COVID-19 disrupted but didn’t cancel some of 2020’s biggest product debuts and tech advances, but we did detect one major shift — changes and updates seem to be coming faster inside, under the hood, even in the drivetrain, than outside.
We’ve rounded up some of the year’s breakout hits, as well as a few misses.
HIT: Ford Bronco family
The return of Ford’s Wrangler rival generated online buzz and a strong preorder bank. But perhaps the biggest validation of what became Ford’s odyssey to resurrect the Bronco nameplate came when General Motors reportedly lamented that it’s missing the latest round of Detroit’s off-road battles featuring Jeep and Ford. The Bronco may now be delayed until summer 2021, but the Bronco Sport appears to be off to a strong start.
HIT: Land Rover Defender 110
This was one of the most anticipated reboots of 2020, and like just about everything else this year, it didn’t go as planned. The pandemic shut Land Rover’s Nitra, Slovakia, plant just as Defender production was ramping up. Still, demand has been brisk globally and is likely to remain so as output of the smaller Defender 90 begins.
HIT: Ineos Grenadier
For those still pining for the original Defender, an all-new off-road vehicle that looks like that classic is expected to start production late next year at a former Daimler plant in France. The Grenadier is a close copy of the original Land Rover Defender that went out of production in 2016. But it is powered by a BMW engine and has modern underpinnings. And it should deliver what the old Defenders failed to — a waterproof and windproof ride.
HIT: Chevrolet Trailblazer
Who says GM’s mass-market brand is only good at sports cars and big trucks? The Trailblazer, which starts under $20,000, has quietly become one of the industry’s fastest-turning nameplates in an increasingly crowded and surging segment — small crossovers.
HIT: Tesla Model Y
Launched in early 2020, it’s on track to become Tesla’s top seller worldwide. In 2015, the EV specialist missed the mark with its overweight, falcon-winged Model X. But with the Y, it enters the hot compact crossover segment with a more affordable vehicle, which helped it earn small profits through at least the first three quarters of the pandemic year.
HIT: Cadillac Escalade OLED screen
By borrowing organic light-emitting diode technology commonly found in high-end TVs and consumer electronics, the 38-inch screen sets the standard for high-definition clarity in automotive screens.
HIT: New maneuverability
Rivian was first to demonstrate the new performance possibilities that multiple electric motors are capable of: The R1T can “tank turn” in place by spinning the wheels on the left and right of the vehicle in opposite directions. GMC’s Hummer EV, set for a fall 2021 launch, can go into Crab Mode with rear-wheel steering that enables diagonal driving in extremely tight areas.
HIT: Polestar 2
The compact electric sedan from Volvo’s cousin takes a leap in connectivity with the first use in a production model of Google’s Android Automotive OS, which powers its infotainment system. It includes voice-controlled Google Assistant, Google Play Store, Google Maps and other services.
HIT: General Motors Ultium batteries
This may be the breakthrough that brings the cost of electric vehicles in line with those powered by gasoline. GM says the Ultium batteries, which will launch in the GMC Hummer EV, will cost about $100 per kilowatt- hour, deliver as much as 400 miles between charges, are capable of fast charging and are designed to be installed in packs either horizontally or vertically. And they’re good enough for Honda Motor Co.
HIT: Hyundai Nexo fuel cell vehicle
A stunning achievement when you consider it is one of the most difficult powertrains to engineer and operate as smoothly, quietly and seamlessly as a battery-electric vehicle. Nicely packaged and integrated, as well. And it’s whisper quiet despite the electrochemical power plant inside.
HIT: Ford F-150 PowerBoost
The first hybrid electric powertrain in a Ford truck is a winner. The electric motor propels the truck at low speeds, the start-stop system is virtually imperceptible, and the big battery can power tools and household appliances.
MISS Toyota Supra
The long-awaited collaboration between BMW and Toyota is, of course, technically excellent. However, the car’s styling has been called out for being unnecessarily busy, and the timing of its launch could not have been worse. It arrived about the same time as the midengine Chevrolet Corvette. Sales have been slow. Toyota launched a lower-priced four-cylinder model to help move the Supra away from direct competition with the Corvette.
MISS Ford Escape
The Escape is one of the industry’s bestselling nameplates for years. It was expected to attract even more customers who would have bought one of Ford’s discontinued cars such as the Focus or Fusion. It didn’t work out that way. Escape sales have collapsed in 2020, dropping from 226,064 through 11 months in 2019, to 161,123 sold this year. Perhaps some people would rather have a Bronco Sport?
MISS Nikola Badger
Is the Badger the opposite of an opossum? It’s arrival seemed exciting but upon further inspection, it was dead on arrival.
MISS BMW’s new mug
Call it Bangle Butt II. The new face of many BMWs to come — see the iX EV and 4 Series — gives the brand’s famed dual kidneys a buck-toothed makeover, drawing widespread disdain from many otherwise passionate BMW admirers.
MISS Jeep Grand Wagoneer
With a price tag that will top $100,000 — rare territory for most mainstream luxury brands — some find the revival of Jeep’s classic luxury four-by-four too busy, too gimmicky and underwhelming. The interior does depart nicely from current Jeeps with a two-spoke steering wheel and no fewer than four giant screens, including one for the front passenger. But is it good enough to look like the Renegade’s bigger brother?