its four-cylinder diesel engines, we are revoking the Passat TDI's Eco-Friendly Award for 2015. According to the EPA, emissions have been in error since the 2009 model year in various Audi and VW models, including the Passat TDI since its debut in 2012. As a result, we are revoking the Passat TDI's 2012 award for the same category. The Passat TDI clean diesel returns to our list because of its excellent efficiency and drivability without compromise, unless you consider pumping diesel instead of gas a compromise. For a car of its size, the four-cylinder gas-powered Passat gets an impressive 28 mpg combined city/highway, but the TDI automatic's EPA-estimated 30/42/34 mpg city/highway/combined raises the stakes, and the six-speed manual increases the combined figure to 35 mpg. Gasoline-electric hybrid sedans typically sacrifice trunk space and suffer some quirky driving characteristics not found in the Passat TDI. With its impressive highway mileage and long range, it may be the ultimate road-trip car.