Thursday 19 September 2019

My best drives of 2018

It has been an interesting and varied year of test driving cars, writes Geraldine Herbert

BMW i8 Roadster
BMW i8 Roadster
Nissan Leaf
Jaguar I-Pace
Audi RS4 Avant
Kia Ceed

Geraldine Herbert

In a year of driving more than 100 cars, many stand out for all sorts of reasons: some are not nearly as good as you had hoped, others are just disappointing, while many forgettable. And then there were those that, for a variety of factors, left an indelible mark.

Few cars make an entrance like the Lexus LC500h, with stunning good looks and impeccable manners - but potential owners should also know this is not a car for shy, reserved types. Every trip, no matter how short, will leave a trail of pointing fingers, gaping mouths and wagging tongues. Passers-by stare at it longingly while others crane their necks out of windows to snap photos from their phones. And everyone has an opinion on it.

There is no shortage of accomplished large executive cars, but Audi's new A6 stood out this year. Although the BMW 5-Series offers a better driving experience and the infotainment system could be easier to use, the A6 has the edge in terms of overall appeal.

Another surprise of the year was the new A-Class from Mercedes-Benz, which delivered comfort, class and premium quality. The baby Benz raised the bar for all premium hatchbacks, while Kia's Ceed impressed with sharper looks and an even sharper drive.

Special mentions go to three high-performance cars. The Mégane RS280, the latest hot hatch to be unleashed by the French marque, is low, orange and racetrack-ready. Under the bonnet is the world's most powerful 1.8 engine, with 280hp and 390Nm of torque, while 0-100 is achieved in 5.8 seconds. Such power may be pointless anywhere except for on a racetrack, but the RS is an antidote to those waiting for driverless cars and carbon-free motoring and in Volcanic orange, it is flamboyant and outrageously fun.

Powered by a 444bhp twin-turbo 2.9-litre V6 engine, Audi's Rs4 Avant is breathtakingly fast and, for many, everything you will ever need from a car. It is practical, beautiful inside and comfortable, plus there is room for five with luggage. Yes, it's expensive to buy and run, but I can't resist an understated souped-up estate.

BMW's M cars have always been crafted in a very specific vein and the new M5 is no exception. It is a return to what the M division does best. Purists may have baulked at the introduction of all-wheel drive for the first time in the model's history, but for driving thrills it remains in a class of its own.

Hyundai's Santa Fe has been a big hit and is a good-looking SUV that seats seven. The new version looks even more stylish than its predecessor, but it is inside where the real changes have taken place and it is now smarter with a more premium feel.

A raft of crossovers, compact SUVs and large SUVs launched this year, but there were a handful that really stood out.

Alfa Romeo's Stelvio brings a distinctive Italian style and sporty performance to the mid-size SUV market, but is let down by a dull cabin and dated infotainment system.

SEAT's Arona hits just the right note with sporty styling, keen pricing and good driving dynamics while Citroën's C3 Aircross redefines quirky and promises fun, but it might just be a little too colourful and flamboyant for some.

Probably the most desirable small SUV launched this year was the stunning Volvo XC40. Like all Volvos, it boasts a formidable arsenal of safety aids but it is not as good to drive as some rivals and it is too expensive.

Chic, sleek and sophisticated, the Jaguar E-Pace certainly has an edge over rivals when it comes to kerb appeal, but it falls short at delivering the kind of refinement and smooth-ride quality that appeals to its core market.

Despite a silly name and late arrival, Volkswagen's T-Roc is a very impressive car. While it may not be as practical as rivals in terms of driving dynamics and style, it is head and shoulders above the rest.

Take a moment to savour the gorgeous styling of BMW's i8 roadster. One of the most beautiful cars ever made, I never tire of the vertically opening doors, although getting in and out of the cabin is a challenge and the boot is ridiculously small. However, the real beauty of the i8 is that it can be a sports car when you want it to be or a zero-emissions EV when you don't.

Pure electric car sales increased this year but sales are still less than one per cent of the overall new car market, but there were two significant additions to Irish roads this year.

Nissan's Leaf is the car that has turned more of us into EV-drivers than any other car in the world. For the second-generation model Nissan has realised that motorists want to drive a cool or smart-looking car. Outside, it has been given a modern profile and it is spacious enough inside for four adults to sit comfortably, while the boot is a decent 435 litres.

One of the most important Jaguars in years, the I-Pace takes the brand into the electric market for the first time and was the stand-out car of 2018 for me. Built on a bespoke aluminium chassis architecture, the I-Pace is like nothing else Jaguar produces - in fact, it's like nothing else currently on the road. With concept car looks, it is brimming with technology found nowhere else and engineered specifically for this car. Fans of thrilling, tarmac-skimming sports cars won't be disappointed - it is seriously good fun to drive. A 90kWh battery pack gives the I-Pace a reassuring range of 480km. The I-Pace is not without its flaws: it is priced too highly and the range figures are ambitious at best, but it is an exceptional car and one you'll wish you owned. Crucially, it signals a wave of others coming soon from car makers including Porsche, Mercedes and Audi. The Jaguar I-Pace is the electric car to finally get excited about.

Sunday Independent

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