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The big winners of 2016


Here we announce our category winners in the AMI Insurance NZ Autocar Car of the Year awards for 2016

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In a year where auto discussions have been dominated by EVs and autonomous cars, we’ve driven none of these, only a few expensive plug-in hybrids which failed to fire us up. Instead, we’ve tested lots of the usual; downsized, turbocharged increasingly thrifty petrols, and less smutty, quieter diesels. Increasing numbers of nine-speed autos appeared too, though we’ve sampled no 10-cog offerings as yet; perhaps in 2017. We’ve also had the usual smattering of sleek, swift supercars and racy performance machinery. Some of the more memorable drives were surprisingly affordable and there were plenty of SUVs, to be sure.

So which of these newcomers rose to the top? Other than in the most affordable sector, there has been a decent amount of activity in most segments of the market, with some pretty tasty new machinery. And with utes and SUVs on fire, there’s plenty of new metal in the $45k and above categories. With the average price of a Kiwi home above the $600k mark, it seems relatively easy for those with a mortgage to add on the value of a new vehicle, and over half of those who did opted for SUVs or pick-ups.

In fact, if you exclude the rental figures in new car sales, utes or SUVs comprise the lion’s share of the top 15 passenger car sales. While the downturn in large cars has continued, stable fuel prices mean large SUVs are again on the increase; folk are foregoing one type of large vehicle for another, seemingly reluctant to go smaller so are ending up driving more practical or lifestyle-oriented vehicles, like pick-ups or SUVs, the latter now more car-like to drive than ever while utes become more refined and feature rich.

The category winners listed herein will be assembled next month for one final drive-off to determine our overall winner

And while the rest of the world seems economically to be treading water, the local economy is on the up, thanks to new immigrants who need housing and vehicles, and to slowly improving returns in the dairy industry. So new vehicle sales in 2016 are heading inexorably to an all-time high. The category winners listed herein will be assembled next month for one final drive-off to determine our overall winner. As we have always done, this final back-to-back test is the only way to identify effectively a true and worthy winner.

Suzuki Baleno - Class winner under $30k

The Holden Spark was the only new littl’un to bow in this category in the first six months, proving comfortably the best of the city cars we’ve driven in a long while with a surprising array of features for the money. It easily outpointed the facelifted Mirage XLS in a comparison test. In both our reviews of the Spark however we concluded that we’d rather find a few more beans for a car a size bigger, and Suzuki provided such a newbie in the latter part of the year by adding its surprisingly good Baleno to its small car line-up.

Some have mocked this out-of-India car but they seem to overlook the value given the added space. Here is a car that sells for the same money as high-end Swifts but is much roomier inside. Perhaps it doesn’t quite have the Swift’s X-factor styling or panache but shockingly the bigger car weighs much less - an MX-5 is heavier - so goes quite well with its 1.4-litre engine and four-speed auto, on both the pace and economy fronts. We imagine the $22k manual would be even perkier. If you go auto, opt for the slightly more expensive Limited with its extra rubber. Those with an eye for a bargain shouldn’t overlook this surprise from the subcontinent.

Honda Civic Class winner $30K-$45K

A little further up the market into what some would term “real” cars, our choice came down to the Sportage and the Civic. Price conspired against Kia’s new SUV however, with the Sportage models we actually prefer being priced above $45k, while a couple of the other models are right up at $45k limit. The 2WD models are selling well though, and if it’s an SUV you are after in this price bracket, Sportage is a good starting point.

But it was Honda’s stylish and technologically interesting Civic sedan that better caught our imagination. With turbocharged engines in all but the minnow of the range there’s a hint of excitement here from Honda again.

It comfortably dealt to a rejigged Elantra in a comparison test, and had it come up against Focus and Mazda3 would have rounded them up on the performance front. Its light kerb weight, CVT and stealthy aeros contribute to surprising economy.And it also drives well too.

Not all are convinced by CVTs but this is a good one of its type, keeping the engine ticking over in its most efficient rev range. And with a ride and handling mix vying for top of the class, and a good model spread, we reckon it’s a clear winner in the sector. A hatch is coming next year, and a Type R variant will follow.

Of the other SUVs, the new turbocharged Suzuki Vitara makes a compelling addition to the line-up that launched in 2015 - it is quick, fun to drive and great value.

Mazda CX-9 - Class winner $45K-$60K

In the $45k-$60k sector, there is always lots of competition, mainly amongst the SUVs and utes. The latter continue to grow in popularity with updates to Colorado and the new Hilux chipping in, while the SUV ranks were bolstered further with the new Koleos, CX-9 and Tiguan. For those who prefer low riders, there were special wagons like Passat Alltrack and Levorg, as well as the new Superb line-up. For us, the standouts were Levorg, Tiguan and CX-9, though the new Mazda impressed the most. If you’re not after an SUV, Levorg is a good choice; a GT-type drive experience without the edge of the WRX. It’s still fun to drive, comes with additional load space and lots of safety and convenience gear.

The Tiguan delivers all of Volkswagen’s trademark strengths in a comprehensive package, including lashings of safety features for all models. The range is priced slightly higher than most mass market offerings, but the quality shows.

However, value is a big part of the equation in this segment, and the new CX-9 is simply outstanding in this regard. The new model brings improved safety, more luxury, and vastly improved drivability and economy from its clever turbocharged engine while still delivering the family friendly features of a large seven-seater. It’s a lot of vehicle for the money.

Audi A4 - Class Winner $60K-$100K

In the former executive class, it has been the year of the ute-based SUV. Newcomers include Ford Everest, Mitsubishi Pajero Sport, Toyota’s Fortuner, and Holden’s Trailblazer. The latter is probably the best pick if you want something representative of this genre that’s good value. It’s the sprinter of the class too. If considering one of these, you have to want off-road and tow ability and seating for seven as non-negotiable criteria. Otherwise, we’d suggest you buy a crossover because they generally have superior dynamics, refinement and interior packaging.


If spending more toward the upper limits of the class, there’s Mercedes-Benz’s new GLC, which we rate for its specification and refinement in the class, but we simply preferred driving the new Audi A4. While it may not look a whole lot different from its predecessor, it’s a nice evolution of what was already a decent machine. Underpinned by a new lightweight chassis, it’s the base model that makes lots of sense at $71,900 but we also liked the upboosted 4WD version in the Avant body style, priced at $93,400. Add in the $2500 adaptive damping and you get both ride comfort and handling prowess. There’s decent performance, excellent dynamics and a flash interior, all for less than $100k.

Jaguar F-Pace - Class Winner Luxury

Up a class further and it’s the sedans trying to re-establish themselves with a new 7 Series leading with a technology onslaught and the Jaguar XF attempting to woo buyers with outstanding dynamics. For similar money there’s the new E-Class with its semi-autonomous driving mode. In a third-quarter comparison we felt the XF did enough to get the wood on the E-Class, with superior performance and dynamics at a slightly lower price, ruling the E out for honours here. But it was another new Jaguar that we settled on, that being the F-Pace. Typically there were plenty of new SUV options in the luxury space, including the OTT Bentley Bentayga, but Jaguar’s first foray into the SUV sector proved a winner. The F-Pace starts at a tick under $100,000 with a good range of models to choose from up to the $130k mark. We liked the top S model, accounting for none other than the most dynamic of SUVs previously, the Macan S. There wasn’t terribly much to choose between them except that the F-Pace performance is more forthcoming at lower revs, and there’s a better price spread across the models. If you prefer diesel power, the 3.0d is proving the most popular with early buyers, and we’d be happy with either. While you’ll have to spend a bit more cash on options to gain added active safety features, or a few more convenience features, we can overlook that given the dynamic nature, great look and burly supercharged engine of the F-Pace.

Ford Focus RS - Class Winner Performance

Finally, our favourite segment, the performance cars. Always an active area, the success story this year is Ford, managing to sell over 800 Mustangs thus far and every single example of the new 4WD Focus RS it could lay its hands on. Mustang drives well, looks the part and sounds good, if you bought the GT that is, but we were impressed by the four-cylinder model too. Amongst a host of notable newcomers, Porsche unveiled its all-turbocharged range of 911s and the super-quick Boxster 718s. VW made history around here by delivering the first front-driver to crack the 0-100 six-second barrier, the GTI Edition 40 shattering the mark by half a second. And on speedy things, Audi delivered the second quickest car we’ve ever tested, its second-generation R8 V10 Plus. It proved a delight, naturally, but for a fraction of the price the latest Focus RS seemed to knock the ball out of the park. We loved it not because of its outrageous dynamics but because it so upset the Australian PC crowd with its deliberately provocative ‘Drift Mode’. Personally I had two of the most fun-filled hours of 2016 in this car, on a wet skidpan, attempting not to look like a complete numpty, and almost succeeding, such is the clever 4WD system that underpins it. Bang for buck is stellar. Only the lack of an automatic transmission may put some off, but it marks the RS out as one for the enthusiast rather than the poser.

Safety Award

This year we will again be presenting the AMI Insurance safety award. This will be conferred on the awards night and will recognise the continuing advancement in safety features that new cars deliver. Over the past decade, safety credentials have become as important, if not more so, than fuel consumption and performance figures. Most cars now offer full five-star crashing ratings, even dinosaurs like the Toyota Land Cruiser 70 series which has been recently updated to achieve full marks in crash testing. However, those active safety features which help avoid crashes and collisions altogether are what need to be recognised. These offer the most benefit to buyers, especially when a carmaker offers these features on entry and mid-spec offerings in the mass market, bringing more benefit to the overall fleet. So we’ll be reviewing the newcomers and updated models from all segments of the market to make our choice here.

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