Variety is the spice of life, or so they say, which is why our list of 2018’s greatest hits is far from predictable. There’s something for everything here, including supercars, an electric car and two budget 4x4s. Tuck in to Motoring Research’s very own Christmas pick ‘n’ mix, as we guide you through our favourite drives of 2018.
Tim Pitt: McLaren 600LT
I’ve already stuck my head above the parapet and declared this the ‘best driver’s car of 2018’ – so logically it earns a place here.The 600LT is a track-oriented take on the 570S, complete with extended ‘Longtail’ bodywork that pays homage to the Le Mans-winning F1 GTR. It has stiffer suspension, beefed-up brakes, stickier tyres and more aggressive aero, plus 30 extra horses (600hp total) and 100kg less weight (1,247kg without fluids).
The net result is nothing short of sensational; the 600LT gives even the Porsche 911 GT3 RS a bloody nose. It’s laser-focused and explosively fast, yet its deep reserves of talent aren’t difficult to exploit. Track toy or roadgoing racer, the McLaren reigned supreme this year.
Tim Pitt: Aston Martin Vantage
Aston Martins never really did it for me. Yes, they’ve always been gorgeous to look at and sumptuous inside, but the driving experience invariably fell short. So, if you’d told me 12 months ago that I’d have two Astons vying for a place in my 2018 top three, I’d have called Fake News.
Those cars are the Vantage and DBS Superleggera: the former Aston’s new entry-level 911-rival, the latter its Ferrari-baiting flagship. The DBS is sublime, an old-school, V12-engined bruiser with more torque than Oprah Winfrey. However, it was the Vantage – a sucker-punch of dynamic nous and stonking V8 brawn – that arrived first, thus earning it the nod here.
Tim Pitt: Paul Stephens Classic Touring Series II
This modified, Singer-style Porsche isn’t, strictly speaking, a new car, so I’m bending the rules a bit. That said, the Paul Stephens Classic Touring Series II isn’t nearly as old as it looks. It starts life as a mid-1980s 911 Carrera 3.2, then ends up looking identical to an early-1970s 911S. The air-cooled engine is tuned to 290hp, while the updated interior is beautifully bespoke.
If you subscribe to the cult of 911 (and I do), the Paul Stephens car is a feast of surprise-and-delight details. Many parts are hand-made at the company’s workshop in Suffolk, yet everything looks period-correct or ‘OEM+’. It’s an absolute joy to drive, too: analogue, challenging and richly rewarding. At £275,000, it sure ain’t cheap, but unlike that original 911S, you’d happily drive a Classic Touring Series II every day. If only…
Pick up City AM today for my thoughts on the Paul Stephens Classic Touring Series II.
— Tim Pitt (@timpitt100) October 30, 2018
Richard Aucock: Ford Fiesta ST
I was worried. The old Fiesta ST was a wonder, even in its latter years. It handled superbly and the four-cylinder 1.6-litre turbo engine was a gem. Could Ford build upon the magic – and how would a 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine measure up?
But this is Ford. A company staffed by enthusiasts, which takes great pride in delivering brilliant blue-collar drives – Porsches for the people. And the new Fiesta ST is exceptional. It has the dynamic spark of the old one, but also now rides tolerably well. The engine is faster and torquier, and still sounds interesting. The interior is way better, it visually looks the part and clever rear suspension springs add some supercar exotica to this gem of a car. It’s also a true bargain, priced at well under £20k. Just be sure to use the money saved to buy the Performance Pack, won’t you?
Richard Aucock: Jaguar I-Pace
Jaguar deserves all the praise it’s received for giving us the I-Pace. A luxury five-seat all-electric SUV, it beat Audi and Mercedes-Benz to market with a rival for the Tesla Model X. BMW? Its bespoke electric SUV is still years away. The British engineers absolutely nailed it with this car, an extraordinary 400hp machine with a 300-mile range and a design inspired by the baddie’s Jag supercar in Bond’s Spectre.
Inside, it’s beautiful, and roomy both front and back. On the road, it’s tremendous, with serious but silent performance and feel-good handling that pleases like any good Jaguar should. It rides like a proper Jag as well, and the long-distance comfort is exceptional. It will even off-road, as the firm showed to us on the Portuguese launch. A genuine landmark car, and a first drive I will remember for many years.
Richard Aucock: McLaren Senna
A car named after Ayrton Senna is surely setting itself up for a fall. The man was a driving god and any car that wasn’t less than epoch-defining would surely be received glumly. Good job this is McLaren, then – a company that didn’t just employ Senna back then, but today builds some of the most incredible supercars and hypercars on the market.
The McLaren Senna transcends anything I’ve ever driven before. It’s an eye-opening road-going track monster with speed and abilities that will leave you breathless – just as the acceleration sucks the air out your lungs and the forces generated in cornering give you a workout like a spinning class. I have daydreamed about this staggering car ever since. The only way they could beat it would be to give us the McLaren Hamilton. What about it, Woking?
Ethan Jupp: Mazda MX-5 2.0
I’m one of those rare sorts who has given the Mazda MX-5 a wide berth in prior iterations. I value all it stood for, but I never liked the soft looks, nor the slightly soft road manners. An MX-5 isn’t a Caterham or Lotus Exige; it doesn’t present road-rippling performance as a compromise for spartan appointment. It’s actually part of the MX-5’s prerogative to not pack a punch. It’s all about the feel. It needs to counter that, therefore, by being a perfectly amenable roadster most of the time, yet the old cars couldn’t really pull that off. They were plastic-fantastic and unrefined at times when you just wanted a car. I’m weird, I know – it’s a sin not to salute the MX-5 magic.
The new car, though, is a revelation. Firstly, the looks – it’s such a sharp-looking thing. People wonder what on Earth it is. When you tell them it’s an MX-5, they don’t believe you. Then there’s the performance. This new 2.0-litre engine with a solid 180hp is partly what makes it one of my cars of 2018. It provides ample power for you to take the little Miata seriously and really put this classically-trained roadster where you want from the rear. Then there are the toys: cruise control, heated seats, automatic adaptive headlights, Bluetooth for your music. It all helps with making the MX-5 a normal and almost luxurious car, when you’re not looking for MX-5-ness. It’s just an all-round nicer car, having sacrificed none of the magic along the way.
Ethan Jupp: Lexus LC 500
The Lexus LC 500 is perhaps the bargain coupe of the decade. It trades on those divisive (we think stunning) looks, appearing to be worth twice the price. It’s got an engine to match the LFA supercar-aping aesthetics, a high-revving and howling naturally-aspirated V8 that kicks out an ample 470hp. And the cabin is absolutely gorgeous, despite the iffy ergonomics. The iDrive system in a BMW 8 Series is far superior, but the LC just feels so much more special.
To drive it’s more ‘GT’ than ‘sports car’. The dynamics don’t quite deliver on the promise of the sharp and exciting looks. In our book, however, there’s nothing wrong with making a car look great for the sake of it. And remember, this isn’t a six-figure car. You can have an LC 500 for £90,000 – more or less the price of a base-model Porsche 911. That’s outstanding for a machine that’s capable of showing an Aston Martin DB11 a thing or two.
Ethan Jupp: Jaguar F-Type P300
From a would-be humdrum coupe that’s been sexed up with supercar looks and a howling V8, to a stately British beauty that, on paper at least, has suffered a downgrade. I don’t know a car enthusiast in the world that wasn’t sceptical when news broke that the Jaguar F-Type – of whining supercharged V8 fame – was getting a four-cylinder base model. A tasteful facelift combined with a loud new colour palette couldn’t hide a shrinking violet under the bonnet – or so I thought.
Then I drove it. It fires up with all the drama of a car with many more pots to its name. Get your foot down and there’s very little real-world performance deficit – the 300hp turbocharged four-cylinder has muscle aplenty. The car is much more wieldy, too, with less engine mass to battle up-front as you traverse bumpy switchbacks. All of that we might have predicted when looking at the spec sheet. What I certainly didn’t expect was that, while it’s not a crackling, growling big-cat V8, it’s tuneful far beyond a lump you’d expect to find in a hot hatch. It’s not exactly artisanal or exotic, but we’re now used to most supercars being possessed of slightly dull, turbo-neutered vocals. The result is that ripping the rev-happy turbo four through its rev-range creates a sound not unlike a McLaren, despite having half the cylinders, turbos, displacement and power of a 720S.
Bradley Lawrence: Audi S1
I have a love for small and fairly powerful cars. The Audi S1, for me, is the definition of that, with 230hp going through the wheels, aided by the famous Quattro system. I’m forever looking for cars to replace my current Vauxhall Corsa, and the S1 was mentioned to me by Ethan. I gave my local Audi dealer a call and went out for a test-drive. The weather was pretty appalling, but the S1 made light work of the rain. The acceleration was surprising, the torque was ridiculous and the grip was limpet-like.
We were 15 minutes into the test drive and heading down a dual carriageway when it got interesting. I’d come to a stop behind some traffic, attempted to move off and the rear end was dragging. It turned out the rear differential had blown. Oh dear. Despite this, the S1 remains one of my favourite cars of the year.
Bradley Lawrence: Abarth 124 GT
Abarth invited me to Rockingham Motor Speedway to drive its new 124 GT, essentially the 124 Spider, but featuring a 16kg removable carbon fibre roof. The original soft-top remains hidden under the rear deck, so putting your top on remains an option if you’ve left the roof at home.
I had driven Rockingham once before in a McLaren 570S, although this felt much more rewarding. The professional driver next to me was giving me some excellent tips and pushing me to drive harder – I learnt a great deal from the experience. The 124 GT performed amazingly – its lively steering, snappy gearshift and rev-hungry engine completed the fast and fun package. Let’s not forget the aggressive, snarling sound coming from the quad-tailpipe exhaust either.
Bradley Lawrence: Audi TT RS
Probably one of the highlights of my year – owned by my best mate, Jake. The Audi TT RS provides supercar performance for a fraction of the price, pushing 400hp from its five-cylinder turbocharged engine. Audi claims that it can do 0-62mph in 3.7 seconds, but it feels slightly quicker than that. The sound is amazing, with the TT letting out a bang on downshifts every now and again. Little wonder some people claim it is a ‘baby R8’.
We headed out to some Berkshire B-roads for a blast with an A45 and a C63. This is where the TT really unleashed its potential; it felt planted on the twisting turns. The way it covers ground is unlike anything else. It skips along so confidently and really makes you want to push it to its limits.
John Redfern: Volvo V60 D4 Inscription
Maybe I’ve just hit a certain point in my life, but the idea of a new Volvo estate packs some serious appeal. I’ve been majorly impressed by the bigger V90 on previous experiences, and the new V60 manages to funnel all of that same Swedish feel-good factor into a smaller package.
In a world filled with seemingly endless anxiety and chaos, sinking into the familiar feeling of a modern Volvo interior is reassuring and calming. The 190hp D4 diesel engine won’t trouble the quicker stuff on this list, but that’s hardly the point. Although I do look forward to experiencing a T8 Twin Engine version with Polestar bits bolted on…
John Redfern: Maserati Levante V6
Even now, I can still hear the sound of the Levante’s Maranello-built six-cylinder engine, wailing and woofing along the Quayside in Newcastle upon Tyne. This entry-level petrol model might have ‘just’ 350hp, but you still get the same striking looks and Italian charm as you do from the rest of the range.
Viewed objectively, the Levante V6 might not make a compelling argument. German rivals do the £60,000 luxury SUV concept with predictable effectiveness. The Levante is the complete antithesis of those Teutonic brands. Try saying “Oh yes, I drive a Maserati” out loud, and you’ll understand why it manages to be such a seductive draw to buyers.
John Redfern: Dacia Duster
For years, I had managed to avoid driving a Duster. Maybe it was a subconscious attempt to avoid falling into the pit of motoring writer clichés, or maybe I was just waiting for the all-new Duster in Desert Orange paint to appear. All it meant was that I denied myself the simple pleasure of driving an uncomplicatedly cool car.
Yes, there might be some body-roll in the corners, but unlike the majority of cars on sale in 2018, the Duster rides with some degree of comfort. The interior is a lesson in minimalism, more akin to using a Nokia 3310 than the overly demanding iPad-esque designs of other contemporary cars. Oh, and then there is the price. The Duster is an absolute bargain.
Gavin Braithwaite-Smith: Suzuki Jimny
I don’t do many car launches. In fact, I covered just one new car launch in 2018. Just as well I made sure it was a good one. Anecdotally, the Suzuki Jimny has generated as much buzz as any supercar over the past 12 months, without so much as a “Hey Guyzzz” from a social media influencer. Little wonder, then, that it has a waiting list longer than a trendy West End nightclub. If your name’s not down…
Admittedly, I approached the launch with child-like excitement, but high anticipations are too often accompanied by an overwhelming sense of anticlimax. Not so in the Suzuki Jimny. It’s far from perfect, but it provides the perfect antidote to the joyless and soulless crossovers that litter our streets. And this tells you all you need to know about why I’m not sent on many car launches.
Gavin Braithwaite-Smith: Hyundai i30N
I don’t get out much, so I greeted the opportunity to head to Dorset to drive a pair of exciting South Koreans with open arms. The fact that this twin-test with a difference included a chip butty in Shaftesbury’s John Peel café was an added bonus. One day like this a year would see me right.
We spent a good few hours on the B3081, hurtling up and down the famed Zig-Zag Hill more times than a rollercoaster fanatic at an empty theme park. The Kia Stinger GT-S was good – like, really good – but I haven’t give it a second thought since Tim took the keys and headed for home, leaving me in the company of the Hyundai. Meanwhile, the i30N continues to stir my emotions and is just one of two cars that have seen me reach for the finance calculator in 2018. I loved it.
Gavin Braithwaite-Smith: Volvo XC40
Thinking about it, my three choices could combine to create a near-perfect three-car garage. The Suzuki Jimny for buying milk on the other side of a mountain, the Hyundai i30N for taking the road route around the mountain, and the Volvo XC40 for when you want to do ‘lifestyle’ things on the mountain with the family… before buying a pint of milk on the way home. Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of the compact SUV genre – give me a Volvo wagon – but the XC40 is close to perfection.
The styling manages to look elegant and tasteful, while the interior retains all of the hallmarks of the XC90. Meanwhile, cliché it might be, but there’s something reassuring about transporting your family in a Volvo. It just feels like the right thing to do. I’ll take mine with Lava Orange carpets, ta.