Road cars

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180

By Andrew Frankel

I’m sitting here looking at a list of 35 newly designed cars from which I am required to put forward seven as my candidates for the 2012 European Car of the Year award. The winner won’t actually be announced until the Geneva Motorshow in March, but as one of the UK’s six jurors there is much driving, cogitating and whittling down to be done once this long list has been turned into a seven-strong shortlist. I won’t go through them all, but these are some I won’t be voting for:

Audi Q3: fluently executed but breaks no new ground at all.
Citroën DS4 and DS5: the former too dull, the latter too flawed.
BMW 1 and 6-series: both good, but not enough for top honours.
Honda Civic: reheated rather than replaced; being merely mildly improved is not going to trouble the VW Golf.
Lexus GS: another Lexus that has it all on paper, but rather less on the open road.

I shall wait until the last possible second before deciding which ones to put forward but clear candidates include the impressive VW Up! reviewed this month, Vauxhall’s range-extending Ampera hybrid, Land Rover’s classy Evoque, Fiat’s cute Panda and I guess the Ford Focus, which is clearly a good car though in many ways a retrograde step. I’m also going to vote for the new Porsche 911, not that it stands a Tory’s chance in Scotland of winning. Unlike other jurors who weight their decisions according to the market importance of each contender, I judge on pure merit or, more precisely, fitness for purpose.

Of course there are many cars I’ve driven this year that I’d love to have considered, but the stipulation that any contender must be completely new rather than a new variant, and built in volumes of no less than 5000 per year, rather rule out some of my favourites.

Happily on these pages I can make my own rules, so here are my top seven cars of the year according to rules I’ve made up myself.

From the list above, the 991, Up! and Evoke have to make it: the Porsche you can read about on page 114, the VW (p115) is not the small car revolution it once promised to be, but still the most complete A-segment car we have yet seen. And the Evoque proves Land Rover has retained the knack of designing cars people didn’t know they wanted. It did it with the first in 1947, with the Range Rover in 1970 and the Discovery in 1988: all true originals like the Evoque.

I’d then put the Renault Twizy forward: I don’t think Renault will sell many of its tandem two-seat electric quadricycle because it’s too expensive and it can’t be used by people without off-street parking, but I love cars with a singular focus, be it a Ferrari F40 or Land Rover Defender. And in the urban environment, the Twizy is the most effective four-wheeled transport yet devised.

Next is Toyota’s GT86, which cannot be officially considered because it’s not on sale until the summer. But I’ve driven it and the only time I’ve been more excited in a Toyota, I was driving a 562bhp Lexus LFA around the Nürburgring. I’ll be writing about this amazing £26,000 sports car soon, but it takes the modern belief that such cars need to have a turbocharged engine, front-wheel drive, fat tyres and excessive weight and throws it on the fire. Low, light, rear-wheel drive and shod with the tyres from a Prius, this is a 21st-century interpretation of an old-school sports car and all the better for it. How good? The last affordable Japanese sports car with this much promise was the Mazda MX-5.

Next, Morgan’s 3 Wheeler. Like the Twizy, this car knows exactly what it has to do and precisely how it’s going to do it. Though I’ve never even sat in an original three-wheeler, so have no sense of the history, this to me is every inch what a Morgan should be. I make no apology for the last car being another 911, the GT3 RS 4.0 to be precise. It’s here because although it’s out of production and is yet another variant of an extremely familiar theme, it’s also without a doubt the car I enjoyed driving most in 2011 and the one I’d most like to own.

The most notable omissions from this list are the two Italian supercars, the Lamborghini Aventador and Ferrari FF. Actually I liked them very much, but both have issues that, to me, keep them out of contention. Lamborghini could have made the Aventador a landmark with those looks, its carbon tub and all-new 691bhp V12 motor. All it got wrong was the set-up, which means the car is far less capable when driven fast than it looks: the paddle-shift gearbox is too violent and the suspension too inclined to let the car push into stodgy understeer in slower corners. Though I enjoyed
my time in it, ultimately it remains a car more for posers than drivers.The Ferrari, by contrast, is almost too good.

With four-wheel drive and a double clutch gearbox, its sin is to sit the driver some distance removed from the action. It is, of course, a Grand Tourer and as such the loss of a little driver interaction is more forgivable than it is in a mid-engined supercar. But it is also a Ferrari, and to equip a car with steering that is too light and too quick and a nose-led handling balance is not to me what this brand is about. In the end it was a car I admired very much but, unlike the exceptional 458 Italia, was unable to love.

*

Next month I will preview the more important cars I hope to be driving in 2012, but I know none will be Maybachs and I doubt any will be Saabs.

It’s hard to imagine anyone mourning the passing of Mercedes’ failed ultra-luxury car project. Long after many of us predicted Maybach would fall, Mercedes has finally put its rebadged, last generation, long-wheelbase S-class out of its slow-selling misery.

To much of the motoring press, the Maybach provided something convenient to kick to show we’re not always impressed by cars just because they’re large and expensive. Very ugly, wildly overpriced and based on obsolete technology, it was an easy target. But returning to my earlier theme, what many missed is that the Maybach, like a Twizy or an F40, was exceptional in its intended role. Viewed not as an ostentatious wealth statement like a Rolls-Royce Phantom, but simply as a place for tired executives to work or rest while moving between places unsuited to helicopters or private jets, it was unrivalled. Its ride and refinement set new standards and, if you had the long-wheelbase version, you could run a government from the back seat.

As for Saab, I’ll be amazed if it sees the year out. Too many life-saving deals have come and gone, while wages remain unpaid, cars remain unbuilt and debts spiral higher. If a knight in shining armour was going to appear, his charger would have shown up on the horizon long ago. There is no shortage of people to blame, from the Swedish government and General Motors to the various Chinese backers who have appeared and retreated, but the fact is if Saab still built cars people wanted, it would still be in business. But it doesn’t and, very shortly I fear, it will be gone.