Surely that headline is an oxymoron? The year just gone was one to forget for many reasons. There was the doom of lockdown, predicted job losses in the thousands, house prices would tank and there would be no winter escapes.
But it turned out not quite so apocalyptic in the end…except perhaps for the local new car market. For a while it looked as though sales were going to be down by one-third compared with 2019 but an improving situation in the second half of the year reduced the shortfall to just over 20 per cent, until supply issues started to bite.
While new vehicle releases were fewer, and many launched online via zoom conferences, we had enough to keep us busy throughout the year. And what were our top picks? Read on.
Given the year wasn’t a stellar one, and test cars from some manufacturers were in short supply, we’ve decided to forego the usual grand finale procedure to determine our overall winner of the NZ Autocar Car of the Year award. We still have our usual class winners, which we have selected the same way every year, by reviewing our reviews as such, and picking those that did well across our five main judging criteria. These take into account, Design (which also includes safety), Performance (not only how well it goes but what impact it has on fuel reserves), Driving Dynamics (how it corners, rides and how refined it is on the go), Practicality (accommodation, ergos, versatility) and Value (specification, quality and bang for your buck).
As we have done for the past few years, we’ve nominated vehicles from various areas of the market not based on size or vehicle type, but rather using price categories. For the new car market has become more fragmented and manufacturers dream up new vehicle types that blur the once clearly defined classes. Here we list a few of the more notable arrivals.
The first of these are in the sub $30k category, where mini-SUVs continue making inroads into the small car area, with the likes of the MG ZS, Renault Duster and a few variants of the Kia Stonic, while Toyota’s Yaris shows the biggest car maker in the world is keen to duke it out in all areas of the market.
The $30-45k class is brimming with new entrants riding the compact SUV craze, which has fast become NZ’s most popular segment. There were a bunch of new nameplates to the market last year like Kamiq, T-Cross, Puma and Yaris Cross along with all-new versions of the Juke and 2008. For those wanting some added space SsangYong revived its Korando and MG introduced us to the HS.
There weren’t quite as many newbies in the $45-60k class, Mazda adding the CX-30 to its range, Hyundai’s odd Veloster renewed and the LDV had the D90 diesel, while Ford launched its all-new Escape. Small SUVs infest all areas of the market and in the $60-100k class Benz launched its new premium GLA and GLB models. For similar money, much larger SUVs can be had like the new Korean twins, the Kia Sorento and Hyundai Santa Fe. For those who still prefer a car, the BMW 2 Series GC and 4 Series offer a mix of style and driving enjoyment.
In the Luxury class the big Mercedes GLS is a model of excess, as is the Bentley’s Flying Spur. Land Rover presented its highly evolved Defender and BMW had a new X6. Audi introduced a fresh Q7 along with the SQ8. And that leads us nicely to the performance class, including more Audi Sport offerings like a new RS 6, RS Q8 and RS Q3. Other Euro flyers included the AMG A 45, Cayman GT4 and the Porsche Taycan. More affordable performance came in the guise of the GR Yaris and the Ford Focus ST.
In the realm of EVs there was a worrying lack of new arrivals. Audi added further e-Tron variants, Porsche debuted its aforementioned Taycan and both Hyundai and Nissan updated their Ioniq and Leaf models. Two new arrivals were the ZS EV from MG and the Mini SE, both what you’d call affordable in the EV scheme of things.
New Zealad buyers still love utes and we had newbies from Jeep in the Gladiator, the GWM Cannon and Isuzu renewed its D-Max which also birthed a new BT-50.
Class Winner under $30K: Toyota Yaris
Okay, so technically the Yaris crosses over into the next class with some models nudging past the $33k mark, but a 10 per cent variance is deemed okay by 2020’s standards. We really liked the Yaris for a multitude of reasons. One wasn’t its styling, but it’s at least a bit interesting to the eye. The rest was good however, mostly brilliant actually. It’s a small car that offers big things. Like nearly all Toyota’s modern offerings it now comes with both petrol and hybrid powertrains. The ‘regular’ engine is a sprightly performer while the hybrid powertrain doubles down on refinement and economy. We found the Yaris can return 3.5L/100km quite easily thanks to its electric running. It has a small lithium-ion battery sited under the rear seat, meaning all models have the same 270L of boot space available.
It works well as a commuter with a tiny turning circle and light steering. The Yaris rides pleasantly and is a fun wee thing to steer through a few curves. It’s solid enough to cruise the main highways confidently too.
Small car buyers seeking good value, safety and technology will like the well specified Yaris. There is a healthy array of safety devices fitted as standard. All models get radar cruise and active lane keeping, eight airbags and a more sophisticated form of autonomous emergency braking.
Inside there is a seven-inch touchscreen display and full smartphone integration for both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Other big car features include a proximity key, head-up display, integrated nav, front and rear parking sensors and alloy wheels. It’s not overly blessed with rear seat space, but if you like the idea of the Yaris but have a need for more space and have a few extra dollars to spend, you’ll like the winner of the next class.
Class Winner $30K-$45K: Toyota Yaris Cross
Amongst the throngs of the small SUVs released last year we liked the Yaris Cross for much of the same reasons that the smaller hatch is a winner, and this morphs seamlessly into a higher rider as the Yaris Cross. Glad they didn’t spend too much time coming up with a cunning name for the small SUV and invested it more wisely into making this compact offering rather practical.
It’s extra size is dedicated to the benefit of rear passengers and boot space, the latter surprisingly decent for the breed. And there’s no cargo carrying penalty if you opt for the hybrid. Priced between $30 to $40k, the Yaris Cross is a simple two-grade range, with both petrol and hybrid offered for both variants. The added body mass takes some lustre from the powertrain but the hybrid is still only ever economical yet punchy when need be.
We were impressed with both powertrains, and how this goes. It’s refined on most road surfaces, riding in a cushy manner, yet it can be surprisingly engaging when you prod it along. And it works so well in the city with compact dimensions and a ‘just right’ seat height. It looks quite smart too, like a mini RAV4 with all the right SUV-lite styling cues. Like the hatch, it’s got you covered in terms of safety gadgets, and connectivity. The spec sheet is robust with items like seat heaters, a head-up display and powered seats on offer, while the overall quality of the build is sound.
Another string to the Yaris bow is the no-haggle pricing structure that includes all costs up front and capped price servicing.
Class Winner $45K-$60K: Ford Escape
This class is largely the preserve of the midsize SUV and Ford’s new Escape is a great example of the breed. We like how Ford has managed to keep the model’s keen character yet wrapped it in a layer of refinement that doesn’t muffle its driver appeal. There is a decent range to choose from too, the entry Escape under the $45k mark for a front-drive option, ranging up to the mid fifties for the more highly specified ST Line X with AWD and all the fruit.
Safety of course is well covered with a range of driver aids and collision avoidance systems as standard. It has new connected features too, including Ford Pass with app-based remote features to let you control your Escape in new ways. Ford will also have plug-in hybrid versions of the Escape landing later in the year that will offer a claimed 50km of electric range to net an overall fuel consumption of 1.5L/100km. All others are powered by a feisty 2.0-litre turbo that delivers impressive performance for the class, yet it’s particularly refined, so too the character of the eight-speed auto. Tread lightly on the gas and it’s even capable of decent economy, though it’s hard not to indulge in the easy and abundant torque of this engine. The cabin is hushed, it’s also well made inside and spacious with good rear seat accommodations, added practicality coming from a sliding seat that lets you maximise luggage space or rear leg room. It’s a good look too and comes with Ford’s big five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty.
Class Winner $60K-$100K: Kia Sorento
While you can opt for an SUV with a premium badge at this price point, they don’t offer much metal for your money, although the Mercedes-Benz GLB is a surprise package. However, the new Kia Sorento did it for us with a genuine premium feel, and at a price that handily undercuts its Santa Fe cousin. The Sorento cuts a fine figure in the car park, and that styling flair carries over into the cabin which is full of neat yet functional detailing. The range starts at $60k for a well spec’d base model, and steps up to the $77k Premium model with it all.
We like the Sorento’s simplified range, all offering the right powertrain, that being the punchy yet economical (low 8.0L/100m during our testing, which is good for a sizeable rig) 2.2-litre diesel, mated to a new eight-speed twin-clutch. And AWD is standard too.
On a new platform, this big bus drives sweetly, the dynamics well sorted while also laying on the refinement in terms of suppressed road noise and decent ride quality. It’s an easy-going drive with a good turning circle and various driver aids to help along the journey. Sorento has numerous safety features including novel blind spot monitors that show you what’s travelling alongside with the image appearing on the LCD dash display.
Importantly for a large seven seater, it has a spacious, accommodating interior, with room for the larger family and all their gear. A tow rating of 2500kg should suffice for most endeavours. And there’s a three-year, 100,000km service plan as well.
Class Winner Luxury: Land Rover Defender
While the Defender of old doesn’t align with the luxury lifestyle, that was then. The new model might be a capable, off-road inspired SUV, worthy of the Land Rover badge, but the new Defender is more likely to be seen parked up in the wealthy suburbs, its metallic paint work gleaming fresh from the valet. And the only scratches on the optional 20-inch alloys would be from wayward parking manoeuvres outside a cafe rather than rock crawling in the wilds. The new Defender is a desirable package, demand outstripping supply and, when optioned up, prices can nudge past the $150k mark, making it a bona fide luxury purchase.
Where the old wagon was horrid to drive anywhere but off road, the new one is a model of refinement, the air sprung ride cushy, the steering easy and it has the driver aids (admittedly optional on some models) that weren’t even thought possible when the Defender evolved from the Series III all those years ago. It’s still wildly capable off the beaten pathways and a big 3.5 tonne tow rating will please those at the pony club. The interior mixes clever design elements with practicality and manages to capture the brand’s heritage while infusing it thoroughly with modern tech. We like it’s simple, minimalistic approach, along with its hard wearing rubber floor. Added practicality comes with a 5+2 seating option.
There are numerous variants to choose from, along with myriad powertrain options, and the personalisation packs help make your Defender yours. There is a V8 coming too, and the SWB 90 will be along to offer further choices.
Class Winner Performance: Toyota GR Yaris
There’s nothing like a cancelled motorsport programme to breed an awesome road car, and that’s what the GR Yaris is. It’s a modern day homologation special that wowed everyone that managed to get some seat time in this little AWD terrier. Something honed by Tommi Makinen and with the newly found desire and budget of the mighty Toyota corporation behind it was destined for greatness.
Here you have a small and nimble package in the diminutive Yaris that has been stuffed with a trick, variable all-wheel drive system. Under the bonnet is a hand-built engine that might be light on cylinders but the turbocharged triple has more character than some big sixes and eights. And gloriously it’s matched exclusively to a six-speed manual. The steering speaks to the driver, the engine loves to be worked, and the AWD can be dialled up to deliver the sort of drive the pilot desires on the day. Simply, the GR Yaris is an engaging machine that puts driving fun at the top of the menu. That its suspension seems custom tuned to Kiwi roads is a bonus.
Being hatch based, it’s reasonably practical. Okay, the back seat might not be much use, but we say fold it flat and enjoy a sports car with a big boot. And one that’s easy to get into with a driver’s seat height that is accommodating of dodgy joints. And it isn’t bereft of driver aids either, featuring active cruise and other niceties.
The real appeal is in the drive though, pure and focused, and it’s even better at the price, a bang for buck bargain at $55k. Pity they are in such short supply. But join the list – it’s worth the wait. And you’ll be in good company with the likes of Brendon Hartley and co said to be in the queue as well.
Class Winner Electric: MG ZS EV
There’s much talk about EVs at present with the Climate Commission’s recommendations to speed up our adoption of BEVs. Barriers include a high purchase price but MG’s ZE EV asks just $48,990. That gets you a well-designed electric SUV with the capability of 250km-plus range, with as much as 370km promised around town. And that would be our only caution here; these EVs are still best suited to owners who do the majority of their driving in urban areas, since they perform best in the stop-start nature of congestion.
We found the ZS EV to have a quick enough recharge time on a fast charger, (30 to 80 per cent battery capacity in under 30 mins) and MG has you covered with home charging solutions too. There’s an eight-year/160,000km battery warranty to go with the usual MG five-year, unlimited kay vehicle cover.
It’s good to drive in that EV sort of way with instant torque and well tuned brake regeneration. MG also includes its suite of driver aids and active safety tech as part of the package.
The ZS EV is a practical, small SUV, with generous accommodation in the rear seat, and the electric bits don’t impinge on the load area.
You still have to pay a premium to go electric but the ZS is the cheapest EV on the market, has a decent range and recharge times, and that it’s a practical, small SUV adds to its appeal.
Class Winner Ute: GWM Cannon
A bit of a shock this one, you might be thinking. The GWM Cannon win makes it not one but two Chinese-sourced vehicles making the cut in 2020. But then the Cannon was a genuine surprise.
To drive, this Cannon goes well on both sealed and gravel roads, the on-demand AWD giving it good stability on slippery surfaces. It rides okay for a ute, certainly better than the D-Max/BT-50, and is a more assured steer through tricky bends. The 2.0-litre turbodiesel we described as adequate, the power and torque figures down on the top sellers, but it’s helped by an eight-speed auto. You can still get a manual transmission if you so desire.
It’s plenty capable with a one-tonne payload and 3000kg of tow, but the really sharp numbers have the dollar sign in front of them; the top L 4×4 just $39,990, the base model $10k cheaper. And yet the Cannon doesn’t appear cheap. Unlike the original offerings from the company, this has the sort of initial quality that impresses, particularly amongst its more expensive rivals. There’s a comprehensive safety fit-out, the base model featuring AEB, lane keeping, parking cameras and traffic sign recognition. There are seven air bags and, although it’s yet to be crash tested, let’s hope the range comes through on a promised top result. The L adds things like active cruise and a 360-degree camera, making it more SUV-like. And so too the cabin where there is masses of rear seat space. The Cannon is surprisingly big, longer and wider than Ranger, and with a whopping tray. Also large is the peace of mind, with a five-year/150,000km warranty. At the price, it’s simply outstanding value.
Car of the year 2020: Toyota Yaris range
With a Yaris taking out three of our class wins, it was too hard to pick an overall winner, so we’re naming the Yaris range our Car of the Year. Weird? Well that’s 2020 for you.