Autocar’s merry band of road testers has once again convened to discuss the merits of their favourite cars of the year. Can they all agree on a winner?
Steve Cropley Autocar
24 December 2019

Just make sure you’re at the Beckford Arms by 9am, said Saunders, our organiser, not sounding excessively Christmassy. Truth be told, 9am did seem a touch early for something billed as a convivial pub lunch where a group of road-testing mates would embrace the Christmas spirit, especially as said Georgian public house is a good two hours from the office in wildest Wiltshire.

Of course, we knew the real reason for the early start. The one thing about gatherings of drivers and cars – from which words and photographs will be extracted – is that they begin in an early, time-eating frenzy of car arranging and cleaning, followed by an extended bout of camera action and then some more arranging and shooting after that, just to be sure.

Then will come action shots, during which (especially at this time of the year) the cars get covered with road gunge in their first 100 yards, so you’ll have to clean them again. Sure, there will be a nice lunch in the middle of it all, but the surrounding activities will ensure the day doesn’t end until daylight runs out around 4.30pm – and I’ve seen many a photographer (to a person, they’re obsessives) extend winter shoots by illuminating one car with the headlights of another.

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Not that I want to sound less than profoundly enthusiastic about our Christmas junket: this was, after all, a gathering of the finest road-testing talent this side of the equator; a team of enthusiasts driving and gassing as usual about their favourite cars and little else. For a whole day.

Besides road test editor Matt Saunders, who chose to appear in a vast red and black Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, there was Matt Prior in a svelte 600bhp Polestar 1 plug-in hybrid coupé, Andrew Frankel in a magisterial Porsche 911 and James Disdale in a BMW 320d Touring, his version of 2019’s perfect family car. Simon Davis’s choice was a Toyota Supra, almost scary in its extreme yellowness, and Ricky Lane’s McLaren 600LT was the major eye-grabber of the group despite a calm grey-green paint job. Finally, there was me in a white Tesla Model 3 Long Range, a car that has profoundly surprised and impressed me during the year. I looked forward to justifying my choice to the blokes.

This event has become an Autocar Christmas fixture: we each choose a recently launched car that we especially like, ideally to illustrate a personal preference in cars per se, and we take it to a photogenic location, with lunch attached. We drive, eat, talk, snap and finally head homeward, realising as the year ends how greatly we love this job and want to keep doing it next year. Also just how different from one another a clutch of great cars always are. “There are no really bad cars any more” goes the pub litany, and that’s just about true. But this year-end exercise always shows how diversified cars continue to be and how healthy that is for buyers, drivers and the industry that makes them.

Last year, we chose a far-flung location atop coastal cliffs in Devon, not far from the northern edge of Exmoor. This year’s destination, the Beckford Arms near Tisbury, is a pub in which I’ve dined a dozen times with friends who live nearby, never failing to have a good time. When we approached them with our Christmas plans, the proprietors were friendly and obliging, giving us the run of a large apron in front of their imposing building. (There was a large car park at the side for patrons whose routine was likely to be disrupted by our seven-car set-up.) I already knew the cuisine was great and the building had a beautiful bay window enveloping a large luncheon table through which – later – photographer Max Edleston would be able to frame food, people and cars in one image.

If all that wasn’t enough, the Beckford Arms stands at the top of a picturesque avenue running through the beautiful Fonthill estate, flanked at this time of the year by the exotic colours of late autumn trees in echelon. The pub is at one end and a magnificent stone arch stands a mile away at the other. This was our almost-private drive for the day…

Saunders was late, protesting about the traffic as is traditional for people who don’t get up on time. We had the other six cars in their camera positions by the time he arrived around 10, so no time lost. It was the sunniest, bluest, crispest, most perfect day (after a week of unending dankness) so Max was practically in orbit. That’s another thing about photographers: when the weather’s decent, they get excited and start giggling and running about with the excitement of it all. While Max ran, we talked cars…

Polestar 1 - Matt Prior

Our silver-tongued editor-at-large showed up in the coupé flagship for an all-new Swedish-Chinese electric marque, despite the fact that all Polestar 1s were supposed to be in Italy doing their stuff on the European launch. At the outset of our talk, he quoted from his first drive story a few months ago: he has been charmed by the car but also called it “nerdy, weird and expensive”.

A vital point of enjoyment for Prior is that the Polestar 1’s ultra-rigid carbonfibre structure has a passive suspension beneath, featuring highly sophisticated 22-stage Ohlins dampers. “I just like it,” said Prior. “They could have given it air springs and adaptive dampers like everything else in the price range, but instead they thought: let’s tune this to be sporty and have a bit of fun.”

The fact that it’s got 600bhp plus a sophisticated PHEV powertrain featuring advanced torque vectoring – most noticeable when you’re playing in high-speed corners – means it never feels like a Volvo, something that might have been a concern.

“I love the bodystyling,” said Prior. “It’s impressive, but it’s also the kind of car you can take anywhere. The Volvo-inspired cabin shows it can be comfortably stretched to £140,000 and I especially like the wit of the transparent panel over the electrical gubbins in the boot that makes it look like a flux capacitor. It’s great and, above all, it’s cool.”

Porsche 911 - Andrew Frankel

We should have known Frankel would appear in a Porsche 911. He’s a lifelong devotee, a former owner, and has punted more rear-engined Porkers than most of us have driven Vauxhalls. What’s more, he’d freshly witnessed the stellar performance of this very car at our recent Britain’s Best Driver’s Car contest, based on the Anglesey circuit.

But there’s far more to his regard for this car than that. Frankel sees a palpable gap between the capabilities of this 992-series 911 and last year’s 991: “It’s a quiet car, a comfortable car, and everything works so well now. It has a total, leave it outside, get it dirty, use it and abuse it capability, but when you need it to perform, it’s absolutely magical. I just don’t buy what people say about the latest 911 being too big. Sure, it’s bigger than older 911s, but if you relate it to rivals like the Audi R8, it feels compact.

“Originally, I felt slightly affronted by the idea of a turbo for every 911, but the way this car’s engine uses the torque to challenge the chassis, and makes good sense of the gear ratios, means it’s a better car than any predecessor.”

Jeep Wrangler - Matt Saunders

For Saunders, the new Wrangler’s story is mostly about toughness and versatility – he loves cars like that – but it’s also about Jeep’s classy new iteration of a classic model: “The previous edition didn’t move the dial. It didn’t look or feel special, although it did the big thing, which was to keep Wrangler traditions alive.

“This one’s much better executed. You’d never mistake what it is – it’s like the Porsche 911 in that way – but it’s clearly better designed and built. You soon form a decent mind picture of the customer it’ll attract, someone who understands it and may have owned other Wranglers. It’s all about lifestyle: you can imagine towing a caravan to the Lakes with the kids aboard, then ditching the doors and folding the screen, sticking a barbecue in the back and heading to the water. Jeep has been consistent with this model, and now that the Land Rover Defender has moved away from having a frame chassis and ‘proper’ axles, there’s nothing like it.”

The Wrangler isn’t exactly refined, said Saunders, especially with the hardcore Rubicon’s knobbly tyres fitted. “The refinement doesn’t match regular SUV standards,” he said, “but if you have a normal family car and only this for ordinary driving now and again, it’s absolutely fine.”

Toyota Supra - Simon Davis

Very few cars are quite as yellow as the new Toyota Supra that Simon Davis brought to our lunch venue, but it certainly wasn’t the paint job that encouraged him to choose it. It was something more cerebral. “It’s not that I’m a massive fan of the way the Supra drives,” he said, “although it’s pretty good. Mainly, I like what it says about Toyota and the future.

“At a time when performance car projects are being shelved – especially by companies well into hybrids and electrification – this represents a heartening commitment to pure performance cars by Toyota. A rear-drive straight six is a brave model to launch today. More than that, the Supra introduces a new design language, has been deliberately configured to encourage aftermarket tuners and runs alongside a renewed GT86 programme. Toyota clearly means what it says.”

Sure, the Supra looks like a BMW inside, Davis admitted, which has encouraged some critics to label the Supra a BMW in different clothes. But if this is how you sustain great sports cars, said Davis, then we enthusiasts should be happy. It gets agreed around the lunch table that this Toyota is a bit sharper to drive than its BMW Z4 relative – quite a result for the Japanese.

BMW 320D xDrive Touring - James Disdale

Soon after arrival at Beckford in a neat-looking BMW estate, Disdale began to take criticism for being “the guy who’d brought the pool car”. Of our seven choices, his was the cheapest and most common. But that, he robustly argued, didn’t prevent his choice from being both apt and impressive.

“It’s one of those rare cars that strikes you as being all the car you’ll ever need,” he said, citing his own situation as a married man with a young family. “They used to call the Merc S-Class the best car in the world, but given the progress of technology and quality, and taking into account its more sensible size, I’d say that accolade now belongs to the BMW 3 Series.”

Why a 320d? Because it’s torquey, decently quick and sensationally economical. The top-end performance of the pricier 330d that Disdale could have chosen would rarely be utilised. Why an estate? Because it’s as good as a similar-sized SUV without the economy-sapping frontal area. Why an xDrive? Because it often rains in Blighty, and sometimes snows.

In the end, it was Disdale’s sheer enthusiasm for this very available model that sold it to the rest of us. “We all love cars,” he declared, “but mostly we can’t have McLarens. In a 320d, you’ll still want to take the long way home.”

Tesla Model 3 - Steve Cropley

On a first drive earlier this year, I was deeply impressed with the Tesla Model 3, and not just because of the usual electric car stuff – refinement and acceleration. It was a major shock to see how well the company had kicked on from its bigger, less advanced, much more expensive Models S and X to produce a car whose entry level (after £3500 of UK government aid) started at only £38,500 – not far above well-praised Japanese and Korean battery-electric vehicles with less performance and shorter ranges.

Throw in the existence of Long Range (350 miles) and Performance (0-60mph in 3.2 sec) models and you had a simple but comprehensive model line-up. My own mini comparison of a single-motor Model 3 Standard against a Jaguar XE earlier this year showed that the quality and finish of materials were now acceptable. I yearned to drive one of the twin-motor four-wheel-drive Model 3s – and this came to pass on the Beckford run. My 280-mile three-legged trip to Wiltshire from London via Coventry was easy. The Long Range proved that it will do a reliable 300 miles, even in winter.

But there was more to my appreciation of this car than dynamics. I love Tesla’s screen-based info-switchgear layout. The seats are brilliant, the ride is firm but decent and there’s not much intrusion of road noise into the cabin, given the near silence of the powertrain. Six months ago, I’d have been profoundly surprised. Not now.

McLaren 600LT - Richard Lane

Lane is solidly addicted to supercars and rates the 600LT as one of McLaren’s best, especially on engine note grounds. Which is an achievement: “Ferrari and Lamborghini have had many decades of tuning exhausts – they’ve shown it’s an art form – but the 600LT is McLaren’s best yet and the Spider body, with that little roll-down rear window, lets you appreciate it best.”

Engine “music”, said Lane, is starting to match McLaren’s other, more generally agreed areas of excellence: the driving position, visibility, steering and layout of major controls. Other somewhat crustier members of Autocar’s road test fraternity were a shade sceptical of Lane’s emphasis on noise, but everyone concurred the 600LT takes McLaren to a place, dynamically, above more mainstream relatives.

Our table agreed there’s more ‘daylight’ between a 600LT and a 570S (about £40,000 cheaper) than a Ferrari 488 and a rarer, pricier Pista. This, stated Frankel – possessor, arguably, of the loudest voice – is the real argument in favour of the 600LT. If you want a wonderful noise, buy a Lamborghini Huracán, he said. That car emits a noise “so fabulous, you want it played at your funeral”!

Our most eagerly awaited cars in 2020

Volkswagen ID 3 - James Disdale

 A rear-engined VW designed to mobilise the masses as efficiently as possible? We’ve been here before. But there’s every reason to believe this innovative electric hatch could prove just as significant as the Beetle turned out to be. 

Audi RS6 Avant - Simon Davis

Early reports suggest this new RS6 has been injected with some of the much-needed panache and engagement recent Audi Sport models have lacked. That it also looks the bee’s knees, and retains a V8 engine, is encouraging, too. 

Porsche Taycan - Matt Saunders

 The electric car is set to take a huge leap next year. I haven’t driven a Taycan, which should be a pretty memorable occasion – but I wonder if introducing the VW ID 3 to its rivals might be even more important. Watch this space. 

BMW M2 CS - Richard Lane

Come on, this is obvious. The M2 was very good and the M2 Competition sensational, with its muscle-car character and dynamic precision. The lighter CS should be better still, and you’ll even be able to have a manual ’box. Heaven. 

Fiat 500 - Matt Prior

Loads to anticipate in 2020 from a professional and technical standpoint. And where the city car goes next (if anywhere) will be fascinating. And I love small, light, cheap cars. So sign me as excited for the next Fiat 500. 

Land Rover Defender - Steve Cropley

Phew! There are so many. But the serious choice has to be between Aston DBX and Land Rover Defender, two cars whose fortunes are crucial to their makers. Do I really have to choose? Oh, all right, Defender… 

The cars that disappointed us most in 2019

Lamborghini Huracan Evo - James Disdale

 After the sublime Performante, hopes were high for the Evo. Yet what we got was half-baked. The engine is a masterpiece but the chassis feels like the front and rear axles have been developed by different teams who never spoke to each other. 

Toyota Yaris GR Sport - Simon Davis 

What an entirely ill-conceived car: a 98bhp hybrid supermini with effectively the chassis from the excellent Yaris GRMN. So not only does it barely have enough power to get out of its own way, but it’s also a city car with a fiendishly sharp-edged ride. 

BMW Z4 - Matt Saunders 

I didn’t really dislike it but was sad at its lack of ambition. To be honest, a new 3 Series is a better driver’s car than this two-seat convertible and that is absolutely not how it should be. I’ve been waiting for years for stock Z-cars to raise their games. The wait continues. 

Lamborghini Urus - Andrew Frankel

There’s just no hiding the clear sense of loathing of the wider world around you when driving one of these. I was shocked by how fast it was, and how capable on track, but I ended up feeling all the worse about myself for how much less I cared about my impact on those around me. 

Mini John Cooper Works - Matt Prior

Not the worst car I’ve driven but the one that makes the least of its constituent parts. It has all the right ingredients. So why is it hyperactive on turn-in and so unsettled all the time? So uncomfortable yet unfocused? A missed goal. 

BMW 7 Series - Richard Lane

BMW has raised the 7 Series’ game in terms of rolling refinement, cabin opulence and, most of all, the freakish way in which this luxo-barge will take apart roads better suited to hot hatches. But that grille is still unforgivable. Moreover, it’s likely a bellwether for BMW’s design future. 

The cars that surprised us most in 2019

BMW 1 Series - James Disdale

A front-drive 1 Series? Surely, BMW had blown it this time? Yet it works, and brilliantly at that. It’s brimming with driver-centric entertainment, yet with the packaging that finally makes it work as a properly practical family hatchback. 

Aston Martin Vantage Manual - Simon Davis

 Never entirely warmed to the Vantage when I first drove it, but I’m a big fan of the manual. The meaty dog-leg ’box really helps extract an extra level of charm and character from Aston’s baby sports car. 

Toyota Corolla Touring Sports - Matt Saunders

Two surprises here: first, that Toyota’s Focus rival could take such a dynamic leap forward, and second, that it could be offered with a four-pot hybrid powerplant with clear sporting appeal. 

Ferrari Portofino - Andrew Frankel

This is a Ferrari for people only interested in the image they project, not the car they drive. Right? Wrong, it turns out. I was amazed at how improved it is over the California. Bodes well for the new Roma

Alfaholics GTA-R 290 - Matt Prior

I’d read good things about what Alfaholics did to 105-series Alfa coupés but didn’t expect this to be one of the best 10 cars I’ve ever driven. Magical handling and an engine and transmission that are old-school involving. 

Tesla Model 3 - Steve Cropley

Sorry to be one-speed about this. I’d thought of Teslas as rather crude, cumbersome and poorly finished, but the Model 3 – even with basic single engine – has a well-packaged interior, looks great, is sized to suit UK roads and always fun. 

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Comments
8

24 December 2019

Richard Lane's dismissal of the 7 series is somewhat bizarre! He says it's very capable car in pretty much all respects, but then includes it as one of the most disappointing cars only because of its grille, which let's be honest is a fairly minor subjective thing. More to the point, 7's new grille is no bigger than the grilles on its S-Class, A8, XJS, Lexus rivals.

24 December 2019

Please remember, the moaning point provided by BMW in the form of the 7 series' grille probably payed around 70 car journalist's salaries. So it was worth it in the end.

24 December 2019

This is all very subjective stuff but on another day, another group of testers would pick a completely different set of cars - all chosen by a different selection of whims. Much the same thing happens with regular road tests, where editorial pressures encourage the selection of "winners" and "loosers", irrespective of the fact that most cars within a given category are pretty much all the same. (They have to be since all manufacturers benchmark each others products to ensure that when a car is launched it at least matches the competition).

No matter, it's always fun to disscuss the relative percieved merits of each model... 

24 December 2019

Seeing all the Autocar road testers together it strikes me how white, middle aged and male the team is; there is expertise in this set up absolutely, but are there not other voices we want to hear? Where are the women testers? Does the readership, assuming they are not the same demographic, not want to see more representation ?

The choice of cars too, (Tesla excluded), makes me question the relevance to todays requirements; the whole article and set up feels like an indulgence, and while dream cars are technically incredible, where are the affordable choices here? 

Im a little disappointed to say the least 

 

24 December 2019

 My thanks to keeforelli for writing my comment for me.

25 December 2019
keeforelli wrote:

Seeing all the Autocar road testers together it strikes me how white, middle aged and male the team is; there is expertise in this set up absolutely, but are there not other voices we want to hear? Where are the women testers? Does the readership, assuming they are not the same demographic, not want to see more representation ?

The choice of cars too, (Tesla excluded), makes me question the relevance to todays requirements; the whole article and set up feels like an indulgence, and while dream cars are technically incredible, where are the affordable choices here? 

Im a little disappointed to say the least 

 

I am NOT disapointed. As someone who is middle aged, many of the Autocar team are quite a bit younger than me. Their choices are not affordable, because they are free to choose what ever they want. If they had all turned up in city cars it would be a rather poor read.

I enjoy Autocar, but frequently dont agree with what they write. What a dull world it would be if we did all agree. If you dont like it, either put up with it, or go read What car?

25 December 2019
keeforelli wrote:

Seeing all the Autocar road testers together it strikes me how white, middle aged and male the team is; there is expertise in this set up absolutely, but are there not other voices we want to hear? Where are the women testers? Does the readership, assuming they are not the same demographic, not want to see more representation ?

The choice of cars too, (Tesla excluded), makes me question the relevance to todays requirements; the whole article and set up feels like an indulgence, and while dream cars are technically incredible, where are the affordable choices here? 

Im a little disappointed to say the least 

 

Have to disagree, the Tesla you excluded should also be joined by the jeep and the 3 series tourer as non indulgence purchases, yes they're all beyond my means but they aren't over indulgences, neither I would say is the supra or 911 really, the McLaren is but it's his choice of best car of the year. As for the road test team, there appears, to me anyway, to be a reasonable age span between them and I am sure there are more writers on Autocar staff than just this group as you see more names added to reviews of cars in the magazine. This seems an unnecessary criticism of a fun article.

27 December 2019
si73 wrote:
keeforelli wrote:

Seeing all the Autocar road testers together it strikes me how white, middle aged and male the team is; there is expertise in this set up absolutely, but are there not other voices we want to hear? Where are the women testers? Does the readership, assuming they are not the same demographic, not want to see more representation ?

The choice of cars too, (Tesla excluded), makes me question the relevance to todays requirements; the whole article and set up feels like an indulgence, and while dream cars are technically incredible, where are the affordable choices here? 

Im a little disappointed to say the least 

 

Have to disagree, the Tesla you excluded should also be joined by the jeep and the 3 series tourer as non indulgence purchases, yes they're all beyond my means but they aren't over indulgences, neither I would say is the supra or 911 really, the McLaren is but it's his choice of best car of the year. As for the road test team, there appears, to me anyway, to be a reasonable age span between them and I am sure there are more writers on Autocar staff than just this group as you see more names added to reviews of cars in the magazine. This seems an unnecessary criticism of a fun article.

i see what you're saying, it is a fun article, i read it, and understood the point of it, however in these times of representation what a great opportunity it would have been to give some of the less senior staff a chance to share their favourite cars, and maybe have added in some affordable heroes =)

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