As the tide turns on diesel and perhaps even combustion-engined cars in general, some of this year’s conventional and not-so-conventional offerings were outstanding in their own right.
Old school it might be, but BMW’s M2 Competition was one of the finest sports coupés not just of the year, but ever. Simple and pure, with the M3’s twin-turbo, six-cylinder engine and a quite sparkling chassis rework, it was quite hard to hand the keys back. It isn’t often I climb out of a car thinking, “How can I make you mine?” but this was one of those occasions.
When the history of the reciprocating piston engine comes to be written, this BMW should be in there as the zenith of road-going performance. Mentioned in despatches should also be Aston Martin’s new Vantage, an amazing-looking and fine-handling sports coupé and the car that convinced me that, under Andy Palmer’s leadership, this tiny GT maker might have a future after all.
At the all-new end of the scale was the Hyundai Nexo, the company’s hydrogen fuel cell-powered family hatchback. If there was ever an argument for the quick-fuelling eco credentials of this technology then this is it. Smooth, refined, powerful but not wasteful, the Nexo even looks futuristic.
At present only the South Koreans and Japanese are taking this technology seriously, although Mercedes-Benz produced a fine example of the type in its GLC F-Cell, in which I managed to get a speeding fine in the company's home town of Stuttgart. Whoops.
Staying with the futuristic for a moment, Jaguar’s new battery-electric i-Pace showed the opposition the way home this year. You’d expect any car that had been given a ride and handling polish by Mike Cross’s legendary team to be outstanding dynamically, but the i-Pace is also a match – and more – of its Tesla, Audi and Mercedes-Benz rivals in terms of performance, range and price.
Furthermore, Ian Callum’s design team created a memorable looking car, albeit one in the modern sports utility idiom. Full marks, too, to Nissan’s second-generation Leaf, which continues to be one of the most useable and affordable battery-electric cars and is improved out of all measure in this latest version.
Back at the more conventional end of the market, Ford unveiled a virtually unheard-of prospect this year: a new car that was genuinely fresh from stem to stern. The new Ford Focus is already one of Britain's bestsellers and this latest version will touch the lives of most of us at some point. It's a worthy replacement for its similarly bestselling predecessor, with a fine interior and terrific ride and handling, proving that while the non-premium market has weathered a few storms in recent years it can still provide the utilitarian ideal of the greatest car for the greatest number at an affordable price.
In the same sector I would also award fine marks to the new Kia Ceed, which dropped an apostrophe and gained a new-found maturity, although these cars are no longer the bargain they used to be.
And finally I thought there was a lot to admire in Mercedes-Benz’s A-class. That won’t be popular with some readers, however, for the basic A is a stripped-out device, with little to delineate its high price from non-premium rivals.
Spend a king's ransom, however and you get a car of rare abilities, including electronic and safety equipment that has trickled down from E- and S-class, together with that lovely double-screen facia; it really does feel like a premium family car.
As a final mention for entries in the most popular market sectors, I’d suggest that the heavily revised Nissan Qashqai is worthy of note in the family SUV segment, along with Skoda’s Fabia Mk3 in the supermini market; both pleasant enough drives but simply not memorable or special enough to stand out in a year of strong and charismatic cars.