So here we are once again, rounding up the year that was with the paultan.org 2014 Top Five list – as with previous editions in 2012 and 2013, the writers each pick five cars that caught their attention big this particular calendar year.
A recap on why things are the way they are, in case you’re reading the Top Five for the first time – the marker is set at five not because we have anything against going the more normal 10, but to select five out of a host of new arrivals in any calendar year means having to be more selective about things and encourage more thought in the process.
Like in years past, the list works exactly like what it says on the tin – ‘impressed’ in this case meaning something that was memorable or simply a delight to be behind the wheel in. Some changes to authors this round. This year, Paul is taking a break from the Top Five list, but we welcome two new names to the 2014 edition – Jonathan Lee and Gregory Sze jump in head-first with the five that stood out for them.
That said, on to the musings – here are the individual picks from the team, what each thought were the cars that got them going. As always, we hope you enjoy reading it as much as we did writing it. In ending, we’d like to wish you a Happy New Year, and we’ll see you in 2015!
Having joined the paultan.org team at the tail end of 2014, I was pretty sure that my Top Five list would consist of whatever I could get my hands on in a such a short span of time – and it kinda’ did.
With that said, the different cars that I got to try on for size were far from pedestrian. Some of you might say that it’s the initial hype of a new job, and that it’ll all die down in the future but trust me, it’s not. For 2014, I feel truly blessed to be given the opportunity to indulge in one heck of an automotive smorgasbord.
5. Lamborghini Huracan LP 610-4
What nonsense is this?! A mid-engined, Italian slice of exotica occupying the fifth spot?! Well, yes. That’s not to say the car didn’t impress me at all, it’s just that the overall experience of the drive itself overwhelmed the V10 shriek and all its accompanying aesthetic glory.
The Huracan makes it into my list because it is the first left-hand drive car I’ve ever driven – that, coupled to my first outing on the Sepang circuit in the Huracan, and you get the perfect recipe for one heck of a first-time experience.
You know what they say then. One does not simply forget the first time.
4. Danny’s Mazda 6
I love mechanically-simple cars. I also have a soft spot for ones that come with three pedals. Mix those together and add a generous helping of exclusivity and voila! A car that’s neither fast nor particularly exciting to look at but feels oh-so-right. At least, to me.
From what I can gather in my short stint in it, this particular Mazda 6 is exactly what I look for in an everyday car – it’s dependable, fun to chuck about and no one will pay any attention to it because it just blends in.
That’s exactly what this car is. An entertaining workhorse that doubles as a unicorn to those who believe in such mythical creatures.
3. Ford Fiesta ST
The best car to drive in this list? Absolutely. You know how they say there’s always an angel and the Devil on each shoulder? Get in the ST and it’s the Devil on your left with the Grim Reaper on your right instead – and you know what? I adore it.
This here is a car that eggs you on in the most sinister of ways, begging to be spanked and relishing every single moment of it. Show it a good road, take a deep breath and pin the throttle. Hard.
I would need another paragraph or two to pen down what I felt piloting this cheeky piece of engineering at speed, but the fact that I found it hard to stop smiling after emerging from the car pretty much says it all.
2. Citroen DS3 Racing
Most of the time, I pretend I’m some sort of responsible, matured individual who appreciates the simpler aspects of a car (read #4). Then an orange-and-black hot-hatch with military-themed stickers appears at my doorstep and I pretty much forget my times tables.
On looks alone, this would’ve made my top spot because of the sheer aesthetic drama it brings to the table. With that said, this car is definitely not all-show and no-go. Use it to cover ground and it will have no issues keeping up with most of the cars on this list.
In fact, only two issues keep it from my top spot. The noise (or rather lack of) and the fact that it’s not on sale in Malaysia. Why can’t I have nice things?
1. Peugeot 208 GTi
Pretty much the same drivetrain as the DS3 Racing, wrapped up in a not-so-flamboyant but no less tasteful body. Oh, and you can actually buy it. Yes, this is my number one car for 2014 simply because of the fact that I would actually consider plonking down my hard-earned money for it, if I was in the market for a new car.
It rides well, looks decent, has more than enough poke for my daily commute and is the cheapest car on sale in this list.
Plus, have you seen the interior? It manages to walk that line between being a little too mundane and sporting just enough go-fast bits to make sure that this is no ordinary 208 you’re cocooned in.
This year marks my induction into the paultan.org team, and, my gosh, what a year 2014 has been. One of learning from some of the best scribes in the business, and experiencing first hand just what being a motoring journalist was actually like, including the good and… not so good.
But the biggest perk has got to be the variety of cars I sampled – in less than a year, I managed to go through a slew of B-segment hatchbacks, a pickup truck, a weird niche sedan-hatchback thingamajig and some of the hottest hot hatches currently available. Choosing five to sit on the top of the pile, then, was more than a little difficult, but here’s the ones that made the biggest impression.
5. Ford Fiesta 1.0 EcoBoost
In terms of driving enjoyment, Ford has had the competition all sewn up with the Fiesta for so long, it’s not even funny. So we were greatly curious to see if adding a tiny three-cylinder turbocharged engine would add to the handsome supermini’s appeal still further, or cause it to fall flat on its face.
The instant I set off in the 1.0 EcoBoost, any worries I had with the powertrain were immediately assuaged. This is a mill that is always willing and eager, whether pulling the car from low down or screaming like a little straight-six at the top of the rev range. It suits the Fiesta’s bubbly, puppy-straining-at-the-leash persona to a tee – they’re both always ready to play.
Yes, it’s a little pricey (although you do get a lot of kit for your money, including seven airbags), fairly cramped at the back and interior fit and finish are starting to fall behind class best. But if thrills are what you’re looking for in the segment, you might as well pack up your binoculars. Now, if only it came with a manual gearbox…
4. Mazda2 1.5 SkyActiv-G Hatchback
Mazda made quite a brouhaha over the driver-focused design of the new 2 at the press briefing in Japan. It talked about how the increased wheelbase gave the driver a larger footwell, about how it made the bodyshell stiffer, yet lighter than the previous model, about how it improved engine response for better jinba ittai. Heading out onto a soaking wet racetrack, it was hard not to be skeptical at those claims.
And yet, it all worked brilliantly. This was a B-segment hatch – a humdrum regular model, mind, not a full-fledged hot hatch – that held its own on the track, with instant throttle response, superb body control, quick, accurate steering and an agile, yet predictable cornering stance. Added to that, it looked positively gorgeous, with an interior to die for in this segment.
Signs are all pointing that the new Mazda2 will reach our shores very soon, and I can’t wait to have another go – it could really give the Fiesta a run for its money.
3. MINI Cooper S 5 Door
I’ll admit it, I really don’t like the way the new MINI looks. The third “new” generation has gotten all bloated – looking more like a caricature of the original rather than a proper homage – and the Cooper S looks more obnoxious than ever with its jutting chin.
The 5 Door variant didn’t help matters, either, what with its too-short rear doors and too-long rear overhang, and I was wondering if the longer body style would hurt the brand’s signature roadholding in similar fashion.
A drive through Oxfordshire’s narrow B-roads showed that nothing’s really changed – the chassis has been retuned to suit the longer wheelbase and increased weight, resulting in a car that’s virtually as fun to punt as the three-door. And the Cooper S is still a very, very rapid car, particularly on the tight, twisty tarmac.
If, unlike me, you’ve always liked how the latest MINI looked, and enjoyed the way it drove, but needed the extra practicality of a couple of extra doors, a more spacious rear seating area and a larger boot, then the MINI 5 Door could be right up your street.
2. BMW 320d Gran Turismo
Another oddly styled car from BMW’s design studios – an F30 3 Series (a very good-looking car all on its own) that’s been mutated, given kidney grilles two sizes too big and bestowed with a rump sizeable enough to give Kim Kardashian sleepless nights. That’s the 3 Series Gran Turismo for you, and to be honest, I didn’t really like it at all initially.
But in the three days that I drove the 320d GT, I came to really enjoy the experience. The 2.0 litre turbodiesel’s 184 hp doesn’t really sound like much, but the surfeit of torque – 380 Nm from just 1,750 rpm – gives the car a train-like effortlessness. This makes it a great long-distance cruiser, which, if the mood takes you, can waft up to silly speeds with terrifying ease.
That’s not all – the ride and handling balance is impressively well-judged, rear passengers will find it truly commodious inside and the hatchback makes access to the huge boot ridiculously easy. Really, the only downside is its high entry price, but it does comes stuffed with kit as standard. Mind you, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still quite ungainly – I guess it’s something you just have to get used to.
1. Ford Fiesta ST
Yes, topping my list is another Fiesta, but trust me, it deserves its spot here wholeheartedly.
My first experience in the ST was in the passenger seat, and, to be honest, the ride beggared belief in terms of how stiff it really was. But then Hafriz hustled it through a series of corners, the smiles filled the cabin and I just could not wait to have a go at it.
Eventually, it was my turn at the helm, and within the first few kilometres I knew that all the crashing through the potholes and the bumps and the ruts were worth it. I felt wired, connected to the car in ways I never knew I could be, and the car just felt right in the bends.
I came out of the car shaking, overwhelmed by the incredible feeling I experienced behind the wheel. My colleagues may not agree completely, but in my eyes, this is what a hot hatch (and a Fiesta) is supposed to be – a pert little machine with a manual gearbox and a driving demeanour that delivers an unbeatable smiles per mile.
JONATHAN JAMES TAN
I’ve always wondered what it would be like to live in the 1960s. They often say of that period that if you remember it, you weren’t there. Well, this year was pretty much like that for me. In the wake of a tornado of what seemed like a gazillion different events and incidents happening all at once, I sit dazed and confused.
Which gives the machines in my list all the more cred, for they somehow managed to swim through 2014’s choppy waters and anchor themselves to the harbour of my memory. You’ll pick out a good number of them from this year’s Driven Web Series, but nevertheless, there are some surprises – one of which truly dhalls the senses.
5. MINI Cooper Hatch manual
When I drove the Cooper in Puerto Rico earlier this year, I preferred it rather overwhelmingly to the Cooper S. It didn’t stick its chin out at me, for a start, and the little three-cylinder engine (which, hush, hasn’t been told it’s a little three-cylinder engine) got along with the six-speed manual like nasi lemak and sambal.
You snatch the gear lever and slot it home in a fluid and brisk motion, ever in hot pursuit of those 136 horses and 230 Nm of overboosted twist, amidst a naughty buzz of an engine note and crucially, via smooth and lively operation I couldn’t find in the local slushbox-equipped car.
Not as rapid as the Cooper S, but with a stick-shift, a good deal more versatile, refined and engaging.
4. Volkswagen Golf R
Surprisingly however, like the GTI, it can be docile and civilised, although the littlest road irregularities can find your fingers through the steering wheel and also drum your bum, even with the DCC in Comfort.
Provoke it and it doesn’t snap in anger as much as get you where you want to go very, very quickly indeed, without fuss or complaint. It’s very composed and controllable at speed, which is what you want when you’re entrusted with 280 PS and 380 Nm of torque. And that DSG can read your mind. How otherwise is it able to serve up such immediacy, natural response and the right gears all the time?
I’ll liken the Golf R to James Bond, if I may – cool, collected, confident and covert, yet completely capable of blowing just about any adversary imaginable into the weeds.
3. Nissan Teana 2.0 XL
Let me set the scene. We had just spent the best part of two gruelling weeks planning, writing, re-writing and rehearsing the Driven Web Series. We were physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually drained, and so decided to skip to Port Dickson for the weekend.
You’ll never know how glad I was that we took the Teana there. It was like a plush, inviting sofa greeting you after a long day at work. The suppleness of the ride, the comfort of the Zero-Gravity Seats, the airiness of the cabin, the smoothness of the CVT and the near-absence of noise… I actually remember very little of all that, as I fell asleep within minutes.
Driving it is no less cosseting, and it’s made all the more pleasant by linear and precise steering – very little effort is needed to maintain the Teana’s course on the highway. It may not take home the tiara with regards to aesthetics, whether inside or outside, but if it’s comfort and waftability you’re after, your search ends here.
2. Tata Indigo eCS 1.4 TDI
I’ll wait for you to stop sniggering before I continue. Now, this may not be the best car here (you don’t say!), but the driving experience, I’ll take to my grave.
I recently attended a friend’s wedding in India – more specifically in Jamshedpur (the home of Tata, no less) – and after the hustle and bustle was over, we decided to explore the city. There were so many of us and not enough drivers, so I volunteered – can’t be that bad, right?
Not once did I exceed 50 km/h, but in spite of that, the number of times I braked equalled the number of times I blinked, in any given minute. I was constantly dodging people, auto-rickshaws, cycles, mobile roadside stalls, buses, lorries, cattle, construction, potholes the size of volcanic craters and aggressive Ambassadors that came within nanometres of my car.
On the approach to a congested roundabout, I slowed down – which was the wrong thing to do, for there was then absolutely no way in. The correct method, I later learned, is to blow the horn to smithereens from a mile away and slice into the roundabout the way you would cut a cake. When in Rome…
The huge Tata logo of a steering wheel may have been dripping with sweat by the time I was done, but I can’t wait to get a second stab at mastering the Indian road. And I have Indigo-ji to thank for the initiation.
1. Toyota Corolla Altis 2.0 V
Toyota Corolla. Two of the least exciting words in motordom. Just whisper it and your mind conjures up images of pensioners pootling about in the middle lane in nondescript LEs or SEGs. And yet, the current Corolla Altis sits proudly, and deservedly, at the top of my list.
For this is a Toyota Corolla in nothing but name! The sharp, edgy styling is both dramatic and eye-catching, and while you’re at it, have some striking alloys. It’s no less impressive inside – the cabin is classy and contemporary, fit and finish exemplary, and attitude shows in the way the numbers are aligned to the curvature of the blue-backlit instrument dials. But with a CVT, it can’t be an inspiring drive, surely?
Oh ho ho. This CVT is one of the most dynamic in the business, endowing the Altis with spright befitting its youthful looks. The dreaded rubber-band effect is nowhere to be found, and thanks to a capable chassis conducted through sharp and direct steering, we have a Toyota Corolla that’s fun to drive, which is a bit like saying we have a dictionary that’s fun to read.
So there you go, the biggest surprise of my year. The Toyota Corolla Altis, which rebelled against its stereotypes, and won.
For me, 2014 came and went away far too quickly. Between working on our new sister site CarBase.my, Driven Web Series 2014, walk-around videos, video reviews and of course, the two big Malaysian car launches (one of which made it on my list – no prizes for guessing which one), I ended up doing very little driving – hence the lack of exotics on my list.
But of the few cars that I did drive, many turned out to be good. Very, very good. And while shortlisting out the five for this list was easy, deciding the order was far from simple. My final list will divide opinions, for sure. Agree or disagree, these are four cars that made 2014 memorable for me, and one that made it truly remarkable.
5. BMW 428i M Sport
This was the very first car I tested in 2014, and it speaks volumes that I’m still wonderfully fond of it a whole year later. I can’t positively remember if my dinner last night was any good (it probably wasn’t, then) and yet, my memory of the 428i M Sport’s sublime chassis balance is still very much alive.
“Is it all things to all men? It bloody nearly is,” I wrote at the start of the year. The F32, even in this middling 428i guise, is quick, can hold its own around bends, and is sexy enough to overcome a superbly dull grey paintjob. Have it in Estoril Blue, and I’d be ready to go down on one knee for it (one knee, not two).
I’m all for the W205 Mercedes C-Class over the F30 3 Series, but two doors down, the Bimmer’s the one for me. Alas, it’s a real pity that its interior isn’t quite as exciting as you’d expect, and its sub-standard two-year warranty leaves a lot to be desired. Otherwise, this near-perfect coupe deserves a spot in anyone’s shopping/wish list.
4. Nissan Teana 2.5 XV
I may be closer to 25 than 50, but I’m not afraid to say that I’m a big fan of Nissan’s big sedan. Last year’s Mazda 6 was great (it placed fifth on my 2013 list), but this new Teana ups the D-segment ante by marrying driving enjoyment with genuine ride comfort like none has done before – the 6 is fun but bumpy, the Accord and Camry the complete opposite, and the Optima K5, well, is only good on paper.
The old Teana’s characterful V6 engine need not be missed; not when the new four-pot is over 20% more efficient. The revised CVT, meanwhile, makes for impossibly smooth and quiet motion that you’d forget about the engine in front anyway. Also adding to the equation are the Zero-Gravity Seats. Silly name, but wow are they comfy.
Unlike the latest Camry – which took a marked step back compared to its highly accomplished predecessor – the L33 Nissan Teana is an exemplary example of moving forward. Personally, I find it amazing that it’s not flying off the showroom floors, for it is clearly the best car of its kind out there. Maybe it’s the age thing.
3. Toyota Corolla Altis 1.8
What the Teana does to the Camry, the Corolla Altis did to the Honda Civic. One went backwards (the scorned FB Civic), while the other took a big and entirely unexpected leap in the opposite (right) direction. It’s time to look past the tired old name’s staid image; the Camry, the latest 11th-generation Corolla is Toyota at its absolute best.
“Enthusiasts” – pardon the inverted commas – love to hate this car. It’s a boring Toyota, for one, and it has a CVT gearbox too. “For shame!” they scream. Well, Altis, take a page from Justin Bieber (sorry, Jonathan Lee): haters gonna hate. Can’t stop this smile :)
The 1.8 litre model, with its newer, better gearbox, is the one to go for here. This is CVT done right, and it’s bloody fantastic. Efficient, smooth, responsive and best of all, intuitive – it’s all good. What’s not so great is UMW Toyota’s continuing refusal to include electronic stability control and the optional seven-airbag “Additional Safety Package” on the 1.8 litre variants. That’s just bad, bad form.
2. Ford Fiesta ST
Now, had the title of this story been “the writers each pick five of the best cars this year,” the Fiesta ST would definitely be at the top of my list. Or perhaps everyone’s list, even. But the header says otherwise, so no, Ford’s new hot hatch is not the car I’ve been most impressed with in 2014. Don’t flip your table yet; I’ll explain.
The Fiesta ST is one of most raved-about new model in the carniverse, so obviously I approached it with exceedingly high expectations. To its credit, the ST is indeed brilliant – worthy of all the praises it has, and inevitably will receive. But to me, it just met, rather than exceeded my expectations of it, while my top pick achieved the latter. It’s a victim of its own glory, the ST.
Little else can to be said of the fast Ford that hasn’t already been mentioned in our recent hot hatch shootout. I, for one, strongly maintain that the Peugeot 208 GTi is the better all-rounder (it is!), but there’s no doubting the Fiesta ST’s inherently deep pool of talents. Given a good stretch of road, it’s one of the best cars out there for pure driving thrills. In fact, I can’t think of anything better…
1. Proton Iriz MT
Well surprise, surprise, the Iriz is my number one car of 2014. Just as I chose the 208 GTi over the technically-superior Volkswagen Golf GTI last year, the Proton heads my list now as it wowed me more than the Fiesta ST did. It truly, deeply and madly did.
I’m not one to mince my words, so it has to be said that the Iriz has plenty of shortcomings. It looks good, but it’s certainly fussy and a tad overdesigned for such a small car. Build quality, however much improved over previous Protons, still has a few flaws and the odd ergonomic faults. And still, by far and away its greatest blunder is the CVT gearbox, which, with or without the TCU update, feels tardy, unrefined, and at times, underdeveloped.
Everything else, however, is just superb. It’s almost unreal how absurdly good it is to drive. Ride and handling is nothing short of sensational, even having taken into account Proton’s first-rate track record in this department. The Malaysian carmaker’s first try at using electric power steering (EPS) is better than, say, Kia’s umpteenth attempt, and its newfound focus on safety – even on the base models – is extremely refreshing.
My favourite part is, you can get a manual transmission with all available variants and trim lines. I myself can’t wait to try out the top-spec Proton Iriz 1.6 Premium MT. And you know what? I’ve got a feeling it’ll make my list again in 2015!
Over the past couple of months, the lads have been fond of reminding me that my top five list would pretty much read like their wish list. I can’t argue with that – 2014 turned out to be a bit of a bumper year in terms of machinery sampled.
Again, there have been enough to make it a tenner, and the one that I deliberated the most on was the fifth position pick – the W205 Mercedes-Benz C-Class was just edged out by an absolute hair-raiser from Munich. Otherwise, the rest of the quintet cemented their places with nary a fuss.
5. BMW M235i
To nudge ahead of its more illustrious full M-badged siblings takes some doing, but the BMW M235i is special, and it only took two and a half kilometres of snaking, tight downhill terrain on the Italian/Austrian border during a sideshow drive to get my vote.
Harvinder had experienced the magic in Cape Town earlier in the year while on the set of The Epic Driftmob shoot, and whatever suggested by the video is absolutely spot on, save that my arcing attempts were far less graceful in manner, not quite in the vein of say, a Hubinette or Grunewald.
Nonetheless, it was breathtaking fun – twitchy, hilarious and scary, at some point all at the same time. In the wet, which it was for most of the drive, the tail shimmied with unbridled verve in response to healthy dollops of throttle. This, in a straight line. A more judicious application of power got the car (and my co-driver) through unscathed over the section, but never have there been so many immense moments in so short a run.
This is a veritable bomb of a car – putting 326 hp in such a petite, tail-happy package makes it nothing short of that, and silly or glory will depend much on the driver’s temperament (and skill). However you choose to go about it, it’ll always be exciting to the very last – in this regard, the report card scores full marks.
4. Mercedes-AMG GT S
If there was anything close to rivalling the M235i in terms of edge-of-the-seat excitement this year, this was it. It hadn’t rained in there for a good while, but the skies decided to open up in San Francisco on the day of our AMG GT S drive last month. By the time we got to Salinas, it was really coming down.
So it was that I found myself charging along on a very wet Mazda Raceway in a lead-follow, with Bernd Schneider guiding us around. To experience Laguna Seca – and in particular, the Corkscrew – in a 510 hp and 650 Nm tail-happy car is one thing, to do so as part of the first group out with it pouring, another. Describing the entire run as lively would be an understatement – thrilling, definitely.
Which is not to say that you can’t keep it tidy – out on the road, the car tracks neatly to correspondingly clean input. The caveat is, up to a point, because there’s always the unshakeable sense that things could get unruly very quickly, and that deep down, it’s likely to prove a bit too much car for most.
Elsewhere, the exterior shape definitely works for me – I’ve always adored langnasen (long-nosed) coupes, the E86 Z4M Coupe being a long-time fave, and this one is winsomely sleek. The interior largely does too – not too taken by the free-standing central screen, but that centre console is captivating, and there’s plenty of plush in the cabin. A winner? For sure, despite its underlying short fuse.
3. Ford Mustang
Horsing around Los Angeles in a car that will be sold here through official channels for the very first time was memorable. The review is due out soon, but for now let’s just say that the sixth-gen S550 Mustang is every bit the muscle car it’s expected to be, and it easily makes the cut to finish third on my list.
The 2.3 litre EcoBoost turbo four version is efficient and fairly quick, but is no flying rocket, despite the highish on-paper 310 horses and 433 Nm output – not surprising, given that the ‘Stang has a fairly heavy-set disposition. Still, stallion adopters here should find the power output more than workable, since there’s no interfering legacy.
The 435 hp and 541 Nm 5.0 litre V8, meanwhile, is truly scrumptious, from application to feel. Interior is snazzy, and the MT82 six-speed manual is a delight in use. We never got to try out the auto on the drive, but why would anyone want this one equipped with a slush box?
The guys keep telling me that since I’m such a big Blue Oval man that this steed is surely a must, somewhere down the line. It looks unlikely, given that the V8 would be well out of my reach. I can however think of a reason why I’d want one – to plonk my beloved terrier in and tell the other half, look, it’s a dog and pony show!
2. Mercedes-Benz A 45 AMG
For nine months, this sat at the top of the pile for me, and it took something special to peg down the A 45 AMG into second spot. I drove it on two occasions, and both times came away truly chuffed with what was being served. It was also one of two cars – the other being the number one pick – I kept taking out on multiple late night runs, finding any excuse to go out and drive it.
More than enough juice and pep from the M133 AMG 2.0 litre twin-scroll turbo four-pot, and that AMG Performance exhaust system – fitted as standard on our cars – is an aural delight, even from start-up. Some gloss is taken away by the partnering 7G-DCT transmission, which feels a bit lazy, especially down the range, but it doesn’t detract from the overall package.
Granted, there are also some bits that are OTT, like the flics and rather liberal use of red accents (I’d lose the ones on the rear wing), but it’s all in line with the character of the car, which is never shy. In the end, the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts, and I absolutely love it to bits.
1. Ford Fiesta ST
While it didn’t emerge as the champ in our recent triple play shooutout, its appearance here in all but one individual top five list shows how much the little Fiesta ST impressed the team, and I didn’t even have to bring out the hacksaw this time.
To play the broken record yet again, the little ST is phenomenal in both talent and ability – yes, the low-end take-up is a bit soft, but keep it on the boil and it feels exceptional. There’s an amazing level of front-end grip, and its capacity to handle mid-corner transitions in rapid, razor-like fashion is exceptional.
Most of all, it’s fun – it says much that the night we returned from the shootout drive, I went out and clocked in another 130 km in it on more B-road terrain, savouring every wild turn. The purity and level of engagement seals it for me, making this the top pick in a stellar 2014 list, and that’s no mean feat.
It has been the year of the hatchback for me. I bought one and was fortunate to sample a memorable variety of hatches, from a humble Honda to the experimental Eolab, plus a few turbocharged troublemakers in between. All are brilliant in their own way.
5. Ford Fiesta ST
The Fiesta ST was the star of our recent hot hatch shootout, which also had the Peugeot 208 GTi and Renault Clio RS 200 EDC. Its 182 PS/240 Nm was the lowest in the field, and it had to be worked the hardest too, but the Ford got all six votes as the most fun car to drive.
The ST’s spartan black on black cabin and lively motorway ride is fast forgotten when you find a stretch of B-road. Turbocharged it may be, but this engine loves revs like an old school NA motor and eggs you on with a naughty soundtrack.
You’ll give in, and there won’t be any pussyfooting – the Ford feels smaller and more nimble than its French peers as you throw it around, alive to your commands and asking for more. Each came out of it with a silly grin on his face, which says it all.
4. Honda Jazz
Some are here for their license to thrill, but I rate the Honda Jazz for its ability to soothe.
As much as we love hill climbs and tearing down B-roads, reality forces upon us two-hour traffic jams and seemingly endless <60 km/h highway slogs. The new Jazz is a brilliant companion for the daily grind, so much better at cocooning you from the rush hour cacophony than its predecessor.
Two factors in play are NVH and CVT. With their buzzy engines and thin insulation, previous-gen Hondas have been anything but quiet – the new Jazz is a library in comparison. The Earth Dreams CVT is a good advertisement for its kind – responsive, auto-like, smooth and quiet.
Throw in the Jazz’s trademark space utilisation and good visibility, and you have the perfect city car.
3. Renault Eolab
It’s not everyday that you’re trusted with a one-off, hand-built concept car that costs a lot of money, but I’ve driven the future.
As seen at Paris 2014, the Eolab is Renault’s supermini of 2022, a moving lab that showcases fresh thinking in everything from aerodynamics to materials. The target is low drag and weight, Clio space and an affordable, realistic future – up to 90% of the tech here will go into production cars over the next eight years.
Powered by a 54 hp/200 Nm electric motor and a 75 hp/95 Nm 1.0L petrol three-pot, the slippery Eolab (Cd 0.235) uses just one litre of petrol per 100 km in the NEDC cycle and emits only 22 g/km of CO2.
It starts and steps off in battery-powered silence before the engine kicks in at around 40 km/h. The patented gearbox, a clutchless three-speed auto, swaps ratios crudely by today’s standards, but it’s work in progress. Auto suspension lowering at 70 km/h aside, what’s surprising is how normal the Eolab is to drive. It feels zippy and grip is decent, despite those super skinny tyres.
2. Volkswagen Golf R Mk7
The GTI is a fantastic recipe for a hot Golf; perfect, until you drive it back to back with the latest Mk7 Golf R on track. The contrast was stark in my 15 minutes or so lapping Sepang’s North Track in the latter.
What’s expected from an uber hatch with 280 PS, 380 Nm and 4WD is speed. That’s delivered in emphatic fashion, as you’re wowed by the R’s acceleration and traction out of corners.
But what’s truly surprising about the fastest production VW ever is its throttle adjustability and ESC that can be completely switched off. Holding my breath on the last lap, I finally got lucky and managed to induce a drift between turns 5/6 to my co-driver’s amusement. Not as easy as you’d think – we drove it flat out and repeatedly tried to unsettle the car.
The R actually manages to make the GTI feel slow and one-dimensional. Amazing.
1. Peugeot 308 1.2 e-THP
It’s the first time Peugeot is recycling a name, but the 308 couldn’t have been more all-new. From design to drive, it’s a comprehensive overhaul.
The new car is restrained outside, radical inside. The exterior is clean and handsome, but has attractive detailing. The minimalistic dashboard is classier here than in the 208. The SW estate, with more legroom and a huge glass roof, is a lovely family car.
It’s even decent to drive now. The 1.2L three-pot e-THP motor (130 hp/230 Nm) is remarkably punchy for something so small – paired to a six-speed manual, it got me thinking “this is all the car I need”. Great ride comfort (!) and surprising agility too.
Honestly, I’ve never had any love for the 307 and 308, but the 2014 European Car of the Year exceeds all expectations, and then some. Coming in 2015.