It’s time again for our signature final post to sign off the year – the paultan.org 2015 Top Five list continues the tone set previously in the 2012, 2013 and 2014 editions, with the writers each picking five cars that impressed them the most this calendar year.
An explanation, if it’s the first time you’re coming into this one. The five selection cap, which was set when we first ran with this idea, is not because we have anything against the usual 10 as found on most lists – my original intent of going with half of that was to encourage the writers to put more thought in the selection process.
The brief back when the ball was first rolled was to see which five cars driven in that year had the most impact on each of us, with no consideration of pricing, reliability, resale value and all the things that drive say, a vehicle purchase. In years past, the selections have been varied, and have ably highlighted the individuality that resides in our collective – we’d like to think this year’s outing continues that.
Again, some changes to the authors – 2015 was when we sadly bid farewell to two sterling writers, Jonathan James Tan and Gregory Sze, but we welcomed two new names to this year’s edition, as Christopher Aaron and Gerard Lye offer their opinion on the five that stood out for them. Graham Chin and Mohan K. Ramanujam also joined our team this year, but did not drive enough cars to do the necessary. Next outing, then.
And so, on to the musings – here are the individual picks from the team, what each thought were the cars that got them going in some way in 2015. As always, we hope you enjoy reading it as much as we did writing it. Have a very Happy New Year, and we’ll see you in 2016!
Before joining the paultan.org team, I had a small amount of experience in the motoring journo scene already. Therefore, some of the cars in my list may not be under the paultan.org banner, but nonetheless I’m told that they still count.
Now that we’ve gotten past the introductions, my list of cars are certainly influenced by my penchant for something that makes you feel good behind the wheel first and foremost, followed by the excitement and thrills it manages to deliver. Keep in mind that there isn’t a particular ranking to my choices, merely what left a strong impression on me during my time (however brief) with it.
5. Honda HR-V
During a time when the compact crossover seemed doomed for an early demise, in came Honda with the HR-V that is sort of like a “Swiss army knife” of city cars in my eyes, and here’s why, practicality.
Say what you will about Honda but when it comes to packaging, the HR-V nails every need a city dweller needs. From its Ultra Seats that can be folded to accommodate a potted plant, to its nifty centre console stowage spaces and a bevy of inputs for the multimedia system, there’s not a lot of situations where the HR-V can’t handle in your daily lives.
With a significant amount of bookings already received for the HR-V, I think many Malaysians would share the same sentiment.
4. Volkswagen Golf R (Mk. 7)
The Golf GTI is already an established household name when it comes to hot hatches, considered as the yard stick to which others are compared to. The Volkswagen Golf R however, is an all-new playing field altogether.
The thing I like most about the Golf R is how much of a sleeper car it is. In terms of looks, there are enough visual cues to differ it from a GTI, but it abstains from conspicuous spoilers, bumper lips, overly flared arches, etc.
However, if you ever feel the need to be hasty in it, the car calls upon its 280 PS 2.0 litre TSI, six-speed DSG, 4Motion all-wheel drive and XDS+ e-diff to ensure that you go as fast physics will allow, while fluffing up your driving confidence.
3. Mazda MX-5
I’ll admit that I’ve always thought as the Mazda MX-5 as a “hairdressers’ car”. However, that’s because I’ve never actually driven one. Not the first-gen NA, nor the NB and NC. This time, with the ND, I managed to get myself behind the wheel of one, and I’m delighted to say that my previous perceptions are now totally transformed.
My time with the MX-5 was brief, a short drive to a photo shoot site. Upon entering the roadster, it was almost instinctive that I lowered the manual folding roof before setting off. Malaysian heat? Furthest thing from my mind at that time.
Mazda’s affiliation with the Jinba Ittai philosophy is something that needs to be experienced first-hand. In the MX-5, you feel connected to everything the car does naturally, and the best part is, you don’t even need to be at considerably high speeds to be entertained. This approachability combined with the ability to leave you smiling all the time behind the wheel is why I adore this roadster.
2. Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG
Where the Volkswagen Golf R on my list was the reserved monster, the “entry-level” AMG is the polar opposite. Several fins, a large rear spoiler, quad exhaust tailpipes, you’ll be able to easily point out a Mercedes-Benz A 45 AMG from a regular A-Class, trust me.
The “boy racer” looks extend inside as well, with those prominent AMG sport seats and generous application of red and carbon-fibre accents everywhere. This attack on the visual senses gets even better once you let this thing loose on a track.
I had just that opportunity not too long and let me tell you, this thing is an absolute weapon. The grunt from the exhaust on the over-rev is still something that is fresh in my mind, and the acceleration provided by the 2.0 litre AMG four-cylinder engine with 355 hp and 450 Nm beggars belief. Entry-level AMG? I think not.
1. Mazda 2
You may have noticed that hatchbacks are a common sight on my list, and here’s another, and for good reason. For me, the Mazda 2 is proof that good things can come in small packages.
Mazda’s common philosophies – Kodo and Jinba Ittai – is applied across all its models, and the 2 benefits from this as well. It’s eager, spritely and always ready to inject a little joy into your daily drive. And all this is done while you’re seated in a cockpit that isn’t dreary, but exudes a premium outlook that should be reserved for cars in the upper segments.
This amalgamation was more than enough to convince me to lay down some actual money to acquire a Mazda 2 of my own. I will concede that it is not the perfect car, but as I’ve mentioned at the beginning, what appeals to me most is how the car makes you feel behind the wheel, and in this little Mazda, it’s good.
I’ve personally been blessed with the opportunity to drive a vast number of models over the last 12 months. But for all that I’ve seen and done, I still don’t believe for a second that I could tell you which ones were the best – that’s a beauty I leave to the beholder.
For the sake of this article, however, I’ll brave listing just the necessary five which I believe qualify for creating top personal experiences this 2015. Generally, I’ve come to accept that all cars have their merits, and I prioritise the occasion a car allows for far more importantly than how it drives.
With that in mind, you should probably guess by now that you aren’t going to find a Perodua Myvi or Honda City in this list. They’re amazing products in their rights, but as something to properly get your pulses racing? You see where I’m going, so, moving along then.
5. W212 Mercedes-Benz E 300 BlueTEC Hybrid
Speaking about occasions, I would probably call the E 300 BlueTEC Hybrid’s media drive event a firm all-time favourite, even. Embarking on a drive from KL to Bangkok is no easy feat, made more difficult by the fact that we only had one tank of fuel to do it with.
At the time, I was working for a different publication, and was fortunate enough to be paired on the drive with my current colleague Anthony. Needless to say, I couldn’t have asked for a better drive partner.
We didn’t quite win the overall challenge, but did manage to set a day’s fuel-consumption record of 4.0 litres per 100 km. Like I said, it was gruesome. But you can bet on neither Anthony nor myself choosing anything but the E 300 BlueTEC Hybrid to get through the 1,500 km journey in the way we did. The car’s plainly an awesome package for a cool price.
4. BMW 220i
It was a brief encounter over a typical weekend’s drive, but hell, the BMW 220i was a hoot. Capturing the essence of driving left behind by the grown up 3 Series now in its F30 form, the 2 Series doesn’t need anything more than its 2.0 litre BMW TwinPower engine to dish out the thrills.
Being a lot more tricky to get strapped in, I don’t normally take to coupe body styles all that well. But once you do, every inch of this BMW wills you to be quick. You can’t ask for more from the compact coupe’s focused seats, dynamic steering and athletic rear-wheel drive chassis.
The 2 Series is an honest premium sports car that makes you feel good, day in, day out. Sure, you could opt for a better bargain somewhere else, but I guarantee you that as a driver, you wouldn’t be as fulfilled.
3. Nissan Teana
So, here’s a car making a comeback from 2014. Listed twice by two different paultan.org authors in 2014’s top five picks of the year, it’s my turn to put the humble Nissan Teana on its pedestal this time around as the cream of the D-segment’s crop.
I know, you could argue that a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry would make better sense for whatever reason, but the former’s just a bit too dull to look at and the latter’s a bit overpriced if you want all the goodies thrown in. Overall, neither of them offer as good a balance of comfort, space, safety features and presence as the Teana (IMHO). Mazda 6? Handsome and epic to drive, but its lesser space, harsher ride and higher price put us off.
I liked the Teana so much, that just a week ago, my wife and I took delivery of the very car you see pictured here – a mid-spec 2.0 XL. It’s got all the right ingredients for safety, style and comfort, and we’ve been all smiles since. Call it what you like, but I don’t believe that a better D-segmenter exists out there.
2. Mercedes-AMG E 63 S
Yes, I like my Teana, but that doesn’t make it the ultimate goal. Bar any financial restrictions, this is the bad boy I’d have – the Mercedes-AMG E 63 S. Up to no good once again with my current colleague Anthony, we were in Frankfurt, Germany, for this drive.
Being there to cover the motor show for my previous publication, Mercedes-Benz Malaysia had kindly arranged two courtesy cars on a blank day for us to tour the country a bit – a Mercedes-AMG S 63 Coupe, and an E 63 S.
Don’t get me wrong, the S 63 Coupe is an amazing product. It looks ridiculously handsome, and has all the right stuff to get your juices flowing. The E 63 S, however, wasn’t as grand an occasion for sure, but to me, that made it all the more special.
An everyday W212 E-Class when you want it to be, the E 63 S can be docile, practical, and is far from showy – just the sort of thing I appreciate. However, unleash its mountain of power, and its the sort of car you get up to 300 km/h on the autobahn without much effort. Then there’s the noise this beast makes. Good golly.
1. Mercedes-AMG GT S
Okay, so it’s the third Mercedes-Benz model in my list, but how do you expect me to overlook driving an AMG GT S on a track at the end of any year? I bet you’d find that equally challenging too.
It was a rare occasion that Mercedes-Benz Malaysia treated us to, and I couldn’t be more excited to make the long journey to the Sepang Circuit on a Saturday afternoon. Packed with a 510 PS/650 Nm 4.0 litre biturbo V8, the AMG GT S was also the quickest thing I’ve ever driven in my relatively short motoring career.
Needless to say, there aren’t words to describe the experience. It goes like stink, handles exceptionally well despite having a V8 over its front wheels, and you’ll be amazed at how much grip this monster has going in and coming out of a corner at speed. It even transforms to an everyday car just like that.
Money no object? This is it, hands down, right now.
For me, 2015 was a year that I got to see the world (both figuratively and literally), even more so than last year. Like my colleagues here, I am very grateful to have sampled the vast amount of cars that I have, and this year’s list was even more difficult to assemble than the last.
These entries run the gamut from a small city car, to a sporty executive sedan, a big seven-seater SUV, a diesel-powered B-segment hatch and a hybrid sports car. As with the others here, there’s no real common theme here, and I am not saying that these are the best cars that I have driven, just those that made the biggest impact on my consciousness this year.
5. Kia Picanto 1.2L M/T
Yes, it’s a trend here – quite a few of us have included our own cars into the mix. Apart from the fact that Chris, Gerard and myself bought our new cars this year (Hafriz also bought his Peugeot 208 GTi, but given that the feline hot hatch has already made it to the list two years in a row, it was probably wise not to make it a hat-trick), the unique experience of actually owning the car lets us properly experience its full quirks and merits, some of which do not readily present themselves over a three- or four-day test drive.
My rather humble mode of transport is this, the cheerfully-coloured Kia Picanto. Yes, it was Paul Tan’s #1 pick in 2013, mostly on the grounds of safety – six airbags and electronic stability control are fitted as standard, something that still stands out amongst similarly priced vehicles, Proton Iriz 1.6 Premium notwithstanding. But its inclusion on my list goes a bit further than that.
Indeed, it’s not the most involving to drive – the inert, wooly steering sees to that – but there’s still something about pushing a zippy city car (an added bonus: mine’s a manual) to the limit without actually going over the speed limit that’s inherently fun. Not that it has any trouble going over that limit, thanks to the peppy 1.2 litre four-pot that needs a lot of revs, but then feels far more sprightly than its 87 PS output suggests. Not only that, it’s refined too, thanks to a smooth, quiet engine and a plush ride that belongs to a segment up.
It’s telling that despite the insane amount of new metal I get to test overseas, it still brings a smile to my face when I see the Picanto again in the KLIA parking lot, and flog it all the way home. In fact, I drive it so often that I’ve racked up over 32,000 km on the odometer just a few days shy of its first birthday. It may be humble, but I absolutely love it to bits.
4. Maserati Ghibli S Q4
Tech showcase drives tend to be a smorgasbord for the average motoring journalist, as you get to drive plenty of new, interesting and pretty serious machinery over the course of the day. The recent ZF Global Press Event 2015 was no exception, with the highlight for enthusiasts being the new Porsche 911 Turbo S. It was a shame, then, that the first hack to get behind the wheel binned it before the rest of us even got a try.
Salvation for me came with this Maserati Ghibli S Q4, which came some way to making it up. Of course, it’s no 911, but there was something about the Ghibli and its gorgeous low-slung looks that have always piqued my interest, and I’ve always wanted to drive one.
And I was not disappointed. The Maser felt plenty quick in this top S guise – thanks to the 404 hp 3.0 litre V6, working seamlessly with the ZF eight-speed automatic. The taut, nimble chassis and accurate, linear steering also gave it the measure of the twisting German test tarmac, while the Q4 all-wheel drive system gave in massive amounts of grip.
But it all pales in comparison to that noise. It may only have six cylinders – and twin-turbocharged at that – but the masterful tuning of the Bolognese engineers mean that the guttural baritone roar, and the pops and crackles that come with it, sound authentic and just as exotic as the best of them. The BMW 5 Series and the Mercedes-Benz E-Class may be much more rounded propositions, but if it’s theatre you’re looking for, then your search ends here.
3. Ford Everest
If one of the considerations for the Top Five was meeting the vast expectations set upon the car, the new Ford Everest would be right up there. The Blue Oval made big claims with the Ranger-based SUV in terms of refinement, ride and handling, and while the pick-up was already impressive in that regard (of course, until the NP300 Navara stole the crown), I was still not quite sure how the Everest would actually fare.
I need not have worried. Traversing the rough Chiang Rai roads, the Everest didn’t possess the same overly-cushy, rock-a-bye-baby ride that is typical of truck-based SUVs – instead keeping a firm but compliant control on body movements. We tend to talk about certain trucks and SUVs as having a car-like ride, but this one comes the closest to achieving it.
It’s the same story with the handling – slightly slow steering aside, the Everest was grippy, stable and always in control, something that could not be said of its rivals. Throw in the handsome good looks, tidy interior and the amount of toys that are on offer and it starts to become a rather compelling package.
The only potential snag for the soon-to-arrive Everest would be the price – we’ll need to see if Sime Darby AutoConnexion can price it competitively, but initial estimates suggest a sticker of up to RM240k for the range-topping 3.2L Titanium 4×4. That’s certainly very pricey for what is still a truck underneath, but one thing is clear – however much it will cost over here, this is still one talented vehicle.
2. Mazda 2 1.5L SkyActiv-D
Another diesel car makes it after the BMW 320d GT last year, but they couldn’t be more different in character. As with Chris’ E 300, my first blush with the Mazda 2 1.5L SkyActiv-D was also through a fuel economy challenge, this time spanning 1,041 km from Bangkok to the Kedah border town of Changlun. And as fate would have it, I was paired with now-colleague Gerard, who was then working alongside Chris at the time.
The experience of driving out of the capital at rush hour was completely different from the one back in KL, and I got us lost, not once, but twice in the span of half an hour. But even after the resulting mad rush to the first checkpoint ended up with us having the highest average fuel consumption of the competition, shrewd timing and careful driving thereafter enabled us to minimise the penalties, and we came in second with a combined score of 3.7 litres per 100 km. Like Chris, it really was the experience that sealed it for this one.
As for the car itself, it was fantastic – the punchy 105 PS/250 Nm oil-burner, only sullied by slight turbo lag at low revs, really transformed the car, finally giving the 2 the oomph its nimble, capable chassis was screaming for. Local distributor Bermaz has indicated that a diesel 2 will arrive in showrooms sometime in 2016 – you’d do well to keep a look out for it.
1. BMW i8
This has got to be the shortest test drive ever – I only drove the BMW i8 around the block for no more than five minutes after the boys collected it for the Driven Web Series – but it is the one that has seared itself into my mind and I can’t get it out.
Forget the million ringgit price tag – the most shocking thing about the i8 is its brutal power delivery. This…thing may be powered by a heavily-boosted 231 hp 1.5 litre turbo three-pot, but the way the 131 hp electric motor at the front fills in the turbo lag makes the car feel naturally-aspirated, such is the instantaneous throttle response. This, combined with the all-wheel drive traction off the line means that the i8 feels fast, much faster than its 362 hp combined power output suggests.
There’s more too – you sit very low, so it feels very special, although the cabin looks and feels way too much like a lowly 1 Series for it to really take the fight to the likes of the Mercedes-AMG GT. But the best thing about the i8 is the incredible sculpted exterior design and those doors that make it feel 10, 20 years ahead of its time. It’s a weakness of mine, coming from a product design background – Hafriz tends to chide me on this – but this time I just don’t care.
My colleagues may not agree with me – they much prefer the consummate ability of the AMG GT or the extrovert character, sensuous styling and downright dirty exhaust note of the Jaguar F-Type R – but if I had RM1.2 million to spend on a car, I would go for i8 every single time. Yes, it’s complicated, feels (and sounds) a bit synthesised and, to be quite honest, feels low-rent everywhere you look, but the i8 is the one for me.
Goodbye 2015, and hello 2016. Oh how fast time flies when you’re kept busy. A role change this year has seen me pre-dominantly office-bound (so much for “preferring to drive cars rather than desks,” eh?), but a good year it has been, still.
Cars-wise, my roster is a little less than stellar (less so than years past, that’s for sure), but I stand very firmly on the five I’ve ended up with – a small hatchback, a sports car, a pick-up truck, an SUV and a coupe. It’s all (relatively) down to earth, if I do say so myself.
After all, life is not all about absurdly fast exotics, right? No Anthony, it really isn’t.
5. Proton Iriz 1.3 MT
Yes, my 2014 number one is on my list again, just as I predicted last year. Proton’s finest (it is!) left me thoroughly impressed during our Driven Web Series 2015 shoot, where it single-handedly and convincingly beat its competition. Clear as day it was the victor – by far and away our easiest verdict of the season.
A year on since I first drove it, the Iriz lost none of its charm and dynamic grace. The thoroughly used (and most likely abused) example didn’t feel a day old in our hands either, which was initially one of my major worries. Instead, it felt as tight as it should be, and proved to be the most comfortable, most dynamically capable hatch of the day.
This is an affordable Proton hatchback that is good to look at, nice to be in and immensely enjoyable to drive. Sure, it’s smaller than the Myvi inside, and its ergonomic faults (tiny speedo, huge steering wheel) are hard to forgive, but in this case the positives certainly outweigh the drawbacks.
Now if only it didn’t have that dreadful CVT as its automatic option. It may have mounted a proper challenge to Perodua had that been the case. For those willing to row your own gears, though, this is an absolute beauty.
4. Mercedes-AMG GT S
Sticking to the very essence of this post, the very best car I’ve driven this year does not top my list. It’s a thoroughbred sports car, designed from the ground up to wow. And it amazed me, of course, but no more than I had expected to be. Had it been butt ugly (and still as capable), it might have ended up higher.
Make no mistakes, though, the AMG GT S is objectively the finest machine I’ve experienced for a long, long time. Not since the magical 987C Porsche Cayman R have I been so thrilled behind the wheel. To me, this car has it all: sexy and menacing looks, elegant yet audacious image and scary but harnessable performance.
It’s one of those cars that, to me personally, look considerably better in the flesh compared to photos. What I initially thought as derivative “oh look at me, I’m a 911 wannabe” styling in flat images turned out to be both original and drop-dead gorgeous in front of my own eyes. I’m never trusting photographs again.
And the driving experience? It’s a full-on attack on all your senses, how intimidating, visceral and involving it is. Out of the three million ringgit sports cars on hand at the time, I was drawn most to the Mercedes, the least to the Jag. Having thoroughly tested them all, the i8 and the F-Type swapped places, but the AMG GT S stayed at the top. Love, as they say, stands the test of time (behind other wheels).
3. Nissan NP300 Navara
Let me be honest here – I’ve never been a fan of pick-up trucks. I think they’re crude machines that should be used as workhorses, and not as everyday-use family cars. The T6 Ford Ranger came closest to convincing me otherwise, but didn’t quite manage it. For all that’s been said of its near car-like driving characteristics, I was far from sold.
The NP300 Navara changed all that. Finally, here’s a pick-up that could pass off as an MPV in terms of ride – long been my biggest issue with trucks. The T6 Ranger was a revelation when it arrived in 2012, but this, I believe, represents the biggest move forward for the class yet.
Nevermind the fact that it’s not much of a load carrier. Its multi-link rear suspension with coil springs will have the rear deck sag awkwardly under heavy load, but it also transforms the truck’s ride qualities to far beyond what its competition can offer. Now this is how you execute a passenger-oriented pick-up truck.
For those who intend to use a truck as a truck, there’s always the Ranger. Heavy mile-munchers can have the D-Max, while off-road junkies may be better off with the Triton. Urban dwellers, however, should go for the new boy. The new Mother Trucker. The Nissan NP300 Navara.
2. F16 BMW X6 M
When you’ve driven as many cars for as long as we have, you tend to make learned assumptions even before turning the wheel, be it based on past experiences, credible hearsay and, well, your own general expectations. In years of doing this job, I’ve hardly been proven wrong in this regard. Until this thing came along.
Clicking the seat belt into place, I had a story crafted in my head, about how the X6 M is insanely fast on the straights, but a bit too heavy to take corners properly. I expected it to be well mannered, but a bit of a blunt weapon on track. Steady and supremely composed, but unexciting. More X than M. Oh but such a fool I was.
The big M ate up the Sepang circuit like it was on rails. It was quick alright, exceedingly so, but it also proved magnificently capable of lighting your pants on fire through the bends. The harder I pushed, the harder the M-tuned xDrive system worked, juggling power between the four wheels. The result? Absolute magic.
I also happened to drive it after stints on the F82 M4 Coupe and F10 M5 LCI. On the back of the fast but less-than-involving M4 and the lairy drive-it-properly-or-you’ll-bin-it M5, the X6 M turned out to be the biggest surprise of the day. All-wheel drive M5? Bring it on. Enthusiasts have nothing to be afraid of. Nothing at all.
1. Harvinder Singh’s Toyota 86 MT
We had an empty track at our disposal during one of our Driven Web Series 2015 shoots. With the day’s work done and the circuit still open, Harve and I decided to have fun with our own cars. So out we went, me in Harve’s stock manual 86, and him in my daily drive, a Peugeot 208 GTi. What happened next was telling.
While Harve decided to call it quits after two short laps, I carried on, driving like an idiot. Round and round I went, all the while thinking to myself, “dammit, I’ve bought the wrong car!”
Thing is, the 86 is far from fast (it really isn’t, by anyone’s standard), nor is it particularly good looking (it’s bland, and the cabin has as much visual flamboyance as that of a Vios). But my God does it handle. The steering and body control is beyond exquisite, and the seating position is as perfect as it gets. Bliss on wheels, that was. My best driving experience of 2015.
What it taught me is this: forget about the idea of a one-size-fits-all hot hatch – there’s no such thing. Go bold or go home. Want a fun car? Get a toy. Get a sports car. For something that you’ll want to drive everyday, a small, uncomfortable and unglamorous hot hatch just doesn’t quite cut it. Jack of all trades, master of none.
The more grown-up me now wants a more user friendly, more passenger-friendly ride. A stylish sedan with some turn of speed, perhaps, like a Mercedes-Benz C 250 AMG Line. Maybe next year…
Choices abounded yet again for my top five list, though the number to whittle down was far less than it was last year. Enough stars to make it a full double-digit run again though; for the curious, notable omissions include the mental Mercedes-AMG E 63 S and scrumptious A 45 in its new, facelifted form.
The Honda NSX also failed to make the cut in the end – I know there’s much promise, but I have the feeling that it might be a bit too measured. Sadly, too little time to find out just how much passion resides underneath. And so, we’re left with the five here, a motley crew consisting of an electric, a hybrid, a sports car, a driver-oriented hatchback and an SUV.
On a side note, I’m chuffed that some of the guys have given the Mercedes-AMG GT S – one of my picks last year – the accolade it so richly deserves. I’d dance with that devil, anywhere, any day.
5. Tesla Model S 85
You’re either a big fan of the exterior looks or you’re not (I’m okay with it), but the real magic is what’s tucked beneath all that sheet metal. There’s a lot of win with this one, and it’s not just about the burst of speed when you prod the accelerator pedal.
Fast it is, but the intrinsic allure goes beyond that. The ride has a good level of refinement, and the quietness at cruising speeds is exemplary. Add to that an eminently achievable 400 km or so range and you have all the makings of a planet-friendly daily driver.
The poor rear seating and odd trim here and there takes away some of the gloss, but not the technical achievement and core competency, which is first rate. Shame it won’t be available to a wider audience here.
4. W212 Mercedes-Benz E 300 BlueTEC Hybrid
Fuel economy challenges are always good fun, even if there’s more than a modicum of insanity in them. The one involving the E 300 BlueTEC Hybrid was probably the zaniest I’ve ever been in – paired with Chris, who was with a different publication then, the three days of hijinks in the car made for an adventure truly worth writing about.
The car, meanwhile, took all our nonsense without batting an eyelid. As a hybrid, it’s not perfect, because that battery is only good to assist the car to run electrically at very light throttle, but the oil burner works a charm, and to get 1,500 km on a single tank as we did on that run was quite the achievement, even if we had to drive conservatively – and toil – for it.
The time spent in it also got us familiar with the interior like no other vehicle this year, and despite the W212’s cabin presentation starting to show signs of aging, as it invariably would, it’s not a bad place to be. Trust us, we know.
3. Ferrari 488 GTB
Purists may dismiss this one and look back wistfully at the 458 Italia, lamenting the loss, but this is the way forward, and a very appealing one at that. Wide-ranging scope and drivability, insanely quick, eminently adjustable to input, the 488 GTB is a superb all-rounder.
Sure, that soundtrack is muted in comparison to that before it, the character a little less gregarious, and that exterior can be accused of playing it a bit too straight and safe, but the mechanicals are absolutely brilliant and the dynamic sense nothing short of impressive. A tad tempered, you’ll need to drive it hard before the magic really appears, but it’s there, make no mistake about it. The rewards come, approached clean or ham-fisted.
Putter around and you’ll find that works as well for this turbocharged horse. Tractable around town, with very decent levels of compliance for a sports car, this adds versatility to the game, which will be a boon to new followers. Still, it’s firm and deep-rooted when it matters, and did I say it was insanely quick? Oh yes, I did.
2. C346 Ford Focus 1.5 EcoBoost facelift
Finally, the C346 facelift brings to the table what should have been there from the start – an adept handling family-based hatchback paired with a powertrain and drivetrain combination it deserves. The third-generation Focus is by no means as ground-breaking or emotionally engaging as the C170 Mk 1 was, but it’s still a very good car to drive.
Nothing quite wrong with the outgoing pre-facelift dynamically, and that 2.0 litre Duratec Ti-VCT NA motor, despite needing some prodding to hustle the car along, is a thoroughly capable mill. The main letdown has been the accompanying Getrag 6DCT250 six-speed dry dual-clutch PowerShift transmission, the less of which is said, the better.
Going the blown route with the 1.5 litre EcoBoost 15 and a conventional six-speed torque converter automatic transforms the Focus. The SelectShift 6F35 gearbox may not be the brightest and newest, but it’s proficient and a world away from that on now. Elsewhere, revisions and enhancements in the areas of steering, NVH and ride/handling do their bit to further the cause. Intrinsically smoother, peppier off the mark, and much tauter, all at one go. Now, why didn’t they nail it the first time out?
1. Land Rover Discovery Sport
Not so much the vehicle as it was the location and timing – Iceland in the thick of winter made for unquestionably the best driving experience I had this year, hands down. Snowstorms, wind, blizzards that reduced visibility to non-existent levels and black ice were part of the parcel, but so were picturesque landscapes – albeit monotone – and some great B-routes. All this, in a day.
Ah, what was the vehicle again? Oh yes, the L550 Discovery Sport, which turned out to be the ideal star in the particular play. It’s a bit boxy looking upon first measure, not quite as visually stimulating as its Evoque cousin, but the looks grow on you, and I quite liked the interior of the five-seat example from the get-go. The Si4 petrol and SD4 diesel motors worked a treat, too.
As for the driving, the SUV reveled in all that slush and blustery conditions, going about the task with no fuss whatsoever. While not indestructible, as shown on three occasions when my co-driver got it stuck into snowbanks due to human error, it accomplished everything else asked of it correctly in quiet, understated fashion. Sure, you could argue that the drive would have been as much fun and compelling in a Lada Niva, but maybe I wouldn’t be alive to write about the experience here if it were the case.
Unlike last year, there’s no common theme for my 2015 favourites, which range from a 27-year old machine from four generations ago to a modern sports car with a virtual cockpit.
They are the bright sparks of what was otherwise a relatively mundane year of cars for yours truly – scroll up for M, AMG or the NSX that didn’t make the cut – but it shows that there are more to savour in cars than just horsepower or cornering ability, fun as those things are.
I can imagine living with each of my top five, and they would fit right in – no one-night-stand kinds here.
5. Honda HR-V
It just struck me that I’ve driven more SUVs in the past one and a half year than the rest of the years in this job combined, despite our team’s rotation system – such is the popularity of the raised hatchbacks as today’s urban machine of choice.
The soft-roader is of course not a new concept, but the Honda HR-V can claim to be groundbreaking. It wasn’t the first B-segment hatch-based SUV to reach our sunny shores, but it did take the market by storm.
It has brand power, but the HR-V is also a good product that punches above its weight. Easy to drive, smooth and refined, a unique cockpit, and interior packaging that trumps rivals from a class above are strong points. Familiarity hasn’t helped with the looks, but this is a winning package.
4. Audi TT 2.0 TFSI
It’s here for that interior. Pretty much the closest thing to love at first sight when it comes to car cabins, the third-gen Audi TT fulfils my fetish for minimalist interiors.
After losing its way for the Mk2, this TT dashboard is as impactful as the original car’s trendsetting cabin, for me at least. Fresh thinking sees the AC controls incorporated in the cool turbine vents, leaving just one row of buttons on the stark, but functional centre stack.
No jutting central screen to spoil aesthetics too – all you see is presented on a 12.3-inch “virtual cockpit”, which unfortunately has no local navi to show off its true potential. That skull of a steering wheel, the quality…
I could go on, but the car itself isn’t half bad. Explosive real world acceleration, a brutally efficient gearbox and an iconic shape has got me dreaming.
3. F48 BMW X1
Compact SUVs are all the rage these days, but BMW didn’t jump on the bandwagon – it helped create the premium sub-segment with the original X1 back in 2009. It may have been the pioneer, but recreating the E84 won’t do in 2015.
Which is why today’s second-gen X1 is as all-new as it gets. Sitting on a fresh FWD platform (xDrive available), the X1 ditches the gawky wagon shape of old for a more robust, handsome appearance. It’s a better SUV too, being more spacious and practical than before, with higher quality finishing.
All the above is enough to propel the X1 back to the top of the class of 2015, but the clincher is that the junior SAV is still better to drive than its rivals, front-wheel drive or not.
2. B9 Audi A4
Plenty of time for dreams and ideals when you’re young but most enthusiasts will eventually fall into the grasp of reality. Suddenly, the thought of a luxury express (automatic, of course) that will ferry me from A to B with minimum fuss doesn’t seem so impure anymore.
None will do that as well as the B9 Audi A4, I reckon. The most slippery car in its class is also very comfortable and efficient. The 252 hp 2.0 TFSI quattro I sampled does the century sprint in just 5.8 seconds, but has the legs and refinement for the long haul. Dynamically improved, too.
A major part of the B9’s appeal is its new cabin. A slim fit version of the Q7’s dash with elements shared with the pricey SUV, the A4’s cockpit is minimalist and warm (or technical, depending on trim) at the same time, layered with top notch quality. Smooth operator in a sharp suit.
1. E30 BMW 320is
Life was simpler back in the day, and so were cars. No twin-turbos and torque vectoring in this E30 BMW 320is, just raw mechanical delight and an accurate transcription of the road to your body.
This “Italian M3” is a rare car – only 2,540 coupes were made for Italy and Portugal, markets that imposed lower taxes on engines below two litres in size. The M3’s 2.3L S14 engine had its stroke shortened to make 1,990 cc, and the 192 hp/210 Nm four-pot is paired to the M3’s close-ratio five-speed manual.
This four-pot loves high revs, and the buzz from the final dash to 7,000 rpm got me high as well. The steering is slow by modern standards, and the suspension more liberal, but it allows you to flow with the car as it flows down the road. With that pearl of an engine and a stick shift, the experience was assolutamente fantastico!