A brilliant year for new models
Brilliant for new models is how I will remember 2012, rather than being the year the world ended, as predicted by a civilisation that went extinct over 1000 years ago. Sure enough, we're all still here.
More accurately, it was a flat year. One in which arguably the three (make that four; two were all but identical) best new entrants all shared a common trait: they were all powered by horizontally opposed (boxer) or flat engines. Moreover, they all shared a couple of other attributes. All were normally aspirated, all had direct fuel injection, and all had sophisticated forms of variable valve timing. Moreover, all were lightweight, rear wheel driven and all were remarkably fuel efficient by virtue of the aforementioned features, along with good aerodynamics. Two were from the same German company and can only be described as moderately to actually expensive, while the other(s) (two versions) were Japanese and remarkably affordable.
The first pair were Porsches, the new 911 (called the 991) and the Boxster (981). The 911 arrived first, looking little different from its predecessor - so what's new? - but feeling quite a bit different on road. It was quicker for starters, lots. Not so many years ago a Carrera had trouble scurrying to 100kmh in under five seconds but the new S variant with the 3.8L engine managed a 4.08 second time, on its very first and only performance run. It's meant to do 4.1sec so the company was right on the money. That instantly made it the quickest rear-drive car we'd ever tested. Launch control and a flashdancing double-clutch transmission can take the credit for its turn of speed.
Moreover, it proved the best stopper ever as well, one of only a handful of cars that can perform a crash stop from 100kmh in under 30m, in this case 29.02m, which remains an Autocar record. As always, it sounded divine on the go, but in the latest iteration tyre roar was no longer the intrusive distraction it had previously been.
All of which was well and good, great even, but the best aspect of this car was how convincingly improved it was on road. The previous model would understeer when pushed and shoved whereas this one, with Porsche Torque Vectoring, was more neutral and it could be induced to oversteer under power through corners. The change to electric steering wasn't the downer we were expecting either, given the car actually pointed better. All great then, except that you're quarter of a million worse off, eh?
The Boxster has always been seen as the pauper's 911, the Porsche you purchased when you just couldn't run to the big dog. I recall attending a Porsche track day at Pukekohe race track years ago, and my first laps were in a Boxster 2.7. For the rest of the day, I drove only 911s. Moreover, it didn't really have a look of its own; rather, it was a generic rounded Porsche shape. It was never quite as fast as a 911, though it was undoubtedly talented in the turns, with its delicious weight distribution (45 front, 55 rear, or thereabouts) and it was particularly able for a convertible. It also got quicker and more polished as the years went by.
However, the odds were made much more even this year when the new Boxster arrived on the scene just a few months after the debut of the enormously talented 991. We were expecting big things for the Boxster but it simply blew me away. Finally, it had a look it could call its own, and with direct fuel injection the S version was now properly quick, managing a storming 4.6sec 0-100 run. Topping it off, even without optional torque vectoring, the S version had cornering limits that simply defied belief. F1 cars are mid-engined for best balance, and so are the best road cars. At $150k, buy one of these in preference to the 911 if you're after purist dynamics. The extra $100k for the 911 doesn't add anything in terms of cornering prowess, though we never drove the version with dynamic roll bars. Course the incoming Cayman will probably be best of all.
Finally, if you want two-thirds of the Boxster's ability, for one-third the price, the other flat-out brilliant offering for the year, and my bang for buck 2012 pick, is the Toyota 86, at $42k. If you can spring the extra few thou for the GT, go for it, as it has better spec and bigger brakes. Top tip: buy a set of TRD brake pads and this will make it stop as you'd really want it to.
The 86 is a wonderful new car with a sort of retro driving feel about it. You have to stand on the brakes to make them work properly, the car is a bit noisy and it has a lovely MX-5-like manual transmission that has you frequently shifting gears just for the hell of it. You need to push the car hard to drive it quickly but peg it back a (legal) notch and it goes well with very little effort (forget about the peak torque arriving at 6400rpm; it pulls well from about half that many revs). It may not meet its weight balance claim of 53/47 - both Toyota and Subaru variants of this car have 56 per cent of mass over the front axle - but its low centre of gravity and sorted chassis and suspension make it a sharp cornering tool. It's quicker, roomier and cheaper than an MX-5 too. Thanks, Subaru, for returning Toyota's mojo.
Finally, mention of Subaru. Our other fave for the year was the WRX limited edition Crouching Tiger. This has power half way between the regular Rex and an STI. It's an easy car to drive slow or fast and, against the automotive grain, it retains hydraulic steering. WRX has always been a great steer, but now that most other cars have electric power assistance, you appreciate just how stupendous this is to helm. If you want wads more performance for the same price as the GT86, here it is. Be aware there's lots of old-school aspects to this - its relatively plain interior, a five-speed manual 'box, port injection and a fair old thirst for fuel. While it's not really new per se, but a limited edition variant, it's hard to think of a more complete performance package for this kind of money.
So that was 2012 from my standpoint. Sure, there were other good new cars that didn't have horizontally opposed power plants, but it certainly was a flat-chat great year for boxer-powered machinery. Season's best, y'all.
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