It seems ancient now doesn’t it, the Toyota Yaris GRMN? It was the first new car we tested a year ago, at the very start of January 2018. That week, Storm Eleanor had brought soggy destruction to a hungover UK, and rail commuters were facing the biggest New Year’s fare increase in half a decade.
It was a bad start to what would become a largely gloomy year. But we couldn’t help being cheered by Toyota’s little warm hatch, an inexpensive, silly and aggressively cheerful pocket rocket with a supercharged 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine and the kind of power more commonly associated with larger performance cars. Almost completely standard, Andrew English reported that the GRMN “might just be the best hot hatch you’ve never driven,” lamenting that the limited production run means they’ve all found buyers already.
The day after driving the GRMN we learned that Aston Martin would join the growing number of companies producing ‘continuation’ cars, recreations of their most notable historical models. Some manufacturers find some tenuous justification for building ultra-expensive replicas for their wealthiest clients, but Aston Martin hasn’t bothered - this is “raw commercialism”, as English says, while admitting that he’d buy one if he had the requisite £1.5m.
We soon sent him to Michigan for the Detroit Motor Show, the first international expo of its kind in the calendar year and one of our least favourite. Headline news included the planned return of the Volkswagen Jetta, a notoriously dull car canned in Britain without anybody really noticing, as well as the usual trucks and concept coupes.
Our highlight was probably Mercedes’s massively over-the-top unveiling of its new G-Wagen in a derelict theatre, which for some reason involved Arnold Schwarzenegger and some pyrotechnics.
My first test drive of the year was of the Volkswagen Up! GTI, a warm version of VW’s seven-year-old city car. The souped-Up would become one of the best-received new models of the year, despite making no sense on paper. It had similar figures to the Mk1 Golf GTI from the Seventies and was profoundly unbutch, contradicting everything we’ve been told about the popularity of hyper-aggressive car design. A spicy 113bhp engine, a kerb weight of about three ounces, and a little acoustic box to augment the exhaust note all make the Up GTI a joyous thing to drive - this was the first of about three cars in 2018 that I actually considered buying.
We secretly rather like the Geneva Motor Show, Europe’s biggest motoring event and the only one held on neutral ground. This year’s unexpected star was the Peugeot 508 saloon, a car so clearly from another age that it captured the imagination of the SUV-weary press.
The facelifted Skoda Fabia and the Citroen Berlingo delivered more welcome normcore against a backdrop of unviable concepts and driverless pods, though we did get a bit excited about the new Jeep Wrangler.
Is it a masterclass in understated perfection, or does it look like a dayglo goblin fish? That’s the debate that raged - and continues to rage - around the new Aston Martin Vantage, a car defined by the fact that it isn’t the best in its class. Andrew English likes it, and while the jury’s still out about the design, everybody else seems to as well.
Volkswagen’s decision to launch its new California in California makes perfect sense until you remember that it is not sold in North America. This compact campervan (not to be confused with its faster but only-slightly-more-expensive Italian namesake) is the benchmark in this weird little segment, but frankly we aren’t convinced by the principle: it’s too small to be substantially better than a tent, and the lack of a loo seems like a compromise too far for any serious travelling.
It’s been a good year for electric cars, but 2018’s battery-electric vehicle (BEV) peak must have been the launch of the Jaguar i-Pace. It’s upmarket, it’s British, it’s great to drive and it doesn’t emit any pollution at the tailpipe. Obviously there were glaring issues, such as the UK’s chronic lack of reliable charging infrastructure, but the i-Pace is a tremendous car in its own right and a glimmer of hope in an annus horribilis for JLR.
As if anyone needed convincing, the Continental GT is a truly excellent car. It represents all that is good about the automobile - it’s fast, handsome, comfortable and fun. I can’t imagine being tired or bored in the driver’s seat of this Bentley, nor can I imagine many journeys that it wouldn’t excel at. I know it’s fashionable to prefer cheaper, more basic cars (such as the new Ford Fiesta ST) but Bentley has done something special here.
We got our hands on the Peugeot 508 in early June. It turned out to be a solid four-star car, and one that we’d happily recommend over its German rivals if we thought anybody would listen. Here was a well-priced, well-equipped and handsome French saloon destined to become a rarity on UK roads, because it didn’t have the right badge on the front.
Some models seem impervious to such snobbery, however. As Andrew English says, the Ford Focus is essentially furniture in this country; most of us will have owned, driven or at least ridden in a Focus at some point since the model’s introduction some two decades ago. Last year saw the introduction of a brand new one, which has already begun to fill the car parks and driveways of Middle England. It’s not the fastest or most exotic car we’ve driven this year, but it’s probably one of the most important.
Another momentous model is the Hyundai Kona EV, a battery-electric crossover that offers a 300ish-mile range for the price of, well, a normal car. Hyundai thought the best way to show off its range would be on a competitive 12-hour night rally with each motoring title fielding a two-person team.
Charging networks notwithstanding, the Kona EV is extremely impressive. Perhaps even more impressive, however, is the Nexo. Hyundai’s hydrogen fuel cell efforts are ongoing, and the Nexo arguably represents the coming-of-age moment for Korean FCEV tech. It’s a great-looking, spacious, comfortable and environmentally friendly car that emits pure water at the tailpipe, takes a couple of minutes to fully refuel, and travels over 400 miles on a single ‘charge’.
We’ve all driven it and quite like it but, as with nearly all green car tech, there’s still a problem with infrastructure. Hopefully 2019 will see the hydrogen network grow.
The Suzuki Jimny is easily the worst car I’ve driven all year. It’s extremely slow, for starters, and at the modest speeds it’s capable of achieving it darts around the motorway like a space hopper. It’s cramped, basic, unrefined and it only scored three stars in Euro NCAP crash testing. Yet like pretty much every other car critic in Britain, I adore it and am desperate to make it mine.
The Paris Motor Show passed largely without incident. Our favourite car (and pretty much the only one of note) was Peugeot’s 504 Coupe concept, which fell just short of nostalgic perfection but which adequately recalled the late Sixties classic of the same name. We saw a Bugatti Chiron made out of Lego, a handful of Chinese models and the same-old-same-old driverless pods, but Paris was a subdued affair this year.
We cover a little bit of aviation on the motoring desk, and in November we took to the skies for Beaujolais Nouveau day. Francophile gamay-guzzler Poppy McKenzie Smith flew in a Cessna Citation jet to Lyon and back in a day, returning to the Telegraph newsroom with a case of 2018 Beaujolais collected from Chateau de Pizay that very morning. Small jet aircraft like the CJ2 are becoming increasingly popular (a relative term) with small groups looking to skip the indignity of commercial air travel - as Poppy discovered, private flying isn’t the preserve of the ultra-rich.