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Recovery position

The past 12 months have been largely positive for the automotive industry, By Andrew Frankel

So how was it for you?

Certainly for most car manufacturers, 2013 was the best year to be in the business since at least 2008. And while many have yet to see sales return to pre-crash levels, the trajectory is clear and, for premium brands at least, likely to remain so while the recovery in America is more than matched by the expansion in demand from Russia, India and, in particular, China.

For Jaguar Land Rover, our largest indigenous car constructor, it’s been the most successful year on record as its Indian proprietors continue to show the good sense to let its engineers and designers get on with what they do best. The Land Rover success story continues to gather pace – and not on the back of slick marketing, but the rather more stable platform of world-class product. The Evoque, Range Rover and Range Rover Sport are all class-leading cars and for now the market is happy to pay royal money for the privilege of owning them. Yet its biggest challenge lies ahead, conceptually at least. JLR announced this year that the Defender was to die at the end of 2015 and filling those shoes with something both authentic and up to date will be a mammoth task.

Meanwhile Jaguar sales are at last on the rise, albeit from a very low base. By producing market-specific cars – four-wheel drive for snow-belt states in the USA, small petrol engines for China and diesels for Europe, the company is releasing the potential its products always possessed. The next phase of adding further product has already begun: not only did the F-type go on sale in 2013 but Jaguar also showed a new SUV, code named C-X17. A small saloon to rival the BMW 3-series is known to be under development, too.

In the world of top-end supercars, sales of the McLaren P1 (bottom), Porsche 918 (below) and Ferrari LaFerrari began – and at once a battle started to brew over what appears to be the most important bragging right of all: exactly which one is the quickest around the Nürburgring. You and I might consider the measure an irrelevance, but clearly it’s not to the companies concerned. Porsche blinked first and claimed a lap of 6min 57sec, the fastest ever by a standard production car, to which McLaren replied somewhat enigmatically that its car had gone ‘sub seven minutes’. As things stand, the twitterati have concluded this must mean the P1 is slower than the 918 or else McLaren would have said so, but I suspect something else: with Ferrari yet to declare, McLaren will be loathe to give its deadliest rival a clear target to aim at. Looking at the power, weight and downforce boasted by the McLaren, I think it at least possible that it’s already gone faster than the Porsche but that the company will only say so when it knows it’s also faster than the Ferrari. On the sales front, the 499 LaFerraris sold out before it was launched, the reduced run of 375 McLarens has been snapped up and Porsche still has some way to go to find homes for its highly ambitious target of 918 918s.

Aston Martin had a better year, gaining widespread praise for the new Vantage V12S, canning the failed Cygnet city car project and attracting investment first from InvestIndustrial and later a joint venture with AMG that is sure to see some or more of the desperately needed next generation of Astons sitting on Mercedes architecture, using modified Mercedes engines and using Mercedes advanced telematics and hybrid technologies.

As for Mercedes-Benz itself, it can breathe again. The S-class is its most important car in terms of how the company has been perceived around the world and the latest version was launched to universal acclaim.

But it is its rival up the road in Munich that might yet have the last laugh. In its i3 (below left) BMW has launched the first electric car you’d buy for reasons other than the fact it’s electric. All powertrain issues aside, it’s a genuinely desirable car and as merely the first in an entire family of electric and range-extender products, it has a clear head start on both Mercedes and even more bitter rival Audi, a company that in interesting product terms had its quietest year for a while. As you can read elsewhere, the RS6 estate is masterly, but the statistically similar RS7 something closer to a disappointment.

These are interesting times in Italy despite the fact that country’s entire automotive output – which, mind, includes Fiat – is now less than that of Nissan’s plant in Sunderland. Alfa Romeo wowed the world by producing a production version of the 4C that was damn near as gorgeous as the concept car and offered a driving experience that should inject credibility among the Alfisti. It’s something the brand has been missing for at least 20 years.

Maserati confirmed its desire to play with the big boys by unveiling its attractive Ghibli mid-sized saloon.

It might struggle to compete with the BMW 5-series on pure ability, but for class and image it offers a new dimension to executive car owners.

It also confirmed the production of the forthcoming Levante SUV.

Lamborghini had a quieter year. We know the last Gallardo has now rolled off the line but, fuzzy scooped images aside, know little of its replacement, though it can be expected to maintain its mid-engined, V10, four-wheel drive all-aluminium configuration.

Smaller British companies enjoyed mixed fortunes: the newly profitable Morgan relieved its former MD Charles Morgan of his duties and ditched his ambitious plans for expansion into new territories with new models, but Gordon Murray’s efforts to find a home for his revolutionary iStream production process have borne fruit, thanks to a deal with Yamaha that should lead to its innovative and attractive Motiv city car entering production by 2016. Meanwhile, Lotus is starting to show a few signs of lifting itself out of its current depression, with £100 million of investment announced by its Malaysian DRM Hicom parent and a recruitment drive for engineers.

Porsche stars, Golf coarse

And finally, the long list for the 2014 Car of the Year award has been published. As ever, many of the cars in the running are not what you’d describe as core Motor Sport material, so while I ponder what to vote for in my role as a COTY juror, I thought I’d briefly come up with a car of the year from those I’ve driven for this title over the past 12 months.

From a list of nearly 40 cars, 30 exclude themselves fairly readily leaving a top 10 of the Alfa 4C, Aston Vantage V12S, BMW i3, Ford Fiesta ST, Jaguar F-type, Mercedes S-class, Porsches Cayman and 911 GT3, the Range Rover Sport and Radical RXC.

From there it gets damned difficult, but for variety’s sake as much as anything, I’d name a top three of the Ford Fiesta ST, Porsche 911 GT3 and BMW i3. But to get from three down to one is simplicity itself: dull and predictable though the choice is, the best car I drove in 2013 was the Porsche 911 GT3.

And the worst? The VW Golf GTi missed the top 10 by a single spot, but the Golf R Cabriolet was on its own at the bottom of the pile. At the time of testing this 2-litre, four-cylinder structurally suspect cabriolet, based on a previous generation hatchback, cost more than the mid-engined, six-cylinder, state-of-the-art masterpiece that is the Porsche Boxster. By far the fastest Golf I’d driven in 25 years, it was also by a similar margin the least pleasant.