Road test yearbook 2021: January to March

Road test yearbook 2021: January to March

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Renault 5 reborn, BMW M5 CS gets five stars, Autocar sets EV record and more

2021 was certainly a varied year for us. Here’s what happened in the first three months.

January

Modern met retro at the start of the month, with news that the iconic Renault 5 supermini was to be revived as an electric hatchback. A heavy dose of nostalgia ensured the French firm’s prototype became one of the year’s most talked-about models – helped, no doubt, by the confirmation that it would share a platform with a bespoke Alpine-badged hot hatch.

Elsewhere, the industry’s electrification push was on clear display: as the V12-powered Ghost became the 5506th subject of the Autocar road test, we revealed Rolls-Royce’s secret plans for its debut electric model. The EV looks set to be a perfect fit for a brand that so strongly values smoothness, silence and ease of driving.

At the other end of the price spectrum, the Mini Electric and Mazda MX-30 faced off to see which premium compact EV delivered enough driving engagement to get you out of the house for a Sunday blast – if only a short one, given their limited range.

We also took a deep dive into the challenges facing the car industry and the country as a whole in light of the 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel cars. Will the country be ready in time? What must be done to prepare? And will transport changes alone make a significant impact in reducing air pollution and limiting global warming? It’s a complex issue that continues to stoke debate.

January wasn’t all electrons and CCS connectors, of course. The BMW M5 CS arrived with 626bhp from its twin-turbocharged V8 engine, improving on the already stellar M5 Competition with upgrades designed to extract startling track times from the near-two-tonne saloon. We also found out from Bugatti test driver Andy Wallace what it’s like to drive the W16-powered Chiron at Vmax speed after he became the first person to take a production car beyond the 300mph barrier.

Autocar’s own Colin Goodwin got in on the record-breaking action by taking part in a winning effort to go the distance in a Porsche Taycan. Thirteen winning efforts, to be exact, with endurance records for both time and distance in an EV, set in collaboration with Porsche racing drivers past and present.

Finally, we brought you a complete rundown of all the hot new metal set to land in dealerships over the coming 12 months, and this year’s list was as diverse as ever: old-school ICE sports cars like the Porsche 911 GT3 and Maserati MC20; status-quo-rocking hot hatches such as the Hyundai i20 N; and exciting new EVs including the Hyundai Ioniq 5. Many of them went on to impress our road test team throughout the year. 

Tom Morgan-Freelander

Moment to remember

Piers Ward: The first Autocar Business Live webinar of the year, featuring Alison Jones and Richard Parry-Jones, asked: ‘Will 2021 be the year of the electric car?’ Stellantis’s Jones was brilliantly insightful and it was great to have RPJ giving his view, backed by his vast industry experience as a world-class engineer. 

What made it all the more poignant was the awful news of RPJ’s death three months later. Listening to the great man was always a privilege and it was, with hindsight, lovely to experience one last discussion with him.

Moment to forget

Mark Tisshaw: Our first taste of the Mercedes-Benz EQA set the tone for what was to come: a pretty so-so electric hatchback effort that could and should be so much better. There’s a reason the Tesla Model 3 continues to make hay. 

Quote of the month

“You’ve got to treat every opportunity as if it’s your last because you don’t know what’s around the corner” – George Russell on his 2021 season, before his move to Mercedes was confirmed.

Road tests

6 January, BMW M440i, four stars: “A rounded, engaging and potent coupé let down only by its looks.” Price as tested £61,965 Power 369bhp Torque 369lb ft 0-60mph 4.5sec 30-70mph 3.7sec Economy 36.2mpg

13 January, Rolls-Royce Ghost, four and a half stars: “Most technologically advanced Rolls-Royce is an exceptional limo.” Price as tested £362,130 Power 563bhp Torque 627lb ft 0-60mph 4.8sec 30-70mph 3.8sec Economy 17.9mpg

20 January, Kia Sorento, three and a half stars: “It lacks polish but abundant utility appeal and value shine through.” Price as tested £38,845 Power 226bhp Torque 258lb ft 0-60mph 8.5sec 30-70mph 7.9sec Economy 40.9mpg

27 January, McLaren GT, three and a half stars: “Plenty of pace and purity; less GT-typical usability and refinement.” Price as tested £174,180 Power 612bhp Torque 465lb ft 0-60mph 3.3sec 30-70mph 2.3sec Economy 23.7mpg

February

Two months into 2021 and it was already time for two of Britain’s most famous brands to throw the rule book out of the window. Given how many other firms have since released their plans to be electrified by a particular date, it’s easy to forget how radical all this was just 11 months ago. There was a real feeling within the Autocar office (or our multiple homes, at any rate, because we were still in lockdown) that both of these announcements were seismic moments. 

First up was Lotus, with a plan to develop a new electric two-seat sports car in conjunction with Alpine, as well as launch its first SUV by using the electric SEA platform supplied by the company’s owner, Geely.

Any concerns over the possible dilution of the Lotus brand DNA were allayed by then CEO Phil Popham, who told us: “Sports cars are the heart of our brand. Electrification is where the world is going and, as a pioneering brand, we want to be at the edge of that.”

This was also the month we bade farewell to the venerable Lotus Elise. Andrew Frankel had one last hurrah in it for our 10 February issue, reminiscing on his various experiences with this era-defining British sports car – one that had spanned a third of the entire production history of Lotus Cars. 

The second British firm to reveal a bold shift from fossil fuels was Jaguar Land Rover, when it announced that Jaguar would become an EV-only brand by 2025, followed by all JLR nameplates being offered in fully electric form by 2030. For a company that was so reliant on diesel, it was quite a statement. It was an ambitious plan from new JLR boss Thierry Bolloré – made even more so by his stated aim for Jaguar to take on Aston Martin and Bentley in the luxury sector, moving the brand away from traditional rivals BMW and Mercedes.

Lotus and JLR weren’t the only British firms forging new paths because, in between all these headlines, McLaren unveiled the Artura. The company’s first clean-sheet supercar since the 12C a decade ago ditched the V8 for a V6 and added hybrid power courtesy of a 7.4kWh battery.

We also grabbed a first go in the BMW 128ti, a car that we had been anticipating keenly but didn’t fall so hard for after driving it. Within a week of our first drive, the 128ti finished second to the Ford Focus ST (although it beat the Renault Mégane RS 300) and later went on to disappoint in our Britain’s Best Affordable Driver’s Car shootout during the summer.

Other significant first drives included a development car test of the Porsche Taycan Cross Turismo (“an electric car that continues to steamroll the expected norms”), the Ruf CTR Anniversary (a car “that makes you feel glad to be alive”) and Vauxhall’s sharp-suited Mokka-e, which trades more on its sharp looks than the ability to appeal to drivers. 

Weirdly, in a month dominated by new paths, we also tested a healthy number of ‘normal’ sports cars, including one particular head-scratching moment when we pitched the Porsche 911 against… er… itself. If ever a test could get lost down a wormhole of specs and subtle differences, it was this, but thankfully road tester Richard Lane was on hand to filter the results. It turned out that “less, but not least, is best” when speccing the perfect 911. 

Piers Ward

Moment to remember

Steve Cropley: It happened at Citroën’s HQ on the outskirts of Coventry in February, when I first sampled the new Ami city car. It was a left-hander and there was no guarantee at the time that the car would be sold in the UK. (Citroën has since made that commitment.) It takes an experience like this to teach you about cars that can do only 30mph, that you can pluck from a special parking spot and return to one like it elsewhere in your city. 

Whirring about the suburbs, contrasting the drawbacks of driving conventional cars in our densely packed cities to the advantages of the Ami, I realised how blinkered and barmy I’ve been all these years in arguing steadfastly for single ownership of vehicles. Of course, you still want to preserve your right to keep a Porsche in the garage, even if it’s a dream. But for rental prices similar to a mobile phone’s, you can enjoy the Ami’s small size, agility, dedicated parking, hose-it-out interior, better-than-walking economy and much, much more. The Ami shows that fun can flow from extreme automotive convenience. I know that now.

Moment to forget

James Attwood: Every silver lining has a cloud, so while it was exciting to hear about Lotus’s bold plans for an all-new line-up, it meant we had to say farewell to the firm’s entire current model line – including the Elise. Andrew Frankel drove the very literally titled Final Edition of the Elise back to back with the original, demonstrating just what a shame it is to be losing the model. That new Lotus EV better be good…

Quote of the month

“Imagine an air tanker dropping not water onto a blazing forest but kerosene” – Richard Lane on how hard the Ruf CTR Anniversary accelerates from 205mph

Road tests

3 February, Cupra Forementor 2.0 TSI VZ2 4Drive, four and a half stars: “Versatile, interesting, rewarding: one of the best fast crossovers yet.” Price as tested £39,830 Power 306bhp Torque 295lb ft 0-60mph 5.1sec 30-70mph 4.3sec Economy 27.6mpg

10 February, Range Rover Evoque P3000e, four and a half stars: “A better plug-in compact SUV. Expensive, but slick and luxurious.” Price as tested £52,840 Power 304bhp Torque 398lb ft 0-60mph 6.8sec 30-70mph 5.9sec Economy 46.1mpg

17 February, Skoda Octavia 2.0 TDI vRS, four stars: “Enduringly fast diesel is better at a simmer than a rolling boil.” Price as tested £32,260 Power 197bhp Torque 295lb ft 0-60mph 7.2sec 30-70mph 5.9sec Economy 42.2mpg

24 February, Hyundai i20 10 T-GDi 100 48V, three and a half stars: “Steady gains for a versatile runabout still lacking some personality.” Price as tested £18,595 Power 99bhp Torque 127lb ft 0-60mph 9.7sec 30-70mph 10.1sec Economy 43.6mpg

March

Some cars are so legendary that when there’s a new generation on the horizon, we’re all filled with a mix of anticipation and trepidation. How much fun will it be? Have they ruined it? The BMW M3/M4 is such a car. The back catalogue of M3s is sensational but contains plenty of faux pas as well. The new one seemed to be off to an inauspicious start, with divisive looks, no manual gearbox and a 1700kg kerb weight. But it came good when we drove it in March, Matt Prior concluding that it’s no outright sports car but it is a fine hot rod. That was confirmed the following week, when it saw off the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio and Mercedes-AMG E63 S.

From the expected triumph to the revelatory: in the 3 March issue, we road tested the Toyota GR Yaris. In early encounters, we loved how Toyota had squeezed a fantastically engaging driver’s machine into a tiny car, and the full road test confirmed that with a rare five-star verdict. A legend in its own lifetime.

March proved to be a good month for performance cars in general. We had our first drive of the Hyundai i20 N, which went on to win hearts at both our junior and senior Handling Day later in the year. The Puma ST, being a Fiesta ST on stilts, was a less obvious favourite, but it showed its potential in a four-star road test. At the other extreme in the emerging segment of hot SUVs was the Lamborghini Urus. We might still prefer a hot hatchback or a super-saloon, but getting the two together at least shows that manufacturers haven’t lost their sense of humour when it comes to SUVs.

We also said goodbye to a few cars. The Toyota GT86 bowed out, leaving us to eagerly anticipate its successor, the GR86, which we finally drove in November. And to mark the end of McLaren’s Sports Series, Andrew Frankel took a 570S for one last drive. He wondered whether its indirect replacement, the Artura, will be able to match the 570’s light weight and sheer love of the open road. We’ll find out soon when we drive it.

March is normally a big news month because of the Geneva motor show, but Covid meant it could not go ahead for the second year in a row. Instead, manufacturers ended up spreading their car launches more evenly across the year and that made March oddly quiet. So the biggest news of the month was Mini’s plans to rethink its range, expanding it with both smaller and larger cars, as well as more electrification. Promisingly, the design of the core three-door hatch is said to move closer to that of the 2001 relaunch model.

Illya Verpraet

Moment to remember

Matt Prior: The new BMW M3 arrived in the UK, which gave us the chance to take it to Wales for some great roads and Blyton Park circuit in Lincolnshire for some sliding. The M3 is really good fun and, as you might be aware, has a bit of software that judges your drifts. I set it up on the way into a high-speed corner at Blyton Park and, in the knowledge that we had a spare set of tyres ready to fit at the end of the day, smoked them all the way through the bend. M3’s verdict? Three and a half stars. Critics, eh?

Moment to forget

Rachel Burgess: It wasn’t the first that we’d heard of the semi-conductor (or chip) crisis but, having been hidden from view because of more lockdowns, it started becoming abundantly clear by the spring that this situation wasn’t going to be over any time soon. Huge players – including Ford, Volkswagen and Toyota – had curtailed vehicle production, and customer demand for cars, which had already far outstripped supply due to the effects of the pandemic, exploded even further. If you ordered a car in March, chances are you’re still waiting.

Quote of the month

“Dynamically, the Sián feels like a rawer car than the Aventador, but not a better one… Yet this is effectively a motor show concept brought to life – and as a visceral experience, almost nothing else comes close”: Mike Duff on the Lamborghini Sian FKP 37.

Road tests

3 March, Toyota GR Yaris Circuit Pack, five stars: “Toyota, on a roll with its driver’s cars, provides yet another winner.” Price as tested £34,080 Power 258bhp Torque 266lb ft 0-60mph 5.2sec 30-70mph 5.0sec Economy 27.0mpg

10 March, Mazda MX-30 145PS GT Sport Tech, three and a half stars: “Smart looks and a plush interior, but the first Mazda EV deserved more.” Price as tested £29,800 Power 143bhp Torque 200lb ft 0-60mph 9.1sec 30-70mph 8.6sec Economy 2.9mpkWh

17 March, Hyundai Tucson 1.6 T-GDi Hybrid Premium, four stars: “New Tucson shows that Hyundai can do both style and substance.” Price as tested £35,030 Power 227bhp Torque 258lb ft 0-60mph 7.6sec 30-70mph 6.2sec Economy 40.0mpg

24 March, Ford Puma ST, four stars: “Well judged, versatile and fun; the jacked-up hot hatch done well.” Price as tested £28,495 Power 197bhp Torque 236lb ft 0-60mph 7.2sec 30-70mph 6.2sec Economy 31.1mpg

31 March, Volkswagen ID 3 Pro Performance Life, four stars: “Bland, but with the substance to further the zero-emissions push.” Price as tested £30,490 Power 201bhp Torque 229lb ft 0-60mph 7.0sec 30-70mph 6.5sec Economy 2.5mpkWh