Welcome to the annual paultan.org Top Five cars list, where each author picks the vehicles that have impressed them the most over the past 12 months. We’ve switched up the formula this year – we’re breaking up the usual big roundup post to give the individual writers the space to go into greater detail with regards to their selections, and some of them also get to be on camera. Enjoy!

The holiday season. For some, it’s the best time of the year with trips abroad and gifts galore. For others, it’s a reminder that you don’t have as much. Even so, one must be thankful for what he has, as I am with my rather modest list.

In a year that saw me possibly talk to people more than drive cars, it was a real struggle to come up with a list of five machines.

Car guys, I apologise in advance. There’s no seven-figure exotica to whittle down (and the subsequent challenge to include a token “cheap car” to appear grounded) here, just an eclectic bunch of four-wheelers that I found fascinating in 2018, with a first-time experience and an eye-opener thrown in.

Those looking for 500 hp beasts (what’s the supercar baseline these days?) or luxury/performance flagships can look elsewhere, because I’ve hung a Lincoln alongside a Maxus on my tree. Proceed at your own peril.

5. Maxus D90

Before the Proton X70, which is based on the Geely Boyue, not many Malaysians were aware of the current standards of China-brand cars, us in the media included. The impression left by Cherys Tiggo and Eastar, or even the newer Havals, had no chance of being altered as we missed out on a whole generation of Chinese cars, and things move very fast in the world’s biggest auto market.

I didn’t know that SAIC’s Maxus – the “commercial vehicle brand” in the Shanghai giant’s stable alongside Roewe and MG – is now moving into passenger cars, with a focus on SUVs and MPVs. I didn’t know that it made the D90, a seven-seat Toyota Fortuner type of SUV that’s fairly handsome.

I didn’t know that a Maxus could sport a sweeping BMW-style dashboard with high-res screens, crisp graphics and more kit than some premium SUVs. I didn’t know that even giants like these are usually petrol-powered (221 hp 2.0T, 6AT in the D90’s case) because diesel is deemed agricultural in China.

Now I know, and the Chinese cars of today are a lot better than you think.

4. Lincoln MKC

The best Americana experience is driving a pony car in its homeland, but when there are more than two humans and much shopping to haul, an SUV is the practical choice. By chance, we hired a Lincoln MKC and yours truly was the designated driver.

They needn’t have asked. Lincoln is a quintessential American brand and it didn’t matter that the handsome MKC is a premium-skinned Ford Kuga, or that it looks like a mouse next to the Navigator – I got to drive a Lincoln!

Over two days and a few hundred freeway miles (plus some city traffic thrown in), I came to appreciate the MKC’s light and easy steering, cruising manners and cushy ride. The 2.0T 6AT combo wasn’t as sharp/sporting as what BMW and Audi offer (cabin quality wasn’t quite there either), but the car somehow felt at home, in its element.

Oddly, even the gear selector buttons on the centre stack made sense, as did Matthew McConaughey’s hand-resting-on-wheel pose that I may have inadvertently adopted.

3. Volvo S60 T6 AWD

You’ll rarely come across a bad car these days, more so in the premium segment where margins are slim. Technical bits matter, especially to “car guys”, but I believe that most of us buy what we want because we really want that particular item, not because it’s significantly superior compared to rivals. It’s emotional, and hard to rationalise despite our game face and best efforts.

It can be because of years of savvy marketing (I need a Rolex to crown my achievement, a Patek as a heirloom to pass down), but a big part of creating desire is design. IMHO, the latest crop of Volvos are perfect examples of leading by design, and of the lot, the third-generation Volvo S60 is the prettiest.

It has to be though, with such titans like the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class so deeply embedded in the consumer psyche. The S60’s package is sound – the T6 AWD variant I tried had a turbocharger and a supercharger to make 310 hp/400 Nm of torque, and it lacks no kit – but the real reason you’ll want one is because it looks fantastic. Scandi-cool in a red hot R-Design dress – my girl Selena’s right, the heart wants what it wants.

2. Honda Civic Type R

At times, cars that make a good impression at international test drive events don’t quite reproduce the magic when tested in Malaysia. The obvious difference in tarmac quality aside, we also tend to drive with more confidence (and abandon) on home soil and in RHD, for me at least.

Was that the case for the Honda Civic Type R, which I placed at No.2 last year? (It would have been top if not the year-end debut of the game-changing Perodua Myvi)

I’m ashamed to have doubted the brilliant FK8, which turned out to be even better playing at home. In a day trip to Melaka and back using 80% of trunk roads, the hot Civic’s effortless pace and newfound compliant ride (in the default Sport mode) shone through. It was so good, I bought one the following day.*

Would I have survived the same journey in an FD2 Civic Type R? Of course, but it would have probably took longer and left me nursing a bad back.

*In 1/64 Tomica form

1. Toyota C-HR

This was the easy one, the first name on the team sheet, as they say in football.

Not long ago, it would be unimaginable that Toyota came up with a car like the C-HR. They could have made it more spacious, more practical with better visibility and more “normal” looking. But the giant let its hair down and went all out with the design – the resulting Coupe High Rider looks even wilder than Toyota’s actual coupe, the 86. Love it or hate it, no one can accuse the company of playing it safe here.

With a smooth drivetrain and good ride comfort, the C-HR is a great daily driver, but what’s truly surprising is the SUV’s ability and enthusiasm when pushed hard in the bends.

I remember Akio Toyoda unfurling the “Fun To Drive, Again” banner at the 2011 Tokyo Motor Show, and thinking how it would all turn out. More than the dedicated sports cars, regular but exciting models like the C-HR is proof that Toyota wasn’t merely sloganeering.