Johannesburg - At Drive360, we’re fortunate to test almost every single new model that’s launched in South Africa. This year, we’ve driven more than 60 new vehicles, across all sorts of segments - from entry-level hatches to ultra-high performance sports cars.
Our aim is to bring you the best insights on whether any particular model is worth its asking price.
In the course of test driving the new vehicles that were launched in SA this year, we have grown to love (and loathe) a number of models. This year, we’ve decided to select five winning models, cars and SUVs that not only ignite the senses, but also serve a particular niche for car-loving South Africa. But, before we get to the top five, this week we’re bringing you our shortlist of 15 candidates are seriously worth their asking price. Here are our top three vehicles in five categories, in alphabetical order:
BEST COMPACT VEHICLE
Ford’s Figo was recently given a mid-life refresh that brought with it some subtle styling tweaks, including redesigned front and rear bumpers, and a brand new 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol engine.
Though naturally aspirated the new three-pot motor makes a very decent 88kW and 150Nm, and performance - along with the overall driving experience - is in our opinion the most spirited that you’ll get in this class.
The cabin, meanwhile offers good accommodation for front and rear occupants, but it does fall behind the Volkswagen Polo Vivo when it comes to overall interior design and ambience. The Figo is a good, solid and fun choice nonetheless.
Best small car in SA? May as well be. Priced to suit the pocket and packed with lightweight ambition, the new Swift is level-up from its predecessor, which can be felt in the way it accelerates, turns and stops.
The 1.2-litre naturally-aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine fitted to the Swift is happy when revved and it’s happy when cruising. High-spec GLX models are the ones to have, although there’s nothing wrong with entry-level GA (as long as you add a set of alloy-wheels).
If you’re just starting out in a career, the Swift will be a good choice thanks to its solid engineering, standard five-year warranty (with 200 000km of coverage) and its no frills nature. When it comes to compact hatches that are exciting, yet honest and affordable, the new Swift is a tough car to avoid considering in a shortlist.
Volkswagen Polo Vivo
A firm favourite amongst South African motorists, the Polo Vivo is by far one of the best buys you can make when it comes to affordable mobility.
Built on a solid platform, tried-and-tested as the Polo and Audi A1 for many years, the new Polo Vivo is comfy inside and smart on the outside. You can go for naturally-aspirated 1.4 petrol models or the range-topping GT turbo model, and you’ll rest soundly knowing your car will have a solid resale value and good dealer support thanks to one of the biggest networks of dealers in SA. Many will argue that insuring a Vivo puts it out of reach of many young buyers, and that it’s a theft risk, but you can’t fault it for being a well built vehicle.
Compared to some of the new models in the B-segment, the Vivo does have many competitors, but none of them have been able to convince more than 3000 new owners each month. If you buy a Vivo, you’ll also be supporting the local economy, as it’s built in the Eastern Cape.
If you’re looking for your first new car, the Vivo is worth a look, as it will serve as a decent jammy for a years before you get the itch to upgrade to something else (either to accomodate a family or to satifsy your petrolhead cravings).
BEST FAMILY VEHICLE
The latest Mercedes-Benz A-Class has taken a good few steps up the sophistication ladder and though the exterior styling takes the evolutionary approach, it’s a whole new ballgame inside.
A standout feature is the ‘free floating’ wide-screen cabin design that does away with the traditional instrument cowl and houses the MBUX system, with ‘artificial intelligence’ algorithms that claim to adapt to driver preferences
There’s also an advanced new voice control system with natural speech recognition, and which responds to the code phrase “Hey Mercedes”.
Engine choices for now include a 120kW 1.3-litre turbopetrol in the A200, and a 165kW 2-litre unit in the A200, both linked up to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
The all-new Renault Duster was first shown in South Africa at the Festival of Motoring in Johannesburg, where it stunned both media and consumers with its new, slick styling. Since then, we’ve had the opportunity to test drive the vehicle at its national launch as well as over a week-long test cycle.
The cabin is still utilitarian, but it is a marked improvement and doesn’t look as plastic laden as its predecessor. You get a big, 478 litre boot, lots of space for the money, and it undercuts many C-segment SUVs in price, without compromising in size.
New features, such as key-less entry and climate control with digital controls, multi-view camera and blind spot detection are available.
The 1.5 diesel feels strong, but the EDC dual-clutch gearbox is not all that smooth for in-town driving. Nevertheless, handling is neat and the ride comfortable. You also get a decent four-wheel-drive system with lock mode and 210mm ground clearance. Prices range between R250 000 to R334 000, which is great value considering the cost of similar vehicles.
It received the European Car of the Year title upon its release, and since driving a T3 R-Design model (with a manual gearbox) for a while this year, we can understand the allure of the new Volvo XC40 compact SUV.
Sporty, fresh (and quirky), and with enough space for young families, the smallest of Volvo’s sports utility vehicles kicks-butt with a range of models to choose from, including the three-cylinder turbopetrol T3 mentioned earlier right up to 2.0-litre turbopetrol high-performance four-cylinder (T5) models. R-Design units are the best in terms of looks inside and out, while the T3 remains the one to go for in terms of price versus performance.
The ‘small’ engine revs cleanly and when cruising on the highway it sips very little unleaded compared to a similar VW Tiguan or Hyundai Tucson.It can be argued that the XC40 is expensive, but then you have to take into account the levels of engineering that you’re paying for, and the pedigree of Volvo safety. You could consider an XC40 as a solid replacement for your ageing SUV or premium sedan.
Decent maintenance plans make it a sound option for a few years of mobility.
With the all-new Lexus ES, Lexus is taking a more ambitious and daring approach to the luxury sedan market - well just look at it.
Yet apart from the edgier L-Finesse design, this iteration also shifts onto Toyota’s latest global architecture, and as a result it’s quieter, safer and more practical than ever before - the ES is 65mm longer, 45mm wider and 5mm lower than before.
This Lexus is a proper cruise liner and it’s specced to reflect that, but it does fall a bit short of dynamic on the performance front, with the only powertrain choices being a normally aspirated ES250 with 152kW on offer and a slightly perkier hybridised ES300h that makes 160kW.
One of the world’s most advanced cars became even more advanced this year with a mid-life makeover that brought fresh styling, engines and tech.
Among the new novelties is the Energizing Comfort system, which links various onboard comfort systems, such as climate, lighting, massage and ‘fragrancing’, into easily configurable ‘wellness set-ups’.
But the new S is not just a Spa on wheels, it’s a tech hub too, complete with an augmented reality info app, the latest semi-autonomous driving functions and an optional Concierge Service.
You can also order it with the company’s new straight-six engine, which makes 270kW in the S450 model, while the S560 V8 (345kW) replaces the previous S500, and there’s a new S400d diesel.
Not your grandpa’s Passat. The Volkswagen Arteon is an excellent alternative to the popular BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4.
It’s built on the VW Group’s tried-and-tested MQB platform, stretched compared to a Golf, for more rear legroom. Sure, space at the back is compromised by its sloping roof, but it’s worth the trade-off in terms of style. Packed with safety features including seven airbags, stability control and all-wheel-drive, the pick of the Arteon range is the 2.0 TFSI-powered derivative (standard in R-Line guise).
There’s a 2.0-litre turbodiesel model too, if you prefer burning oil, but for sheer thrills and hot-hatch rivalling performance between traffic lights, the petrol-powered Arteon is a no-brainer for small families (where petrolhead moms or dads do most of the driving). If you’ve been driving one of the German-premium competitors mentioned earlier, the Arteon could make for an ideal replacement.
BEST ADVENTURE VEHICLE
This big-daddy SUV is one of the best-driving vehicles on sale in SA. Yes, it’s large and it’s a tad expensive if you consider the Turbo model at around R2.5 million, but then again, the Turbo is faster than most 911s.
At the other end of the spectrum, the bog-standard Cayenne with single-turbo 3.0-litre V6 engine is the pick of the bunch. Unlike its naturally-aspirated predecessor, the new entry-level Cayenne is quick off the mark and it actually has some grunt worthy of the prancing Stuttgart stallion on its bonnet. The Cayenne S, with its 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6 is even more fantastic; priced to sell and built to customise to your heart’s content.
You won’t go wrong in the premium SUV game when you choose a Cayenne because you’ll get personalised service the assurance of a good trade-in if you want to upgrade to a Panamera GTS in future (no pressure). Dare we say it, the new Cayenne might be the best adventure vehicle on sale in SA, because you can take it off-road or to a race track and you’ll enjoy it equally.
Ah, the Jimster. We have been fortunate enough to put the Jimny through its paces at its local launch in Mpumalanga recently, both in the dirt and on the tarmac.
Amidst horrid weather conditions, its character and intent shone through as it gobbled up dirt trails with ease, despite riding on road-biased rubber. With proper of-road tyres on the vehicle, we’re certain it will be an even more capable off-roader (and at a steal of a price, compared to other vehicles with its sort of talents).
On road, the manners of teh Jimny will take some time to get used to, and if you plan on making long distance trips, best prepare to get used to its 1.5-litre naturally aspirated petrol engine’s (rev-happy) nature due to short gearing. Like the 20 year old model it replaces, the new Jimny is made for the city, but it’s most happy in the rough stuff.
Consider this the ultimate adventure vehicle for you and your partner. Take roads less travelled; be amazed at how such a diminutive vehicle is able to perform with ease. The high-spec GLX version is the one to go for, but if you do buy one, be sure to get an extra set of steel wheels for proper dirt tyres.
Two Volvo’s? That’s right, the XC60 is this year’s World Car of the Year and we think it’s a solid choice for that coveted title. Laced with tech and powered by frugal and powerful engines, the XC60 finds itself in one of the most competitive SUV segments in South Africa, battling it out for sales against solid competitors such as the Audi Q5 and BMW X3.
But, while the Audi and the BMW are great choices, they are a little too ‘common’ for lack of a better word. The XC60, depending on the model, can even drive itself (semi-autonomously) and will even come to a standstill if it detects that a driver is non-responsive at the steering wheel. Inside, the XC60 is finished in premium materials as standard, and while you can add options, there’s nothing wrong with standard models.
If you’re looking for a good alternative to your D-segment sedan, or if you’re simply tired of driving double cab bakkies (which are getting more and more expensive each quarter), the XC60 could make for a refreshing mobility choice; one that delivers on performance, economy, and safety promises without breaking the bank in terms of cost. Go for a T4 model.
BEST PERFORMANCE VEHICLE
Audi’s latest RS5 takes a slightly more civilised approach than its tar-shredding M4 and C63 rivals, but it’s still insanely fast and uber capable through the bends.
Muscle comes in the form of a brand new 2.8-litre V6 twin-turbo, good for 331kW, 600Nm and a 3.9-second zero to 100km/* sprint at sea level, with power put down through a quattro system that can put 85 percent of the power to the back wheels.
It’s still a civilised daily with the Audi Drive select in the right mode, and you can still get all the coolest cabin trappings, including honeycomb stitched RS sports seats, digital instruments and the latest infotainment.
Purist petrolheads may have been horrified by the latest M5’s switch to all-wheel-drive, but the good news is that it still has a full on RWD hooligan mode for those wanting to let it all hang out. Best of all worlds if you ask us.
Yet in any mode the latest Maniac 5 has the kind of handling prowess that belies its 1855kg kerb weight, while the more powerful (441kW/750Nm) 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8 brings astounding performance to the party. In fact it’s a good second faster from 0-100km/* , which now takes 3.4s.
Inside it plays the luxury part with with gesture controlled infotainment menus, digital climate control screens, various perfume spritzer settings and leather trimmed dash inserts.
Renault Megane RS
The new Renault Megane R.S. range is like none that have come before. For starters, there’s no three-door option any longer and in terms of technology, it’s no longer a big-boost machine that’s ‘hard’ to the nth degree. If you want an R.S. for the daily, you can happily live with a LUX auto model, or if you’re looking for a weekend warrior, there’s the CUP manual to go for. Next year, the hardcore Trophy will make its local debut, for those that prefer their hot hatches honed for track time.
There’s pretty much a Megane R.S. for all occassions it seems, and with 4Control steering (four-wheel steer) and a slightly ‘on edge’ feel to it when really pushing on, it’s a remarkably fun way to mobilise your soul.
While not as grunty as a Honda Civic Type R, the Megane R.S. will thump VW Golf GTIs thanks to a slick launch control system in the auto (twin-clutch) models. Available in an array of colours, packed with safety and performance technologies and priced to sell, the Megane R.S. can’t be overlooked if you have a need for speed.