Currently reading: Autocar Secret Santa: testers pick each other's star cars
Our team's annual festive lunch/car of the year shootout returns with a twist: this year, it’s all about the giving

What is Christmas really for? Common answers include spending time with the family, spreading festive cheer and an excuse to get tipsy. But it tends to be children who have the best idea of the season’s true significance, as well as the honesty to express it loudly, often and in list form: it’s all about the presents.

Which is why this year’s running of the long-established Autocar road testers’ Christmas dinner has been given a twist. The basics remain as before: an excuse for the extended road testing team to assemble some of our favourite cars of the year, drive them back to back and then discuss their merits (while giving the junior testers a proper feed to break the monotony of motorway catering).

In previous years, attendees have brought cars of their own choosing, but for 2021 we’ve gone all Secret Santa: everyone has to bring a car for somebody else. It’s a change that brings the risk somebody is going to end up with the automotive equivalent of a pair of reindeer socks. 

Our rendezvous is the Five Bells pub in Wickham, near Hungerford. This was chosen by Venndiagram: the overlap between a thatched roof for the photos, a stonking TripAdvisor rating for the grub and easy access to some of West Berkshire’s finest testing roads, which snake through the nearby scenery.

We’ve certainly brought a varied pack of cars here. Matching the spirit of the age, three are EVs: a Porsche Taycan 4S, a Ford Mustang Mach-E GT and a Hyundai Ioniq 5. At the other end of the evolutionary scale, two still sport a manual gearbox: a Ford Focus ST Edition and a Dacia Sandero. An Alpina B8 Gran Coupé in look-at-me metallic purple is more exotic, while a Volvo V90 Cross Country is practically invisible. Plus there’s the car that even before we start is already being hailed as the winner: the Kingsley ULEZ Reborn Range Rover Classic in which Matt Saunders is somehow planning to justify arriving.

The plan is simple. First, the gift-giving ceremony of swapped keys, then a proper blast over some of the local downland byways and finally a return to the pub for lunch and a discussion about how kind we feel Santa has been to us.

Volvo V90 Cross Country

94 Road testers christmas lunch 2021 volvo

Brought by Vicky Parrott for Matt Saunders

The grey Volvo estate blends in so well to the Five Bells car park that it takes a while to work out it’s one of Autocar’s guests. Parrott admits the new-for-2021 selection criteria has been stretched slightly by including it here, although this model does have the updated Google-based sat-nav.

“I chose it because everyone thinks they want a Caterham or a GT3,” she says. “But when you have two kids and live in the countryside, like Matt does, what you actually want is a Volvo V90 Cross Country. It’s the ultimate dad car and one of the best estates in the world. This one even has the power-operated tow hook.”

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Saunders returns from driving it looking about as relaxed as a man can while not horizontal. He’s a confirmed Volvo fan, having run several as long-termers, and reckons Parrott has nominated a particularly fine example of the genre.

“I definitely have a Volvo-shaped hole in my life,” he admits. “Recently it has been filled very nicely by an Volvo XC60, but I would definitely live with that V90.”

Yet this model is definitely closer to Volvo’s past than its future, having both the diesel engine and the supremely comfortable leather seats that the company will soon phase out. We will miss cars like this when they’re gone.

Ford Mustang Mach-E GT

69 Road testers christmas lunch 2021 vp driving mustang

Brought by Steve Cropley for Vicky Parrott

While Cropley put more thought into his gift than most, he was also stymied in his first choice: the Alpine A110 GT Légende that he knew Parrott would love. “I’ve seen her burst into tears on video when talking about A110s,” he says.

Finding Alpine’s press car already booked, Cropley devised a fine plan B in the form of the brawnier Mustang Mach-E GT. “I know she loves EVs,” he says. “It seemed to fit the bill perfectly: quick, practical and good at the family stuff.”

After driving it, Parrott was in broad agreement: “I think this is one of the better new EVs. It’s a kind of ‘everything’ car. It’s fun and fast and it looks cool. The ride is a bit much, though. And in electric cars, I like having steering wheel paddles to adjust the level of regeneration, and the Mach-E doesn’t have that.”

The wider judging panel had further dissent for the unsettled ride and not-quite steering. “Drive it back to back with the Porsche Taycan and you definitely see where the extra money goes,” is James Disdale’s uncontested summary.

Ford Focus ST Edition

95 Road testers christmas lunch 2021 ford duo

Brought by Richard Lane for Illya Verpraet

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Lane’s choice for Verpraet was based on limited knowledge. “Illya hasn’t been here for long,” he says, “but I did some sleuthing and worked out a couple of things. First of all, he’s a tall lad, and second, he likes an interesting engine. So I thought the 2.3-litre engine in the Focus ST would appeal, and this is the Edition model, so it has adjustable dampers if he fancies a bit of tinkering.”

Verpraet managed to resist the urge to get busy with the spanners to optimise the ST’s suspension for the B4494, but although he appreciated both sentiment and car, it turned out it wasn’t particularly suited to his tastes.

“It’s not what I would have brought,” he admits, “but I do like a usable performance car that you can get enjoyment out of without going too mad. I like that it has a manual – it’s depressing how few are left – and it takes these roads really well. But the steering feels slightly strange, almost like there’s some elastic in it.”

Hyundai Ioniq 5

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Brought by Illya Verpraet for Steve Cropley

New road tester Verpraet admits feeling a dose of nerves when he drew Cropley’s name from Santa’s hat. Our editor-in-chief’s testing experience is at least as great as that of any other two members of the team combined, so the gift would need to be well chosen. The rational chap he is, Verpraet turned to statistical analysis: “I looked at what Cropley had brought in the past three years and saw a real logic there: electric cars that are pivotal to the brand and move the game on somehow.”

The Ioniq 5 definitely qualifies on those criteria. “I think it was a great choice – a car I might have brought myself,” says Cropley. “It looks amazing and I think the Koreans do a great job with EVs. I really like the way it copes with the pockmarked roads around here as well, although I wish there were some way to easily turn off the lane-departure warning.”

Oh, and in an ironic twist, it turns out that Verpraet had the Alpine that Cropley had wanted to bring for Parrott parked at home for another story. That’s the risk of not telling each other what we’re bringing...

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Dacia Sandero

75 Road testers christmas lunch 2021 dacia side pan

Brought by James Disdale for Mike Duff

As soon as I spied the Sandero in the pub car park, I had an inkling that I was going to be the lucky recipient. So it proved to be. Disdale’s rationale for choosing it was well considered, only based on a deep misunderstanding of how glamorous my life is.

“You’re always travelling the world driving supercars, so I thought I would bring you a reality check,” he tells me. “What do you give the man who has everything? I went for something completely different.”

While it’s true that the average horsepower of the cars I’ve reviewed for Autocar this year is slightly north of 400, I also spend a fair bit of time in the cheapest possible hire cars, which has already given me an appreciation of Dacia’s charms. 

Progress is leisurely compared with anything else here, but the Sandero feels impressively plush in mid-ranking Comfort trim: details like wireless Android Auto are well ahead of the connectivity offered by many premium brands. I would love to find one parked under my tree.

Alpina B8 Gran Coupe

97 Road testers christmas lunch 2021 alpina dacia

Brought by Mike Duff for Richard Lane

If you know Lane, you know he loves an Alpina, but I didn’t want to be too obvious and bring one of the ones on which he has already heaped copious praise this year. The B8 Gran Coupé was selected as a gentle reminder that Buchloe does in fact offer other options for those looking for a more cerebral take on a mega-fast BMW.

“If it didn’t have its engine in the middle or the back, it had to be an Alpina,” says Lane, “and this is a really good implementation of their classic recipe: huge performance and incredibly easy to live with. It’s a real iron fist in a velvet glove.”

Yet it’s not quite the bullseye hit that I had hoped it would be. “It’s still not my autobahn panzer of choice,” announces Lane. "That's still the B5 Touring."

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Porsche Taycan

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Brought by Matt Prior for James Disdale

While the absence of any 911 was a surprise – many of us second-guessed each other on what seemed to be the shoo-in of a GT3 – there was precisely zero shock to find the Taycan 4S here. It needed no more justification than a five-star road test score, and Prior’s rationale was concise.

“Disdale likes cars and likes driving, so I got him a Porsche, and he’s got a family and lives in a village, so I got him a family-sized one,” he says. “And he reads The Guardian, so I got him an electric one.”

It was predictably well received, and much of our conversation over lunch was spent singing its praises. “It drives like a Porsche but it’s an EV,” says Disdale. “It’s got all the Porsche directness and control but it’s soft and comfy too. And naffing fast.”

Kingsley ULEZ Reborn Range Rover Classic

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Brought by Matt Saunders for Matt Prior

This stretches the eligibility criteria to near breaking point yet caused no complaint from anyone. Oxfordshire-based Kingsley has been doing high-end restorations on classic Range Rovers for years and shipping them to all corners of the globe, but the arrival of London’s ULEZ led to the creation of a car that has maintained enough of its original structure to qualify as a charge-free classic.

Okay, with a 4.6-litre V8 and no catalysts, it’s hardly an eco warrior, and £125,000 is a lot to spend to save £12.50 a day. “I know that Matt’s thinking of replacing his original Land Rover Defender with something ULEZ-compliant and thought this would be perfect,” says the other Matt. “And I wanted to have a go in it, of course.”

No argument there: the Kingsley’s spectacular presence and wuffling soundtrack had us fighting for the keys and a chance to experience the charming (but definitely not modern) driving experience. Its recipient was predictably happy.

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“Yep, I won,” says Prior. “I like low-volume stuff, I like V8s and I like a good restomod. I can understand how Matt would think it would suit me down to the ground, and it does – even the way it smells of old cigars.”

73 Road testers christmas lunch 2021 kingsley cornering rear

Our own choices: the cars we would have picked and why

VIcky parrott: “An Alpine A110 GT Légende – even if I had to steal it from Illya’s drive.”

Would have brought alpine

Steve Cropley: “I’d have brought the Porsche Taycan, plainly the best car in its class.”

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Would have brought taycan

Illya Verpraet: “I would have loved a go in the Lotus Elise Final Edition.”

Would have brought lotus

Richard Lane: “A Porsche 911 GT3 Touring with the manual gearbox.”

Would have brought 911

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Mike Duff: “A base Land Rover Defender 90 P300 with cloth seats and steel wheels.”

Would have brought defender

James Disdale: “Probably the Caterham 170R – that was a definite highlight for me.”

Would have brought caterham

Matt Prior: “That Morgan Plus Four CX-T rally car.”

Would have brought morgan

Matt Saunders: “BMW M5 CS – that was a star.”

Would have brought bmw m5

Mike Duff

Mike Duff
Title: Contributing editor

Mike has been writing about cars for more than 25 years, having defected from radio journalism to follow his passion. He has been a contributor to Autocar since 2004, and is a former editor of the Autocar website. 

Mike joined Autocar full-time in 2007, first as features editor before taking the reins at Being in charge of the video strategy at the time saw him create our long running “will it drift?” series. For which he apologies.

He specialises in adventurous drive stories, many in unlikely places. He once drove to Serbia to visit the Zastava factory, took a £1500 Mercedes W124 E-Class to Berlin to meet some of its taxi siblings and did Scotland’s North Coast 500 in a Porsche Boxster during a winter storm. He also seems to be a hypercar magnet, having driven such exotics as the Koenigsegg One:1, Lamborghini SCV12, Lotus Evija and Pagani Huayra R.

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289 24 December 2021

Easy choice amongst this insipid lot....Kingsley Range Rover by a country mile.

If that makes me a dinosaur, or a defiler of the planet - I dont care. I am not about to modify my behaviour so that the rich and the elite can fly in private jets, Rockets to the edge of space and cruise Superyachts around the globe!

Scotbybarron 24 December 2021
“ Rorty five-pot is standard for the ST; Edition spec brings adjustable dampers”.

I thought the ST Edition had the same 2.3 four-pot as the standard ST.

On going problem with Autocar journalism these days. I cancelled my subscription recently and really don’t regret it.

Richard Lane 24 December 2021

My mistake – in the lunchtime chat I described it as a 2.5, which is probably why the subs had it down as a five-pot in the caption. Sorry to hear you've cancelled your subscription.