Our motoring highs and lows of 2019

Those with the tough job of driving all those new cars for The Irish Times, look back on their year behind the wheel

 

Neil Briscoe

Best drive of the year

Sub-zero temperatures. Like, waaaay sub-zero. 860km of driving in one day across three countries, crossing the Arctic Circle as we went, and ending up on Norway’s North Cape, simultaneously one of the bleakest and most beautiful places I’ve ever been. The best part? We did it in a Mazda MX-5, with the roof down – all the way. There was no particular rhyme or reason for this drive. Mazda just wanted to show that it could be done with a sports car. From driving across a frozen-solid river in Lulea, Sweden to our eventual end, with the Northern Lights playing in the sky above our open roof. Driving can still be both epic, and fun. (An 860km journey through the Arctic in the Mazda MX-5 – with the top down)

Most impressive car of the year

It has to be the Tesla Model 3. I know Tesla is still a brand with a whole heap to prove when it comes to reliability and quality, and its chief executive is more Marmite than man, if you take my meaning. The 3, though, is just enormously impressive.

From that almost shockingly minimalist cabin, to the sheer thump of its electric motors, to its usable one-charge range, and its ultra-speedy charging when hooked up to a Tesla Supercharger, the 3 would have been impressive enough with just that check list. The fact that it’s also actually pretty sharp to drive, with firm body control and good steering, is simply the battery-powered cherry on the cake. (Video test drive: Tesla Model 3)

Most disappointing car of the year

Sadly, this one also goes to an electric car and it’s the Nissan Leaf 62kWh. This should have been the update to the Leaf that allowed Nissan’s all-electric hatchback to challenge the newcomer likes of Hyundai Kona and Kia’s e-Soul. Instead, while it does have more range than the standard 40kWh version, it’s just not enough, clocking in at 385km when the others can offer 420km or more. The standard Leaf is actually still the better car - shorter ranged, but so much more affordable. The 62kWh Leaf’s extra price also badly shows up its cheap-looking and feeling cabin.

Car maker of the year

I have to pick Toyota here. In a year when it revived or revised four models, at least two of which have hallowed status among Toyota fans, the Japanese giant didn’t put a foot wrong.

Toyota's dedication to hybrids seems remarkably savvy these days.

The Corolla, Rav4, Camry, and Supra could all have ended up as middle-of-the-road motoring porridge, but - arguably because Toyota boss Akio Toyoda’s car-nuttery is trickling down from the top -none was. The Corolla is possibly really the most impressive, an everyday family smoker with hybrid frugality but the sort of steering and chassis responses to bring joy to your heart. I’ve always been a big Camry fan, and the new one is a proper motorised sofa in the classic mould. And the Supra? Moan all you like about the BMW underpinnings, but it’s swift, sexy, and sonorous.

Guilty pleasure of the year

2019 has not been kind to Ford. The Blue Oval has announced major worldwide job losses as part of a massive restructuring, and the axe has fallen heavily at Henry Ford & Sons in Cork. Even so, the company produced two of the coolest cars of the year - the 5.0-litre, 460hp, none-more-dark-green Bullitt Mustang (could have been hokey, turned out to be utterly wonderful) and the Ranger Raptor. Now, a two-tonne pickup with a diesel engine and a cheap cabin that actually isn’t all that fast in a straight line should, by all rights, not be at the top of anyone’s list. Yet… yet the Raptor is just silly good fun, staggeringly capable off-road, and surprisingly soothing on tarmac. Love it. Want one. Shouldn’t do. Do.

Car you would most like to take home

Complain about the new French 80km/h main road limit - in the right car, it’s a godsend. The right car in this case turned out to be a 1972 Peugeot 504 1.8-litre saloon. At speeds of up to 80km/h, this car was just perfect for a brief Gallic driving idyll. It loped along on those long, soft, springs, soaking up any errant tarmac lumps, heeling over gently around corners in the manner of a well-mannered dinghy, and eating up the kilometres with an effortlessness that belied its age. Increasing the speed much over 80km/h showed up the wooden brakes and slow steering, so it was much better just to slow down, ease back into those vast, blue velour armchairs, and watch the département roll by. A perfect combo of car and setting, and one I wish I could bottled and kept. (Driving the Peugeot 504 - the perfect car for troubled times)

Michael McAleer

Best drive of the year

The beauty of this job is when you get to see the forest for the trees. We spend plenty of time on various tracks, pitting production cars against each other at extremes no ordinary motorist will encounter unless as part of a high-speed chase, ending in an extended period in Mountjoy.

In track world, it was great to spend an afternoon at the Circuito de Jarama, Spain’s former F1 track, in the company of the new Toyota Supra. The ultimate virtual reality race game: reality.

But it’s the drives in less regular locations that put a bit of perspective on things. Like pitting the Ford Raptor against some ridiculously challenging mountain terrain in Morocco.

Travelling through towns little changed since Jesus was a boy, you start to realise how far-fetched talk of autonomous electric cars will be to many in more remote areas, where electrical supply can be irregular and “roads” are overgrown dirt tracks shared with donkeys. As we map out the future of motoring for the rich, tech-savvy cities, we shouldn’t forget these people’s motoring needs. (Sliding sideways in a sand dune? No problem for the new Raptor)

Most impressive car of the year

Let’s do a countdown. In third place for me is the Tesla Model 3, a fine car that exemplifies where we are going. It boasts much better handling and steering than the rest of Tesla’s range, and it’s priced well. I’d just like the fit and finish to be better for a car at its price. (Road test: Tesla Model 3 charges ahead of rivals)

Second place goes to the Toyota Corolla, a exemplary of where we are now in terms of hybrid being the bridge between the fossil-fuelled past and the electric future. The biggest surprise was the fact it was a Corolla, once the symbol of motoring wallpaper, but in this guise a really tempting proposition.

Top billing - as in our Top 100 cars this year - goes to the BMW 3 Series. It may have landed last year, but we only got to fully test it out this year and it’s a timely reminder of the benchmark for fun and premium finish that Tesla needs to bring to the market if it wants to topple the incumbents. (BMW 3 Series - our top choice for 2020)

Most disappointing car of the year

I only got a short spin in it, but it would have to be the all-electric Peugeot 208. The lure of electric cars is that they not only offer more environmentally-friendly motoring, but also far better driving dynamics than a fossil-fuelled car. There’s the sort of acceleration you’d normally only get in a sports car. With this supermini, however, Peugeot has dialled out the acceleration in favour of improving the range. Yet at 304km, the range isn’t record-breaking these days. It still drives well, since the 50kW battery is under the floor, creating a nice low centre of gravity. But it sadly lacks the electric surge we’ve come to love - and expect. Why take the fun from an electric car? Spoilsports.

Car maker of the year

It has to be Toyota. Several years ago the boss, Akio Toyoda promised “no more boring cars”. Motoring hacks rolled their eyes. But he has been true to his word, with the return of the Supra and the Camry, a new rugged-looking Rav4 SUV and an astonishingly good Corolla.

Guilty pleasure of the year

Ford Focus ST. Ford may be going through a lot of turmoil and changes at present, trying to reinvent itself for the new motoring age, but the ST reminds us that the blue oval makes some great motors. From its 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine to a wonderfully slick manual transmission where you can nearly feel the gear cogs bite, the ST is simply great fun. It brakes hard, grips like glue and yet is incredibly well damped from the bumps and yumps. It’s a fantastically well-balanced car, that’s at ease in a docile drive through town as it is on track.

Car you would most like to take home

I’m really tempted by the Tesla Model 3, as is everyone it seems. And I’d like to reserve judgment on everything until I spend time in the new Porsche Taycan, shortlisted for the prestigious Car of the Year title, due to be announced at the Geneva motor show on March 2nd. The Focus ST was incredible fun, but the one that ticked all the boxes for me was the new BMW 3 Series, in its Touring (estate) format. Practical, well-engineered and great fun to drive.

Michael Sheridan

Best drive of the year

Taking a high performance car legally to its limits and beyond yours is always a treat. Back in September I was let loose in BMW’s flagship M8 competition coupe on the wonderfully technical Portimao circuit. The 625hp/750nm 4.4 litre sports car uses many of the performance parts from the accomplished M5 in an even more focused way. The car has all wheel drive on demand, although rear wheel drive only can be selected too. It’s astonishingly quick 0-100km/h takes just 3.2 seconds, and boy is it capable. I was able to flick, slide and occasional fly around the undulating 4.9km circuit with near as dammit total confidence. I’m still grinning.

Most impressive car of the year

The Kia e-Soul and e-Niro are very similar underneath, but the e-Niro is the sensible one that flies under the radar whereas the e-Soul features more trendy styling. The e-Soul signals a breakthrough for electric vehicles as it can deliver a realistic and usable driving range from a full charge. The price tag is still high, but for early adopters who don’t like to pollute at the tailpipe it’s a relative bargain.

Most disappointing car of the year

Lexus has some beautifully styled cars like the very smart looking ES300h. Sadly, the exterior of the petrol hybrid ES is its best feature. Step inside and try to interact with it and things start to go downhill. Toyota’s premium brand has missed a trick by not bringing its user interface up to premium standards similar to offerings from Mercedes-Benz or Audi. The ES is very comfortable, but all serenity is lost the moment you try to interact with the infuriating secondary controls. The touchscreen and haptic feedback touchpad will have you begging for a German machine or even a better-priced Toyota Camry.

Car maker of the year

2019 has been a good year for Mercedes-Benz and its ongoing product offensive. Stuttgart’s smaller cars took most of the limelight. The excellent A Class saloon, CLA coupe and CLA Shooting Brake joined the A Class hatchback and combined the A Class range makes taking the first step in to the premium market an easy one. Revisions to the excellent GLC and arrival of the much improved GLE SUVs were welcomed. Mercedes-Benz also brought its electric vehicle EQ sub brand to Ireland.

New Mercedes-Benz EQC

The EQC is the first of many EQ models we’ll see on Ireland’s roads. The more humble GLB five/seven seat SUV took a bow and will be a big seller in 2020.

Guilty pleasure of the year

The Ford Ranger Raptor is a workhorse, but it’s classed as a private car in Ireland and not a commercial vehicle. As a result the brutish Raptor costs a cool €63,950. The 2-litre 213hp diesel with 10 speed automatic truck is brisk but hardly a rocket. The lure is its brilliant suspension. The Raptor gets coil springs and trick shock absorbers that make a furrowed field seem flat. This is old-school rough and tumble motoring. I’ve never worn so much denim during a test drive. It’d make you want to buy a ranch.

Car you would most like to take home

I quite fancy a dual motor performance Tesla Model 3 with its cutting edge tech and breathtaking acceleration - although I don’t fancy funding its replacement tyres. However, while I still can, I must go old school. My choice is powered by petrol, a lot of petrol. The Ford Mustang Bullitt is Ford’s homage to raw meat motoring. Its brutish V8 isn’t particularly powerful, but it is an eight-cylinder and that’s key. Combine its glorious soundtrack, manual gearbox, rear wheel drive and throw in the king of cool, Steve McQueen, and you have a limited edition car that is a special beast.

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