Road cars

The European Car of the Year shortlist has been announced. The winner will come from among the Volkswagen Up, Fiat Panda, Range Rover Evoque, Toyota Yaris, Citroën DS5 and Ford Focus. As predicted last month the new Porsche 911 didn’t make the final reckoning, not because there’s anything wrong with it, but because jurors tend not to vote for cars beyond the financial grasp of most of their readers.

The fact, therefore, that the Evoque has made it to the shortlist speaks volumes for the esteem in which it’s held.

I voted for five of the final seven, including the 911 and Peugeot 508 in place of the Yaris and DS5. Given its position in the largest car class in Europe, the Yaris was always a likely (though many would say unworthy) finalist, but the Citroën really does surprise me. This is an allegedly luxurious car but, thanks to some incompetent suspension settings, is one of the least comfortable cars I drove last year. It doesn’t matter that the rest of the car is likeable and capable: like a Ferrari with no performance or a Land Rover that’s useless off road, the DS5 fails at the one thing at which it should truly excel. Once Citroën made cars that rode better than any others, so it’s sad to see those skills have been lost.

It had to happen: just as the Chevrolet Volt/Vauxhall Ampera looked like it might help pull the world’s largest car company out of its long-term doldrums, fears over its safety now threaten to undermine its future. Why? Because in three cases fires have broken out in cars that have been crashed so heavily that their batteries have been damaged.

Does this mean that if you crash your Ampera you’re likely to end up in a conflagration? It does not. The fires broke out not minutes or hours after the crash, but weeks and not once to a customer-owned car – each fire happened in a car that had been placed in storage after official crash testing.

But this has not stopped the hysteria. “Chevy Volt fires threaten all electric vehicle makers,” screamed a headline across the Forbes website despite the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration stating it had no concerns over the safety of other electric vehicles. Even so, GM CEO Dan Akerson still felt obliged to offer to buy back any one of the 6000 Volts already sold in the US should their owners lose confidence in them.

I hope they don’t. The US has a history of gross over-reaction to the slightest sniff of a safety concern, be it justified or not. Audi’s business in North America was all but destroyed in the 1980s through claims its cars indulged in ‘unintended acceleration’. Every alleged incident turned out to be nothing more than owners treading on the wrong pedal. And the market is likely to still be jittery following the rather more justified outcry in the US in 2009 concerning Toyota hybrids being crashed thanks to ill-fitting floor mats interfering with the accelerator.

Unlike Toyota, and perhaps learning from its mistake, GM has been swift and decisive in its action. It immediately recalled all its Volts to be modified and all Amperas sold in the UK and Europe will be built with the fix incorporated.

But I still think car buyers need to be careful what they wish for. It is not possible to propel a tonne or more of metal at high speed from one place to the next, in close proximity to many other millions of tonnes of metal moving at similar speeds and for no danger to result. Were that to be the case, those cars would be so slow, heavy and expensive we’d neither want nor be able to afford to buy or use them. For the entire future of a car which is as important as the Volt/Ampera to be threatened by three fires that broke out in cars that had already been written off, the most immediate a full week after impact, is simply nonsensical. It is down to the NHTSA to put these incidents in their proper perspective and reassure the public accordingly.

Last month I promised a look ahead to the road cars I’ll most look forward to driving in 2012.

One I already have. It’s Toyota’s GT86 front-engined, rear-drive coupé (above right) that I drove in Japan late last year and which time and space have so far precluded writing about here. This I’ll rectify next month.

In the meantime the car I most want to drive is the Alfa Romeo 4C mid-engined sports car. If the production version looks as good as the concept, if it really does weigh less than a tonne and is powered by an engine with at least 250bhp, and if it really does cost less than £40,000, Alfa is going to have a stampede on its hands and rightly so. I spent most of last year using a new Giulietta as my daily driver, so I know that Alfa is at last on the right track once more, but it is the 4C (above) that will really help restore Alfa Romeo’s reputation. Odd to recall now that back in the 1960s the marque was so revered it could sell a Giulia coupé with a 1600cc engine for almost as much as Jaguar would charge you for a 3.8-litre E-type.

I’m also looking forward very much to trying the high-performance ST versions of the Ford Focus and Fiesta. I have been more vocal than most expressing disappointment in Ford’s failure to retain the Focus’s traditional driving appeal with the latest generation, but the last time I drove a fast Ford I didn’t like, the Focus was still called Escort.

At a more mundane level, the 208 is a critical car for the credibility and long-term health of Peugeot. It looks good enough, but will need to do more than that to compete not only with the Polo and Fiesta but also the entirely credible threats now posed by rival Korean products from Hyundai and Kia. We should also see the 208GTI by the end of the year and, having recently spent a day in a 205GTI, I am reminded how massive a mountain this car must climb.

This is also the year we’ll see a whole slew of supercars, from Ferrari’s 700bhp 599GTB replacement to more versions of McLaren’s fascinating but flawed MP4-12C. A convertible seems certain and a road-going version of its GT3 race car can’t be far away. We’ll also see an all-new Mercedes-Benz SL and, possibly, even the next DB9 Aston Martin.

But the most important car of the year will be the BMW 3-series. Too much time has passed since BMW last produced a truly world-beating car, a run of fair to middling form I’d hoped would end with the M5 but hasn’t. But BMW always throws everything it has at the 3-series, which is why in the four generations I’ve seen in nearly 25 years of driving them, it has consistently been the most capable and desirable car in its class. I have a funny feeling this one is going to be no different.