As we wind down from one of the busiest motoring years we can remember, it’s time for us to hand out its annual best-of-the-best awards.
New vehicle sales in South Africa continued rising during the year as eager buyers snapped up the barrage of new cars, bakkies and SUVs flowing into the market, and in road-testing these newcomers our team of journalists has been kept busier than wig sellers at a Lady Gaga concert.
There were plenty of new cars that revved our engines this year, which caused some consternation when it came to whittling down the finalists and picking our favourites - both for our overall award and category winners. But after considering the dozens of contenders we’ve driven this year, and much heated office debate, we have our winners.
AND THE WINNER IS...
Without further ado, our trophy for overall 2012 car of the year goes to the BMW 3 Series, which was launched here in March in an all-turbocharged range of petrol and diesel models, and more recently a petrol-electric hybrid.
Our choice seems to go somewhat against the grain, given that our previous winners have been relative niche sellers, with the Range Rover Evoque our car of the year in 2011, preceded by the Jaguar XJ (2010), Nissan GT-R (2009), and Honda Accord (2008).
However, sales success, or lack thereof, has never guided our voting and it’s always been about engineering excellence, driver appeal and value for money. All these factors apply to the BMW 3 Series (internally dubbed the F30), and the fact that it happens to be a good seller is the cherry on top.
There’s no denying how good a car the sixth-generation 3 Series is, and the latest incarnation of Bavaria’s over-achieving sedan has raised the bar another notch in the way it marries sophistication with practicality and driver appeal.
IN TOUCH WITH BOTH ITS NERD AND JOCK SIDES
The rear-wheel drive car, which is up to 45kg lighter than its predecessor but 50 percent more torsionally rigid, has improved ride quality and its refinement is now at near 5 Series levels. But place the car in a high-adrenalin situation and the famed “sheer driving pleasure” is still there.
You can choose the car’s driving personality at the press of a button. All versions of the new Three come standard with a Driving Experience Control which gives you one of four settings - from ultra economy to ultra sport - which changes the responses of the steering, throttle, automatic gearshift and dynamic stability control.
In touch with both its nerd and jock sides, the 3 Series is captain of the school rugby team and president of the chess club.
BEST SMALLl/BUDGET CAR: Kia Rio sedan
There’s a lot going on with Kia’s Rio sedan, the least of which happens to be its eye-catching styling. It's not often that the sedan equivalent of a hatch looks better, but in this case the Koreans got it right - it’s got a spicy look that should atrract younger buyers.
The 1.2 and 1.4-litre engines aren’t all that exciting, but the latter does get a six-speed manual ‘box that moves with nice slickness. The suspension is a winner, happy to carry a bit of speed through sharper corners, while the steering (which we’ve criticised in other Korean products), is better weighted for feel and self-centres properly.
The cabin has plenty of head and leg room, and the boot is well-sized too. Finishes and build quality are German-rivalling, while standard comfort and safety spec is generous for the price.
BEST COMPACT/MIDSIZE CAR: Hyundai i30
This hatch has a classy, grown-up feel that should forever dispel myths about Korean cars being inferior to their German rivals.
Spacious, sophisticated and well-specced, the i30 sells at a competitive price and comes with an industry-leading five-year or 150 000km warranty. While the non-turbo engines could perhaps do with a bit more oomph, the surefooted handling and comfy ride are impressive.
BEST DESIGN: BMW 6 series Gran Coupé
It looks closer to a concept than to something actually in production and, even though at first glance you may think it’s simply a BMW 6 Series with four doors, look more closely and there’s a lot more going on.
Simply put, it’s a stunner, and is a bold move for BMW who recently seem to have taken the safer, evolution-versus-revolution approach with car design.
It reminds us that there still is some design flair in Munich’s studio. This four-door coupé commands respect with its exotic body lines, menacing stance and flared rear fenders.
BEST PERFORMANCE CAR: Porsche 911
According to the Chinese zodiac, 2012 was the Year of the Dragon - which could explain why so many fire-breathing performance cars have rolled through our doors in the past twelve months. And many of them were brilliant machines too, but one stood out more than any other.
This entirely new 911, codenamed 991, stays true to its rear-engined and similarly-profiled ancestry with a design that’s unmistakably Porsche-flavoured, but this time just that much sweeter.
We loved the way it performs double-duty as a kickass sports car and a reasonable daily commuter rolled up into one.
A hero over a quarter mile and a twisty road, the car can transition seamlessly into a supple cruiser when the adrenaline knob is turned down.
This is as near to performance-car perfection as we’ve experienced, which leaves us wondering what upcoming GT and Turbo models will taste like. Delicious we’re sure.
BEST ADVENTURE VEHICLE: Mercedes M-Class
Being an offroad Mercedes, the new ML needs to do certain things well. It needs to be luxurious, well-built, and capable when the going gets tough.
Thankfully Mercedes has tackled all of the above criteria with this all-new iteration.
We were impressed with new ML’s noise, vibration and harshness levels, as well as its standard features list that, besides the usual creature comforts, includes permanent all-wheel drive, an offroad driving mode and hill descent control.
Add an optional On&Offroad package that offers six driving modes to suit varying terrain, along with low range, an inter-axle differential lock, and the ability to raise the maximum ground clearance to 285mm, and the ML will take you almost anywhere in style.
The flagship 63 AMG version wields 386kW and 700Nm from its 5.5-litre biturbo V8. What’s not to like about that? - Star Motoring