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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: December 28, 2011 @ 7:53 am

    Year out, year in

    Neil Briscoe

    We’re about 72hrs shy of the end of 2011, so it seems right to have a quick glance back over the most memorable cars of the past twelve months, an to have an equally quick look forward to what’s looking interesting for 2012.

    My first choice of a memorable car might be a bit surprising because it’s the Volkswagen Jetta. The Jetta just isn’t supposed to be memorable, it’s supposed to be a cold, clinical businessman’s tool, a rung on the company car ladder. Even though it’s more mechanically distant than it used to be, it is still fundamentally a Golf with a boot, and I usually deride four door saloon version of five door hatchbacks.

    Yet the Jetta just got under my skin. Time was a factor. Road tests are usually carried out over the course of a week, and had I driven the Jetta for just seven days, my verdict would most likely have been something along the lines of ‘effective but bland.’ But the Jetta stayed in my care for a month, and in that time it wormed its way very firmly into my affections.

    How? Just by being very good at pretty much everything. It was spacious, comfortable, reassuringly well constructed. Its boot wass simply massive, its 2.0-litre TDI 140bhp diesel was impressively silent as well as economical and its DSG gearbox proved that self-shifting is now better than manual, no matter how much of an enthusiastic driver you are.

    There are criticisms of course. Even with a recent price cut, the sticker of my Highline-spec test car was way too high, at a hair over €30k, yet there was still a disappointing row of blank switches showing you were nice extra equipment could have been. And oddly, in spite of being longer and heavier than its cousin, the Golf, it rode less serenely, allowing ripples and bumps through to the cabin that the hatchback would have shrugged off.

    Still, for its sheer competence if for nothing else, it remains one of the best cars I drove all year and, significantly, it shared driveway space with both a similarly priced BMW 1 Series and a Ford Mondeo at different points of its time with me, and both times I was happier climbing back into the Jetta.

    It may not have been exactly the most relevant car of 2011, but the Renault Megane Trophy left an indelible black and red smear across my memory. 265bhp put through the front wheels will do that to you, of course, but oddly enough it wasn’t the power that was memorable. Or at least, it wasn’t just the power. It was the way that an amped-up hot hatch, which should have been unruly and loutish with all that grunt, remained calm and fluid under pressure, dispatching heaving, broken Irish tarmac with aplomb, remaining unflustered in the face of potholes and sudden impacts.

    It was fun, of course. Exciting, without doubt. But it was also practical (decent boot, spacious rear seats) and comfortable (that ability to deal with terrible tarmac backed up by excellent bucket seats). A standard Megane is a pretty unremarkable car, but the Trophy rose way, way above its station. At around €39k (Renault Ireland doesn’t officially import it, so the price is more POA than precise) it’s a rival to the likes of the Golf GTI and forthcoming ford Focus ST. Yet its chassis balance is so brilliant, and its ability to cover ground so bewitching that you start thinking of rivals not as being fellow hatchbacks but more along the lines of, say, a Porsche 911 GTR RS. Yes, it’s that good.

    The glamourpuss Range Rover Evoque was also a deeply memorable car, if an occasionally contradictory one. Certainly, it has off-road and foul weather capabilities far beyond what will ever be tested by its likely purchasers. Two days spent messing about in the Welsh valleys and (most memorable of all) in a disused railway tunnel under Liverpool proved that the Evoque, in four wheel drive specification at least, has the off-roading agility and ability of a true Land Rover.

    Whether you will appreciate that or not, for a €40k starting price (which will dip further when the front-wheel-drive version arrives in the spring) you get truly concept-car styling, which hides a surprisingly spacious (and gorgeous) cabin and the chance to ask the question; “Shall we take the Range Rover tonight, dear?”

    Yes, it’s too thirsty (the claimed fuel consumption figures are the damndest of lies) and I still think that the suspension and steering seem to have come from different cars (the steering’s too light, the suspension too stiff) but the Evoque was without doubt one of the most nakedly desirable cars of 2011, and rightly so.

    As for 2012, I’m really rather looking forward to the related launches of the new Hyundai i30 and Kia Cee’d. Both will be replacing capable but hardly pulse-racing existing models, and if both are good, solid family cars, then no surprise will be evident. I just have the feeling, though, that after a year in which Hyundai launched the i40 and Veloster, and Kia gave us the Optima and the brilliant little Rio, that both brands are now on the cusp of producing truly great cars and I just have an inkling that their five-door hatches could be the sweetest spots of both ranges.

    And then there’s the Jaguar CX-16. All journalistic objectivity aside, I just love Jags, always have done, and the fact that, after a few years spent getting its mainstream saloon range of XF and XJ right, Jaguar is now reminding us that it is above all else a maker of sports cars is just music to my eyes and ears. The CX-16 (the production name of which will be announced at the Detroit motor show next week) looks devastatingly beautiful and should be a touch more affordable than the bigger, older XK coupe. Ian Callum, Jag’s chief designer, seems to have an unerring eye for automotive beauty, and his colleagues in the chassis and engine departments this year showed their prowess in the perfectly balanced XF 2.2 diesel, so my hopes are high.

    So it merely remains for me to wish you all a happy new year, and ask you what car you’re looking forward to most of all. Comments below…

    Best moment of 2011: 1,440 of them actually, as I watched, almost unblinking, the titanic racing battle between Audi and Peugeot unfold at the Le Mans 24hrs.

    Worst moment of 2011. Seeing the sad business of Saab being financially strangled and shutting up shop. Hardly unexpected (and possibly not over yet) but a once-great brand deserved better.

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      Those rows of blank switches speak more eloquently yet to me of how motorists in Ireland are grossly and unfairly denied the enjoyment and comfort (and indeed, enhanced safety) afforded to motorists in other member states of the EU. The simple fact is that in order to keep vehicles sold here somewhat within the reach of the average motorists, manufacturers have to strip them of all the lovely extras and bits of jewellry provided in 25 other Member States (Denmark being the other country where taxes are so high on vehicles that all sorts of wheezes, like Jaguar ”vans”, :0 are used to try and get a vehicle you can afford).

      If they leave the extras in, our beloved Revenue Commissioners will hoick up the ”open market selling price” when assessing the car to tax, including the immoral illegal (under the SEA, which makes it illegal to charge excise tax on cars in Europe, an embarrassing factoid that the ECJ tried to slap a sticking plaster on when it ruled that VRT was ”a tax on licence plates”. Although precisely why whether a jammer has mag alloy wheels or a nice bit of metallic paint or tasty sound system or extra airbags or leather seats should have any relevance to a ”tax on licence plates” is beyond me).

      ”Single Market” my ….exhaust. Nice review. Happy New Year.


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