The Wheel Deal revisits the good, the bad and the ugly of 2012. Better late than never, right?
Toyota 86 (Hero)
Not too long ago the only time you felt any inkling of excitement behind the wheel of a Toyota was when the throttle pedal on your Prius accidentally stuck open or a dodgy electric window switch caught fire. Fortunately, this all changed when the Japanese conglomerate launched their 86 sports car to the international press in April. Built in partnership with Subaru, this lightweight coupé (1220kg) might not be the quickest thing in a straight line but through corners it is a proper barrel of monkeys, thanks to that classic front-engine, rear-wheel drive layout.
It also displays a high degree of lateral slide when you’re pushing the performance envelope — an attribute that the sideways-obsessed drift generation will certainly appreciate. Hot-hatch enthusiasts won’t get it, but for traditionalists seeking a bubbly champagne driving experience for beer money (the range starts at R298500), the back-to-basics Toyota 86 is one seriously tasty package. In fact, it gets my vote as the car of 2012.
Suzuki Swift Sport (Hero)
I live my life in a weird time warp existence. I like 1980s music, watch old Steve McQueen movies and sometimes wear, proudly I might add, a vintage Seiko digital watch that dates back to 1977. I’m an unashamed lover of the old school. Which probably explains why I dig the Suzuki Swift Sport so much.
Even though it is a new car designed for the modern era, the Suzuki engineers cut it from the same cloth that made the first generation of hot hatchbacks so good. Slap it under the microscope and you will find no twin-scroll turbochargers or electronic limited-slip differentials. Instead, you get a cracking chassis, feelsome steering and a 100kW, normally aspirated 1.6-litre engine that wants nothing more than to rev the day away. It is a simple recipe but one that delivers no shortage of thrills. Sweetening the deal is a generously appointed interior, excellent driving position and an almost giveaway price of R216900. So go get one. In yellow. You won’t be disappointed.
Porsche Boxster (Hero)
The last Porsche Boxster was already a formidable piece of machinery. In fact, while en route to the media launch in Saint Tropez, France, I wondered if the new third-generation model (codenamed 981) could really be any better. Well, I quickly found out, while retracing a stage of the Monte Carlo rally, that it was. For not only does the latest Boxster cast a meaner silhouette (it borrows styling cues from the radical 918 supercar), it drives better too. Tighter handling. A superior ride. Soulful flat-six engines (2.7- or 3.4-litre) that produce more power yet drink less fuel and produce less CO2. Drive one in anger and you will discover that there is no better roadster on the market for the money. Until the all-new Cayman lands here in 2013, there isn’t a better Porsche.
BMW 3 Series (Hero)
I did, believe it or not, drive a few “sensible” sedans last year. And the one that impressed me most was the sixth-generation BMW 3 Series. Particularly because of its aggressive new styling cues. The previous model, excluding the brutal M3 of course, always looked a bit dull. But this one, even in entry-level 320i specification, has the power to stand out from its equivalent Mercedes-Benz and Audi rivals. This class-leading image is backed up by an excellent overall driving experience, courtesy of a lighter and more rigid chassis plus a portfolio of powerful four-cylinder turbocharged engines.
McLaren MP4-12C (Hero)
Most mortals get invited to lap the Top Gear test track in a Kia Cee’d. So it was somewhat flattering when McLaren Automotive rung up and asked if I’d like to get a feel for Dunsfold Aerodrome behind the wheel of their new MP4-12C. Sure, there might be more visually inspiring supercars out there, but in terms of raw performance I’m not sure anything will knock the McLaren from the top of the podium in a very long time. From that kick-you-in-the-solar-plexus acceleration to the subliminal handling achieved through the liberal use of much F1-derived technology, you really have to drive this McLaren to experience just how awesome it is. Without a doubt the fastest production car I’ve ever strapped myself into.
Audi A1 Sportback (Villain)
I like the Audi A1. I think it is a nice alternative to the MINI Cooper. Especially when you throw in a few of those exorbitantly priced accessories and sex-up the exterior to suit your personal tastes. In Sportback specification, however, it is absolutely pointless. In fact, it’s right up there with the concrete lifejacket. Sure you get two rear doors, but when you consider how little legroom there is in the back of the A1 to start with, they seem like a bit of a sick joke. If you want practicality, get the A3 equivalent. There’s not much separating them in terms of greenbacks, anyway.
MINI Cooper Roadster (Villain)
Unlike some of my contemporaries, I really enjoyed driving the MINI Cooper Coupé what with its quirky roof and pop-up rear boot spoiler. It handled better than the regular hatchback version, which is high praise indeed. It was different too — you don’t see one parked on every street corner. Unfortunately, when it came to its cloth-topped sister, the Cooper Roadster, I couldn’t wait to hand the keys back. Why? Well, on our diabolical SA roads, this topless two-seater displayed some of the worst scuttle shake I’ve ever experienced inside a modern convertible. Exacerbated by a spine-crushing ride, this really is a MINI derivative too far. For similar money I’d rather buy the more rewarding Mazda MX-5.
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X (Villain)
Don’t believe the hype: the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X has to be one of the most disappointing performance cars I have driven in a very long time. Simply because in the heat of the moment, it feels no quicker than a Renault Mégane RS — which costs nearly half as much. Despite that enormous rear boot spoiler, it is also devoid of any character/soul whatsoever. That two-litre turbocharged engine sounds less inspiring than my mother’s old electric sewing machine. Sure it handles very well, but not well enough to justify that ridiculous price of R699900. If you bought one, you need to get your head checked.
Abarth 695 Tributo Ferrari (Villain)
The regular Abarth 500 is one of the few cars I would contemplate sticking inside my garage. It looks brilliant and is a whole lot of fun to drive. Best of all, even with the performance-enhancing Esseesse package, it remains reasonably priced. But when it comes to the limited-edition 695 you see here, well, you can’t help but feel that Fiat are taking the piss. Come on guys, how on earth can you justify R550000 for a few Ferrari badges, that noisy quad exhaust system and 14 extra kW? And if that’s not criminal enough, you then mate it to your less than ideal MTA (manual transmission automated) gearbox. Sorry, for that money I could pocket a BMW M135i and still have change for an island holiday.
Bentley EXP 9 F Concept (Villain)
The Geneva International Motor Show is usually awash with some pretty impressive concept cars. I remember seeing the fascinating Bertone Pandion a few years ago and being blown away by the hundreds of crystal-like blades that formed part of its front and rear aprons. Unfortunately, every now and again you get a manufacturer who drops an ugly bomb of headline-baiting proportion. And in 2012 this honour went to Bentley and their hideous EXP 9 F Concept. The epitome of poor taste, this unnecessarily baroque SUV is what Crewe’s Porsche Cayenne rival might look like when it goes into production during 2015. There are internet rumours of a redesign, but even then I doubt that the changes will be sufficient to stop W.O Bentley turning in his grave. The EXP 9 F Concept remains the physical embodiment of everything that is wrong with modern car design.