So what was great in 2008?
Please forgive the indulgence, but in a magazine sold during 2008 but dated 2009, it seems legitimate to take a look back over the cars that went on sale in the past 12 months. This is not a Top 10 or any other list-based digest, just the chance to mention a few from the hundred or more I have driven in the past year that, for reasons good or bad, stood out from an often rather indistinct crowd.
After the delight of 2007’s Fiat 500, ’08 was looking like a wholly unremarkable year for small cars until autumn came and suddenly both the Ford Ka and Renault Twingo 133 turned up outside my house one after the other. Both were terrific. Ford showed how much fun it is still possible to have with just 68bhp under your right foot, so long as the people tuning the suspension know what they’re doing: quite extraordinary point-to-point pace becomes possible through the simple expedient of not slowing down for anything.
With the Twingo, Renault is showing an interest in returning to its hot hatch roots that I find very exciting: this is a car whose performance is characterised not by excess power but minimal weight, just like the 5 GT Turbo over 20 years ago. It also happens to work spectacularly well on tight British B-roads where that lack of weight and width combines with perhaps the most throttle-sensitive chassis I’ve encountered all year to create a devastatingly effective and amusing little weapon. There are many purpose-built sports cars, including a large number of purpose-built hundred-grand-plus supercars, that won’t keep you so well entertained on such roads.
For an entirely different set of reasons, I was very much taken with the new VW Scirocco as well. I didn’t much care for its looks but thought it would prove pleasant and effective, like the Golf GTI on which it is so closely based. In fact it’s much better than that. While there is no single outstanding talent to point to, VW has contrived to create a coupé with an answer to near enough every question you’re likely to ask of it: it’s quick but comfortable, quiet but entertaining, spacious yet intimate… in short it’s one of those cars that, because it appears so much greater than the sum of its parts, makes you wonder whether even VW realised how good it would be.
By uncomfortable contrast it’s been a rather less good year for Porsches in general and the 911 in particular. This is the year Porsche completely re-engineered the 997, introducing new direct injection engines, the long-awaited PDK gearbox and a host of other more minor mechanical and cosmetic changes. And while the result is faster and more frugal as you’d expect, the price paid in the loss of character has been unacceptably high. A friend of mine who falls into the almost mythically rare category of those who have loved the 911 more and for longer than me, rang after driving one. “It’s just another bloody car,” he said, clearly thunderstruck. I’d not go so far myself, but understand all too easily what he was saying. We also saw this year the cessation of the latest generation of 911 GT3, one of the three greatest road-going Porsches I have ever driven (2.7 RS and 993RS, as you’re asking) and the introduction of the wild GT2, proof if ever it were needed that speed isn’t everything.
Italian supercars had a broadly good year: as you can read on page 68, Ferrari introduced the California, successfully negotiating a conceptual minefield to produce a convincing GT, convertible and supercar all under one retractable metal roof, while Lamborghini’s new Gallardo LP560 is a huge leap forward. Were it not for the awful (but optional) carbon- ceramic brakes on the one I drove, I might even feel inclined to suggest it rivalled Ferrari’s 599GTB as my favourite member of the genre.
Their British rivals had a more mixed year. Bentley presented a 600bhp ‘Speed’ version of the Flying Spur which I didn’t like as much as the standard car, but then stole my heart completely with the Brooklands coupé. Like the equally lovely though rather more sedate Rolls Phantom Coupé, these must be among the most indefensible forms of transport in such straitened times, but if you ever held doubts that British handcraftsmanship was unrivalled, one sitting in either of these will put them to rest for good. Of the two, I preferred the way the Rolls looked and the Bentley drove. Drifting this 2.6 tonne, £230,000, 530bhp cathedral for the camera was one of my guilty pleasures of the year.
Aston Martin’s year brought us some very worthwhile improvements to the V8 Vantage, not just in the form of its enlarged V8 engine but also welcome changes to the suspension.
But I also drove the DBS for the first time and, though I slowly grew to like the way it drove, I still think it misjudged both in the way it looks and its overly ambitious pricing.
But nothing I drove all year, not even the Nissan GTR, did anything to shake my conviction that, at present at least, the Audi R8 is the best all-purpose supercar you can buy. Nearly two years down the line, it’s still showing me things I didn’t think it could do.
Outside the realm of the supercar, and into a perhaps more real world, the BMW 330d was undoubtedly the best car of the year: 0-60mph in 6sec, 155mph and 50mpg are numbers that need no further explanation from me, though the memory of the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG will live longer in my mind. For the first time since the launch of the 190E 2.3-16 almost a quarter of a century ago, Mercedes has finally and entirely got the measure of the BMW M3.
Sadly there’s no contest to determine the most disappointing car of the year: the Lexus IS-F wasn’t great and I didn’t much care for the Audi RS6, but both were as shining beacons of brilliance compared to the Mini Cooper John Cooper Works. A basic Cooper is a fine car, but the overblown, overpowered, overpriced JCW is a neurotic, hyperactive mess. Still, as this means 2008 sounded only one resoundingly bum note, I think we can put it down as a good year; not a great one but at least a reasonably hard act for 2009 to try to follow.