The 2020 car of the year? One that can cope with the rough...

Road Cars

The car industry was in a state of flux even before Covid, writes Andrew Frankel. But there were still some highlights on the rocky course of this year: the best cars of 2020

Car of the year 2020

To be honest I doubt it was ever to have been a ‘vintage year’. When in a few decades someone writes about the transformation in the car industry that took place in the early 21st century, I think 2020 will be regarded as one of those transition years, a moment like in The Towering Inferno when the building is already well ablaze but people are continuing to party in the top floor penthouse suites, oblivious to the threat from below. I think 2021 will probably be similar.

But despite the fact there were three months in which I drove no cars at all, by the end of the year a reasonable accumulation of automotive assessment had been completed, and with a few surprises to boot, both good and bad.

From the archive

It was a vintage year for the Porsche 911, as variants on the new 992 theme continued to be rolled out. The first car I drove post-lockdown was the 911 Turbo S and I can remember thinking later models would do well to beat it. But the entry-level Carrera did just that, showing that if you’re into engineering more than trinketry just how much 911 could be bought right at the bottom of the range. The manual Carrera S then joined it to illustrate also that, now as ever, less remains more. All it needs now is to combine the two and produce a manual base Carrera.

In the meantime there remains the Cayman GTS which, now fitted with a bespoke 4-litre engine, shows just how close to Porsche’s fabled GT-series of GT3s and GT4s a standard Stuttgart product now comes. The wizards of Weissach will be wanting to put more clear air between them in 2021.

From the archive

I’ve been in a few Ferraris too: the F8 Spider and Tributo were lovely but showed their age, the 812GTS so utterly charming I forgave it its flaws while the Roma set a new standard for 2+2 sporting GTs that should have companies like Aston Martin, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz properly worried. But the car I keep coming back to is the outrageously fast and powerful SF90. It is a car of contradictions: it is Ferrari’s fastest and most powerful mid-engined car, yet also its heaviest. A car that appears born for trans-continental blasts, but with almost no luggage space. A hypercar on paper, but a mainstream production in reality. Wondrous though it is in many ways, I struggle to see who it’s for. Those who really want to drive it will surely be put off by its impracticality, while collectors will likely be deterred by its unlimited production run. Did I miss something? Probably.

Actually it was away from the highest performing and most expensive end of the market that I found my favourite cars of the year, apart from the McLaren 765LT, the best modern generation McLaren I’ve driven with the only possible exception of its forebear, the 675LT.

But I was just as interested to drive and nearly as impressed having driven the Toyota GR Yaris. A car intended to be a homologation special for a rally car that never got rallied, Toyota had no need to create the GR Yaris, but did it anyway. This is a preternaturally talented car, a bespoke creation that merely looks like a hotted-up Yaris. From its potent 1.6-litre three-cylinder motor to its unique four-wheel-drive system, this is the kind of for-the-hell-of-it engineering from which so many inspired products have resulted. If it were even more focused on being fun than fast, it would have been my car of the year.

Other contenders included the slick, svelte and delightfully minimalist Rolls-Royce Ghost, the Aston Martin DBX which is probably my favourite full-sized SUV – not bad for a ground-up new design from a small company with zero history in the market – and the absolutely cracking Caterham Super Seven.

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I think the biggest disappointment was the new VW Golf GTI, not because it’s in any way a bad car, but because in its search for a new hard edge, it has lost some of that brilliant civility that has been at the heart of every great Golf GTI. It’s a bit too much like all the others now, and not enough like a Golf GTI. By contrast, its little sister the Up! GTI is one of the most fun and charismatic hatchbacks I’ve driven, even if far from the fastest.

If I had to name a car of the year, it would probably be one of slowest cars with the most limited handling I’ve encountered in the last 12 months. But really what I Iike most in any car is the ability to know what it’s for, and the Land Rover Defender is superbly adapted to its role of an everyday workhorse and occasional supremely capable off-roader. Having long pondered the role of Land Rover in a stable full of ostentatious Range Rovers, the Defender shines new light on the road ahead. Let’s hope it continues to maintain such focus in future.