FEATURE | The motoring year in review
Brenwin Naidu takes a look back at the defining automotive moments of 2019
With the 2019 calendar about to flip, obligatory reflections on the automotive highlights of the year happen in our corner of the building. Collectively, we have covered kilometres aplenty — locally and abroad — representing the various print, online and television platforms of the Arena Holdings motoring machine.
This with the aim of delivering reportage that keeps you in the know and on the move. For me, the approximate numbers read as follows: 32 new product launch attendances and 59 test vehicle evaluations. Of course, that excludes general industry events and our special features produced off the beaten path. In alphabetical order, here is a selection of machines that were notable in my book.
After a product hiatus since late 2017, Audi opened the floodgates in 2019. The RS4 Avant was among the newcomers bearing the quartet of interlinked circles. Potent acceleration, traction in all settings thanks to Quattro and ample space for groceries: the package affirmed the expertise with which our friends at Ingolstadt build fast wagons.
As the sun set on large displacements and a surplus of cylinders, it was impossible not to revel in the charms of the Aston Martin DBS Superleggera. Cosseting touring capabilities belie the ferocious performance credentials that lurk — this brutish Brit truly fits the iron-fist-velvet-glove idiom.
BMW released its seventh-generation 3-Series, now offered with semi-autonomous driving technology. An amusing irony from the brand that pioneered the genre of the hands-on, involving sporting saloon. Rest assured, though, that when you take the helm, the latest incarnation brings sparkling rewards. Aside from that, it trounces its predecessor in the quality and ride-comfort departments.
Making headlines for the wrong reasons because of its self-immolating Kuga models — and seeming indifference to owners in the handling of the debacle — Ford this year was the recipient of more favourable press. Before it announced that paltry settlement, anyway. The reason for the excitement was the mighty Ranger Raptor. With its Fox Racing shocks, off-road tyres, assertive armour and dune-jumping abilities, the beefy Blue Oval pickup is obnoxiously awesome.
Frankly, our expectations for the Hyundai Venue were middle-of-the-road. One would be forgiven for proffering an eye-roll emoji at that daft name and the overtly cheeky advertising campaign taking a dig at its Teutonic rival. At the press drive it wowed with interior plastics that were more than palatable, a peachy turbocharged motor and dual-clutch transmission, garnished with a reasonable price — plus that big warranty. Maybe their confidence was justified.
All whirr and no purr, the Jaguar I-Pace ushers in a radical direction for the brand built around the mystique of a snarling amazon cat. Well, their first production electric vehicle sure is stealthy and fast on its feet: seriously, the straight-line pace will humble many of the petrol-powered, SVR badge-wearing siblings from its own household. It is a hoot to drive and relatively easy to live with, thanks to the decent full-battery range and the investment the brand has made in nationwide charging infrastructure. My colleagues managed to make trips to KwaZulu-Natal and Polokwane without hassle.
The LS nameplate is a special one for Lexus. After all, it was their debut model when the division was birthed decades ago. We spent time with the all-new LS F Sport this year — essentially comprising a styling package for the model. But it is a striking one at that. Predecessors might have been accused for mimicking the aesthetic template of competitor products from Germany.
No longer the case here, nor with any contemporary Lexus model. An interior with fascinatingly intricate details and exotic materials mirrors the ornate impression given by the exterior. A real statement piece, this opulent Japanese sedan. And a statement SA consumers might dare to make. For unicorn rarity, not many cars launched this year will rival the LS.
Mercedes-AMG released its 53 series of vehicles this year in E-Class and CLS-Class variants. The latter was of bigger interest to us, since this derivative punctuated the launch of the latest, third-generation version of the four-door coupé. It's worth remembering that the original CLS-Class pioneered the category, inspiring Munich and Ingolstadt, and the other team from Stuttgart (Porsche), to follow suit. The CLS 53 4MATIC+ impressed with its throaty but polished six-pot engine and engaging dynamics. Best not be lulled by that all-wheel drive system, this is a playful steed, all topped off with that swaggering, Ray Donovan-style persona.
There were numerous pickups launched in 2019. Some significant, others merely stickered-up and masquerading as “special edition” models. The latest Mitsubishi Triton falls into the former box. And it represents a truly outstanding alternative to those who fancy looking beyond the two long-standing sales leaders. A frontal redesign remedies that downright ugly countenance of old. And the cabin has been made notably plusher too. It manages a good job of evincing a car-like persona on road. And when the road gives way? Well, you know all about Mitsubishi and its off-road credentials. Pricing is keen too. Get it in orange.
Now on to the letter P. And the discussion of a product on the Most Wanted list of possibly all motoring journalists in the land. With good reason. You see, the Porsche 911 (992) seems like the perfect convergence of analogue and digital, something to be savoured a while longer before the seesaw leans fully to the latter direction. Not saying that the electric revolution (and the forthcoming, all-electric Taycan) is going to suck. Just saying that the transition might not be easy for many. The eighth incarnation of the Neun-elfer stays faithful to the storied heritage forged by its predecessors — and leaves no mystery as to why the breed continues to be regarded as the segment benchmark.
The Suzuki Swift Sport is easily lauded in similar terms when it comes to the junior hot hatchback ambit. With the latest version, little has changed in the essence of what the moniker always represented. It is still affordable, economical, practical — and, most importantly, huge fun to drive. The depth of that last bit has increased in bounds courtesy of a new, turbocharged engine. The little Swift has plenty of pluck for not a lot of buck.
You probably remember the comments ahead of the Toyota Supra launch. Some bemoaned the tie-up with BMW, employing the Z4 platform, engine, transmission and many other bits in between. Then it arrived — and those who had the opportunity to drive agreed: this two-door from the Land of the Rising Sun is far more than a badge-engineering effort. Tauter, lighter and zestier, the Supra is markedly more involving than its chopped-ceiling counterpart. And just look at what a fine styling job they managed!
Sales success for the Volkswagen T-Cross was destined right from the get-go. Because it comes from one of the best-loved brands in SA and panders to a segment that customers are only too keen to spend money in. Luckily, the substance matches the hype — and there is good reason the compact sport-utility vehicle has been blitzing the charts. In fact, at a recent meeting with company representatives, we were told that demand had been slightly underestimated.
Volvo marks our last stop. The subtly revised XC90 was released in 2019, bringing mild enhancements and extended connectivity services in the form of the Volvo on Call concierge service, contacted via the touch of a button. All well and good — but the real fun came when we were availed a special, one-off version of their flagship model. Dubbed the Beast, it featured chunky BF Goodrich rubber, an apocalyptic matt black paint job, a rack bedecked with axes, additional fuel cans, as well as other interesting, outdoorsy paraphernalia.