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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: December 26, 2012 @ 7:00 am

    Should auld acquaintance be etcetera

    Neil Briscoe

    A humble Toyota, the best car of 2012? You betcha...

    In motoring terms, just as in culinary ones, you do tend to get to this part of the year feeling a bit like the guy in the Bisodol adverts on TV. By which I mean stuffed, over-filled, distended. It’s funny; I always begin a new motoring year worrying that there won’t be enough cars to drive or write about and that some point of the year will be fallow or dull. And then yet another tranche of exciting new metal comes along and suddenly I’m gorging myself again…

    But through all the bulk and spice of a full year’s motoring, one peppy, citrus-y delight has cut right through to my palate (I’ll stop the torturous food analogy in a minute, honest) and its taste lingers still. It’s the Toyota GT86.
    When first I drove it, up a steep, winding hill just outside Barcelona, I actually, literally began bouncing up and down in my seat, such was the fun I was having. That was a sensation that became ever better when I glanced down at the speedo and realised that, for all the fun, I was never exceeding 100kmh. In a world where most sporting cars have to be driven at warp speed to bring them to life, this was a revelation indeed.

    Back home, with the GT86 on more familiar roads, it proved even more impressive. The kids were able to squeeze into the back. It did an average 35mpg over a week’s mixed driving. It would go happily sideways on the way out of the driveway, yet felt sure-footed in nasty weather conditions. And it’s a Toyota, so it’s unlikely to break. It was without question, the funnest car of the year and the one that still defines 2012 for me.

    As for the rest, there were some other highlights…

    Such as realising that the new Porsche Boxster is actually a better all-round car than the new 911. It’s a verdict that may not please Porsche, or Porsche purists for that matter, but the basic 2.7-litre Boxster has much in common with the humbler GT86, see supra. Like the Toyota, the Boxster feels reactive and compelling at low (legal) speeds and yet has performance in reserve. The 911 is now dangerously close to becoming an Earth-bound missile, with the S model’s output now up to a staggering 400bhp. It’s still a wonderful car, but the Boxster is more useable, more relevant.

    It was a similar situation over at BMW. The mighty 560bhp M5 made its debut this year, and while I have always been a passionate fan of the M badge, and the M5 in particular, this new generation left me feeling a bit flat. Yes, it’s a wonderful car and an astonishing piece of engineering, but at anything more than a quarter throttle in any gear, you’re into licence losing territory and driving it in the wet, even with a full battery of electronic aids, is something of a tip-toe affair. Better by far was the 640d Gran Coupe, which provided a healthy percentage of M5-style thump, but did so in a better looking body, at a lower rate of fuel consumption, with a more useable day-to-day drivetrain and for about €30k less. Potentially better than either was the new 3 Series Touring which, in 320d form, may be just about every car you’d ever need.

    Also having a tilt at that title was the new Jaguar XF Sportbrake, a car which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that estates are superior. They may still struggle against a brewery rep image in Ireland, but the XF with a conservatory is, if anything, better looking than the four door, rides better (thanks to standard rear air suspension) and handles just as well. It is, without doubt, the Jaguar of choice, at least until the new F-Type sports car arrives.

    Mercedes’ sexy CLS Shooting Brake could be considered in the same breath, were it not for its inflated price tag, but the best Benz of the year was the new A-Class, which proves that conventionality, when done well, beats innovation, executed poorly. The old A-Class was like Albert Einstein compared to the new one’s Kim Kardashian (in engineering terms) but that’s an apposite comparison of their looks too.

    I seem to have been speaking mostly about premium brand cars thus far, for which I can only apologise, but actually some of the cheapest cars of the whole year proved that you don’t need to spend big to get your hands on some proper automotive royalty. The Fiat Panda and Volkswagen Up (and its Seat and Skoda kissing cousins) demonstrated, ably, that even the smallest of cars can provide not only practical family transport but transport that feels several notches above basic. Both cars are engaging to drive, and if the Up is quantifiably superior in some areas, then the Panda got my vote by simply being so typically Italianate and engaging. Ford’s updated Fiesta, likewise, proves that if your car buying budget is less than €20k, then there’s still no excuse for accepting anything less than near-perfect dynamics, a classy cabin and an engine (the brilliant 1.0 EcoBoost) that defines sweetness.

    Of course, if it’s a bargain you’re looking for, then there’s the Dacia Duster. The Duster will be shortly joined by the Sandero hatchback, which will doubtless have an equally arresting price tag, but it was the Duster’s entry this past summer, with a price about €10k less than an equivalent Nissan Qashqai that really put the cat amongst the value pigeons. Yes, you are compromising on safety (a poor NCAP rating and no standard ESP) but the Duster is pleasingly handsome, spacious, rugged and good to drive. I can’t help thinking though, for all the Duster’s fashionable SUV appeal, that a better bargain is being driven by the new Skoda Rapid, an utterly conventional hatchback which nonetheless gets the important bits right (space, comfort, quality, reliability) and does so for a price not dissimilar to that of the Duster. The all-but-identical Seat Toledo does a similar job.

    I can’t quite close a review of 2012 without pointing out that, this year, I did that thing that is most shocking for any car critic and got down off the fence, put my hand in my pocket and actually bought a car. It’s not a new car (what, do you think I’m made of money?) but it came with a 2-year warranty and is in such good condition that it may as well be new. Despite my family man status, it’s not an SUV nor an MPV and it’s certainly not conventional. It is also, really, my wife’s car, but I’m taking the credit for it. It’s a Mini Clubman (remember what I said about estates) and I love it to bits. Characterful, engaging and just practical enough, it along with all the above, has provided the highlights of my motoring year (and kudos are due to Colm Quinn BMW & Mini in Athlone for finding us the right car at the right price).

    I wonder what 2013 will bring?

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