The best road cars of 2021: new and old classics

Road Cars

Amid a dreadful year for the car industry, and ever-similar models, there were still some glimmers of joy for Andrew Frankel who picks his best cars of 2021

Porsche 911 GT3 2021

Beyond the inevitable Porsche 911 GT3, Andrew Frankel has a varied mix of highlights from 2021

Every year, it seems, is a ‘vintage’ year. But not even the most implausibly optimistic hack with the sunniest of dispositions could conclude that, for the car driving public in general and us enthusiasts in particularly, 2021 was anything other than dreadful.

It was a year in which UK car production was knocked back to the floor by the global chip shortage just as it was staggering to its feet after the Covid lockdowns of 2020. In October, the UK produced fewer cars than in any previous October since 1956. It was the year in which friends of mine started to be trolled on Twitter for the sin of saying something positive about a car with a petrol tank and it was the year in which the simple pleasure of enjoying your daily driver became dramatically more difficult.

Yes, it’s still possible, because you can still buy a base specification Ford Fiesta and drive an affordable car that is light, nimble, communicative and fun, none of which adjectives can be ascribed to any of the electric cars now replacing traditional machines. And it will be interesting to see how the likes of the Fiesta are replaced as EVs are so inordinately expensive for what they provide, it’s hard to see one providing the value that customers shopping for cheap cars don’t merely want, but absolutely have to have. Batteries and electric motors are costly things and the only way to make the maths add up is to engineer cost out of other areas of the car. In a class of cars as small and spare as that in which the Fiesta sits, that’s no easy task.

Hyundai i20N

Rally-bred Hyundai i20N hit the mark in 2021

But perhaps that’s enough moaning for now. Amid a greater concentration of homogenised, characterless dross there were at least a few interesting cars launched through the course of the year, and from manufacturers you might not expect. Hyundai for instance. Pound for pound its little i20N hot hatchback is by a distance the best Korean car I’ve driven, proof that all that rallying really does improve the breed. Almost as much fun as a Fiesta ST and a sight easier to live with, it is a beautifully well-judged machine, and one that understands the needs of its customers as much their desires.

And I can think much the same can be said of the BMW 128ti. I often worry on those rare occasions when BMW wheels out the ‘ti’ badging because to me it means a set of attributes as distinct as they are different from those of its more expensive and power M-cars. Like the Hyundai but at a different price point, the 128ti provides enough driving enjoyment to turn every journey into a pleasure but – and here’s the critical bit – without making its driver pay the price in ride comfort or excess cabin noise.

The M5 CS is a rather different proposition and a completely different price, but I’m including it here because it’s the best big M-car I’ve driven in very many years. I’m not that bothered about the 600bhp, but the way it deploys it is simply astonishing, given that it does so within the confines of big four seat saloon architecture. When I drove it, I took it to Thruxton enjoying its languid gait and the peace inside the cabin, did a few laps, achieved a few ridiculous slip angles without scaring myself and wafted home. It’s the bandwidth that’s so impressive.

Aston Martin Vantage F1 Edition

Aston Martin Vantage F1 Edition wasn’t just a marketing gimmick

And you can say much the same, but in a different context about the Aston Martin Vantage F1 Edition. You’ll be aware of Aston’s woes of late and, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much of this car, not least because it doesn’t even have much additional power. At best I thought it might just be a nicely honed version of the standard car. In fact it’s close to being transformed by a suite of chassis modifications that eliminate that slight sloppiness suffered by most cars that are GTs at heart whatever the clothing. I did a dawn run in one from south east Wales to Anglesey in the north west and the only comparably enjoyable drive I’ve had in an Aston was going the other way in a manual V12 Vantage about nine years ago.

Were I minded to have a car of the year, I guess it would probably have to go to the new 992 generation of Porsche 911 GT3 and I am painfully aware of what a boring choice that is, and how it lumps me in with just about everyone else who’s driven one. But if it were to be exempted on grounds of predictability, I know what would go in its place: the Alfa Romeo Giulia GTAm.

Alfa romeo Giulia GTAm

Alfa’s new classic: the Giulia GTAm

In some ways it’s a ridiculous car: wildly overpriced and, with no rear seat, entirely impractical also. But after so many years – no, decades – of disappointing Alfas, this one shows that it has once more remembered how to build a really stunning driver’s car. Forget the crashing disappointment that was the 4C, forget also the 8C because it was never that great and also a Maserati in all but name: you’ve got to look back to the SZ of 30 years ago before you’ll find another Alfa that is so joyously, exuberantly fun to drive. It’s a proper weapon on a decent road while on the track it will reward every driving style from the clinically precise to outrageously exhibitionist. And it’s an Alfa Romeo you’re driving. It’s been far too long.

I’ve enjoyed the restomods I’ve driven this year too, like GTO Engineering’s stunning Ferrari 250 California Spyder replica. I think this is one of the smartest businesses in which to be at the moment, whether you’re creating a car from scratch as do GTO, or just making an existing classic a little more user friendly on 21st century roads. And, mark my words, this is only the start: when enthusiasts realise what now lies ahead of them, they’ll start looking behind themselves in ever-increasing numbers. And rightly so.

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