Nobody will argue that the South African new car market is one of the most diverse, and most competitive, in the world. In a year that saw an almost endless, sometimes daily, procession of new model launches, selecting our favourites was never going to be easy. But here they are: Daily Maverick’s best of 2013 - a fantastic five of newcomers that, in our opinion, deliver their motoring wares better than the rest. By DEON SCHOEMAN.
Renault Clio 4: French revolution
Driven mainly by eco concerns, but also by customer demands for lower acquisition and running costs, the globe’s automakers are creating increasingly compact and lightweight cars.
They’re powered by smaller but highly sophisticated engines – powerplants that manage to combine both pep and economy in a high-tech expression of automotive engineering.
The all-new Renault Clio 4 is fitted with a small but cutting-edge engine that divides its 898cc between just three cylinders. It also happens to be a real head-turner, with styling best described as sexy and glamorous, while the cabin oozes class and comfort.
To succeed in the highly competitive B-segment for subcompact hatchbacks, the Clio also has to offer value for money.
This fourth-generation model looks upmarket in an almost exotic way, but without resorting to effect or ostentation. Its smooth and almost organic shape positions the little Renault a cut above the budget norm. Even this middle-of-the-range 1.0 Expression looks anything but budget-beating.
Vitally, the exterior’s premium impression is carried through to the smart and comprehensively equipped interior. It’s a space that looks both more advanced, and more upmarket, than a B-segment car has any right to be.
The instrumentation mixes up digital and analogue components, but the undisputed showpiece is the colour touch-screen. It acts as the control centre for many of the car’s systems.
The Clio 4 Expression is also fitted with front and side airbags, ABS brakes, and electronic stability control. The little hatchback has a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating. Finally, the 300-litre boot may not be all that generous by family car standards, but it’s useful in the B-segment context.
The three-cylinder turbocharged engine also employs variable valve timing. Max power is 66kW, combined with 135Nm of torque. A five-speed gearbox and front-wheel drive are standard.
The high-tech engine’s gruff sound is strangely charming, and the car pulls strongly, even though there is some lag at the very bottom of the rev range. And the result is pleasing urge. The claimed 0-100km/h sprint time comes to 12.2sec, and top speed is 182km/h top speed.
Of course, the real benefit of a small engine is reduced fuel consumption. Renault claims 4.5 litres/100 km for the combined cycle, together with CO2 emissions of just 105g/km.
The finely tuned chassis offers both comfort and response, together with enough feedback to make it fun to drive. Straight-line highway cruising is pleasant, thanks to well-contained road and wind noise levels. You soon forget the Clio is powered by such a modest drivetrain.
Will smaller engines translate into lower prices? Unlikely – at least not for now. The advanced tech applied to wring so much urge from such a small unit doesn’t come cheaply, and it will take some time until economies of scale bring those costs down.
Renault Clio 1.0 Expression
Peugeot 208 GTi: The art of poise
Hot hatches, pocket rockets, muscle minis – call them what you will, but there’s no shortage of performance hatchbacks on the local market.
In the subcompact sector, the recently unleashed Ford Fiesta ST and the established VW Polo GTI are the main protagonists at present. But in 2013, a new challenger appeared on the scene: the Peugeot 208 GTi.
To many, the Peugeot 205 GTi still enjoys legendary status, mainly because it combined low weight and a great chassis with a frisky engine to create a car with sublime and entertaining handling properties. Decades later, the 208 GTi embraces that philosophy in a 21st Century context.
At only 1,160kg, the new 208 GTi is 165kg lighter than its 207-based predecessor, while its 1.6-litre engine is 15 percent more powerful. The result is a power-to-weight ratio of 127kW/ton –impressive for a small performance hatchback.
The 208 is handsome in standard guise, and the GTi version adds further visual muscle. The tracks are wider front and rear, while a subtle body kit and bigger wheels create a more aggressive appearance.
The wheel arches embrace bigger wheels and fatter rubber, while the twin exhaust tail pipes, an extended roof spoiler and a pronounced lower rear apron add further visual zest.
The cockpit is a racy place, with form-fitting bucket seats, a flat-bottomed steering wheel, and metallic accents. Red stitching, an alloy gear knob, and unique instrument dials are further details. And yes, the GTi is kitted out to the hilt.
Perhaps more importantly, the four-cylinder lurking under the bonnet is identical to that of the RCZ sports coupé. The 1,698cc turbo four-cylinder produces a meaty 147kW of max power, together with a 275Nm torque peak. The gearbox is a six-speed manual, driving the front wheels.
The Peugeot is a quick little car – even if it doesn’t feel quite as rapid as its figures suggest. The 0 to 100km/h sprint time is a useful 6.8 seconds, while the claimed top speed is 230km/h – numbers very much creditable by hot hatch standards, let alone pocket rocket contenders.
But the real highlight of is the chassis. It manages to find the perfect combination of damping and response, soaking up country road dips and bumps without becoming unsettled, while allowing an unambiguous dialogue between car and driver.
The only exception is the steering, which feels slightly numb, even though turn-in is crisp and direct. It’s certainly a lot meatier than the normal 208’s steering.
The new Peugeot 208 GTi is more than just a hot hatch. There’s a patina of underlying sophistication that elevates it above the frenetic, hard-core action usually associated with this segment.
Peugeot 208 GTi
VW Golf GTI 7: Finding an elusive balance
One could argue that Volkswagen legitimised the hot hatch phenomenon. The original Golf GTI was unleashed in 1976 with a worldwide sales target of just 5 000 units. More than three decades, six generations and 1,9-million sales later, the GTI is still the hot hatch all others are measured by.
This latest Mk7 model brings 162 kW to the performance party, which may be up on the previous GTI’s output, but well below the 184 kW of the Focus ST, the 195 kW of the Renault Mégane RS Cup and the 206 kW of the Opel Astra OPC.
From the above, there would seem to be little reason to opt for the Golf over, let’s say, the Mégane RS. And in pure performance terms, you’d be right.
But for most of us, hell-for-leather capability can’t be the only consideration. Comfort, practicality, user-friendliness, versatility – the overall motoring experience, across a broad spectrum of applications – is what really warrants the significant dosh you’ll be spending on your hot hatch.
The Golf 7’s design is derivative at best, nipping and tucking a shape that’s not that easy to distinguish from Golf 6. The same could be said of the GTI, although its performance potential is allowed to subtly shine through. Bottom line? It looks like a Golf GTI.
The cabin seems a lot sportier, but also more intuitive, than its predecessor. The flat-bottomed steering wheel feels grippy, the leather upholstery is upmarket, and a large, intuitive touchscreen brings a host of functions to the driver’s fingertips.
Tactile quality remains a powerful, underlying theme. As for space, the interior packaging is efficient enough to ensure good, comfortable seating for four, with ample leg and headroom at the rear.
The willingness of the four-pot engine from near-idling speeds is impressive, as is the fat spread of torque across the rev range, and a throttle response that finds a good balance between razor sharp edginess and sloppy tardiness.
Somehow, the GTI always feels strong, willing and able, even if the performance figures are swift rather than eye-watering. The 0-100km/h sprint is despatched in 6.5sec, and top speed is 246km/h. But the straightline data doesn’t convey much about the actual driving experience.
You’d expect this car to feel taut and racy, with a closer focus on response than on compliant comfort. And indeed, the GTI places the emphasis on sporty rather than soft, but does so without turning the car into a teeth-rattling monster.
The suspension set-up is smooth, but transparent enough to allow plenty of feedback. The steering remains on the light side, but with decent heft. The result is a car that feels agile and willing, with direct steering responses.
The latest Golf GTI proves that hot hatches for everyday driving need more than brute power or race-derived chassis technology. The real secret is balance – and balance is what sets the GTI apart from the rest of the hot hatch brigade.
VW Golf GTI Manual
Ford Kuga: Surprise and delight
Wieldy, well-specced, spacious and competitively priced, the latest Ford Kuga compact SUV retains many of the traits of its predecessor, while placing a particular emphasis on state-of-the-art technology and frugality.
That’s hardly surprising, given that it’s targeting an increasingly eco-conscious customer intent not only on saving the planet, but also saving money at the fuel pump.
The second-generation Kuga is larger, and features a long and impressive list of features. The model line-up consists of six variants, offering a choice of two petrol engines and a turbodiesel unit. Depending on model, the gearbox is either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic, while both front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive options are available.
Three equipment levels – Ambiente, Trend and range-topping Titanium – complete the picture. However even the so-called Ambiente execution isn’t short on comfort and convenience features.
While the previous Kuga was compact and chunky, the new version is bolder and more extrovert. The stance is tall, and the strong waistline adds a sense of dynamic intent. It looks more streetwise than dirt rider, despite is SUV positioning.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing: soft-roaders such as the Kuga are unlikely to be challenged by anything worse than rutted gravel, and most will encounter nothing wilder than the urban jungle.
So, if heading off the beaten track is not a primary requirement, what’s the real reason behind the popularity of vehicles like the Kuga? Well, that raised stance, and the enhanced visibility it affords, are definite drawcards.
Then there is the practicality of an interior that provides both decent front and rear legroom, and ample cargo space. The interior finishes are smart, and even so-called baseline models are well equipped.
But the plethora of the dashboard switches and controls could be more intuitive. Granted, once you know where everything is, and how it works, the cockpit becomes a much friendlier place. And kudos to Ford for dressing it all up so smartly.
For those who prefer petrol engines, there’s a latest-generation 1,6-litre Ecoboost petrol unit – a high-tech four-cylinder that comes in two states of tune.
Front-wheel drive models get the 110kW version, while some electronic tweaking ups the output to 134kW for the all-wheel drive variants. However, the torque peak of 240Nm is the same across both powerplants.
The two-litre TDCI diesel is credited with 120kW, but it’s the 340Nm of torque that will be of interest to those Kuga owners intent on towing. Fuel economy and low emissions are a feature of both the petrol and the diesel engines.
The six-speed manual gearboxes are reserved for the two front-wheel drive petrol versions, while the remaining four derivatives are all fitted with a six-speed automatic that also offers a sequential manual override.
The diesel always feels the stronger engine, with better in-gear tractability and overall response – and arguably a better match of gear ratios to power characteristics. By comparison, the 134kW petrol is smoother and more refined, but lacks the diesel’s low-down grunt.
Despite its taller stance, the handling of this SUV is more car-like than expected. There’s no excessive body lean when cornering with gusto, and there’s a sense of confidence and composure that quickly creates a close rapport between the Kuga and its driver – even if the steering is too light.
Vitally, the Kuga feels nimble and easy to pilot, and linked to the great view from the elevated seating position, you always feel in control. And that’s also true when heading off the beaten track.
Regardless of model, the Kuga delights and surprises. Its strong focus on technology and efficiency, combined with striking styling should ensure that it has no trouble in attracting its fair share of customers.
Ford Kuga 2.0 TDCI Titanium
McLaren MP4-12C Spider: Is this supercar perfection?
McLaren may have a 50-year racing heritage festooned with legendary racing machines, mostly in Formula One. But its road car history is not quite as illustrious.
In 1992, the legendary, Gordon Murray-designed McLaren F1 road car recalibrated the very essence of supercar design. But in the six years that followed, only 102 were built.
Fast forward almost two decades later, and the McLaren MP4-12C became only the second road car produced by McLaren Automotive. As far as technology, innovation and desirable aesthetics are concerned, one could argue that the MP4-12C is the natural successor to the F1. But in reality, it is a very different expression of the supercar theme.
The Spider version was developed in tandem with the coupé, and so needs no extra reinforcement, while its performance data is therefore identical to the coupés.
With roof up, the Spyder is every millimetre an MP4-12C. In fact, only the narrow shut lines around the pillars give away the fact that this roof isn’t fixed, but will articulate its way out of sight in just 17 seconds at the push of a button.
Once the roof has been stowed, the Spyder becomes the glamour kid in the McLaren stable, designed for leisurely cruises and occasional blasts down the boulevards of the Cote d’Azur, Cap Ferrat – or Cape Town’s Camp’s Bay, for that matter.
The roadster’s carbon fibre tub is fitted with front and rear aluminium subframes, each of which provides a home to a dual wishbone suspension with active dampers that can be adjusted to suit road conditions and driving style.
Given the car’s technical complexity, the controls and switchgear are lucidly arranged and easily operated. The cabin also offers a nice mix of high-tech functionality and elegantly executed comfort – nothing opulent, but special enough to create a powerful sense of well-being.
All the creature comforts are provided – from dual-zone climate control to keyless starting and remote central locking. Setting the handling and power delivery characteristics is as easy as using two rotary switches in the centre console to choose between normal, sport and track modes.
One of the car’s showpieces is the proprietary 3,8-litre twin turbo V8, mid-mounted behind the cabin. The all-aluminium unit drives the rear wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. The stats are impressive: 460kW of max power at 7,500rpm, and 600Nm sustained between 3,000 and 7,000 rpm.
Supercar status infers the kind of supersonic performance that only the cream of the crop can manage. McLaren clams a 0-100km/h sprint time of 3.15 seconds – quite astounding, considering this is a rear-wheel drive car.
The 0-200 km/h dash takes less than 10sec, and the quarter-mile drag will stop the clocks at 10.8 sec, with a terminal speed of 221km/h. Top speed levels out at 326 km/h.
The McLaren’s road manners are impressive. The ride is pliant and composed, and the roadster corners with flat precision, sticking to the chosen line with almost nonchalant ease. Grip levels are extremely high, and the steering has the kind of life and heft that allows precise, informed inputs.
Top up or down, the McLaren pulls, steers, brakes just like the coupé – while entertaining you with that magnificent, bespoke V8’s aural pleasures!
Is the McLaren MP4 12C Spider a true supercar? Absolutely. But – and here’s the million dollar question – can it stand its ground in the company of established marques such as Porsche, Lamborghini and Ferrari?
In pure engineering terms, it’s up there with the very best – perhaps, even, the best of all. But right now, the MP4-12C lacks some of the emotive appeal that only time and heritage can create.
Still, as far as finely honed, high-performance machinery is concerned, this is an awe-inspiring, tremendous, downright brilliant sports car. Period.
Make and Model: McLaren MP4-12C Spyder
Engine: 3,799cc V8, twin-turbocharged
Power: 460kW @ 7,500 rpm
Torque: 600Nm @ 3,000 rpm
Gearbox: Seven-speed dual-clutch
0-100 km/h: 3.15sec
Top speed: 326km/h
Fuel consumption: 11.7 litres/100 km (combined cycle)
CO2 emissions: 279 g/km
Price: R4,6-million as tested DM
"Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it." ~ Salvador Dalí