Electric cars dominated February’s news pages. GM unveiled its Europe-bound version of the Volt, the Opel Ampera. A probable milestone in the history of modern motoring, this range-extended electric hatch is capable, GM promises, of 176mpg and under 40g/km, but sales won’t start until the end of 2011.
Honda was making a milestone of its own by producing the cheapest hybrid on sale in the UK, the new Insight. Volkswagen also announced details of its 3.0-litre V6 hybrid system, which will go into production in the new Touareg in 2010.
Things were less rosy for the hybrid car in the US, where falling petrol prices were persuading buyers back into big SUVs and out of petrol-electric vehicles. Evidence of this was also seen in Toyota Prius sales in North America, which had halved during the last quarter of 2008.
The car market as a whole was no better in the UK. With the economic recession threatening numerous car makers, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders attacked the government for not offering enough support to the industry, saying that the UK should introduce a £2000 scrappage scheme such as those already successfully boosting sales in Germany, France and Italy.
Still, Aston Martin seemed unconcerned by the credit crunch or fuel prices and announced details of its 180mph Rapide saloon, a 510bhp V12 Vantage and its drop-top DBS. BMW also revealed the new 5-series GT, a mix of saloon, SUV and coupé.
But the biggest news in February was that we could finally get behind the wheel of the 300bhp Ford Focus RS. The most eagerly awaited hot hatch of the past five years lived up to expectations and Steve Sutcliffe delivered the verdict that the RS “is a freakishly good car at any money. And for £24,995 it’s just rude”.
We weren’t ignoring the hybrid hype, though. We pitted the Insight against its nemesis, the Mk3 Prius, and learnt that Honda’s new hybrid for the masses was less revolutionary than expected. In fact, it lost the fight to the Prius, which was due for replacement just a few months later.
The battle of economies continued in our city car shootout, in which the Toyota iQ took on the Smart Fortwo on the streets of London. Toyota was once again the winner, with the tiny four-seater providing an argument “so strong, so complete and so compelling that not even the cheaper, more charming Smart can counter it”.
The Elfin roadster provided some less mainstream entertainment. We tested it in Australia, its native country, and found it wasn’t as sharp as a Caterham but it went “against the usual rules of pure hardcore, no frills and no comforts. It’s a good car, and it deserves its chance”.
Finally, the stylish but dynamically flawed new Alfa Romeo Mito fought it out with – and ultimately lost to – the Ford Fiesta and Mini Cooper.