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Right side of 2024 Mazda CX-90 PHEV at low front angle
New Car Reviews

Mazda CX-90 PHEV review: Mazda’s premier plug-in hybrid is a capital ‘S’ SUV

The year is 2003. You’re six years old, staring out the window in the backseat while the rest of your family piles into Mom’s Toyota Camry. As the car begins to leave the driveway, you overhear your parents workshopping what they’ll say when you arrive at the car dealership, where the plan is to ditch the cramped sedan for something with more space to stretch our legs, a larger vehicle that can seat five or six passengers instead of just four. Were it two decades later, maybe you’d soon find yourself in the second row of a 2024 Mazda CX-90 PHEV. But it’s the aughts – a time when gas is cheap and climate activisim is for tree huggers!

When your sister was born at the dawn of the millennium, your parents knew deep down it wouldn’t be long before cribs and diapers turned to pool parties, Scout meetings, dance lessons, and baseball games. Before highchairs and strollers became awkward first dates and driver’s tests. As such, your parents close their eyes, take a deep breath, and reluctantly agree: It’s time for a minivan. A sliding door, cheeto-stained, take-the-kids-to-soccer-practice minivan. In 2003, a minivan driver is that dilapidated lettuce wilting in the garden, scorched by the ultraviolet rays of a Ford Windstar.

As reality sets in, your parents are interrupted by a salesman pointing them in another direction. What’s this? He’s showing them a newer class of vehicle, one which can fit the same number of occupants as a minivan, but with sportier styling, raised suspension, and four-wheel drive. Of course, I’m talking about the family SUV. Little did we know it would fundamentally transform the automotive industry for the next 20-plus years. 

The PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle) version of the 2024 Mazda CX-90 showcases not only how the SUV has changed since that day we drove off the lot in a new – ahem, Eddie Bauer Edition Ford Explorer, but how the rest of the world has changed around it. Shaped by pointless geopolitical conflict, the growing popularity of the climate movement, and phrases like “economic uncertainty” floating around as if the economy had ever been certain, the CX-90 is a reverse time capsule into an idealized version of the future, one in which younger generations can afford to have passengers, let alone a new third-row SUV to put them in.

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Pricing and specs overview

In Mazda’s defense, the CX-90 is far from the worst offender in the arms race upmarket, and it’s certainly not responsible for the financial misfortunes of the millennial generation nor its successors. When adjusted for inflation, the mild-hybrid Mazda CX-90 is more affordable to start than its predecessor, the CX-9, was 10 years ago. That means you can take home a no-frills base model CX-90 for $39,595 assuming your dealer has one in stock or you can wait months for a factory order to arrive. Meanwhile, the Mazda CX-90 PHEV starts at $49,945 – over $10K more! What gives?

While I haven’t driven the plugless hybrid Mazda CX-90, nor has anyone else at Acceleramota, it’s worth noting that the cheaper CX-90 packs an extra pair of pistons. Under the hood of this cordless commuter is an inline-six-cylinder, the first of its kind for Mazda, turbocharged to make 280 horsepower in the Turbo Select, Turbo Preferred, Turbo Preferred Plus, and Turbo Premium variants. Stick with me now, because, for some godforsaken reason, Mazda sells the CX-90 in 11 different trim levels. But to keep it simple, I like to think of the CX-90 as three separate models with each offered in a few vaguely distinct flavors. They are as follows: Mazda CX-90 Turbo (no, not that one), Mazda CX-90 Turbo S (not that one either), and Mazda CX-90 PHEV (yes, this one). Got it? Good!

2024 Mazda CX-90 PHEV side badge
Image credit: Gabe Carey (Acceleramota)

Both the CX-90 Turbo ($39,595+) and the CX-90 Turbo S ($51,750+) use the same 3.3-liter turbocharged e-Skyactiv G engine. However! Whereas the five CX-90 Turbo trims make 280 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque, the three CX-90 Turbo S make 340 horsepower and 369 pounds of torque through the magic of high-octane fuel tuning. The caveat is that while the Turbo models were designed to run on cheaper 87-octane gas, Mazda recommends 93-octane for the Turbo S. That’s an extra ten grand and some change for a slightly faster 0-60 time and shinier, machine-cut wheels. Barring the unlikely event that you’re hauling your oversized grocery getter to a racetrack, it’s safe to say the standard Turbo is the better value for most people. But it’s not necessarily the best. For some, the Mazda CX-90 PHEV is the answer.

Base price:$49,945
As-tested price:$51,795
Engine:2.5-liter e-Skyactiv G four-cylinder + 68kW electric motor
Transmission:8-speed automatic
Drivetrain:All-wheel drive
Power:323 hp @6,000 rpm
Torque:369 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
Weight:5,243 lbs
0-60 mph:6.2 seconds
MPG:24 mpg city, 27 mpg highway,
MPGe:56 MPGe
Observed MPG:24.4 mpg
Fuel capacity:18.5 gallons
0-60 test results sourced from Motor Trend

From the outset of 2024, more than 7,000 dealerships registered with the IRS will offer point-of-sale tax rebates to EV buyers – and, yes, some plug-in hybrids count. Better yet, if you prefer to lease, Mazda will knock $7,500 off your bill without jumping through hoops to find a participating dealer. That brings the effective base price of a new Mazda CX-90 PHEV down from $49,945 to $42,225, making the PHEV a much more compelling proposition. To make up the remaining difference, only the CX-90 PHEV comes standard with a power moonroof and heated seats made from real leather. 
Now it’s a matter of which is more compatible with your lifestyle: a turbocharged straight-six with an e-assist mild hybrid system or a naturally aspirated four-cylinder backed by a 68-kW electric motor powered by a 17.8-kWh battery. I’ll let you decide.

Electric range and fuel economy

Straddling the fence between the lower fuel cost of the Turbo and the refined performance of the Turbo S, the plug-in hybrid Mazda CX-90 is for the crowd that wants fast and frugal. At least under the right conditions. Sure, you’ll still need to fill it up with premium to make the most of your ride, but the idea is to offset that cost by scarcely burning fuel at all. 

In EV mode, a small 17.8-kWh lithium-ion battery pack located under the floor powers the 68-kilowatt electric motor found in the transmission tunnel for up to 26 miles without ever firing up the engine. In Normal mode, where the engine and electric motor work in tandem, that range is less predictable since it fluctuates based on road conditions and your own individual driving patterns and behaviors. In other words, no I cannot conclusively tell you for a fact you’ll see anything close to the equivalent of 56 mpg as the EPA’s MPGe estimate suggests because it’s entirely contingent on when, where, and how you drive.

In line with most plug-in hybrid SUVs of its stature, Mazda says it takes 11 hours with a standard 120-volt (Level 1) outlet or 2 hours and 20 minutes using a 240-volt (Level 2) electrical setup. I’m quoting Mazda on those figures because my best bet for EV charging was one of two dual-port FLO units a 20-minute drive from my apartment on a street that apparently served as the unofficial meetup spot for gas cars with their hazard lights on and ineptly parked Teslas keeping the second, unused cable at each station just enough out of reach to be infuriating.

2024 Mazda CX-90 PHEV left side profile
Image credit: Gabe Carey (Acceleramota)

For the record, I’m a recent convert to the philosophy popularized by Toyota that plug-in hybrids are a fast track to harm reduction. It’s just that the benefits – financial, environmental, or otherwise – only come into play for the owners who commit to a habitual charging routine. When the battery dies in a full BEV (battery-electric vehicle) like a Tesla Model Y or Ford Mach-E, the car won’t move. That a plug-in hybrid is drivable indefinitely without ever actually plugging it in is a double-edged sword. On one hand, range anxiety is all but assuaged. On the other, the Mazda CX-90 PHEV averaged 24.4 mpg during my weeklong excursion without charging access. That isn’t far off from the 25 mpg combined estimated by the EPA for ostensibly gas-guzzling sixer gets. Given the choice, without a home charging solution, I personally would go for the inline-six, if only because it sounds like this.

Curiously, you never really have to plug in a plug-in hybrid. That’s as true for the Mazda CX-90 PHEV as it is for our Alfa Romeo Tonale. Because the battery ran out of juice in our press car not long after escaping the city to take photos for this review, and I didn’t have 140 minutes of downtime to let it sip, the Mazda CX-90 PHEV averaged 24.4 mpg throughout my weeklong excursion. Meanwhile, the EPA rates its ostensibly gas-chugging, six-cylinder cousin at a commensurate 25 mpg combined. Go figure! Still, for the homeowner with a commute shorter than 26 miles and a place to charge while you’re at work, you could get away with never spending a dime on gas most days. Because it’s used in EV mode more than half the time, our Tonale averaged 84 mpg this month and it’s rated for 29 mpg or 77 MPGe combined. Whether or not the fuel savings justify the premium for the PHEV is on you.

Design, interior, and infotainment

For a full-size crossover SUV, the Mazda CX-90 carries an outstanding road presence. It sits high on your pick of 19- or 20-inch wheels with a wide, imposing stance. The roofline slopes back across an aerodynamic coupe-like frame. And its front fascia, characterized by angry headlights and a bold, assertive grille to match, lets you know it means business. I only wish our loaner came in that fierce artisan red Mazda uses in most of its marketing for the CX-90. The design is a subtle but effective step up from that of the CX-9.

When you open the door to the Mazda CX-90, the inside makes one hell of a first impression, regardless of spec. As you can see from the photos, the cabin emanates a level of ambient grandeur more impressive than that of a new BMW X7, if only because it defies expectations. For most, “upscale” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when you bring up Mazda. But that perception is changing, in large part because its ostentatious interiors punch above their weight, presenting a clean minimalist aesthetic, complete with faux woodgrain accents, abundant LED lighting, ventilated seats with adjustable lumbar support, and the gratuitous touch of a leather-wrapped shift knob – because why the hell not?

Inside and out clear Mazda is reinventing itself as an entry-level luxury brand, and the CX-90 PHEV fills the space somewhere between the Toyota Grand Highlander Hybrid and the Lexus TX. In fact, as far as plug-in hybrids go, until the 2024 Hyundai Santa Fe PHEV drops this spring, the CX-90 PHEV’s closest rival might very well be the Chrysler Pacifica. That’s right, the minivan. But compared to the Pacifica, the Grand Highlander, or the Honda Pilot for that matter, one of the CX-90’s undeniable shortcomings is its cramped third row, and by extension, limited cargo space. With the second and third row folded down, its 75.2 cubic feet of space pales in comparison to the 140.5 cubic feet of the Chrysler Pacifica, and it doesn’t fare much better next to the Grand Highlander’s 97.5 cubic feet. Although I could fit plenty of gear in the back, I also don’t have kids or friends. At full occupancy, the 14.9 cubic feet left with all of the seats up won’t leave much room for luggage on family road trips.

2024 Mazda CX-90 PHEV cargo area containing photo gear
Image credit: Gabe Carey (Acceleramota)

Also polarizing, at least for anyone with a preference for touchscreens, is the Mazda Connect infotainment system you’ll find on the CX-90 PHEV’s modest 10.25-inch center display. As is the case for the rest of Mazda’s lineup, navigating the proprietary software involves twisting a rotary dial around in the center console instead of tapping the screen directly. My current car and the one before that both took the same approach, and both manufacturers abandoned the dial with subsequent models. Because they were wrong. I’m with Mazda on this one, the rotary dial is a safety feature more than anything, no matter what my friend Adam said. Once you get used to it, you’ll see how much easier it is to keep your eyes on the road while adjusting your music or setting a Google Maps destination in your periphery than trying to do so on a touchscreen. That said, if you insist on being wrong (like Adam), the top CX-90 PHEV Premium Plus trim has a larger 12.3-inch display that supports touch controls for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Overall, Mazda Connect as an operating system is mostly inoffensive, even if I do prefer Android Automotive and Stellantis’s Android-derived Uconnect. Other than Apple CarPlay, which took some time digging under several layers of submenus, I had no problems flipping through settings to customize driver assistance preferences, manage Bluetooth connections, and fine-tune my sound profile to make my “Music to Flex To” playlist go hard on the Bose Centerpoint audio system. Seriously, from the acoustics to the bass, the upgraded 12-speaker surround sound casts a wide soundstage that one-ups some cars I’ve driven that cost twice as much as the Mazda CX-90 PHEV (looking at you, Maserati Grecale Trofeo). 

Performance and powertrain

Apart from the charging logistics, which evidently isn’t one-size-fits-all, the Mazda CX-90 does straddle the fence between the cheaper fuel demands of the Mazda CX-90 Turbo trims and the speed advantage of the Turbo S. Even though its 323 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque fall short of the Turbo S and despite clocking in at over 5,000 pounds, the CX-90 PHEV’s impressive hybridized innards gave it the boost it needed to beat out the straight-six in every speed run conducted by Car and Driver. More horsepower and less weight don’t cut it when the PHEV’s electric motor pushes 199 pound-feet of torque at just 400 rpm.

The plug-in hybrid (PHEV) version of the 2024 Mazda CX-90 is one of the finer examples of a company working within those parameters to make a truly great capital ‘S’ SUV – that is, a three-row unibody truck as suitable for hauling groceries as it is cornering on sharp turns or taking offroad, all from a four-cylinder engine married to a small electric motor. From what I’ve seen of the engineers who worked on it, there’s an unexpected sense of fervent passion for the project woven into the soul of the CX-90. As chunky as it is, it really does drive like a sports sedan. The steering is balanced – not too light nor too heavy – and somehow it feels nimble. As long as you don’t mind the bumpy ride that occasionally accompanies its raw sportscar-like suspension, the CX-90 can be a blast to drive, especially when thrown into sport mode.

Right side of 2024 Mazda CX-90 PHEV rear fascia at 3/4 angle
Image credit: Gabe Carey (Acceleramota)

By flicking up and down the Mi-Drive switch in the center console, you can alternate between four drive modes, each with its own intended purpose: 

  • Sport mode combines the full power of the engine and electric motor for faster acceleration 
  • EV mode uses only the electric motor for zero-emission driving but greatly reduces performance
  • Normal mode offers a balanced mix of electric and gas as needed
  • Off-road mode improves traction so you don’t spin out or fall off a cliff
  • Towing mode adjust gearing and power delivery for pulling stuff

One glaring drawback to choosing the CX-90 PHEV is its inferior 3,500-pound tow limit. For comparison, the standard CX-90 can pull up to 5,000 pounds at most trim levels. Hamstrung towing capacities are a common, longstanding complaint among PHEV critics. When my dad and I were shopping around on CarGurus to replace his Ford Ranger with a more fuel-efficient SUV capable of towing at least 2.5 tons, I was aghast at how sparse the selection was with a budget in the $50K range, especially for third rows. Sadly, for that reason, the CX-90 PHEV didn’t make the cut. The Jeep Grand Cherokee 4xe did.

Final thoughts

As someone with no kids and no friends living in a city with convenient access to public transit, the Mazda CX-90 is excessive. As someone who appreciates any vehicle that’s quick around corners, the Mazda CX-90 is shockingly fun to drive. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced the person shopping for a third-row SUV cares as much about gear ratios and steering weight as they do cargo space and comfort. With the CX-90, Mazda took a series of bold risks, most of which no one asked for. As a three-row crossover SUV that looks more expensive than it is, it would have sold on that merit alone. 

The CX-90 is interesting, if imperfect, in a segment overrun with vehicles as indistinguishable on the outside as they are under the hood. Just as Mazda didn’t need to build a new six-cylinder architecture from the ground up for this, it also didn’t have to make that same vehicle its first mainstream plug-in hybrid. But I’m glad it did. Because while that third row of seats is as tight as the suspension, it makes good on the promise of the sport utility vehicle: to combine fun and function in a vehicle big enough to fit a family while being less boring than a minivan. You can’t make an SUV that handles like this without some trade-offs. Provided its aggressive styling and athletic performance are enough to sacrifice a few inches of legroom, the Mazda CX-90 is a strong contender for the best SUV in its class. 

Whether the straight-six or the plug-in hybrid is the more cost-effective option mostly comes down to your living situation. Unless you have access to home charging, the fuel savings will almost certainly not be worth the cost and inconvenience of public charging. When I’m getting around 25 mpg either way, I’d rather have a turbocharger and a guttural exhaust note. But maybe I’m just built different.

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Ariel Atom 4
Buying GuidesFeatures

10 lightweight sports cars you can buy today

Anyone looking for pure, svelte driver’s cars that are fun to whip around on weekend trips up and down PCH should look no further.  The beautiful idea of well-balanced power-to-weight ratios is usually best represented in lightweight sports cars. From 2+2s to roadsters, they provide a lightweight chassis, balanced handling, and a thrilling driving experience. Every day driving through crowded intersections, windy roads, or the track on weekends, the versatility of these modern machines offers a unique fun-to-drive factor. 

Nowadays, many lightweight sports cars provide approachable driving characteristics and price points that won’t absolutely break the bank. However, there are some that will push your driving skills and bank accounts to new limits. Anyone interested in the lightest sports cars that can be purchased this year should look no further. 

Mazda MX-5 Miata (ND)

Weight: 2,341 pounds

What’s hot?

  • Undoubtedly the most nimble drive on sale
  • Impressive fuel efficiency

What’s not?

  • A bit cramped for the average American
  • Can get expensive as you climb the trim ladder

The Mazda MX-5 Miata has spent decades maintaining its reputation for giving nothing less than a spirited driving experience. For those who can fit comfortably within its front mid-engine layout, there’s so much to appreciate with the classic yet modern feel. Top-down in the convertible option or closed in, there’s nothing like Mazda’s little roadster.

“ND2” variants and newer pack a 2.0-liter engine with about 181 horsepower and deliver a zippy yet smooth ride. The recently revealed ND3 adds updated tech and a retuned steering rack geared for improved precision and feel. Its manual or automatic transmission options ensure quick acceleration in approximately six seconds from 0 to 60 mph, although magazines have extracted even better test numbers from such a spritely car. Built for rear-wheel drive and agile handling, it promises overwhelmingly enjoyable driving.

Subaru BRZ and Toyota GR86

Weight: 2,815 pounds

What’s hot?

  • Powerful engine for the price 
  • Awesome, track-capable handling 

What’s not?

  • Most hot hatches are quicker nowadays
  • Not the most practical entry-level performance car

Behold a fan favorite here at Acceleramota and one our editor has recently had the opportunity of road-tripping. The Toyota and Subaru collaboration has left the BRZ as the surviving and thriving of the two, at least in the wake of the GR86’s reportedly out-of-wack markups. Its agile handling, rear-wheel-drive dynamics, and precise steering are becoming just as recognizable as its boxer engine. The 86’s and BRZ’s balanced performance, affordability, and enthusiast-focused design captivate drivers seeking a truly engaging ride.

The second-gen Toyobaru platform continues its legacy with a 2.4-liter naturally-aspirated boxer engine, producing 228 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. Paired with a choice of a 6-speed manual or automatic transmission, it boasts rear-wheel drive, a lower center of gravity, improved handling, and a refined chassis for an exhilarating driving experience. 2024 BRZ models now launch with EyeSight safety assists and a hot new tS model, while GR86s gain their own suite of similar safety tech and an Initial D fanboy-spec Trueno model.

Honda CR-Z

Weight: 2,639 pounds

What’s hot?

  • Sporty look and handling 
  • Fantastic hybrid fuel economy 

What’s not?

  • Rear visibility is a bit poor
  • Tiny size means it’s not for hoarders or Ubers

Discontinued in 2016, the Honda CR-Z was a sporty hybrid coupe that blended efficiency with style.  Its innovative design featured a 1.5-liter engine paired with an electric motor, offering a modest 122 horsepower. The CR-Z is now appreciated in the used market for its unique hybrid concept and agile handling.

The 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine coupled with a hybrid electric motor generates a combined output of 122 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque (123 pound-feet in CVT cars). Inventive for its time, the Honda CR-Z was one of the rare hybrid sports cars to be equipped with a six-speed manual alongside its CVT transmission. They weren’t fast! But they were spritely enough. And to have a sporty, manual hybrid econobox that could zip to 60 in under ten seconds in the early 2010s was something to brag about. I guess. Maybe. Supercharged CR-Z HPD, anyone?

Alfa Romeo 4C

Weight: 2,487 pounds

What’s hot?

  • Efficient yet powerful engine 
  • Great mini-supercar handling 

What’s not?

  • Lacks good rear-view visibility and cargo room
  • What in the heck is that 2 Fast 2 Furious radio radio unit?

Lightweight design, turbocharged power, and exceptional agility make the Alfa Romeo 4C as legendary as it was divisive… Like, really divisive. Still cool, though! And still a featherweight worthy of this list. With striking aesthetics and racing DNA, it captivated enthusiasts. Offering a unique blend of performance, analog purity, and style, its departure leaves a void in the realm of iconic sports cars.

The Alfa Romeo 4C features a 1.7-liter turbocharged engine producing 237 horsepower, paired with a dual-clutch automatic transmission. With a carbon fiber monocoque chassis, it weighed merely 2,487 pounds. This mid-engine sports car could sprint from 0-60 mph in 4.1 seconds, boasting impressive performance and agile handling, granted you can get to grips with that manual steering rack.

Lotus Exige

Weight: 2,593 pounds

What’s hot?

  • Top-tier sports car performance
  • Great fuel economy

What’s not?

  • May be difficult to get in and out of
  • The very definition of having a spartan interior

Discontinued in 2021, the final Lotus Exige epitomized automotive excellence. With its lightweight design, remarkable agility, and supercharged engine, the Exige offered an unmatched driving experience. Its aerodynamic finesse and track-focused precision made it a legendary icon among sports cars, capturing enthusiasts with its raw performance.

Before the end of its run, the final-generation Lotus Exige boasted impressive specs. It featured a supercharged Toyota-derived 3.5-liter V6 engine producing up to 345 horsepower. The Exige Cup 430 went even further, pushing roughly 430 horsepower. Weighing around 2,500 pounds, it sprinted from 0 to 60 mph in about 3.5 seconds, although earlier four-cylinder variants were even lighter than that, tipping in at a hair beneath one ton. Its aerodynamics, coupled with a six-speed manual gearbox, ensured exceptional handling and track performance.

Ariel Atom

Weight: 1,349 pounds

What’s hot?

  • Unique go-cart x Formula car design
  • Wicked fast and impossibly nimble, given its design

What’s not?

  • Not very practical for daily drivers… like, at all
  • Rare and expensive

The Ariel Atom’s thrill lies in its “no-frills” design, boasting crazy speed and handling. Its lightweight structure and powerful engine make it feel like driving a rocket. It’s an open-air, Formula 1-like experience, an adrenaline rush for anyone seeking pure, unadulterated driving joy or to show the Spec Miata club racers that it is not they who have been chosen to wield one of the UK’s finest.

Sourcing a Honda 2.0-liter i-VTEC or supercharged 2.4-liter mill, depending on the model, the Ariel Atom can hit 60 in under three seconds. However, should you yearn for more, the newly-minted Ariel Atom 4 sports a turbocharged Civic Type R motor, and yesteryear’s limited Ariel Atom 500 rocked a firebreathing 3.0-liter 500-horsepower V8. Other features include a six-speed gearbox and finely tuned suspension. Goggles or eyeglasses, not included, but you’ll need them.

McLaren 600LT

Weight: 3,099 pounds

What’s hot?

  • Blistering supercar speed
  • Agile handling

What’s not?

  • Questionable McLaren reliability 
  • Probably the most expensive car here

McLaren’s limited Longtail series production might have shifted focus recently, but the McLaren 600LT excels due to its potent 592-hp twin-turbo V8, track-focused Longtail design, and exceptional handling. Introduced in 2018, this model showcased McLaren’s racing heritage like no other in the form of a lighter, more ferocious iteration of its Sports Series 570S model.

The McLaren 600LT features a 3.8-liter twin-turbocharged V8 engine producing 592 horsepower, enabling it to hit 60 mph in approximately 2.8 seconds and a top speed of 204 mph. Sporting a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, it flaunts a track-focused design with advanced aerodynamics, carbon fiber components, and precise handling.

Audi TT

Weight: 3,197 pounds

What’s hot?

  • Awesome, baby supercar design
  • Matches handling with true sports car acceleration

What’s not?

  • Back seats are pretty useless
  • Not as engaging as other cars in its class

Sleek style and turbocharged performance make the Audi TT an outstanding coupe. It’s a dandy little sports car with the look and handling of performance cars far more expensive. Baby R8, maybe? You’re right. Too far-fetched.

The 2024 Audi TT boasts a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, delivering around 228 horsepower. Its lightning-quick seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission and all-wheel drive system offer superb handling. Hotted-up S variants turn up the wick further to 292 horsepower, while a 400-horsepower, turbo five-cylinder TT RS model sits atop the food chain as a bonafide baby supercar. 

Mini Cooper John Cooper Works

Weight: 2,892 pounds

What’s hot?

  • Punchy powertrain
  • Handling is top-tier

What’s not? 

  • Expensive for a hot hatch
  • Not so “mini” anymore

The 2024 Mini Cooper John Cooper Works epitomizes thrilling performance in a compact package. With its turbocharged engine, precise handling, and iconic design, this model offers an exhilarating driving experience. Its fusion of style, agility, and power makes it an outstanding choice for car enthusiasts seeking an extraordinary ride.

Boasting a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine that produces around 228 horsepower, the Mini Cooper John Cooper Works is paired with a six-speed manual or optional automatic transmission. However, should you wish, older variants with a 1.6-liter supercharged four-banger deliver their own kind of raucous fun. The current model’s enhanced suspension, Brembo brakes, 18-inch wheels, and sport-tuned exhaust system ensure agile handling and a thrilling driving experience, granted you can live with the lofty price tag new Minis are capable of.

Porsche 911 S/T

Weight: 3,056 pounds

What’s hot?

  • Perhaps one of, if not the best, driver’s car on sale today
  • Delightfully premium interior 

What’s not?

  • Could still be too hardcore for some, despite its road-oriented bias
  • Forget what I said about the McLaren’s price. This will make the dreamers cry

The 2024 Porsche 911 S/T kills for many reasons, as the lightest model from the hallowed German company one can purchase today. Its sleek design, coupled with a robust twin-turbo engine, delivers unparalleled performance. Cutting-edge technology seamlessly integrates with luxurious comfort, making every drive an exhilarating experience, setting a new benchmark.

Based on the 911 GT3 and copying the homework of the acclaimed 911 R, the S/T boasts a naturally-aspirated 4.0-liter flat-six engine and pushes around 518 horsepower. It accelerates to 60 mph in approximately 3.5 seconds. Equipped with God’s gift, a wonderfully analog six-speed stick managing power to the rear wheels, it’s as pure as a modern sports car driving experience can be. Good luck getting your hands on one, even if you have the dough.

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VW Golf GTI (top left), Mazda CX-5 (top right), Corvette C8 (bottom left), Mercedes Sprinter van (bottom right)
Best CarsFeaturesHot Takes

These are the best cars we’ve driven

What qualifies a vehicle as being among the best? Is the best car the one with the ferocious powertrain, that zips from zero to sixty miles per hour in the shortest amount of time? Or is the best car the one that lasts the longest with the least amount of maintenance required? For some people, the best car is the one with the most luxurious interior, the highest towing capacity, or the roomiest cabin for the price. Because everyone has different criteria, rather than embarrass ourselves attempting to narrow a car recommendation for every type of person down to a tidy list of 10, we’ve chosen instead to please no one by telling you about the cars we feel are the best, based on our own experiences.

Sure, we’ve driven faster, more expensive, and more technologically advanced cars. But this is a consensus rooted in pure subjectiveness. It’s not about what cars we’ve driven were the most innovative or groundbreaking, and it certainly isn’t about the cars we found to be the most practical. This group show-and-tell by the Acceleramota team is all about which cars are nearest and dearest to our hearts after some time behind the wheel, no matter the length of the stint or the circumstance in which we drove them.

What’s the best car you’ve ever driven? Let us know in the comments.

Jeric Jaleco: Ford Mustang Shelby GT350

Image credit: Ford

The market has seen its fair share of spectacular driver’s cars, but only once in a blue moon does one really scratch that itch. Or at least my itch for something catering to my mixed tastes, having coveted cars like the E92 BMW M3 and Shelby GT500. The Shelby GT350 is among that elite bunch and the perfect combination of their philosophies in my headcanon. And listen, I’m not one to incessantly bemoan the loss of purist machines from years past, but this glorified rental car proves they just don’t build sports cars like they used to and probably never will ever again.

The GT350 launched to widespread acclaim for pretty much being the second coming of Car Jesus. It snatched top spots in numerous comparisons, even placing second in Motor Trend’s Best Driver’s Car for two years, bested only by McLaren’s 570S and a 911 Carrera S. It’s far from the fastest muscle car at Woodward Avenue, but it’s certainly one of the most beloved sports cars of recent memory, and my time behind the wheel of a 2017 example from Turo of all places taught me why.
An all-natural V8 screaming to an 8,250-rpm redline, six-speed stick, and track-ready suspension? Yes, please! The precise, well-weighted steering and MagneRide suspension enable rapid direction changes evocative of cars hundreds of pounds lighter. The shifter delivers that just-right notchiness that’s snickety-snick-snick sensational, and the 526-horsepower 5.2-liter Voodoo will go down as one of the best engines of all time, oiling issues be damned! My time with the GT350 was limited to only a few days, but it easily proved its worth as one of the most intoxicatingly soulful modern cars on this side of a Ferrari and at a fraction of the price.

Gabe Carey: Chevrolet Corvette C8

Image credit: Gabe Carey (Acceleramota)

Those familiar with me, whether from the Acceleramota Discord server or beyond, probably wouldn’t expect the Corvette to be among my top 50 cars, let alone my favorite. In part, that has to do with my affinity for European cars – not to mention my high tolerance for frequent trips to and from the shop in my 2018 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio. I’m also not 65 years old. 

But this isn’t about my favorite car. It’s a list of the best cars we’ve driven, and I’ll tell you straight up, the Quadrifoglio is far from perfection. That’s not the case for the 2024 Corvette C8 I cruised around in with our Editor-in-Chief, Jeric Jaleco, during the LA Auto Show. The first night I took it back to my hotel after a long day of travel, despite suffering from a horrific hunger migraine, I felt so alive that I even went out of my way to take a detour. “Fun at any speed” is a basic principle I feel every sports car should abide by, and most don’t. At least not anymore.

The first generation of Chevy’s mid-engine Corvette, however, is an exception. What it lacks in a manual transmission, it more than makes up for in good ol’ fashioned fun factor. The paddle shifters are responsive, it hugs corners like a dream, and the two pedals it does have are harmonious with the input of the driver. 

Given the intimate arrangement of the Android Automotive-powered infotainment system, video game-like drive mode controls, and the rest of the center stack, it’s like sitting in the cockpit of a luxurious racecar that’s just as comfy to drive on the road. It’s a grand tourer that out-grand tours the McLaren GT. Add to that the thunderous roar of a naturally aspirated V8 breathing down my shoulder, and you’ve got yourself a near-perfect sports car. Jeric will disagree, as he did on the podcast, but he’ll understand when he’s older.

Nathan Meyer: Volkswagen Golf GTI (Mk5)

VW Golf GTI Mk5 on a track
Image credit: VW

Fast, fun, and fantastic. Any VW fan will tell you that the Mk5 (pronounced mark-five) Golf GTI revived the nameplate and ushered in a new era of hot hatch. 

As of 2023, it is an 18-year-old car, so it is not the fastest hatch. You’re bound to be disappointed if you compare it to a modern hot hatch. One thing this car has that even the Mk8 Golf GTI does not is fun in bucket-loads. Pulling away from a stoplight will give you the widest smile. You feel connected to the car through corners. Somehow, it does this while still providing insane practicality, so much practicality that even you can entrust your husband’s best friend to bring it back in one piece.

Sure, you will drive faster cars and experience more fun cars. But no car plays the Golf GTI’s role better than the Mk5 GTI. You can summon its power at any moment and take your daughter to ballet the next. It’s the duality of the Mk5 GTI that makes it one of the best cars to drive.

Sheilah Villari: Chevrolet Camaro (Gen 3)

1992 Chevy Camaro RS parked in front of mountainscape
Image credit: Chevrolet

It might be a bit nostalgic, but my favorite car will always be my first. It was so beautiful, and being handed down to me by my mom added an extra layer of specialness. My high school and most of my college car was a teal 1992 Chevrolet Camaro Rally Sport. My mom was a Camaro and Chevy enthusiast, and this was the sixth one she had owned. Growing up in a beach town, this was the perfect car to park near the waves, pile your friend into, and pull out all your gear. Even if the two-door and hatchback were a pain, she was a shiny gem in the hot southern sun.

The fact that I never got pulled over in this car was a miracle as well. Going around 100 on 95 was not hard. I barely did anything, and this glorious green missile would just glide. And while I did find it hard to see sometimes (being so low to the ground), it handled beautifully. The nights cruising with the windows down, the salty ocean air forced in, and seagulls serenading you on a coastal drive were absolute perfection.

There is something romantic about our fond memories in vehicles like this. They say you never forget your first, and I certainly won’t. I often think about trying to get that sparkly wonder back into my life, broadness and all. 

Joe Tilleli: Mazda CX-5

Red Mazda CX-5 interior shot
Image credit: Mazda

I’m a simple man. My first new car I leased was a 2015 Mazda CX-5. Comfortable, roomy enough for my needs, handling is great. It’s the perfect crossover vehicle.

When the lease was up after three years, I couldn’t be bothered to go shopping around. So what’d I do? I leased another Mazda CX-5 — the 2018 model this time. And what do you know, another three years blinked away like nothing. I can see the cycle I’m about to be in, so I broke free. I bought out the 2018 model. In hindsight, it would have been better to just finance it from the start but I didn’t account for my laziness to hop around from dealer to dealer in future years. I’m gonna be driving this Mazda CX-5 until it doesn’t drive anymore. Then I’ll probably get another Mazda CX-5.

Ural Garrett: Mazda RX-8

Mazda RX-8 parked by mountainside
Image credit: Mazda

I wouldn’t get my driver’s license and first whip until my last semester at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but there hasn’t been a car that’s imprinted itself on me throughout my lifetime as the Mazda RX-8. As a kid growing up in Los Angeles who was a fan of both the Fast & Furious series and Need For Speed: Most Wanted, the best car I’ve ever driven will be my first car, which I dubbed “05Wankel.” The car fits my personality in so many ways: uniquely built, slightly problematic, but pure, unadulterated fun. 

In 2009, there wasn’t a cooler feeling than blasting Teriyaki Boy’s “Tokyo Drift” as I shifted the six-speed manual and sped down the I-10. I can even vividly remember the first time I did burn out and parking lot donuts.

For a solid six years, the amount of money I spent on replacement tires and cans of motor oil could have definitely gone to the private student loan used to buy the car in the first place. The 255 horsepower allowed me to hit 60 mph in around six seconds, but the way that 9,000-rpm rev limit made my car scream was the real treat. Driving it years later around LA made me appreciate it even more.

Roger Feeley-Lussier: Mercedes Sprinter

Mercedes Sprinter van going off-road
Image credit: Mercedes-Benz

In my past life as an unpopular indie pop musician, I spent a lot of time in vans. My first band had a modified Dodge shuttle bus that kind of always felt like it was on the verge of exploding but looked good in our music video. It didn’t have air conditioning, and I’m sure it smelled strange, but it was home for a few years. By that, I mean we literally slept it in 90% of the nights we were on tour (hence the smell.) My next band toured with a Ford cargo van that we think had a past life as a Stanley Steemer fleet vehicle. The quarters were a little tighter, but fortunately, we didn’t sleep in it (unless absolutely necessary.)

On one of Pretty & Nice’s tours, I got a chance to drive a Sprinter van. It belonged to Bobby Burg, a member of the midwestern indie outfit Joan of Arc, as well as dozens of other projects. I can’t remember how it happened, but one day, Bobby, who was touring solo, invited a couple of us to ride with him for the drive across Indiana. He let each of us take a shift, and I don’t even know how to describe the sensation of driving a Sprinter for the first time. 

You feel like you’re on a cloud. You’re very high up but also somehow very close to the road. It corners and accelerates like a much smaller vehicle. The entire time you’re driving a Sprinter, you forget how massive the vehicle you’re piloting is – but it never feels unwieldy (like a box truck.) It’s almost a miracle of engineering.

In my post-touring life, I briefly worked as a rebalancer for Hubway, the Boston bikeshare program. There were (I think) 8 Sprinters in the fleet, and even the “bad one” was so much better than my band’s van that it felt like a dream every time I turned the key. And I haven’t even touched on the most important thing about Sprinters: they can be whatever you need them to be. I’ve seen them modded into campers, offroad vehicles, mobile disaster response vehicles, and more. 

Sure, it’s not a Maybach, but you can’t put very many drumsets into a Maybach. 

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