leader 2013 top 5

So here we are again, at the end of 2013, and for our very last post of the year we’d like to continue on that begun last year – a Top Five list of the cars that more than caught our attention this particular calendar year.

Last year’s post was an exercise out of the ordinary, set about by the thought that it would provide you, the reader, with a better insight to what makes the editorial team here at paultan.org tick, and there’s no better way than coming up with a list like this. You’ll find that in the collective resides much individuality, as it rightly should be.

Again, we’ve set the marker at five, not because we have anything against going the usual route of 10, but to select five out of a host of new arrivals in any calendar year means having to be more selective about things – when first initiated, the idea was to encourage a more incisive thought process in going about the subject.

With that, here are the individual picks from the team, what each thought were the cars that got them going and stuck in the memory long after the music stopped. As always, we hope you enjoy reading it as much as we did writing it. Have a great end to the year, and we’ll see you in 2014!

JONATHAN JAMES TAN

Cars. They come in all shades, shapes and sizes for every person, purse and purpose, and I absolutely adore that about them. As such, my list is rather eclectic, consisting of two sedans, two SUVs and one coupe I consider my favourites of 2013 – each for a different reason.

5. Kia Cerato 1.6

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It isn’t a very exhilarating drive; nor has it the most tastefully-appointed cabin, but it’s so hard not to turn around and give it a second glance.

The Kia Cerato‘s shape has no more curves than angles, nor more kinks than straight lines – it is complexity, balance of proportion and sophistication rolled into one. And just look at the warm glow of the LED tail lamps at night.

Yes, the recurring themes here are comfort, solace and refinement – especially with the free-revving 1.6 litre Gamma engine under the bonnet. A car doesn’t always have to be dynamically adept to be nice to drive – it depends on how you define “nice.”

4. Hyundai Santa Fe 2.4 petrol

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No one’s more surprised by this decision than my diesel-loving self. Fearing that the Hyundai Santa Fe 2.2 CRDi would spoil me with its turbo power and 436 Nm worth of shove, I tried the petrol variant first, thinking I was saving the best for last.

The diesel is indeed faster and more frugal, but the considerably higher levels of NVH and the tall body’s acute reaction to all that torque made me miss the 2.4 Theta II’s smooth, quiet and linear operation. The petrol’s just so much more refined and gentle.

Practical, too – there’s lots of space, the second-row seats slide fore and aft, and air-con vents are provided for both second and third rows.

3. Ford Kuga

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It’s not on my list because it makes a great family SUV, or because you can do a “Look Ma, no hands!” with the tailgate – it’s here because I have not tried another crossover this year that drove more like a car, as opposed to a car on stilts.

The Ford Kuga‘s recipe for road-holding comprises a 1.6 litre EcoBoost engine with a healthy 180 PS and 240 Nm of twist, a smooth-shifting but alert six-speed auto, relatively firm suspension and a very taut body.

It may be over 200 mm taller and 200 kg heavier than the car on which it’s based, but it certainly hasn’t lost much focus.

2. Infiniti Q50

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How can a steering system with no mechanical connections between the wheel in your hand and those on the tarmac not feel like something made by Logitech?

My stints with the Infiniti Q50 S 3.7, Hybrid and S Hybrid in the US were very brief, but the Direct Adaptive Steering wasn’t keen on letting its talents go unnoticed. Feel, response, linearity, communication, weight – they’re all there, bettering those of some electric power steering systems too.

Inspired by this pleasant revelation, I gunned the handsome compact exec round a corner. The gradual step-out of the tail was reined in equally gradually and instinctively – all with the help of electronic signals. Now how’s that for a production first?

1. BMW M3 (E92)

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Some strange emotions brewed in me while I was driving the BMW M3 Coupe at Sepang. I’d just stepped out of the M5 and the M6 Gran Coupe, which are technically far superior, newer, better-equipped and much faster machines, but this one spoke to me in ways the others just couldn’t.

In its wonderfully linear, merciless and unadulterated high-pitched scream up to the 8,300 rpm redline, the M3 seemed to be giving the world one final blast before the sun set over it and the high-revving, free-breathing BMW V8 at its heart. I was both thrilled and sad at the same time.

Thanks to an all-turbo line-up, no one from Munich will ever sing like her again. I’m glad I made it to the farewell tour.

HAFRIZ SHAH

2013 has been a year of change for me – making the transition from the world of monthly print magazine that I’ve made my own to this bigger, more immediate online realm. Suddenly, news takes precedence over car testing, and in the few and far between moments of the latter, a much more thorough and comprehensive approach than before is needed.

Still, I’d be damned if I say I didn’t enjoy every passing moment of it, and here are the top five cars – three large sedans with varying degrees of sportiness and two new reincarnations of all-time-greats – that made my 2013 a stellar year.

5. Mazda6

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I’ll start off my list with the latest Mazda6, which I clearly adore. My first article on paultan.org was a review of this very car, in which I waxed lyrical of its smooth and silky dynamic abilities and quasi-premium details.

It’s one of very few everyday sedans that could take on Bukit Tinggi and not end up feeling second-rate. The otherwise-excellent Kia Cerato certainly failed that test, which explains its omission here.

A second look at it though our Driven Web Series saw it tumble against its class rivals in the back-seat department. But, I’d happily trade the new Accord’s business-class accommodation and comfort for the Mazda’s sleek looks and superior dynamic ability. Sex appeal sells, and the Six has plenty going for it.

4. Audi A6 hybrid

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The Proton Suprima S almost made it into my list. No, seriously. For all its faults, it’s a clear step forward for the local company, and it’s truly a fantastic steer. But for each of its fortes, there are two or three faults that water down the experience.

Back to those that did make the list, the direct opposite holds true for the Audi A6 hybrid. As for all of its blunders – small boot, disappointing drive – a host of other fine qualities make it a noteworthy class contender, not least its incredible value for money.

Yes, it’s more affordable than cheap, but it’s an Audi – a proper premium marque, not a mere wannabe, i.e. Volkswagen. A quick look at oto.my reveals a few “new” units going for more than the original list price. How’s that for good RV, eh?

3. BMW M6 Gran Coupe

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This is the big one, and I mean it both literally and metaphorically. BMW’s big and mean machine is the most powerful car I’ve had the pleasure of driving in 2013, and it left a big mark. All 560 hp worth of it.

Don’t get me wrong though, for the M6 Gran Coupe is about so much more than just power. It’s equally talented in cruising around, munching on miles around Munich than it is at bruising the twisty black stuff.

If anything, it’s the cruising, not bruising, that makes it so special in my books. It’s more comfortable than the BMW M5, yet is no less engaging to those who matter. It’s both Mental and Multi-faceted. It’s just Mega.

2. Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk7

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Having the latest Golf GTI in this list is a no-brainer. Without any exemptions, it’s the absolute best car I’ve driven this year. Bar none. So what’s it doing in second place, then? I’ll get to that in a minute.

Once again, the world’s King of hot-hatches has become better. In all aspects, I must add. The electric steering is much-improved (though not quite as good as the high of the Mk5 GTI’s hydraulic helm), and the way all the available power can be put to good use is beyond impressive.

More than that, it stays a perfectly usable family car that’s as good as the standard Golf 1.4 TSI, and that’s saying something. One small caveat – it needs the optional DCC adaptive suspension; you’d be mad to have one without it.

1. Peugeot 208 GTi

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So this, then, is the highlight of my 2013. Nevermind that the Golf GTI above shades it in every measurable manner (I drove them both through the same endlessly beautiful French Riviera roads), the Peugeot 208 GTi tickled my fancy more vigorously.

You see, I fully expected the Volkswagen to be good – and great it is – but this little French Fräulein truly left me surprised. After all, the base 208 is better known for its chic looks and premium features. Its dynamic prowess, less so.

To me, the fact that this hot version managed to shatter the form books in such a resounding fashion makes it the bigger, more momentous achievement. Better yet, it’s manual or nothing! Putting money where my mouth is, I’ve put my name down for one. 2013, I’m a big fan.

ANTHONY LIM

Quite a number of cars were memorable for me this year, and some of those that didn’t make the cut were far from slouches – the Golf GTI Mk7 and Ford Kuga, to name but two. But five is where the bump stops, and so an estate, an SUV, a sedan, a hatch and a coupe make up my selection. All have certainly impressed, one way or another.

5. Hyundai i40 Tourer

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Not since the Kia Optima (in its Oz suspension tune) has a Korean car caught my attention in such a manner. The i40 Tourer turned out to be a revelation when it came in for the Driven Web Series – I’ve always had a soft spot for estates, and this continues the roll. Never expected it to shape up as absorbingly as it did though.

The 2.0 GDI has plenty of punch, and best of all, it’s not zingy when you stand on things. The ride is the biggest surprise of all – it’s compliant without feeling spongy, and the overall coherency impresses as you pile on the miles. These days, taking the long route home with evaluation mules is a rare occurence, but I certainly did with this one, and not just once.

4. BMW ActiveHybrid 5

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Be it this or the previous generation 5er, everyone usually lusts after the wild, hot M sister, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t equally engaging – and less temperamental – siblings in the mix. For the E60, that happened to be the sterling 545i, and for the F10, the ActiveHybrid 5 is very much the pick of the ‘standard’ crop.

Twice, on two continents, has it bowled me over – plenty to love, from the oodles of accelerative push (the midband is especially winsome) to the tidy, taut character hiding under all that blue. I really don’t know about the saving the planet thing though, not when you’re going to be inclined to gun it all the time, but it promises to be one of the funnest shades of green to do so in. The ticket price ain’t cheap though.

3. C346 Ford Focus ST

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Sure, something like the Golf GTI Mk7 is a far sharper scalpel in terms of drive dynamics, and I remain taken by the Seven’s technical qualities, but it somehow never struck a chord with me emotionally the way the third-gen ST did when I finally saddled it in June.

Perhaps it’s a sign of age, but the less gilt-edged feel of the C346 ST works, and then some. Compliant, forgiving even, the softer focus (haha!) means it’s the sort of car you could putter around all day in and consider as front-line, everyday transport, despite its stick-shifter nature. That I’m signing on the dotted line for one tells you how old I’ve become.

2. Range Rover Sport – second-generation

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Never been a big LR/RR fan, and the older Range Rover Sport never pushed my buttons despite its brutishness. The second-gen one does, and in a massive way – lots to like, from the nattier, modernised interior to the tauter exterior lines and impressive specification of tech and kit available.

Oh, that it drives as well as it does also has much to do with it – the new RRS has much sharper handling and is inherently more refined than the old one. The V6 petrol unit is a more engaging experience compared to the SDV6 oil burner, but the V8 is immense, and what a sound it makes!

Whether you’re wading door deep in a stream, climbing into modified 747s or just gliding your way down to the local for a pint, this one will always be your huckleberry, and sweetly so. Range Rover fan, moi – who’d have thought it.

1. Toyota 86

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A month and a half ago, if anyone had ventured that my No 1 choice for 2013 would again be that of 2012 I’d have thought him completely Martian, but here it is, and all it took was just 10 minutes and a couple of hot laps on the Spa Nishiura Motor Park track in Gamagori to set the heart aflutter all over again.

No, it wasn’t anywhere close to the full-blown Waku-Doki affair Danny had with the 86 racer, and there’s still not enough power, but the outing on the short course served a strong reminder of just how alive this one makes you feel and how much visceral, emotional appeal it truly has. The civilian 86 is special, and it’ll always have a place in my heart.

DANNY TAN

By all accounts, 2013 wasn’t a vintage motoring year for yours truly. I drove a couple of ‘coming soon’ cars that you will hear about in due time, but they are everyday mass-market machines that are more worthy than wacky.

Locally, many drives passed me by, but helping out in the Driven Web Series meant that I got to finally acquaint myself with some not so new cars. In the end, the pool was just about big enough to fish out a few nice catches, each memorable in its own way.

5. Hyundai i40 2.0 GDI

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I had Korean cars all figured out, or so I thought. Flashy styling, bold cabins to match, lots of kit, technically great on paper, but insipid to drive. Break down the latter and you’ll find detached steering, engines that aren’t that smooth, and chassis tuning that fails to deliver either sport or comfort convincingly.

The Hyundai i40 bucks the trend. The debuting direct-injection 2.0 GDI engine is strong on paper and practice, strong enough to make you not miss a regular 2.4L. The cabin is very well isolated from outside noise, and ride comfort is brilliant – even Rawang’s third-world roads (my ultimate test) are pummelled into submission. A soothing companion for the daily grind.

4. Honda Accord

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The eighth-gen Honda Accord was quite a good drive despite its size, but it wasn’t the complete D-segment sedan. Refinement is far from class leading, the dashboard manages to eschew both form and function, and there weren’t many toys to distract either.

It was as if Honda heard this grouchy writer when developing the new Accord. Rolling refinement and NVH are much improved, and the new cabin is class act, with added tech. The masters of packaging have also carved out a bigger cabin from a smaller (and lighter) body, which is handsome to these eyes.

All these make for a plusher big exec, but the Accord drivetrain is still zestier than most in the class and it remains a good drive. Great all-rounder.

3. Maserati Quattroporte S

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The new Quattroporte is Maserati’s first missile into mainstream German premium marque territory. No longer an overgrown sports sedan, the QP is now the longest standard wheelbase limo in town. There’s even a downsized V6 turbo under that shapely hood in Modena’s quest to broaden appeal and sell 50,000 cars per year by 2015.

The resulting car isn’t as disastrous as romantics would expect, and there’s still a sports car buried within. It’s not as spine-tingling as the old NA V8 aurally, but the twin-turbo V6 provides plenty of thrust, and Sport mode transforms gentleman limo to loud hooligan in a press of a button. Q4 torque vectoring provides astounding traction. Anyway you want, boss.

2. Toyota 86 6M/T ‘Club Racer’ @ Sepang

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My top car of 2012 is like a subtle, delicate dancer in an age where forced induction rules Planet Car, and where superminis hammer out 200 hp without enthusiasts batting an eyelid. There’s no package with this much fun and finesse at RM250k, or RM500k for that matter.

A Sepang trackday I attended showed a different side of the Toyota 86. My steed for the day was a Club Racer-style stripped out car with a stick shift, and we got to race each other on track like there was no tomorrow. The three things I learned were: 1) The 86 can take plenty of punishment. 2) VSC Sport is infallible, you have to be an idiot to crash 3) Buyers of the automatic 86 need help.

1. Honda CR-Z 6M/T Facelift

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Like the Toyota 86, the Honda CR-Z makes a repeat appearance on my list. A year on, the coupe has gained a facelift and a new IMA battery. The lithium-ion pack is more power-dense and charge retention is better – the difference is palpable.

It still isn’t very fast, but I’ve always believed that fun and speed are distinct and separable, and there’s plenty of driving fun to be had south of 150 hp and 150 km/h. The CR-Z is that, and goes for (much) less than RM150k. And that six-speed manual is as sweet as they come.

Although this writer did state that he “won’t be buying one because of that fish face, the useless rear seats and the image it brings,” those words have since been swallowed.

PAUL TAN

This year has been by far the most active ever for the automotive industry and also for this site. A record number of car launches took place in 2013 and, most interestingly, we saw some massive improvements in terms of pricing and/or equipment level in a lot of the cars that arrived. Here are the five cars that I experienced this year that stood out the most.

5. Peugeot 208 GTi

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The 208 was on my list last year, and this time it’s time for the top of the range to make an appearance. Peugeot successfully reinvents the old 205 GTi, and what you get is a car that can truly live with every day, yet offers so much driving joy when you call for it.

The 208 GTi ticks all the necessary checkboxes for me when it comes to a small, fun sports car – six-speed manual gearbox, great suspension that can be comfortable at the same time, a fantastic looking interior, bucket seats that don’t overdo it in terms of tightness, and at RM140k it has a pretty damn decent price tag too. Imagine the same formula in a MINI and think of how much that costs.

4. Kia Cerato 2.0

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The Cerato is one of the few C-segment cars that still seems to make sense in a market where C-segment pricing seems to be on the uptrend, while D-segment pricing is on a downtrend. Thanks to B-segment cars getting larger and more competent, many buyers completely skip the C-segment and opt for a D-segment offering instead.

While shooting our Driven Web Series C-segment 2.0 litre sedan episode, getting into the Cerato from the other cars – especially the Honda Civic – felt like I was moving between completely different segments of cars. Nevermind the Cerato’s eye-catching exterior design, the Civic interior felt like that of a B-segment car next to the Cerato. And those ventilated seats are perfect for Malaysia’s hot climate.

It has good materials, tons of features, and there’s a lot of attention to detail such as wherever a colour LCD screen is placed, Kia has ensured it’s of a high enough resolution to not look cheap, which is something that even Lexus can miss with their current generation of cars. Too bad it isn’t a very fun drive. More cars in the C-segment should follow the lead of the Cerato – it’ll make the segment a better place to be.

3. W222 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

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Mercedes-Benz calls it the best car in the world. The W222 S-Class impressed during the international media test drive in Canada, which you’ll be reading about soon. The interior is a big level up from any of its competitors, including its own predecessor, and combines that classic luxurious feel together with technology in a way never seen before.

I managed to sample Magic Body Control, which really works, but don’t expect it to be available on any model in Malaysia, since there’s a preference for the Airmatic suspension here (Magic Body Control is based on the hydraulic-based ABC suspension). The ABC-based cars that I drove were very sharp, hiding most if its bulk when you gun it, but it remains to be seen if the Airmatic-equipped car will behave like that.

2. Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk7 (with DCC)

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The undisputed king of daily-driver hot hatches continues to impress. When equipped with DCC, the Golf GTI Mk7 is a seriously versatile machine. Fantastic in the bends, be it in sports or comfort mode, it can truly be lived with as a daily driver.

The TSI engine offers gob loads of instant low RPM torque and an immediate crisp throttle response, thanks to the quick mechanical link-up of the DSG gearbox – the combo really brings about a special feeling when you drive this car.

1. Kia Picanto

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I’m a big advocate of basic safety equipment in cars. It’s just sad that the brands that enjoy the most support from Malaysian car buyers are just shafting us in the rear when it comes to safety specs – how’s that for a nice thank you, eh? If you have the budget for a B-segment car, but don’t really need B-segment space, have a look at this hatchback instead.

Thanks to the new Kia Picanto, six airbags and ESP comes to the masses. This has never been done before. Yes, even for the manual version, which costs RM55k – the auto, with extra goodies, costs just RM5k more. Parents, if you’re buying a simple car for your post-SPM child to drive to university and back, this is the car for you. There’s simply no other car at this entry-level price range that gives your child the safety net of ESP stability control.