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
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.”