Drive's best cars of '08
New Zealand's Car of the Year won't be chosen until early in the new year, but Dave Moore has some favourites from 2008.
I had a few car favourites this year, and I was so taken by some, I even checked the piggy bank to see how close I could get to buying one or two of them. So here they are: my best of a very good year.
Best large car
Ford FG Falcon - For those who said they couldn't tell the difference between the new Ford and the old one: don't drive, your eyesight isn't good enough. I loved the way they redesigned and re-engineered the Falcon to its FG form. By pushing the wheels further out to the corners, Ford made more room. They also put proper doors on the car instead of the previous wrap-over variety and managed to make even the base XT model handle as if it was on rails. The performance versions were impressive too, with the ordinary XR6 Turbo showing why Ford Australia should keep building cars. The wildly painted FPV F6, which won Fairfax New Zealand's Autocar Car of the Year gong was a cracker, even if it did look like a weepy Amy Winehouse from the front.
Holden Commodore Sportwagon - By tapering the load area rearwards Holden may have compromised its maximum load space, but no wagon was more spacious in 2008 and fewer were quicker than the SS-V and HSV versions. Like the Ford Falcon, if Holden wants to stretch the Commodore wagon's appeal for export, it's going to need alternative fuels for this car. An E85 version is ready to go, however, both companies have access to modern twin-turbo diesels that would slice their carbon footprints and our fuel bills overnight. We'll know in the new year if diesel is likely.
Ferrari California - In one new car, Ferrari introduced its first front- mounted rear-drive production V8, its first double clutch two-pedal manual, in a body using its first folding metal hard-top. It ended up as the firm's fastest front-engined production car yet its easiest to drive. The body seems to have been stroked with the ugly stick but when you're behind the wheel you won't care. When I realised how manageable and driftable this car was all I had to do was drive, apply opposite lock where necessary, listen to the shifts and watch the hairs stand up on my arms.
Best luxury car
Jaguar XF - This all-new Jaguar has taken the company's stuck-in-the- mould styling and set it on its ear. Powered by the PSA/Ford developed twin-turbo diesel V6, the car even has a family hatch-like emissions and consumption footprint. Jaguar is due to offer coupe and convertible versions of the XF soon, and a new XJ sedan.
Best executive car
Audi A4 - If Audi hadn't taken this bracket often headed by the C-class and 3-series, the A4 would be regarded as a failure. It's not until the A4 is viewed next to an old one that you see the difference. The car has turbo petrol and diesel fours, and V6s of both types, but the drivetrain of choice is the turbodiesel 2.7 V6 with multitronic CVT and the best body style the Avant or wagon. Thus equipped and specified, the A4 is a shoo-in.
Best retirement car
BMW 120i Rag Top - For the BMW's $64,000, Audi's A3 drop-top at $59,000 nudged me quite hard, but the BMW's added luggage volume helps take this one. However, the BMW doesn't have the DSG gearbox used by the Audi. So, if you don't need the boot, I wouldn't blame anyone taking the A3 instead. The sad thing is that the hard-top coupe version of BMW's 1-series doesn't get the cabriolet 120i's delightful four- cylinder drivetrain. If it did, that model may have taken my retirement gong this year instead.
Best mid-sized car
Honda Accord Euro - With the addition of a wagon to its line-up, the all-new Accord Euro is a terrific drive and more disposed to space and practicality now, while being built to exacting standards that show up the Mondeo and Mazda6 in this class. The Mazda6 was pipped by the Accord Euro and I'm still not sure about that, but I promised I wouldn't argue with myself. If space is at a premium the Mazda6 has to be your choice. If it had a diesel option, it may have taken the gong.
Best performance car
Ford Focus XR5 Turbo - There were quicker cars overall but none have the Ford's chassis composure. The XR5 Turbo has astonishing ride quality, considering the profile displayed by its wheel and tyre combination and its cornering poise. By using Volvo's Porsche-designed in-line turbocharged five, the Focus has a wonderful thrumming engine- note. It is a grown-up's hot hatch that is just as pleasant driven slowly on the daily commute.
Best family hatch
Hyundai i30 - No other hatch offers a manual and auto in all its versions, even the sweet-running frugal diesel variants. But it is not just the choice that helps the i30 win this prize. The car drives beautifully, its designers have thought of everything safety wise and it looks very sharp indeed, especially in blood red! As we predicted in early 2007, the Koreans would "own" the diesel market within two years, and it certainly looks like it's getting there with Hyundai and partner Kia.
Nissan GT-R - I've driven grey imports and the real thing, and, it has to be said, the former felt blunted compared to the latter, which I managed to slide around the Estoril Formula One track in May. This car is astonishing, with remarkable traction, balance and performance. I was prepared to loathe it before driving it. However, after just a third of a lap, the scales fell from my eyes, and, while I don't know what price a proper GT-R will be when it's officially available here, it should be many tens of thousands cheaper than the equivalent Porsche.
Best small car
Fiat 500 - If Fiat sold it here, I could as easily given this gong to the Panda on which the 500 is based. But even then it wouldn't shout "Drive me!" in the same way this gorgeous, beautifully made car does. Like the New Mini and New Beetle, the 500 harks back to a favourite earlier design, eliminating the bad points and polishing the smart ones while adding modern driving dynamics and safety equipment. Unlike the two Germans, the Fiat is affordable even for those who don't always buy a car for style. If it's style you want, there isn't a car anywhere in the automotive pecking order that does it better. It starts at just under $27,000. What's not to like?
Volkswagen Tiguan - VW was more than 10 years late to the SUV party, and knew that when it finally did get there, it had to have the smartest product of the lot. That's what they've done, with an SUV that's as manageable as an ordinary hatch on the road, and the most talented soft-roader of all without a low-range transaxle when off it. It also has the best quality interior with good textures, sensibly laid out controls and a roomy five-person cabin with loads of luggage space. With a standard six-speed automatic and VW's 2.0L TDi power unit, it's quick, clean and economical. OK, so it looks conservative, but show me a VW that doesn't. Its sticker is $55,000-ish depending on equipment and finish, but there are less talented cars out there that cost more.
Subaru's-flat four diesel - It was its first attempt at diesel, but even with just a five-speed manual transmission choice, the Legacy and Outback Subarus are at their best in diesel form, with no naturally aspirated petrol four proving quicker, and none showing anywhere near the new cars' emissions standards and oily-rag-like fuel economy. Automatics will eventually arrive as CVTs when a model change takes place late next year. I can't wait for it to appear in the Forester and Impreza.
After much research, I have to give this to Porsche's Doppelkupplungsgetriebe or PDK transmission. The PDK initials were first attached to Porsches with the racing 962 models of the early '80s, but, although Porsche first commissioned such units so long ago, it's only now that they've deemed a PDK good enough for production purposes. The seven- speed unit was worth waiting for. It is now fitted to the 911 and Boxster models. It takes less than a 10th of a second to shift. Its down-shift "blip" makes you seem terrifically skilled.