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2021 AutoGuide.com Car of the Year: Meet the Contenders

Our annual awards are back, with a new format and more categories!

After what felt like the longest year ever, it’s time to separate the merely good from the great. Yes, it’s time for our 2021 AutoGuide.com Car of the Year Awards.


For more 2021 AutoGuide.com Awards information, check out the other categories:


Cars are still a big deal for a lot of consumers. They’re more fuel efficient, lighter—meaning less wear and tear on parts—and generally more affordable than their crossover siblings. While we said goodbye to a lot of models in 2020, there were also plenty of bright new additions to the humble three-box segment.

We saw both the Nissan Sentra and Hyundai Elantra debut in the compact segment. The Mazda3, new for last year, gained a more powerful turbo engine, further emphasizing its march upmarket. A size up, two very different takes on the same essential mid-size sedan platform appeared in the Hyundai Sonata and Kia K5. Both feature plenty of tech, consumer-friendly pricing, and smooth driving experiences. Hyundai went a step further and produced a sportier N-Line model, with a full 290 horsepower funnelling through the front wheels.

As always, this isn’t a direct comparison. What matters here is fit for purpose: how each car accomplishes its goals in its respective class, and how much they raise the bar there. Ideally, they even advance the industry standards across the board, be it in value, styling, technology, or performance. Most importantly, we’ve only included cars our team has actually driven. 2020 delayed a lot of product roll-outs, and while that’s unfortunate, it meant cutting a few models we might’ve initially planned to include earlier in the year.

For Car and Utility of the year, we’ve split the award into Overall, Mainstream, and Luxury sub-categories. You’ll find the eight Car of the Year finalists below, in alphabetical order. Our team will vote on each category over the coming weeks, and we’ll announce the winners early February. Stay tuned!

Car of the Year (Mainstream)

2021 Hyundai Elantra

All new for 2021, the Elantra is aiming for no less than class leadership. Longer, lower, and wider than the car it replaces, the Hyundai’s fractal-like styling won’t please everyone, but the ample space it offers inside sure will. The interior is light and airy, and top models feature a combined digital instrument panel and infotainment screen, like a Merc A-Class for 40 percent less cash.

SEE ALSO: 2021 Hyundai Elantra Review: First Drive

In regular gas-engined trims, the Elantra offers a smooth ride with a big-car feeling. Those wanting even more fuel efficiency can opt for a hybrid model. Rather make performance a priority? A warmer, turbocharged N-Line is available, and a raucous full-on N model will touch down some time next year. The Honda Civic should watch its back.

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2021 Hyundai Sonata

2020 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid front quarter

Hyundai introduced the new Sonata late last year as a 2020 model, and during the calendar year, continued to flesh out the mid-size lineup. What hasn’t changed are those dramatic looks: like the Elantra, they’re not to everyone’s tastes. It’s certainly distinctive though, with the clever hidden DRLs in the chrome strips on the hood making this an easy car to spot at night.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Review

It’s this year’s new models that really set the Sonata apart in its class. The Hybrid (as seen above) offers a stellar 47 mpg average, a theoretical range over 600 miles, and a very cool solar panel roof. Contributor Chris Tonn called it “one of the best cars I’ve driven for a long day in the saddle.” On the other end of the spectrum is the naughty N-Line model. With 290 horsepower sent through only the front wheels, it’s shockingly fast for what looks, essentially, like a regular sedan. N-Line drivers can revel in one of the year’s most understated performance models, and as ever with Hyundai, it’s a deal, too.

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2021 Kia K5

There’s another Korean car standing in the way of the Sonata’s run for the crown, however. It’s the Kia K5, which shares the same platform. Despite that, the K5 feels completely different from its sibling, in no small part thanks to its unique drivetrain. Kia offers the K5 with AWD (standard in Canada), something the Sonata doesn’t do, which should please those in colder climes.

SEE ALSO: 2021 Kia K5 GT-Line AWD Review: A Covetable Mainstream Sedan?

The Kia’s daring exterior looks are arguably more appealing to more people, too. There’s a hint of Stinger here, from the low nose to the quasi-fastback profile. Inside, K5 passengers are treated to a stylish, well-thought-out interior with practical solutions to everyday issues and solid quality. A big 10.25-inch touchscreen is as easy to read as it is to use.

Just one engine option exists for now: the ubiquitous 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. That changes early next year, when the K5 GT touches down, packing the same 2.5-liter turbocharged four as—yep, you guessed it—the Sonata N-Line.

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2021 Mazda3 Turbo

The Mazda3 has felt like a car trying to live two lives since the fourth-gen model debuted last year. It’s incredibly stylish, and the interior does a better job of feeling premium than most actual luxury marques. But even with the top 2.5-liter engine, it didn’t have the power to compete. That changed this year, when Mazda dropped the turbocharged version of the engine in the 3’s low, low hood. Hello 250 horsepower, and a stout 320 lb-ft of torque when running on the premium drink.

SEE ALSO: 2021 Mazda3 Sport 2.5 Turbo Review: First Drive

Long-time Mazda fans may cry foul here, as the Turbo isn’t a proper follow-up for the wild Mazdaspeed3 of yesteryear. That’s not the 2021 Mazda3 Turbo’s jam: it’s a more mature approach, with stable AWD instead of the torque-steering front-drive setup. It’s composed, yet still entertaining on a backroad, and feels every inch a viable option for those not satisfied with the Audi A3 or BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe.

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2021 Nissan Sentra

We’ll be straight with you here: the previous Sentra was the butt of a lot of jokes around the office halls. It had few redeeming qualities: it was dull, underpowered, felt cheap, and looked awkward. That’s what makes the new car so impressive: it’s a huge leap forward, and we can actually see ourselves recommending it beyond a massive end-of-year discount.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Nissan Sentra Review: Big Car Feel, Small Car Price

For starters, the Sentra looks great now. Nissan dropped the roofline and stretched the car’s length and width, resulting in strong proportions. Space is ample front and back, and there’s an enormous trunk out back. A 2.0-liter engine provides a fine amount of thrust (149 hp and 146 lb-ft), with a CVT ensuring high fuel efficiency in the city and on the highway. Higher trims bring in quilted leather seats, which are a rarity in the compact car segment.

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Car of the Year (Luxury)

2021 Acura TLX

Acura promised a return to fun with the second-generation TLX. While the real fun will arrive next year, with a high-performance Type S, it was important the Japanese luxury brand get the fundamentals right here. Mission accomplished, then. Starting under $40,000 (or around $45,000 CAD), the new TLX has a stronger dynamic profile than before, in large part thanks to its updated SH-AWD system. A standard 2.0-liter turbo engine is par for the class, but it’s a stronger four-pot than most out there, putting out a healthy 272 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque through a 10-speed automatic transmission.

SEE ALSO: 2021 Acura TLX A-Spec Review: Making the Grade

Luxury buyers demand more than good handling, however. The TLX has a roomy interior—though maybe not as much as its larger exterior dimensions suggest—positively stuffed with high-quality materials. A dramatic new center console makes the car’s mission clear right from the get-go, prioritizing a drive mode select system over pretty much everything else. Fun is back at Acura, and we couldn’t be happier about it.

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2021 Cadillac CT5-V

Cadillac is in the midst of (another) revamp, and that includes a new sedan lineup. There’s the smaller CT4, meant to take on the luxury sub-compact crowd, and this, the CT5. We’ve put forward the CT5-V here, a different, more sedate take on the V sub-brand. “Sedate” is a relative term: it’s not packing a fire-breathing supercharged V8 from the CTS-V this car ostensibly replaced, but the CT5-V still has a strong (and sweet-sounding) turbocharged V6.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Cadillac CT5-V Review: My Name is My Name

At 360 horsepower and 405 lb-ft of torque, the new engine blends more naturally with the rest of the CT5-V’s package. It allows the chassis more opportunity to shine, with a balance that allows drivers to get more out of the car without travelling at extra-legal speeds. Rear-wheel drive is standard, but Cadillac offers both V-Series sedans with AWD as well. Inclement weather won’t get in the way of having fun in these four-doors.

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2021 Genesis G80

The G80 is the car that launched Genesis. So it’s a big deal that now, four years later, we’re getting a second-generation model. A clean-sheet design, this svelte four-door also adopts the brand’s new styling language, with a swanky, swooping roofline and that unmistakable quad-bar face.

Buyers have two engine and drivetrain options for the G80, like its platform-mate the GV80, the brand’s first SUV. A 2.5-liter four-cylinder and 3.5-liter V6, both turbocharged, hook up to an eight-speed auto, with power going to either the rear axle or both. Both engines put out competitive power figures (300 hp in the four-pot, 375 hp for the V6), but we’re fans of the bigger engine. It suits the big G80, gifting it with effortless passing power and lots of low-down grunt.

SEE ALSO: 2021 Genesis G80 Review: First Drive

Arguably the G80’s best features is its interior. Boldly styled, it’s a luxurious place to be for front- or back-row occupants, with acres of leather and open-pore wood. A whole new infotainment system is pretty and easy to use, thanks to multiple input options and snappy responses. And instead of only offering black, gray, or beige, Genesis includes actual color options for the interior. More cars should have blue leather.

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