In 2008, Michigan launched a campaign to celebrate its many natural wonders (and promote tourism). The hook: Pure Michigan. “Two Peninsulas, One Pure Michigan.” That kind of stuff. You can get T-shirts and masks. The branding was slapped on freeway signs and bottles of water and other products. Tim Allen narrated the ads.
The state cut funding to the program during the great budget fights of 2019, but natural wonders don’t quickly fade away, even if money does. And so, when 2020 went south and we were forced to stay close to home, we put Michigan to work. Michigan didn’t disappoint.
We photographed the Ford Bronco at an ORV park internet snoops believed was a testing facility in the Arizona desert. We tried to sink a Land Rover Defender in Lake Huron. We cruised sand dunes and shorelines. We filled a vending machine–not necessarily all that natural a wonder, but a good setting–with the 10Best cars and trucks of 2021. Here’s how we illustrated a year of uncertainty, using every trick in the book.
Beaver Island sits 32 miles off the coast of Charlevoix, Michigan, and is only accessible via plane or two-hour ferry ride across Michigan’s second-largest Great Lake, Lake Michigan. Perhaps the most curious part of the island’s history is the story of a self-declared Mormon king in the mid-1800s. James Strang arrived in 1848, and he and his followers built roads and founded the town of St. James. The good times didn’t last, however, and he was assassinated in 1856.
Anyhow, we also landed on Beaver Island, though only for a weekend. We brought along Audi’s A6 Allroad. Beaver Island has about 100 miles of road, with awesome coastal dirt paths that parallel the sunrise or sunset. It was a good place to test the car’s Allroad driving mode, which raises the body more than an inch over its normal ride height. We made it back home without a scratch.
The first step to finding the best location is finding the best lunch spot. For the Polestar 2, we needed a place that could fill our bellies and batteries. Leaving our headquarters in Ann Arbor with 100-percent charge meant the Polestar potentially had 190 miles of range, but we needed a good portion of that to get to our destination first. After hustling the 408-hp Polestar 2 roughly 65 miles to East Lansing and Michigan State University, we were left with only 51 percent of battery. Our pace on the highway ate up more range than we expected. Lucky for us, there’s a killer ramen place not far from a ChargePoint charging station on MSU’s campus. Take-out only? No problem.
After lunch, we shot photos under one of MSU’s solar array carports. They’ve covered five of their largest commuter lots with solar panels, and are designed to generate 15 million kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. Although the Polestar 2 doesn’t wow with it’s range, it’s still fun to drive and looks stylish. We found its Android Automotive operating system for the infotainment intuitive, and the rest of the interior to be gorgeous by design. Hey Google, where’s a good place for second-lunch?
A voice from the car next to us asked, “So, how do yah like that Jeep truck, eh?” Spoken like a true Yooper, the Upper Peninsula‘s residents are known as. We traveled 440 miles from our office to Marquette as the fall colors exploded in early October. We were in a rush to accumulate miles on our long-term vehicles. What better way to explore the historic mining town than with our new Jeep Gladiator Mojave arrival?
We stuffed the Gladiator’s five-foot bed with camping gear and empty growlers to cash in on both the most beautiful part of Michigan and its wealth of local breweries. It doesn’t take long to climb scenic overlooks like Sugarloaf Mountain and Mt. Marquette to find spectacular views of Lake Superior. During our secluded camping adventure we used ORV trails to test the strength and feel of the Mojave’s Fox internal-bypass dampers and secondary hydraulic front jounce dampers. The added 1.0-inch of suspension lift and special dampening meant even the wilder portions of the trail never concerned us, even after crawling over a fallen paper birch tree on trails near County Road 550.
When we needed that shimmer only a city could give us, we turned to the deepest concrete jungle relative to our office—the Motor City. Once home to a 2.5-mile Formula 1 street circuit, the streets of Detroit are just as bumpy and tumultuous as they’ve ever been. Today, IMSA and IndyCar race on Belle Isle between downtown and the U.S.-Canada border. The Woodward Dream Cruise lives on as a smokey parade of car enthusiasts young and old.
We brought our own street fight to Detroit during our Ford Mustang and Toyota Supra comparison test. A turbo four-cylinder showdown between two cars that represent an almost extinct segment in America: real-wheel-drive performance cars. In an old-school stop-light launch, the Supra beats the Mustang to a quarter-mile by five-tenths of a second despite having 75 less horsepower. Sometimes bigger isn’t always better.
We didn’t mind spending a few hours driving to Muskegon along Lake Michigan to photograph Porsche’s hottest Boxster. The wind on these beaches gets strong enough that people living along Beach St., shovel sand instead of cut grass. It’s common to see yard signs that read “free sand” after big storms. In 2017, a weather station near the beach recorded 88 mph gusts before its gauge stopped working. It’s no Long Beach, California, but it’s a lot closer to the office and there are 100 percent fewer sharks.
When we tested the Porsche 718 Boxster GTS 4.0, everyone raved about how much fun it was to drive. It’s no surprise a 394-hp flat-six that revs to 7800 rpm would generate such joy.
Drummond Island is the second largest island in the Great Lakes. With miles of ORV and ATV trails, it’s a limestone paradise, with plenty of mud and hardwoods thriving on top of its hard-rock surface.
We brought a Jeep, but only for storage as we shot the new Land Rover Defender. The photographer, John Roe, knew he wanted to capture the remoteness of Drummond Island by highlighting its 150 miles of shoreline, but he’s no mermaid. Lucky for us, Roe climbed into a pair of fly fishing waders and walked sternum-deep into Lake Huron to get the shot. For reference, the Land Rover Defender 110 SE has a max fording depth of 35.4 inches.
During the Cold War, Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda was a hub for nuclear-armed B-52s. The giant grass-roof-style bunker silos that were built to fool spying satellites are still there today, though the base was officially decommissioned in 1993. Now it’s 11,800-foot runway is mostly used by former drag racer Connie Kalitta’s cargo airliner business.
We didn’t gain access to the runway, but we piloted a ballistic BMW M8 Competition through the hills and along the Au Sable river near Oscoda in the Huron National Forest. The all-wheel-drive M8 is a heavy bomber in its own right, weighing 4251 pounds with a 617-hp twin-turbo V-8 for firepower. During our testing, the M8 Competition reached 60 mph in just 2.5 seconds, making it one of the quickest cars we’ve ever tested.
Volunteer spy photo sleuths poured over initial drone images of the Ford Bronco testing before it was unveiled in July. Amateur investigators concluded Ford was testing the new off-roader at their Arizona Proving Grounds in Wittmann. To no one’s surprise, the internet was wrong. The desert sand was actually Michigan dirt from Holly Oaks ORV Park. We know, because we were there. Riding in it.
Both Bronco and Bronco Sport were there, and although they were prototypes, it was still a very real look at both highly-anticipated models. From the 20 minutes we spent riding in them, we were convinced the new Bronco is very good news for people looking to an alternative to the Jeep Wrangler. Not only does the Bronco have more interior space than the Jeep, Ford offers 35-inch tires for the Sasquatch package. Unfortunately, Ford says the customers won’t begin to receive their 2021 Bronco until summer 2021 due to supplier issues.
Traverse City offers both wine tours and downhill skiing; not at the same time of course. But we didn’t drive to the far northwestern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula to drink grapes. The classy settings around Traverse City gave us plenty of opportunity to get a feel for three $50,000 sports sedans during our luxurious comparison test.
Each car in the test were turbocharged four-cylinders with at least 300 horsepower and sub 4.4-second zero-to-60-mph acceleration times. The BMW M235i xDrive Gran Coupe had the cheapest as-tested price at $50,795 and quickest acceleration of 4.2-seconds to 60 mph. The Mercedes-AMG A35 4Matic was runner-up, with the most grip at 0.99 g on Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires, and the lighter than the comparo winner by 115 pounds. In first place, the 325-hp Cadillac CT4-V was not only the most powerful, it was the fastest with a top speed of 164 mph. It stopped the quickest too. The CT4-V’s amazing cornering dynamics are a leap ahead of the others, and was the only rear-wheel-drive car in the group.
The 1980s were a blast in the car world. Porsche 959, Lamborghini Countach, Jeep Cherokee XJ, second-generation Mazda RX-7, and the Volkswagen GTI. And that was just the beginning. The Rabbit GTI blew us away then with its rev-happy 90-hp inline-four and sub $8000 starting price. A car then that gave us everything we wanted, and a car today that we expect everything else to have.
We borrowed Volkswagen’s museum car to illustrate the GTI during our giant Greatest Cars of All Time feature. The 1983 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI was one of our picks, and it also earned a spot on our 10Best that same year. Staff photographer Marc Urbano used the magic of slow shutter speeds and suction cups to get this wicked action shot of the GTI making its rounds through the grassy neighborhoods of Birmingham.
Who could’ve predicted that one day people would be buying their next car from a towering glass vending machine? Carvana is an online-only used car website that replaces a physical car dealer, or even the hassle of dealing with weirdos from Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. If it’s valued between $7000 to $100,000 it’s on there. Click on it, check it out, spend your money, and they will deliver your new car to your driveway like it’s a pizza. (Carvana is available at 261 markets in 31 states plus Washington, D.C. at the time of this writing). If you want it like a bag of Pop-Tarts, you can meet a representative at the Carvana glass case and take delivery there. No, kicking the side of the building won’t drop an extra car. We tried.
Every year, our 10Best picks showcase the best cars and trucks of the year, so what better way to show them off than to sneak our favorite flavors into a Carvana machine?
The Silver Lake Sand Dunes are the closest thing Michigan has to a Sahara. You may remember when we conducted a comparison test of off-road beaters a few years ago at the same spot. This year we undertook more serious business, as the title for the best high-performance off-road deluxe pickup was at stake. Spoiler alert: The truck with 702 horsepower won.
Don’t expect the fight to be so one-sided for long, as a next-generation Ford F-150 Raptor is in the works. Ford will have to offer some serious power if it hopes to take the title of quickest truck ever from the Ram 1500 TRX.