2016 Digital Trends Car Awards

Ride along as we test 15 of this year's top cars to find the best of the best

Nowadays, talking about cars without talking about technology is telling half the story. No longer are cars merely platforms to display optional gadgets. Tech is woven into the automobile just as much as any other component, from laser headlights to digital gauge clusters, collision detection, and looming autonomy. There’s a lot to keep track of as the landscape of cars evolves. If it seems too much to grasp, fret not: Digital Trends’ stalwart crew of car journalists blends its passion for burgeoning tech with its love of the engineering marvels that make up the vehicles we love.

We have the opportunity to drive dozens of amazing cars each year, but without driving them back to back, determining the best in each class is nearly impossible. The Digital Trends Car Awards both celebrate the best cars we’ve driven this year, and give us a chance to see what they’re made of — on equal footing.

This year, we brought 15 of our favorites to Portland, Oregon, where the crew reacquainted themselves with these standout vehicles. We each took turns driving the nominees through the bustling city, along winding highways, and down narrow country roads. Our performance cars even got to stretch their legs beyond the legal limits on Oregon Raceway Park’s twisty track.

For assistance we called on former All Pro Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks star running back Marshawn Lynch — better known as Beast Mode to his friends and fans. Sure, his car of choice is an ’86 Civic, but cut him some slack: Marshawn Lynch loves cars. And we invited Tim Walbridge, president of luxury custom car retailer 503 Motoring and a longtime DT friend, to join the crew.

Picking a winner for each category was still no easy task. With plenty of deliberating to do, the DT Autos team did what we always do when not driving — we poured some drinks, and sat down to argue.

Categories:

Daily Driver

Each nominee could easily fall into a specialty category, but these are the everyday heroes that are relatively attainable and could easily be someone’s daily driver. It sounds easy, but making a car well-rounded enough to win this category is an incredible challenge.

Nominees

Mazda MX-5

The Mazda MX-5 almost needs no introduction. The Miata has shown stunning endurance throughout the years, mainly due to how well it satisfies even the most stalwart gearhead with the purity of its driving experience. The latest generation of the roadster sharpens its oft-maligned looks, can be packed with optional tech, and introduces a host of refinements to carry on doing what it does best: making driving fun.

Chevrolet Camaro

Chevrolet’s Camaro debuts its sixth-generation pony car for 2016. Love it or leave it, the previous generation undoubtedly brought the Camaro back from the dead like a phoenix, but it wasn’t without its issues. This new generation surprised us thoroughly. It streamlined the interior, improved the clutch-feel on the manual version, and making use of an incredibly balanced platform.

Honda Civic Coupe

The Honda Civic Coupe easily makes our list, carrying a legacy that splits daily functionality with sporty enthusiasm. Its recent redesign hammers home the fact that affordability doesn’t mean skimping on looks.

Winner

Honda Civic Coupe Daily Driver Award

Honda Civic Coupe

We all genuinely like the Camaro and all the improvements that the sixth generation brought, and our admiration for the pure driving experience the MX-5 caters to is well known. However, the Civic Coupe offered updated looks, utility, and accessible sportiness. We liked how well-rounded it was compared to the other nominees, and doing these things exceptionally put it on top, making it our daily driver hero.

Alternative Energy

Our collection of alternative energy vehicles is the most sensible group of cars DT brought out for testing. These are probably not emblazoned on the posters gracing your garage walls, but they are the high-tech trailblazers introducing fuel-saving technology the world really needs.

Nominees

Chevrolet Volt

Like its Camaro cousin, the Chevrolet Volt enters a new generation with a host of improvements including sharper looks, increased range, a lighter body, and better handling. All these make for an EV we’d be happy to have in our driveway.

Audi A3 E-Tron

The Audi A3 E-Tron approaches the hybrid concept not from the ground up, but by starting with a car that’s already proven its quality, then adding the automaker’s E-Tron technology into the mix. The result is a fantastic car that just also happens to be a plug-in.

Toyota Prius

Toyota’s Prius is almost synonymous with hybrids, and the automaker’s latest version builds on that success. Its updated design, intelligent safety systems, connectivity features, and potential 56 mpg makes it an obvious contender in this category.

Winner

Chevy Volt Alt Energy Award

Chevrolet Volt

We all agreed that in our alternative energy category, the Audi E-Tron was the best car, it just wasn’t the best hybrid. That was easily the Toyota Prius, which probably used a thimble of fuel throughout our testing, but didn’t offer up much in the way of excitement. Chevrolet’s Volt, with its more understated look, enjoyable handling, and 420-mile range, cruised efficiently away with our award. It balances performance with its hybrid-enabled efficiency, and didn’t make us feel like we were losing out on either, which made it a solid winner.

SUV

SUVs have come to dominate U.S. roads, not just due to their versatility, but because these days, they can be extremely enjoyable for drivers and passengers alike.

Nominees

Volvo XC90

Volvo’s XC90 is a great example of how automakers can still surprise us with unique approaches to conventional segments. The T8 plug-in Hybrid boasts a list of tech and safety features too long to get into here, as well as a combined 400-horsepower supercharged and turbocharged 2.0-liter engine when backed up by its electric motor. It would sound ludicrous if it didn’t work so well. It is also an SUV so stunning that it upstages luxury vehicles in every segment.

Honda Pilot

It might seem like the Honda Pilot is in strange company, but most of the tech features in the other cars featured in this category can also be found in the Honda, and at a much more attainable price. With an 8-inch gesture-controlled touchscreen, a palpable ‘Lane Keeping Assist’ system, and tons of convenience features, it’s fully loaded with enough stuff to keep you happy, and a versatile people mover.

Audi Q7

The Audi Q7 is a prime example of how having a utility vehicle doesn’t mean giving up driving enjoyment. Boasting Audi’s Quattro technology, a 3.0-liter TFSI supercharged V6, and tech like the Virtual Cockpit, you might forget momentarily that you’re in a car meant to hold five to seven passengers along with their cargo.

Winner

Volvo XC90 SUV Award

Volvo XC90

Our SUV category had tighter competition than any other. The Audi Q7 had been the diligent workhorse behind the scenes as camera car and support vehicle, and it had the best dynamic performance on the road. Honda’s Pilot was able to hold its own as well, with its tech-laden interior and boatloads of space. In the end, the stunning-looking XC90 won the award, as well as our hearts. Apart from its standout looks, the interior wood, leather, and metal touch-points were remarkably elegant. Its smooth ride, dynamic sound system, and intuitive tablet-style touchscreen interface made for an enjoyable, unique experience. Add in loads of safety- and efficiency-improving tech that doesn’t sacrifice power, and it’s clear why the Volvo was our pick for winner.

Luxury

Picking our favorite luxury car is admittedly a bit of a bourgeois task, but somebody has to do it. As the old saying goes, if you have it, flaunt it, and our pick of 2016’s top luxury vehicles have plenty to boast about.

Nominees

Jaguar XF

Jaguar’s XF pairs British racing enthusiasm with its mastery of luxury, resulting in an exquisite four-door that doesn’t skimp on performance. It can be driven at a gentle pace, but the temptation to fully utilize the supercharged 3.0-liter V6 is often too strong to ignore.

BMW 750i

The BMW 750i goes for the “more is more” approach, loading the sedan with all sorts of gadgets such as removable Samsung tablets, and features like a “Vitality Program,” which makes the Bimmer’s back seat a mobile spa visit. Coupling all that with the 4.4-liter twin-turbo V8 under the hood makes it tough to decide whether to sit behind the wheel or lounge in back.

Cadillac CT6

The CTS-V is a nice, musclebound distraction, but let’s not forget Cadillac is all about luxury. The CT6 is the automaker’s new flagship that is as quiet as a bank vault when you want it to be, or as loud as an opera house when you don’t, thanks to the 34-speaker Panaray stereo system. Tech like the haptic feedback and integrated rear camera mirror benefit the driver, while the connectivity features — and smooth ride — make the CT6 a delight for anyone along for the journey.

Winner

Cadillac CT6 Luxury Award

Cadillac CT6

The BMW had the most tricks up its sleeve, but almost to its detriment. The Jaguar XF was comfortable no matter where you sat, but its superior driving performance and pared-down interior appointments made it clear that it favored driver satisfaction over the passenger. Cadillac’s CT6 integrates its tech with much more subtlety, drives incredibly smooth, and comfortably coddles passengers. Upfront, the streamlined, customizable gauge cluster gives the driver everything they need, while haptic alerts provide an enhanced awareness that typical proximity sensor-triggered beeping doesn’t match. Innovative tech like the rear-view camera, which shows up as a feed in your rear-view mirror, makes maneuvers, safe, easy, and enjoyable.

Performance

Forget how handy they are for carrying people and groceries, these cars are all about going fast. Our picks are paragons of strength, speed, and agility.

Nominees

Mercedes AMG GT S

The Mercedes AMG GT S is the automaker’s latest and greatest grand tourer. Equipped with a 4.0-liter twin turbo V8, this ludicrously luxurious car is deemed good enough to join the Formula 1 grid as a safety car. Solidly crafted, the GT S is a serious performer, but that doesn’t mean it’s above having a good time.

Lamborghini Huracán 580-2

A follow-up to the Gallardo, the Lamborghini Huracán is already rewriting the records set by its wildly successful predecessor. The all-wheel drive 610-4 might be better suited for the track, but this 580-2 still gets the job done, and its rear-drive focus makes it all the more exhilarating. If the Gallardo was Lambo’s lighting in a bottle, then the Huracán’s a goddamn thunderstorm.

Ford Shelby GT350R

The Ford Shelby GT350R is about as meat-and-potatoes as supercars go: clutch, stick, a whopping 5.2-liter V8, and not much else. That brute force approach to performance doesn’t mean it’s all muscle and no brains, though. Aerodynamic design and a host of lightweight materials such as all-carbon-fiber wheels compliment the meticulous engineering found throughout the chassis. Make no mistake, this car isn’t out there to make you look like a rock star. If you want to get the most out of this Mustang, you’ll have to tame it first.

Winner

Mustang GT350R Performance Award

Ford Shelby GT350R

When it came down to our performance cars, we all agreed that the Lamborghini was the most exciting and the Mercedes AMG GT S was the most fun to toss around the track, but the Ford Shelby GT350R was the most satisfying around the circuit. It didn’t have much in the way of amenities, and it wasn’t the most comfortable on long journeys, but the mighty Mustang stunned us with just how capable it was when it was finally free to cut loose.

The engine delivered amazing, raw power that was perfectly balanced with its performance-tuned suspension. Throughout our testing, the car adhered to the track like it was glued to it, never giving us a sense that we were pushing its limits. With a six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, and tons of horsepower on offer, the car’s purist setup wasn’t there to complement the driver. Instead, those behind the wheel had to demonstrate a certain skill level, which the car magnified, making you feel amazing after track maneuvers. After all, you earned it.

In-car tech

If we’re not talking about technology in cars, we’re only telling half of the story. When it comes to entertainment, safety, or connectivity, technology is as big a part of the automobile nowadays as the drivetrain, and these were our favorite gizmos among the gears.

Nominees

Cadillac CT6 – Rear camera mirror

Cadillac packed loads of exciting and useful tech into the CT6, but what impressed us the most was the rear camera mirror. This takes your regular analog mirror and turns it into a high-def wide view of the space behind you. The feature lets you see 300 percent more, and won’t be obstructed by anything or anyone in the back seat. It’s certainly one of those “why didn’t we think of this before?” kind of gadgets.

Audi Q7 – Audi Virtual Cockpit 

Warping the classic instrument cluster several years into the future is the Audi Virtual Cockpit, a 12.3-inch driver-focused display that is the driver’s source for car info, 3D maps, and a myriad more functions. It isn’t the only fully digital gauge display on the block, but it is arguably the best.

BMW 750i – All of it

There is a gluttonous amount of tech to be found in the BMW, and while it was almost too much for the sake of luxury, for tech toy nerds, it was a playground with gesture controls that sense your hand movements in the air, Touch Command tablets to rifle through all the features, and apps to control the car while outside of it.

Winner

bmw 750i in car tech award

BMW 750i

Seriously, there are a lot of gadgets in this thing, and they all create levels of excitement that made us exclaim “Did you see that?!” each time we discovered a new one. We knew we were in for a treat the very moment we were handed the unique, futuristic display key, which had us tinkering with car functions and status menus before we even sat in it. The first time we wound a finger in the air to change the volume, we were amazed, and we chuckled gleefully as we controlled every aspect of the interior with the 7-inch removable tablet from our massaging passenger seats. As far as tech toy boxes go, this one is hard to beat.

Engine

At the literal heart of every car tested is a meticulously crafted engine designed for efficiency, power, or as a component of an intricate hybrid system. During our testing, a few stood out from the rest.

Nominees

Volvo XC90 – T8

As with everything else, Volvo took its own unique approach to engine design with the T8, throwing in a little bit of everything instead of just picking the best choice. Want to add a supercharger or some turbos? How about direct injection? Maybe hybridize it with an electric motor? Volvo took all of these things, added them to a 2.0-liter four cylinder, and made motoring magic.

Ford Shelby GT350R – 5.2 liter V8

The Shelby GT350R’s powerful 5.2-liter V8 is old school done right. Producing 526 horsepower and 429 pound-feet of torque, this booming power plant was equally as good at putting smiles on our faces as it was propelling the Mighty Mustang around the track.

Audi Q7 – 3.0-liter TFSI

The 3.0 liter TFSI engine in the Audi Q7 is a six-cylinder workhorse that dutifully delivers both comfort and power. It cranks out 333 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque effortlessly, and still managed to return a combined 21 mpg at the end of the day.

Winner

Ford Shelby GT350R 5.2 liter V8 engine award

Shelby GT350R

For all the technical marvels we had on hand, the Shelby’s 5.2-liter V8 powered its way to the top of the list with sheer brute force. The stellar engineering that went into this classic engine style comes through every time it roars down the road, and opening the throttle is a pure, visceral joy. Trends in engine development may now favor smaller engines affixed with turbochargers to score a balance between power and fuel efficiency, but nothing is more satisfying than a big ol’ V8. Power arrives instantly on demand with the press of the pedal, and the sonic blast that fires out the back of the Shelby is so powerful you might think the car is being propelled by sound alone, if you didn’t know better. If the V8’s days are numbered, it is a privilege to spend time with one of its finest examples.

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