2012 has been a busy year at Driving Spirit. I’ve had the privilege of driving more cars this year than I could have hoped, ranging in price from £7k to £177k powered by engines from as little as as 875cc all the way up to 6.3-litres. The cylinder count is equally varied and covers the range of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 12 cylinders. There’s one glaring omission – I’ve not driven anything with ten cylinders this year and more’s the pity. Perhaps I should ask Lamborghini for another taste of Gallardo.
With a long list of cars to choose from I decided it’s only fair to mention some of the highlights of the year before choosing my favourite of 2012. The trouble is, there have been so many!
Starting at the bottom end of the price scale is a set of triplets that have re-defined my expectations of what a city car should deliver. The Skoda Citigo, SEAT Mii and Volkswagen Up! are fun to drive, have characterful 3-cylinder engines, are solidly screwed together and represent great value for money. It’s difficult to pick a winner from the three as they represent slightly different things – Skoda are aiming for budget-conscious buyers, the Mii is targeting the younger market and the Up! will appeal to many thanks to the Volkswagen badge. What I can say is that I loved my week with the SEAT Mii Vibora Negra and by far my favourite drive of the year was taking it to the Lake District to tackle two of England’s steepest slopes. That was a fun day!
There’s another tiny car with a big personality that won a place in my heart. Whether or not you like the Fiat 500’s cutesy retro styling you can’t help but love it when it’s been fitted with a TwinAir engine. The buzzy engine note may not be to everyone’s taste but I adored it and the 500 feels so much quicker than its 85bhp suggests. It doesn’t quite meet the expectations of its green credentials once you start enjoying the engine and the light steering leaves a lot to be desired, but the TwinAir engine is a real hoot.
This year hasn’t been all about small cars. There have also been some big engines with big noises. Epic exhaust notes that make your spine tingle and your right foot squeeze the throttle that little bit harder. Cars like the Jaguar XKR-S, Bentley GT convertible and Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG. Is it any coincidence that they’re all convertibles and are all powered by big V8 blocks? No matter how cold it is outside you have to drop the roof and savour the baritone rumble, so it’s a good job that they all have very good heaters! All three are great but it’s the SLS AMG that wins. The drama of it’s 6.3-litre V8 is something to savour and the pops and bangs that emerge from the exhaust can turn any trip into a gigglesome affair. It’s a shame that it costs over £200,000 as it that puts it way out of Driving Spirit’s usual budget.
The Range Rover Evoque showed me just how good a 4×4 can be on the road and I’d love to be chauffeured around in the back of a Jaguar XJ. The Porsche Panamera was a revelation that proved that the idea of a diesel-powered Porsche isn’t as crazy as it sounds.
One final mention goes to the Rolls Royce Phantom II. I didn’t get to drive it but at an exclusive launch event I was able to have a good look around the new car and its sheer quality and commanding presence are to be admired.
Car Of The Year
Of all the cars I have driven this year there have been three that stood out for me. The first is the Toyota GT86, a car that has garnered so much praise in the motoring media that I’m amazed it hasn’t swelled to twice its original size. Priced at under £25,000 it hits a sweet spot of performance and affordability that few performance cars can match. It’s also got a delightful rear-wheel drive setup that makes it incredibly easy to drift, as I discovered on a day out with Toyota. However, I have yet to drive one on the road and so it can’t really be considered for Car Of The Year.
The Volvo C30 Polestar I drove at the start of the year remains high in my estimation. The warble from it’s Polestar-tuned T5 engine is sweet as a nut and it pulls like a train throughout the rev range. The cabin is classy and the seats incredibly comfortable, but most of all the C30 looks so good. The coupe-esque styling is a winner in my eyes and the lowered R-Design chassis and big wheels give it a hunkered down stance that makes its rivals look large and clumsy. The only thing that counts against the C30 is a chassis that lacks a playful edge, and that’s why it didn’t quite make it to the top.
With the GT86 and C30 out of the way the winner is easy for me to pick. It has a delightful 315bhp six-cylinder engine and is quick … very, very quick. The rear-wheel drive setup will please the purists and it has a chassis with composed, fluid handling that doesn’t punish your spine. With four seats and a hatchback it’s ideal for family duties and it’s even reasonably priced at under £30,000. If you haven’t already guessed the winner of Driving Spirit’s Car Of The Year 2012 is the BMW M135i.
I’ve driven many good hot hatches this year – Mercedes-Benz A250, Golf GTI, Megane 265, Focus ST and Astra VXR – but the BMW eclipses all of these. It may be the most expensive, although not by the margin you might expect, but it’s performance is in another league. It also has the advantage of two extra cylinders and, as good as the rivals’ engines are, they can’t beat a creamy six cylinder howl for pleasuring the ears.
I know the design of the 1-series is something of an acquired taste, the cabin is far from inspiring and the i-Drive system is a bit fiddly but why worry about that when the M135i drives so well? If I was in the market for a new car and I had thirty grand burning a hole in my pocket I wouldn’t hesitate in putting it down on a M135i. If you’re lucky enough to be in that position I urge you to go out and try one. You won’t be disappointed.