It’s acknowledged that the South African new vehicle market is one of the toughest in the world. With more than 1,500 derivatives from about 60 brands from which to choose, in a market of about half-a-million sales annually, SA buyers are spoilt for choice.
Competitive it may be, but new cars don’t come cheaply. Acquiring a new vehicle is the second most expensive purchase most consumers will ever make, eclipsed only by their home bond commitments – and sometimes even exceeding those in monthly repayment terms.
No wonder SA motorists agonise about what car to buy. And for that very reason, choosing the best car of 2011 is an onerous task. Should it be the fastest? The cheapest? The most practical? Or, perhaps most sensibly of all, offer the best value?
Of course, one has to take such pragmatic elements into account when evaluating a car – as every responsible motoring journalist should. But quite openly, I also allow my subjective judgement to come into play.
Looking back, I drove well over a hundred different new additions to the SA motoring landscape during 2011. Of those, almost 50 made an appearance on the weekly Maverick Motoring pages.
I’d like to think the selection represents a fair cross-section of the 2011 new model release list: from compact to comfortable, from sporty to sedate, from entry-level to exclusive. So, to make it a little simpler – and since this is a Maverick “Best Of” list – I’ve chosen my five 2011 favourites from that review line-up.
Alfa Giulietta 1750 TBi QV: The promise of greatness
There’s more to the Alfa Romeo Giulietta than just a pretty face. On a corporate level, it represents the hope of a brand attempting to revive a more glorious, more successful epoch.
Vitally, those lofty aspirations are backed up by a package that convinces on almost every level – an achievement that’s taken even the most committed alfisti by surprise.
The Giulietta has to be more than just a very good car. It also has to play the role of compelling brand ambassador, satisfying not only the expectations of the marque’s loyal supporters, but vitally regaining the confidence of lost fans, while also attracting new customers.
Furthermore, it operates in one of the most competitive new car market arenas – for C-segment hatchbacks – where its chief protagonist is none other than the Volkswagen Golf. It stands to reason the Giulietta needs to be truly special to succeed.
The five-door hatchback makes it onto my Maverick Best Of list because it is, indeed, outstanding, if not quite perfect. It mixes gorgeous, desirable styling with effective, cutting-edge engineering and a level of performance worthy of the Alfa Romeo shield.
Perhaps more importantly, it exudes an individual, thoroughly authentic character in a hot hatch genre where sheer competence often overwhelms driver involvement and emotive appeal.
Although a practical hatchback by design, the execution is pure, romantic Alfa Romeo. Its long, prowling nose is dominated by that oversized, heart-shaped Alfa grille. The curves are voluptuous, but the stance low and muscular, and there’s an alertness to its attitude that suggests unwavering dynamic intent.
Inside, there’s more good news – modern materials and tactile quality create a comfortably, premium-appointed space with just the right mix of mod cons and advanced safety. If anything, the slightly quirky driving position (long arms, short legs) underscores the car’s authenticity.
The 1750 TBi Quadrifoglio Verde is at the top of the three-rung Giulietta ladder and, as such, finds itself defending the Alfa honour against hot hatch legends such as the VW Golf GTI.
Its mechanical credentials suggest it has the right stuff. The 1,750cc twin-cam engine doffs a hat to other, glorious Alfas from years gone by, but is thoroughly modern nonetheless. Turbocharging ensures it has both urge and shove to spare: 173kW at 5,500rpm, and 340Nm at 1,900rpm, to be exact.
Front-wheel drive and a six-speed gearbox complete the drivetrain picture, while an electronic limited-slip differential assists in making the most of all that muscle.
No wonder then that this Giulietta is rapid. Not lightning-fast in a tar-ripping, gut-wrenching, rubber-smoking way, but fast enough to complete the 0-100km/h dash in well under seven seconds, with a 242km/h top speed to match.
It’s not dynamically perfect by any means. The steering isn’t scalpel sharp, and the suspension could be tauter and more communicative. But the Giulietta always feels spirited and eager and rewards the committed pilot with a thrilling drive.
In short, the Giulietta exudes flair and flamboyance – traits all too often lacking from the modern world of high-tech, competent but anodyne performance cars. Add the evocative styling, a smart cabin and the special appeal of an historic brand, and the Giulietta is arguably one of the automotive surprises of 2011 – and a worthy Maverick Best Of finalist.
Audi A1: Small car, big shoes
There are a lot of reasons why the A1 should not make it onto a Best Of list. Audi’s first truly compact car of the modern era (if we discard the eclectic A2, that is) uses the same platform as Volkswagen’s mass-market Polo. It’s not as spacious nor as practical as its VW cousin and (for now) it’s only offered in three-door form.
So why would I include the A1 in my list? Because it proves that an understanding of market trends and customer needs, together with the ability to deliver on brand promise, can yield an admirable product and true success.The A1 recognises, first and foremost, that erudite motorists no longer believe in size and ostentation as hallmarks of desirability. It encourages well-heeled car buyers with an appetite for sophistication to look beyond the obvious luxury crowd, and to opt for something smaller (and greener) without having to sacrifice style or status.
Besides, the A1 also encourages a more realistic approach to motoring: an approach that recognises the importance of more compact cars on increasingly congested roads, and the need for more efficient and environmentally friendly cars as key contributors to reducing greenhouse gases.
But besides pressing all the right emotional buttons, the A1 is also a fine expression of the art of the compact car. It’s a small, three-door hatchback with a cocky, sporty attitude, thanks to wheels planted on each corner, and a pugnacious posture.
Scaled down it may be, but the styling is pure Audi, complete with single-frame grille and slanted headlights equipped with daytime running lights. The derriere, with its oddball overbite effect is unique though, if not particularly memorable.
Inside, the Audi identity is even more pervasive. The solidity is Teutonic, the ergonomics beyond reproach, the execution every bit as upmarket as Audi customers demand. In other words, it’s a cabin that spells premium with a capital “P”.
Blotting the copy book, though, is the stingy rear accommodation, suggesting that the A1 is best considered by young, dual-income couples without toddlers, smart professional singles or still-youthful empty nesters. The boot won’t do for much more than weekend getaways either.
The A1 range offers petrol and diesel engine choices, all turbocharged and all aimed at finding that elusive compromise between frugality and friskiness. The best option here is also the mainstream choice: a 90kW 1.4 TSI petrol engine, which finds a nice balance between pep and thrift. Buyers get to choose between manual or snappy S-tronic dual-clutch transmissions.
That drivetrain allows plenty of zip – 8,9 seconds is all it takes for the 0-100km/h dash, and top speed is 200km/h. But the A1’s strongest suit is its handling, despite a slightly numb, electrically assisted steering. The chassis reacts with razor-sharp precision, the ride quality is pliant without compromising composure, and grip levels are high enough to ensure smooth, neutral cornering, even at eye-watering speeds.
Add one of the best interiors in the business, and as many big-car bells and whistles as you’re prepared to pay for, and the A1 deserves to be desirable – and successful. It’s my best small car of 2011.
Hyundai Elantra: Value spells victory
Forget about Korean cars being cheap and nasty. They may have retained a measure of affordability and continue to focus on value, but the cars are right up there with the best – as Hyundai’s latest-generation Elantra proves in no uncertain terms.
It also now competes head-on against some of the most established sedans in South Africa: icons like the Volkswagen Jetta and the Toyota Corolla. Five years ago, you wouldn’t have mentioned the Elantra in the same breath as those two, but today it’s well up to the fight, thanks to similar dimensions, a well-stocked interior, a raft of safety features and modern mechanicals.
In styling terms, the ugly-duckling Elantra has emerged as a striking, elegant swan. The flowing lines, wedged profile and pronounced shoulder line are a further interpretation of the Sonata’s design language. But the Elantra’s compact dimensions allow for a sportier, more aggressive presentation.
That this is a big car by C-segment sedan standards becomes apparent when one considers that the standard 17-inch wheels still seem too small for the wheel arches.
The cabin execution is another pleasant surprise. Gone are the “Seoul City By Night” days – the design here is ergonomically efficient and elegant, crowned by a comprehensive array of standard features.
There’s just enough aluminium-look brightwork to lift the otherwise dark dashboard finishes, while the analogue instruments are a welcome, legible counterpoint to the digital displays for the trip computer, CD receiver and climate control.
The front seats are shaped for both comfort and support, and there’s enough adjustability to tailor a driving position to suit personal preference. The cloth upholstery looks smart and feels durable and the rear accommodation is comfortable for a car in this segment.
The rear seat back is split 60:40 allowing the capacity of the 420-litre luggage compartment to be increased.
Of the drivetrains on offer, the 1.8-litre four-cylinder is the pick of the bunch, At 110kW and 178Nm, it’s not the most powerful in this league and the delivery is peaky, demanding full use of the six-speed manual gearbox. Tall gearing makes for smooth cruising while limiting the Elantra’s thirst for fuel, but further blunts response.
All of which would indicate less than stellar dynamics. However, with a slick-shifting gearbox and a willing engine, making full use of the powerplant’s potential is half of the fun, and adds to a welcome sense of involvement in a segment where anodyne is all too often acceptable.
It’s no sports saloon – the Elantra only just dips under the 10 second mark for the 0-100km/h sprint, and the 205km/h top speed is hardly relevant on our roads. Also, the steering always feels too light.
That said, the plucky sedan sticks to the chosen line through the twisties with glee and there’s enough composure to instil confidence. Drivetrain and chassis find a good rapport, which allows for a pleasing overall balance.
Most of all, however, the Hyundai spells value with a capital “V”, thanks to attractive pricing, a five-year warranty and a five-year service plan. All of which means I won’t be surprised if the Elantra tops the sales charts in this segment very soon.
BMW 1-Series M Coupé: The return of the driving machine
For BMW loyalists, the 1-Series M Coupé appears to present a conundrum. Created by the marque’s M-division, it was always intended to make the M experience more affordable and more accessible.
Yes, its R537,500 list price, before options, is more than R300k cheaper than an M3. But is this a true M-car or just a very rapid 1-Series?
Part of the answer to that question lies in the name. Unlike the M3 and the M5, this 1-Series-based M-car has not been badged the M1. The obvious explanation is that the M1 designation will always be reserved for the 1970s mid-engined supercar that originally wore the M1 badge.
But the 1-Series M Coupé (or the 1M, as the cognoscenti have dubbed it), is also not quite as bespoke as other M-cars.
It shares its engine with other, non-M BMW models and, while the M-Division engineers have fine-tuned everything from the engine mapping to the suspension and the aerodynamics, it’s more of a carefully tweaked 1-Series Coupé than an M-car thoroughbred.
That said, there’s no mistaking that this is a very special 1-Series. The body kit is bold and aggressive, confirming that this BMW has some pretty serious performance intentions. Every curve, contour and aperture has been sculpted with aerodynamic purpose. The result is brutal, rather than pretty!
From the deep air dam, the strong shoulder line and the deeper sills to the flared wheel arches and the four big-bore exhausts, the 1M looks wide, and mean and muscular.
By comparison, the cabin is understated. Blacks and greys are the dominant hues, while the key elements are the sculpted bucket seats, a thick-rimmed steering wheel and grey Alcantara detailing.
The black leather upholstery, with contrasting stitching, is standard, as is a fairly comprehensive list of features, although you’ll pay extra for electric seats, park-distance control, keyless entry and satellite navigation.
An M Dynamic Mode button allows a sportier driving style before the stability control system intervenes, while also activating sharper throttle mapping.
Given its compact dimensions, rear accommodation is actually quite decent, and the 365-litre boot adds a further, welcome touch of practicality. But the 1M’s real focus is on performance.
The six-cylinder mill lurking under the bonnet is the same three-litre twin-turbo motor powering BMW’s Z4 sDrive 35iS. It delivers a useful 250kW of maximum power, while there’s 450Nm of torque to play with – 500Nm in overboost mode if you floor the throttle with a little extra vigour. The power-to-weight ratio comes to 167kW a ton.
In the classic BMW tradition, drive remains to the rear wheels only, while the transmission is a good old six-speed manual with a short but meaty shift action.
On the move, the 1M Coupé feels like a horse champing at the bit from the very outset. There’s an urgency to its power delivery that is more race car than road machine every time you give it stick.
Keep the stability control switched on and the DSC warning light will flash almost continuously in the first three gears. Switch it off and the 1M requires a judicious right foot, and some deft clutch work, to prevent rubber-burning wheel spin and tail-wagging oversteer.
It’s not as difficult as you think, though – and in MDM mode, the safety net that is dynamic stability control remains in place, albeit in much less invasive and more lenient mode. It will only intervene if the BMW’s sensors indicate that the point of no return is fast approaching.
The really brave can turn all assistance off completely, at which point you can throw the 1M sideways and burn off enough expensive Michelin Sport rubber to shorten the tyre life by half.
The result is a car that’s a bit of a hooligan to drive. The 1M will behave in urban traffic, but only under duress. It prefers to be threaded through the twists and turns of a mountain pass, or to be thrashed around a racing track.
The combination of nicely weighted steering, a taut suspension and explosive power delivery makes for a thrilling driving experience, but you only get to savour those traits outside metropolitan boundaries.
For the record, the 1M is credited with a zero-to-100km/h sprint time of 4.9 seconds, while it will get to 200km/h from rest in 17.3 seconds. The standing-start kilometre is despatched in 23.7 seconds, and it needs only 4.1 seconds to nip from 80km/h to 120km/h in fifth gear. Top speed, as usual, is electronically limited to 250km/h.
This is a car that’s been built with the sole purpose of offering involving, grin-inducing dynamics, but that’s simply not possible in the daily commute. The result is a car that’s more of a Mr Hyde than a Dr Jekyll.
So, is the BMW 1-Series M Coupé a worthy recipient of the M badge, or just a raw and rorty hot rod? It certainly lacks the finesse of an M3, but delivers the kind of visceral, in-your-face driving experience very few cars, regardless of price and power, can muster.
That makes the 1M a true driver’s car – and isn’t that what the M-badge is all about?
Kia Picanto: Beating the budget better
For what used to be a big-car country, South Africa has seen the arrival of a steady stream of keenly priced A-segment cars – from the tiny Peugeot 107 and its Toyota Aygo and Citroën C1 siblings to the Suzuki Alto, Hyundai i10 and, of course, the Kia Picanto.
The Picanto used to be more of a comic-book car than a serious contender, but the latest-generation model changes all that. Its clean and contemporary design is much more grown-up than its predecessor and displays the edgy, urban design language created for Kia by German styling ace Peter Schreyer.
There’s no longer anything generic about this latest Picanto. The metalwork seems tightly stretched over the hatchback’s compact frame, with short overhangs, a comparatively long wheelbase and decent front and rear tracks all contributing to a planted, confident stance.
The detailing is impressive. This top-spec 1.4 EXi model gets alloy wheels, chromed metal door handles and the tiger-snout grille which has become a consistent expression of the Kia identity under Schreyer’s design reign.
But an attractive shape and pretty details are only one facet of the new Picanto. In this league, dynamic appeal usually takes a back seat in favour of more pragmatic considerations. Well, this car is different.
The new Picanto comes with a choice of two petrol engines – a one-litre three-cylinder unit and a 1.25-litre four-pot lump. The latter is likely to be the preferred choice at Reef altitudes, where the thinner air demands more oomph.
The 1,248cc 16-valve engine pumps out 65kW of max power, together with 120Nm of torque. Interestingly, Kia offers both engines with either five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic gearbox, confirming that demand for entry-level automatic cars is growing.
The electric power steering offers too much assistance for decent feedback, but the Kia turns in willingly enough. Ride quality is good for a tiny hatch, offering decent damping without feeling soggy and generally displaying a confident attitude, even when pressing on.
The cabin of the new Picanto is arguably the biggest revelation of all. The new car is larger, allowing a more spacious cabin with better legroom front and rear. But the packaging is also much better, the finishes are more appealing and it all feels very solid, and very European.
Given that this is a budget car, the high-standard specification comes as a surprise. Admittedly, the EXi is the most expensive version in the Picanto line-up, but even so-called base models get USB/iPod music connectivity, a sound system, air-con and central locking.
The EXi is fitted with dual front airbags and ABS brakes, but the latter really should be standard across the range, which they are not. At 200-litres, boot capacity is limited, but the split bench can be folded flat to create a useful cargo area.
On a more positive note, the frisky dynamics of this Picanto come as a pleasant surprise. It easily cruises at the legal limit on the highway and always feels as if there’s more in reserve. Cog swaps are smooth and the gearbox allows good use of the engine’s powerband.
As a result, the Picanto’s performance is zestier than expected, with a 0-to-100km/h acceleration time of around 11 seconds, and a claimed top speed of 169km/h.
Frugal fuel consumption should be one of the little Kia’s foremost attractions, and that’s indeed the case. The combined-cycle consumption figure comes to 5.0-litres/100km, and dips into the fours on the open road. The CO? emissions rating of 119g/km is below the emissions tax threshold.
The Picanto’s chassis is well-mannered enough, with a suspension tuned for comfort rather than taut control. At speed, the steering can become a bit vague and generally feels overassisted, but it does make for great manoeuvrability in parking lots.
The narrow wheels and tyres always feel grippy and body lean is well contained, even when driving with gusto.
The Kia brand has come a long way since it first started marketing cars in South Africa and no car illustrates that better than the new Picanto. It really is a very impressive little car that compares favourably with the European competition. It looks good, feels solid and ultimately convinces.
And the winner is …
Five finalists, five very different cars. One could argue that in pressing economic times, value should be the key measure – and in that case, the Elantra would win hands down.
Compact cars are becoming both better and more desirable, and as ultracompacts go, 2011 belonged to the Kia Picanto. It too would be a worthy winner.That small can also be smart is epitomised by the Audi A1, which in many ways points the road to the future of premium motoring. And that alone makes it strong contender too.
How can one not like the emotive presence, the voluptuous lines, the sheer spirit of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta? It’s a car that oozes class and heritage, and delivers a thrilling drive. That it’s also highly underrated makes it an even more tempting choice for victory.
But my favourite car of 2011 was undoubtedly the BMW 1-Series Car M Coupé. Why? Because it is a driving machine first and foremost. Because it cares less for convention and focuses purely on the business of covering ground as rapidly and entertainingly as possible.
It’s thirsty. It’s expensive. It’s hardly handsome. But from the moment you turn the key, you know that the 1M is something special. In a motoring universe increasingly dominated by pragmatism and frugality, it is deliciously irreverent, dangerously outrageous – and quite brilliant to drive. DM
The Hindenburg had a smoking room.