In what has been a busy year on the new vehicle scene, more than a few have stood out from the pack, but before going there it's probably worth mentioning that right now it is very much a buyer's market.
In some sectors, like compact car and utility, the major players are waging a price war. And it is this activity rather than a robust economy that is driving the new car market to record levels. You can buy a compact car with a list price of around $33k for $25k if you're prepared to haggle a little or threaten to walk down the road and buy the competitor's product (which will be on sale for a similar price). All good for Christmas shopping then.
So what took our fancy this year? In the light car sector it was rather a slow 12 months, introductions limited to the Jazz Hybrid and Mirage. Oh, and lest we forget, the Fiesta ST.
This is a truly remarkable little performance hatch; there is very little on the road that this wee tearaway won't keep pace with, and its exhaust noise above about 4500rpm is very much in a racer's mould. Not only is it quick in a straight line but with torque vectoring it is also a rabbit in the corners, and its fast steering is among the best of the electric set. We liked it very much, and so did Top Gear reviewers, who felt it was the best new introduction for 2013. It may not seem inexpensive at $35k compared with regular Fiestas but you need to consider how much you'd pay for similar performance and dynamics elsewhere.
And on that note, if you've recently had a windfall, one of the few vehicles that can gap the Fiesta ST in a track brawl is BMW's M135i. You can buy almost three STs for the price of this compacted ball of energy but the M Performance car is truly a class act. The shape won't appeal to all but at least the old bugbear of tight confines has been addressed.
As a driver's car this is simply madness, and it's highly adjustable. Suspension you can set firm or soft, your call, thanks to adjustable damping. Perfect weight balance and excellent rubber along with a button that dials down dynamic stability control for track work make it a pleasure on good surfaces. Signs that recommend safe cornering speeds you can virtually ignore, it has that much stick. Moreover, the engine is a sensation. There's power and torque to burn from just about any revs. Even when you dial it back, you're still accelerating about twice as quickly as anything else. It's breathtaking. We can't think of another car off hand that provides such bang for buck under six figures.
In the compact class, there was a pile of activity this year, the standouts being the multiaward-winning Golf (World and Japanese Car of the Year) which looks similar to Golf VI but the new chassis and price structure move the car forward.
For slightly less money you could be into a Kia Cerato hatch or sedan. This pair looks great, they have decent engines and are surprising value. The same can be said for Skoda's compact contender, Rapid, apart from the looks bit. It's a great drive though, and offers simply enormous interior and boot space. Not that racy inside, perhaps, but what do you expect for its under $30k asking price? The 1.4TSI engine and double-clutch transmission are outstanding.
In the medium sector, there were only two newcomers in it, essentially, the Mazda6 which is typically stylish and competent, and offers a sensible mix of performance, economy, dynamics and ride quality.
But it has become rather expensive and that's where Octavia (Skoda again, notice) has it licked. Starting for $10k less the range may not offer the bold styling of the Mazda but it matches the Japanese on most other counts. We especially like the dynamic 1.8L 132kW variant, at just on $40k but even the $35k 103kW version (below) performs well and is miserly on gas. A great Kiwi liftback/wagon range just got better.
Nowadays you might be just as inclined to opt for a crossover/SUV or even a ute instead. Sales of double cab utes have gone mad this year, and you can bet deals from hell are being done out there so get out your calculator and show the salespeople some silly figures. They just might show interest. Ranger and Hilux are the discount faves, but opt for the Ford as its better all round. Of the crossover examples we got to drive this year we liked the humble Forester and also the new Kuga, despite the name connotations.
Pick the 2.0L diesel over the too-small petrol. The diesel is effortless, gets the preferable twin-clutch transmission, and is available from the mid$40k price area. It is dynamically surprising, and also rides in fine fashion.
In the luxury area, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the new turbocharged V6 Panamera 4S, another car that's somewhat aesthetically challenged but steers and goes a dream. Most chose the Range Rover, and for the money the TDV6 is quite some package; it goes hard and is refined but I'd want more dynamic ability than this, and it still feels tubby to me. Besides, for less outlay you can get an XJ which drives infinitely better, and for a bit more a sharp new S-Class which is cutting edge.
Finally, the sector we love to bits, the performance cars. There was just so much on offer this year. Personally I'd pick the Cayman for its exquisite balance, and sublime engineering but for around half the price I'd be sorely tempted by BMW's almost as quick M135i, as mentioned earlier. Buy the F-Type Jag Convertible if you want sexy and symphonic but we'd advise you wait for the hardtop Coupe version, due soon, as it's said to be even more athletic than the Convertible, and will sell for less money.
And finally for those of you like us who also get a kick out of two wheels, the picks of the year's new releases include Kawasaki's ZX-6R, BMW's R 1200 GS, KTM's Duke 690 and 1190 Adventure, and Honda's new LAMS bike, the CB500 (in its trio of guises). If I had to pick one to take home it would be the R 1200 GS. Honed and fettled over 40 years, it's a true all-surfaces machine, has a vibrant torque-laden engine, a teflon transmission and a chassis that just wants to play. It even looks interesting in a mechanically unique way; certainly it's no longer gangly.
All in all, a pretty darn fine year on the new car and bike front. Try to relax and go with the flow when driving this summer. Be mindful and polite to other motorists. Aucklanders, that means you need to practise using your indicators. If it all gets too much being part of a seemingly endless line of traffic, just pull over, take a break, and let the dog out while you wait for the hordes to disappear into the distance. You'll feel so much better for it. Enjoy the break, y'all.