The cars that starred over the year

 

Motoring Editor Michael McAleer looks back on the highlights and horror stories

Another year and another 60 or so new cars tested and tamed. Countless miles clocked up, some enjoyable, some uncomfortable and many simply unmemorable. Yet for all the petrol station sandwiches, tar-like coffee and red-eye flights, a few fantastic memories from the year stick in my mind.

Like cruising a motorway in Spain at a rate of knots in a sleek BMW M6 on a sunny Sunday afternoon, listening to a Nirvana CD bought along the way at an isolated filling station in the middle of no man's land.

A motoring colleague and I were heading for a private racetrack to put the car through its paces. Life may have its daily grind, but days like that make it all worthwhile.

Or racing around an airstrip near Leicester under a gun-metal grey sky in an Evo IX with the Chemical Brothers playing on the stereo, the music mixing with the screech of the tyres in the corners and the wonderful growl of the engine.

Or winding up the Porsche Cayman's aurally hypnotic engine as the car weaved its way along Tuscan back roads in Italy. No music was necessary in this case. The engine provided the perfect soundtrack.

I think that beneath it all, there's a boy racer just bursting to get out, in all of us. Of course, it wasn't just the power and fury that stirred our senses. There were several worthy additions to all motoring ranks in these last 12 months.

Starting with small cars, the highlight was undoubtedly the Suzuki Swift, transformed from the terribly dull to the rather racy. The Japanese marque has beefed up its supermini and given it a personality. The end result is a car that's fun to drive, well-priced and stylish to boot. A worthy winner of various accolades, including two new car of the year titles in Ireland. If we took part in such competitions it would have been the one we chose as well.

In the hatchback market, the new Honda Civic is certainly different from the rest, though we were a little disappointed with the engine noise from the entry-level 1.4-litre version. Seat's Leon was our favourite in terms of styling, with beautiful lines and it's a good drive as well, though a little dull inside.

VW returned the hot hatch crown to where it belongs with its Golf Gti, a great looker and immense fun to drive. As hot hatches go, it's only really challenged by the Ford Focus ST but we suspect the Golf has a little more kudos in the social status stakes.

There was little in the way of newcomers to the family saloon market that stood out for us this year, though VW's Passat takes several cues from the ill-fated Phaeton.

At the premium end, Lexus challenged the dominance of the BMW 3-Series with its new IS model. It looks the part, is well put together and comfort is its strong suit, but it doesn't topple the 3-Series from its throne and with only a 2.5-litre petrol and 2.2-litre diesel on offer it's unlikely to win a major share of Irish sales in this segment.

However, the larger GS now offers a serious alternative the 5-Series. It might not match it for driver fun, but it certainly has the look. Of the rest, while Audi's A4 has not generally won me over, a 2-litre FSI Quattro with a lovely six-speed gearbox was a fantastic drive. If only the regular 1.6 was as much fun.

At the top-end, the Mercedes S-Class is back with a bang, though we'll reserve judgment until we drive a more realistic version than the fully-speced version we tested.

In the SUV category, one new entrant stole our heart: the Range Rover Sport. It offers an incredible drive yet accompanies that with the usual array of SUV gadgetry that lets you climb mountains and cross bogs. Match all that with the street cred of its Range Rover badge and, though it's priced at a premium, it could tempt us into SUV territory. For the functional off-roader, however, the Toyota Landcruiser still reigns supreme.

Finally, there was the cream of the motoring crop, at the end of the market where price becomes less of a factor than prestige. With that in mind, and an imaginary big fat Lotto cheque in our pockets, we would be opting for two of the new arrivals this year without a moment's hesitation: the BMW M5 and the Mercedes CLS. One has the style, the other pedigree and power. Both are stunningly good. If only we could afford them.

So that's the best: what of the rest? At the bottom of our list this year, it was a close contest with yet more pointless big-roofed hatchbacks coming on the market - such as the Golf Plus - and over-engineered superminis like the Peugeot 1007.

However, the Ssanyong Rodius takes the booby prize for 2005. Freakishly ugly, with only two airbags and the sort of woolly handling that leaves you wondering if the steering wheel is connected to the front wheels at all, it came bottom of our Christmas list.

Taking our cue from the all-pervasive Christmas spirit and looking for the positives in life, the Rodius is spacious and relatively cheap (though depreciation is likely to bite hard when it comes time to sell). That's probably the kindest thing that can be said about it. What were the Koreans thinking?

Our favourites

City car:

Peugeot 107/Citroen C1/Toyota Aygo (all three are effectively the same car but the Peugeot is the best looking)

Small car:

Suzuki Swift - well-priced and good looking

Hatchbacks:

Seat Leon - surprised us; perhaps not as good to drive as the Focus but far better looking, if a bit dull inside

VW Golf Gti - king of the hot hatches

Family saloon:

Skoda Octavia - value and spacious

People carrier:

Toyota Corolla Verso

Premium choices:

Small:

BMW 3-Series - the best fun to drive

Medium:

BMW 5-Series/Lexus GS - BMW for driver enjoyment, the Lexus for luxury and comfort

Luxury:

New S-Class/Audi A8 - the A8 looks the best and has some great engines, but the S-Class has the cache, the toys, and will hold its price

4x4:

Toyota LandCruiser

SUV:

Range Rover Sport - the road handling, the off-road ability and the badge.

Sports: Porsche 911 - no need to say more, still the best fun around

Dream cars this year:

BMW M5 (€134,000) and Mercedes CLS (from €83,515 to €146,175)