Currently reading: Road test yearbook 2021: April to June
Audi A6 e-tron concept revealed, Porsche 911 GT3 driven, 4WD hot hatches at the skidpan and more

The world started to get back to normal in the spring - or at least a new kind of normal, where semiconductors dictated the news agenda. Here's what we got up to.

April

April felt a lot more like business as usual among the pages of Autocar, as the shackles of the nation’s third lockdown slowly loosened. We brought you interviews with key industry executives. We brought you enveloping drive stories, crucial first drive verdicts and comparison tests, too. It was all going on.

Proof that the industry was finally in a more positive mood was to be found in the news section of our 21 April issue, which carried all the key concepts and production car unveilings from the Shanghai motor show. Here was the all-electric Mercedes-Benz EQS zero-emissions limousine in production form with an almost 500-mile claimed range and bold, flowing styling. It looked like the future, too. But here also was Audi’s A6 E-tron concept, which previewed an equally sleek all-electric A6 production saloon car for 2023 with range and power comparable to that of the Merc. 

In the same issue, we broke news of Ferrari’s first EV, set to appear in 2025 (as let slip by Ferrari chairman John Elkann), while the bZ4X concept also showed how the mighty Toyota would enter the all-electric era. Suddenly, big moves were being made and electrification plans made public. The switch to electric power was beginning to be made manifest in product – and plenty of it. Earlier in the month, we revealed details of Aston Martin’s product plan under its new management – the cover story of our first issue of the month. Controlled by Lawrence Stroll and managed by Tobias Moers, the company will start with the Valhalla super-hybrid, due in 2023, which is set to get a new Mercedes-AMG hybrid powertrain delivering close to 1000bhp. Not long after that comes out, we’ll also see all-electric versions of the Vantage super-sports car and the DBX SUV. This famous old British marque aims to have a model range that’s 90% electrified by 2030.

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Editor-in-chief Steve Cropley brought news of another old British car brand looking to an electric future later on in the month when he interviewed Jaguar Land Rover’s new chief creative officer, Gerry McGovern, who had previously been Land Rover’s design boss. Given responsibility for Jaguar design and key input into product strategy only a few months earlier, McGovern described the bold thinking intended to transform Jaguar from a struggling imitator of Germany’s premium car powers into a brand ready to lead design trends once again, and to ditch combustion engines and SUV bodystyles entirely. It would, he added, be ready to embrace electric powertrains and design even more exclusive, desirable and really exuberant cars good enough to tempt “creatively minded, cultured customers” out of their Porsches and Teslas. “In my book,” McGovern told us, “the only thing that needs to be traditional about a Jaguar is the badge.”

Thankfully, April wasn’t all about alternating current. In twin-test action, the Mercedes-AMG GLB 35 hot compact SUV saw off the Volkswagen Tiguan R, and the Bentley Flying Spur made worryingly short work of the brand-new Mercedes S-Class. In one of our round-up features, Richard Dredge revisited some of the weirdest and most memorable steering wheel designs that the car has known (Maserati Boomerang, anyone?). We delivered first drive assessments of the Peugeot 508 PSE and the Porsche 911 GT3. But perhaps most memorable of all was Andrew Frankel’s drive in Bentley’s continuation-series ‘new’ Blower, which he described as having “a thumping great lump of a motor”, and which allowed him to feel just a little bit like some modern-day Bentley Boy.

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Matt Saunders

Moment to remember

Felix Page: Almost as important as a first drive is a last drive – a final chance to get behind the wheel of a pivotal model before it bows out of production.

A springtime preview event for the Goodwood Festival of Speed provided me with two surprise opportunities to sample a pair of cars I thought would be destined to elude me.

The first was the Lotus Elise, forever the dynamic benchmark for affordable sports cars and a long-standing bedroom poster car of mine, so half an hour spent blasting up and down the A286 felt as fulfilling as it was valedictory. 

The second was the Polestar 1, a hyper-rare electrified sports coupé that set the tone for a new range of models from a whole new brand. Suitably perky, intriguingly designed and environmentally minded, it’s a real car of its time, and I’m glad to have tried it while I could.

Moment to forget

Piers Ward: Remember when the BMW i3 came out? What a game-changer that car was (and arguably still is). I was really hoping the VW ID series would be the same, if not quite as bold. VW has a history of taking an existing idea and successfully refining it, and this felt like it could be the same formula. But the ID 4 and ID 5 that were launched in April left me stone cold.

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Quote of the month

“The sole thing that stops you being part of the scenery is the degree to which you exercise your right foot. But the eruption of power is so savage that even if you’re well versed in quick cars, the Noble pulverises your senses” - Simon Hucknall on driving an almost 20-year-old Noble M12 GTO-3.

Road tests

7 April, Suzuki Across 2.5 PHEV E-Four CVT, four and a half stars: “Excellent hybrid powertrain makes it one of the best PHEVs around.” Price as tested £45,849 Power 302bhp Torque N/A 0-60mph 6.4sec 30-70mph 5.8sec Economy 47.9mpg

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14 April, Volkswagen Golf R, four stars: “The most entertaining distillation of the Golf R formula yet – for a price.” Price as tested £44,365 Power 316bhp Torque 310lb ft 0-60mph 4.4sec 30-70mph 3.7sec Economy 31.0mpg

21 April, BMW M4 Competition, four and a half stars: “A very modern M car and a brilliantly versatile and enjoyable one.” Price as tested £87,495 Power 503bhp Torque 479lb ft 0-60mph 3.9sec 30-70mph 2.9sec Economy 20.4mpg

28 April, Dacia Sandero Stepway TCe 90, four stars: “Cut-price crossover is compromised in surprisingly few areas.” Price as tested £14,605 Power 90bhp Torque 118lb ft 0-60mph 11.9sec 30-70mph 11.9sec Economy 45.0mpg

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May

Anticipating the fluctuation of the car market is difficult at the best of times, but no more so than during a global pandemic. May was the tail end of a housebound year and began with industry figureheads aiming to do just that: predict the long-term impacts of a sector working its way back to full strength, having been hit severely by production and supply setbacks. 

Some restrictions remained in place and our road testers were still sandwiched between step two and step three of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown, but their reviews were well and truly back in full swing.

Our road tests inadvertently focused on a host of Stellantis brands, with cars from Peugeot, Citroën and Vauxhall among the stars. The overhauled Vauxhall Mokka was admired for its fresh, eye-catching design but was slightly let down by its driving dynamics. What really impressed our testers was the Mini Cooper S Convertible – still top class as a pure driver’s car, with a punchy powertrain and excellent engineering. 

First drives that took place in May included the impressive Land Rover Defender Hard Top, the ramped-up Volkswagen Golf R Performance and the £156,000 (and very green) Alfa Romeo GTAm – a true five-star car that we lauded as among the very best in class for its invigorating performance and engaging chassis.

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The Alfa wasn’t the only 500bhp-plus fire-breather on these pages in May. The MC20 marked a triumphant return to form for Maserati and the Aston Martin Victor lived up to the expectations fuelled by its £4 million price tag by securing the second five-star verdict of the month.

Hardcore tests weren’t limited to road and track, either, as we pitched four performance hatch models against one another at Thruxton’s skidpan. The Toyota GR Yaris, Ford Focus RS, Mercedes-AMG A45 S 4Matic and Volkswagen Golf R Performance Pack featured.

An interview with Jimmy Broadbent showed that you needn’t go to Thruxton or indeed any other circuit to race. Chief sub-editor Kris Culmer spoke to him about his exploits on track and on screen, after the online sensation gained upwards of 350,000 YouTube subscribers as locked-down petrolheads turned to his sim videos for their fix.

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Elsewhere, Steve Cropley had a busy month in which he waved goodbye to the legendary Ford Mondeo and challenged up-and-coming automotive designers to create a Bond car for 2030 ahead of Daniel Craig’s final outing as 007. Designs ranged from off-roaders to cars with plasma ray guns, but the winner was a flying ‘Polestar’ 007. 

But May wasn’t all about super-sports cars and motorsport-inspired antics. In the final issue of the month, Richard Lane revisited and compared three hypermiling hybrids, as the Toyota Prius faced off against the Honda Insight and the Volkswagen XL1. The impressive Volkswagen managed 313mpg to the Honda’s 83.1mpg and the Toyota’s 57.6mpg, although this had to be offset by a gaping £70,000 difference in price because of the German’s rarity. 

For a bit of a contrast, these economy champions were followed in the same issue by motorsport editor Damien Smith’s interview with Red Bull Racing boss Christian Horner, who spoke about the team’s ventures into powertrains, following Honda’s exit from Formula 1. The perfect note on which to end a month of monster machinery.

Jack Warrick

Moment to remember

Tom Morgan-Freelander: What is it that makes a vRS-badged Skoda so special? A hands-on history lesson in the Welsh mountains revealed all during May, as we compared the latest Octavia with its first-generation forebear – and brought the diesel-powered Fabia vRS along, too. 

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I admit to being (whisper it) underwhelmed by the Fabia, but the Octavia was a delight. Seriously quick in period, the first-gen car is still capable of eyebrow-raising acceleration today, albeit with a degree of subtlety many modern rivals lack. It’s proper Swiss army knife stuff, blending performance and practicality in a way that gave birth to a strong performance lineage.

Moment to forget

Matt Prior: ‘Fiery new Cayenne guns for Urus’, our very headline-y headline said in late May, announcing the imminent arrival of the Cayenne Turbo GT. Does the world seriously need a Porsche GT division-developed 2.2-tonne SUV ‘coupé’ with a 630bhp 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 to take the fight to… er… the same parent company’s different 600bhp-plus 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 SUV ‘coupé’, I wondered. No. Of course not. Although later in the year I did drive it and, I’ll be honest, I rather liked it.

Quote of the month

“The real disruption is still coming. If you believe with electric cars alone we’ve arrived in the future already, you’re wrong. Digitalisation is the key. The car is now a software-driven product” - Ralf Brandsatter, Volkswagen’s CEO, on his firm’s evolution from car maker to software development company.

Road tests

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5 May, Peugeot 508 PSE Hybrid4 SW, four stars: “Hits noble handling highs but feels less than sharp elsewhere.” Price as tested £55,795 Power 355bhp Torque 384lb ft 0-60mph 5.7sec 30-70mph 4.7sec Economy 30.5mpg

12 May, Vauxhall Mokka 1.2T 130, three and a half stars: “The driving experience sells a brave design effort just a little short.” Price as tested £27,750 Power 129bhp Torque 169lb ft 0-60mph 9.3sec 30-70mph 9.1sec Economy 39.9mpg

19 May, Mini Convertible Cooper S Sport, four stars: “The core Mini has still got it – even in convertible form.” Price as tested £35,850 Power 176bhp Torque 207lb ft 0-60mph 6.7sec 30-70mph 5.8sec Economy 39.1mpg

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26 May, Citroën C4 Puretech 130 Shine Plus, three stars: “Has rational and irrational appeal but lacks a fine-tuned execution.” Price as tested £27,200 Power 129bhp Torque 169lb ft 0-60mph 9.5sec 30-70mph 9.2sec Economy 40.9mpg

June

Beyoncé and Jay-Z are no strangers to awards. For example, Beyoncé has won more Grammys than any other female in history, while her hubby holds the record for the most wins by a rap artist. That said, neither of them has ever won one of the most coveted prizes in the automotive industry: an Autocar Award.

Yes, in June, we handed out trophies to the best cars and most inspiring figures in the car world – although because the world is still not normal, we filmed a video at Brooklands instead of holding a big ceremony. We gave the top prize to Hyundai’s visionary boss Euisun Chung and a well-deserved Editor’s Award went to Sir Lewis Hamilton. Such is Autocar’s pull that we managed to secure exclusive interviews with both of them for our bumper awards special issue.

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Anyway, back to Beyoncé and Jay-Z, because while they may not be Autocar Award winners, they have reportedly had an influence on a car that featured on our pages in June: the Rolls-Royce Boat Tail. We were given exclusive access to the one-off coachbuilt wonder, a luxurious grand tourer featuring a built-in picnic set and pop-up parasol. It’s the stuff of ridiculous, extravagant excess, which explains the unofficial price of £20 million. The rumoured buyers? Well, that would be Mr and Mrs, er, Z. We must confess that we can’t offer any more real insight on that. As ever, we were more interested in the car than the people who might be driving it.

Speaking of driving, we had our first taste of several significant new machines in June, including the much-anticipated Ineos Grenadier, which European editor Greg Kable tested in Austria. Although it was an unfinished prototype, it’s already clear that this is far more than a Defender pastiche, combining on-road charm with abundant off-road ability. The finished version should arrive early next year.

While the combustion-engined Grenadier is distinctly retro in ethos, we also had our first taste of the electric BMW i4 (also in prototype form), drove the latest, tech-laden Mercedes-Benz C-Class and tried the crucial new Vauxhall Astra.

We had first glimpses of cars set to become significant in the future, too, including the amazing 819bhp Ferrari 296 GTB hybrid, and delved into Alfa Romeo’s plans to revive the GTV as an EV as part of a sweeping range renewal.

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And we didn’t just confine industry big hitters to our awards issue. In June, we also spoke to Stephan Winkelmann on Lamborghini’s future, former Formula 1 star Robert Kubica and Jaguar Land Rover boss Thierry Bolloré, a man facing significantly more than 99 problems. Still, as he showed when he outlined his plans to turn Jaguar into an EV-only premium brand, a pitch ain’t one. 

James Attwood

Moment to remember

Jack Warrick: This was the month of the Autocar Awards and two winners stood out for me. Hyundai Motor Group’s Euisun Chung receiving the Issigonis Trophy was due recognition of just how far his firm’s products have come in such a short time (even my Honda-devout parents made the switch to Kia this year). In an excellent interview with Autocar, meanwhile, Editor’s Award winner Sir Lewis Hamilton spoke with surprising candour not only about the racing but also his activism and the challenges he has faced on his way to the top.

Moment to forget

Matt Saunders: Rarely have I been as disappointed with a road test car as I was with the Maserati Quattroporte Trofeo, which we tested in late June in readiness for publication in August. This £130k super-saloon was a chance for one of the originators of the fast saloon breed to show Porsche, BMW, Audi Sport and Mercedes-AMG that it could still give them a sound shellacking. Instead, the Trofeo had soft, under-developed suspension, a terrible ergonomic layout and an interior questionable in even a £50k car. Its V8 was epic but that didn’t save the car from the searing criticism it richly deserved.

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Quote of the month

“I’ll be damned if I’m going to win all these championships and not use it to make a change” - Sir Lewis Hamilton tells Autocar why he’ll continue to speak out on social issues.

Road tests

2 June, Audi E-Tron S Quattro, three and a half stars: “Slick, tech-laden luxury operator but no dynamic landmark for EVs.” Price as tested £96,145 Power 496bhp Torque 718lb ft 0-60mph 4.2sec 30-70mph 3.6sec Economy 2.1mpkWh

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9 June, VW Arteon eHybrid Sporting Brake, three and a half stars: “Striking PHEV appears radical but upholds VW’s traditions at heart.” Price as tested £46,820 Power 215bhp Torque 295lb ft 0-60mph 7.1sec 30-70mph 6.0sec Economy 44.8mpg

16 June, Toyota Mirai Design Premium, four stars: “An impressive, courageous endeavour hamstrung by an embryonic hydrogen fuelling network.” Price as tested £65,920 Power 180bhp Torque 221lb ft 0-60mph 8.7sec 30-70mph 8.3sec Economy 38.0mpkg

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23 June, Ford Mustang Mach-E Extended Range, four stars: “An encouragingly good EV that attempts to bring dynamic personality to a class generally lacking it.” Price as tested £51,130 Power 290bhp Torque 317lb ft 0-60mph 6.8sec 30-70mph 5.6sec Economy 2.9mpkWh

30 June, Jeep Renegade 4xe Trailhawk, three stars: “Electrified Jeep has some charm but is typically rough and ready.” Price as tested £38,450 Power 237bhp Torque 258lb ft 0-60mph 6.7sec 30-70mph 5.6sec Economy 41.9mpg

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