Tailfins To Grilles, Motor Trend SUV Of The Year Finalists Show How Automakers Have Stagnated

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In the 1950s and early 1960s, domestic carmakers had little foreign competition (since German and Japanese manufacturing plants had been mostly destroyed in WWII). They quit innovating the mechanicals of the car and focused on style. That isn’t all bad (they made some iconic cars), but it showed the primary purpose of a redesign of the cars was to make it obvious to your neighbor that you had a new car and it looked dramatically different than the model they bought a year or two ago.

In the 1970s, we had the Arab oil embargo and the start of competition from Toyota, Honda, and Nissan. That caused everyone to innovate to improve fuel economy from about 10 mpg to about 25 mpg over 15 years or so.

Then, ever since, the safety standards have been tightened and cars have struggled to slightly improve on performance and fuel economy, since each car weighs almost twice as much with all of the airbags and stronger bodies needed to meet the improved safety standards and expectations. Had we spent the improved engine technology just on performance, the cars would be much faster. Had we spent the technology just on fuel economy, our cars would all get 60 mpg. But we spent it on safety and improved emissions while most people have decided they like large or small SUVs to carry all their toys. This means the SUVs get 15 to 25 mpg, barely any better than the cars of the 1950s.

I’m not saying this is bad or good, just that this is what we have done. I like safety, lower emissions, and room for my toys, which is why I’m buying a crossover soon (most likely a Tesla Model Y).

Today, instead of adding ridiculous fins, manufacturers that don’t have significant updates enlarge their grilles, screaming for attention although they have done nothing to warrant it. It seems the auto industry has hit another period where they don’t have anything important to change, so they change the styling. They seem focused on emphasizing aggressive grilles, in particular, one of the parts of the car that is soon to become obsolete, since electric vehicles need little cooling.

Genesis GV80, courtesy Genesis.
BMW 430i, courtesy BMW.
Lexus RX, courtesy Lexus.

Motor Trend SUV Of The Year Finalists

The Motor Trend “Car of the Year” competition has been split into 3 finalists. The Car of the Year competition tests the best vehicles that nobody will buy since they aren’t SUVs or trucks (actually, 22% of sales are sedans). The SUV competition is important, and growing more so since it makes up 47% of the market. The truck market makes up the rest.

Motor Trend changed its testing this year due to COVID-19 restrictions, so they are announcing each winner a month apart. Only the SUV competition has been published so far. The table below compares the 6 finalists with the Tesla Model Y. I realize these vehicles are in different classes, so it isn’t an apples to apples comparison, but I still found it interesting.

Below, I’ll list the 6 finalists, along with my biased & cynical opinion of each of them. Motor Trend only considers vehicles that are “all-new” or “substantially upgraded” in the last 12 months. Their definition of “substantially upgraded” is much lower than mine.

  1. Cadillac Escalade: They made the grille bigger, made the interior better with higher quality materials, and raised the price $1,000. Their testing showed the car went backward in fuel economy, from 17 mpg to 16 mpg, and rode poorly. The vehicle is 8 inches longer, but has less interior room (more cargo, but less passenger room). It tows less than last year’s model, and it has mediocre performance for a premium SUV (6 seconds, 0 to 60 mph).
  2. Genesis GV80: This is Genesis’s first SUV, so we can’t compare it to a previous Genesis, so I’ll compare it to last year’s Hyundai Palisade. It costs about $15,000 more and is a similar size (15 inches shorter than the massive Escalade). It gets similar fuel economy (20 to 22 mpg). Performance is decent for the price at about 6 seconds 0 to 60 mph instead of around 7 seconds for the Hyundai. Very nice interior.
  3. Land Rover Defender: This winner of the competition was highly praised for actually having off-road capabilities, versus most SUVs just pretending. It has “innovations” such as independent suspension and unibody construction that are 50 and 90 years old, respectively. Other than its off-road capabilities, it is just an overpriced, slow, and inefficient midsized SUV that is primarily designed to impress your neighbors. If you actually value off-roading, a Jeep is the gold standard for about half the price, or the Tesla Cybertruck should be both cheaper and far better when it comes out in about a year.
  4. Kia Seltos: A small crossover that at a quarter of the price of the winner really is hard to compare to the others. A fine choice for those looking for something in this class. Not a lot different than the Honda CR-V my mom bought 20 years ago, but a wise addition for Kia to expand its lineup to have SUVs of every size and price, since everyone wants one now.
  5. Nissan Rogue: Nissan has had a tough year after backstabbing its CEO. In a familiar theme, Nissan spent a lot of money redesigning its top-selling vehicles and didn’t get much for its money. It improved the interior, but the engine and the CVT transmission remind every buyer of a rental car from the ’90s. Slow, laggy, and at an expected price of $35,000, not cheap. I don’t expect Nissan to pick up a lot of new sales with this redesigned model.
  6. Toyota Venza: Many writers at CleanTechnica are critical of Toyota, and for good reason — they had a huge lead in green vehicles 20 years ago with the Prius and they have blown it by wasting money on fool cells and solid-state batteries. But I do give credit to Toyota for expanding its hybrid technology to many more vehicles and making some cars like the Sienna and Venza hybrid only. This saves a ton of gas for a very small price increase. Toyota will lose a few sales where people are looking for the lowest possible purchase price, but that hasn’t been Toyota’s market for a long time. It is aimed at providing a smart choice at a small premium to the cheapest cars available. Similarly, Toyota has designed a great RAV4 that shows the company realizes hybrids aren’t just for fuel economy — they can be fast and fun also. With the Venza, Toyota moves the ball forward, giving us much better fuel mileage than the Rogue, but falling a bit short on room, cargo capacity, and towing (not rated for towing).


As Tesla rolls out a less expensive Model Y RWD and the 7 seat version and air suspension for greater ground clearance, as Ford rolls out its Mustang Mach-E, and as Volkswagen rolls out its ID.4 all-electric crossover, carmakers are going to have a lot of trouble selling the same old cars with a pretty new facelift. That’s what the new models end up being. The electric models will have 3 big improvements that none of the cars Motor Trend tested can match.

  1. Fuel economy about 4 to 6 times as good as a comparable gas vehicle
  2. Instant torque
  3. Almost no maintenance for a very long period

As electric crossovers and SUVs become available in mainstream price ranges, we are going to see an explosion of sales. The next round of EVs are not compliance cars. They are being made in large volumes and they are poised to take a great deal of market share and profits from the carmakers that have been sleeping at the wheel for 10+ years as Tesla (and others) made it crystal clear that they planned to make electric cars and SUVs that are better in every way than their predecessors.

Disclosure: I am a shareholder in Tesla [TSLA], BYD [BYDDY], Nio [NIO], and Xpeng [XPEV]. But I offer no investment advice of any sort at any time or anywhere.

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Paul Fosse

I have been a software engineer for over 30 years, first developing EDI software, then developing data warehouse systems. Along the way, I've also had the chance to help start a software consulting firm and do portfolio management. In 2010, I took an interest in electric cars because gas was getting expensive. In 2015, I started reading CleanTechnica and took an interest in solar, mainly because it was a threat to my oil and gas investments. Follow me on Twitter @atj721 Tesla investor. Tesla referral code: https://ts.la/paul92237

Paul Fosse has 225 posts and counting. See all posts by Paul Fosse