CarAdvice top three cars of 2013: the testers' picks

$38,850 $46,200 Dealer
  • Fuel Economy
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  • Engine Power
    125kW
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  • ANCAP Rating
    5Stars

Jez Spinks - Editor-in-chief

1. BMW i3

Will electric cars ever be bought by the masses rather than a minority mix of wealthy early adopters or government fleet buyers? We’re still many a year away from the former scenario, but the BMW i3 (above) is one of the most convincing examples of the breed yet. Characteristically linear and near-silent motoring marries with the kind of futuristically detailed exterior design and luxurious, eco-inspired avant garde interior that makes this electric car feel more special than others of its kind and almost justifies its elevated price tag (from $60,000 estimated). A turning circle not a million miles away from that of a London Taxi is also deady handy around town. If you venture out of the city, your smartphone can link up with a BMW super-computer that will show you public transport details and options in case you’re battery charge isn’t going to get you to your destination. And if you’re one to get anxious about range limitations, then the i3 is also available with an optional ‘range extender’ that uses a two-cylinder bike engine to help recharging on the go.

2. Renault Clio

The latest Renault renaissance in this country is proving so successful the regular version of the new Clio has been introduced and not just the RS version as in previous years. The first Renault styled completely under the guidance of former Mazda chief designer Laurens van der Acker absolutely nails its target audience with a stylish, Euro-chic shape and clever, Alfa Romeo-esque hidden rear door handles. The interior is also understated coolness that offers app-based connectivity via a colour touchscreen and customisable trim colours and patterns. The Clio is a nice drive, too. The 1.2-litre four-cylinder turbo and dual-clutch auto combination in the mid- and upper-spec Clios isn’t quite as suave as the similar arrangement in the class benchmark Volkswagen Polo, but it still offers above-average performance. Its status as a smart buy is cemented with capped price servicing and five years of factory warranty and free roadside assistance.

3. Ford Fiesta ST

Ford has decades of hot-hatch form, but the Fiesta ST is even more accomplished than its already-excellent bigger brother, the Focus ST. The regular Fiesta is the most dynamic car in the city car segment, but add even more focused chassis tuning and a turbo 1.6-litre engine and the result is one of the great hot-hatches of our time. Good steering is essential to any driver’s car, and the ST’s is more – it’s brilliant: progressive, precise and perfectly weighted. And when it comes to corners, no rival (NB: I haven’t personally tested the new RS Clio at the time of writing) can match the Fiesta ST’s balance and speed into, through and out of corners. I’ve driven some great-handling cars this year, but there are only two that have left me genuinely astonished by dynamic qualities that are almost other-worldly… this baby Ford and the Porsche Cayman. The price for such a quality drive? $25,990.

Daniel DeGasperi - Deputy editor

1. Audi RS6 Avant

The Audi RS6 Avant deserves a perfect five-star score whichever way you look at it. It looks tough; it offers wagon versatility and an Audi-benchmark interior; its 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 delivers 3.9 second 0-100km/h pace; and its steering, ride and handling are clean-sweep superb. The review sitting on this website – from yours truly – has the RS6 Avant pegged at four stars after a first drive on straight roads in the Northern Territory, which ends with the proviso that we need to try it on twisty roads for a final verdict. Since then, the RS6 Avant has added that final star to its score (check our iPad issue for a comparison review). The 21-inch tyres and widened front track claw the ground to provide unbelievable front-end agility, yet the quattro all-wheel-drive sends between 60 and 70 per cent of the total 700Nm of torque to the rear wheels, so it will slide on the throttle. A Panamera GTS-beater for $100K less; to say I’m smitten is an understatement.

2. Ford Fiesta ST

Yes, you’ve read it once before (thanks, Jez) and you’ll soon read it again (cheers, Jimmy), but the Ford Fiesta ST makes many testers’ top three for good reason. Unlike those gents, though, I’ve scored the Fiesta ST as my Christmas car for the next two weeks. Among the many more expensive press cars that could have been requested as a holiday chariot – last year’s, the BMW 550i, for example – all I wanted for Christmas was the little European Ford that costs just $25,990. If I needed to buy a car tomorrow, the Fiesta ST would be the one. I can’t think of a front-drive hatchback that is more communicative and better balanced – not even the Renault Megane RS. The way the Ford plays between its front and rear axles is the reserve of exotics. The superb steering, crisp throttle, frisky 1.6-litre turbo and lovely six-speed manual cements this as my favourite hot-hatch since the Renault Sport Clio 182 departed.

3. Hyundai i30 Tourer

Yes, the Volkswagen Golf is ultimately a better small car than the Hyundai i30, but it isn’t yet available as a versatile wagon. The i30 Tourer offers a 528-litre boot that eclipses every sub-compact SUV on-sale, and unlike faux-off-roaders that require a rear driveshaft stuffed into their rear - or if they don't, the packaging often leaves space for the hardware anyway - the Hyundai includes a low loading lip so Ikea gear doesn't need to be lifted high into the car. The Czech-built, Euro-tuned wagon also includes a more sophisticated independent rear suspension tune in place of the torsion bar standard on the hatch. The i30 Tourer offers supple urban ride quality that evades the Aussie-tuned hatchback, a perfect complement to the diesel’s torquey nature. Add nice chassis balance, great interior quality, and handsome styling, and the i30 Tourer won me over as a convincing little wagon.

Sub text: Hyundai Australia says its local engineers have now retuned the standard European suspension to provide better body control but, they promise, with “an even more supple ride.” We’ll test the i30 Tourer again next year. I pray the plush urban ride hasn’t been affected.

Tim Beissmann - News editor

1. Volkswagen Beetle

As a breezy teenager who grew up with a little too much oestrogen flowing through his body, I developed a love of the New Beetle, particularly in ‘Mandy Moore – Candy’ metallic green with a yellow flower in the dash-mounted vase. As happens in country Victoria, those preferences were bullied out of me in high school, though February’s launch of the new New Beetle – now simply called Beetle – re-sparked my pre-pubescent passion. The new model is far from a thrusting hunk of testosterone, though its hot-rod-inspired looks give it a much-needed dose of masculinity. Inheriting a twincharged engine and platform from the now-superseded Golf Mark 6, the Beetle may sound like it’s taking the retro thing too seriously, though happily they form the basis for an eager and engaging semi-sports hatch. The Mexico-built Bug’s cabin can’t match the German Golf for quality, but it stands out from a sea of conservative Volkswagen interiors. Society has conditioned me to take an identically priced Toyota 86 nine times out of 10, though on that odd occasion my inner child would be grinning from ear to ear.

2. Ford EcoSport

Ford’s tiny EcoSport earned a place in my heart in 2013 largely because I almost didn’t get the chance to drive it at all. A broken left arm on the footy field six days before my flight to its production home in India looked certain to keep me grounded, though with all the bravado (read: stupidity) males are infamous for, the cast lasted half that time, the bags were gingerly packed and I was on my way. ‘I’ll just stick to the autos,’ I convinced editor Jez. Waiting for us in picturesque Goa was a fleet of EcoSports, all powered by the brilliantly versatile and refined turbocharged 1.0-litre three-cylinder EcoBoost petrol engine. Naturally, it’s only available with a five-speed manual transmission… Fortunately, a light shift pattern made the EcoSport a sympathetic stead, and I quickly learned that even in my semi-rehabbed state I was a safer driver than 99 per cent of the locals I was sharing the road with, who indicate with their horns and overtake three-wide into oncoming traffic around blind, cattle-lined corners. Despite looking like the bastard child of a Territory and a blowfish, the EcoSport charmed with its composed ride over India’s appalling ‘roads’, and the spaciousness and practicality of its cabin.

3. Renault Clio RS200

The pocket-rocket class is in my opinion the best one out there, blending value, compactness and driving fun like no other. And the Clio RS200 is potentially the best teeny hot-hatch you can buy; made even sweeter by the fact it’s almost $6K cheaper than its predecessor, now priced from $28,790. On paper, the lack of a manual transmission is the biggest concern, and the drive confirmed it’s the biggest disappointment of what is otherwise a tremendous sports hatch. At least its Nissan GT-R-sourced paddles make shifting manually about as supercar-like as possible. Look past the gearbox, however, and you’re left with a cracking 147kW 1.6-litre turbo, super balance and grip, racy-cute styling, and a class-leading interior with a nerdy telemetry system that makes you feel like an F1 driver – even if it only serves to expose the fact that you’re five seconds a lap slower than the other journalists on a racetrack at its local launch, as was yours truly.

David Zalstein - Journalist

1. Volkswagen Caddy Maxi BlueMotion

Two seats, a kerb weight of less than 1450kg and a turbocharger – the $27,990 Volkswagen Caddy Maxi BlueMotion has all the ingredients of a nimble, entertaining drive. And it delivers just that – along with 4200 litres of cargo space for actual deliveries. Yes, it's a 4876mm-long van. And yes, it's powered by a 75kW/250Nm 1.6-litre diesel. But with surprising grip from its 15-inch tyres, accurate steering, a silky smooth five-speed manual gearbox and the added aural delight of fuel slushing around the tank, the Caddy proves far more fun than appearances suggest and is more than capable of plastering a smile on the face of its driver.

2. Renault Megane RS265 Trophy 8:08

The preeminent hot-hatch that many others benchmark – including the new turbocharged Honda Civic Type-R – the Renault Megane RS265 may seem like an obvious choice but it is for good reason. Driven right, it really is otherworldly. I do, however, preface this with one condition: it must be the Trophy 8:08 special edition. The entry Cup six-speed manual-only RS265 with its limited-slip front differential and 18-inch 235mm-wide Michelin Pilot Sport tyres is still excellent, highly communicative, agile and plenty-quick, but driving it back-to-back with Nurburgring’s fastest front-driver with its extra sticky 19-inch 5mm-lower profile Bridgestone Potenza RE050 tyres, the 8:08 is sharper and even grippier, lifting the Megane flagship to another level. With its front-end grip teamed perfectly with its 195kW/360Nm 2.0-litre turbo, given any piece of twisty black top, road or race track, an RS265 Trophy 8:08 in the right hands will only ever be stuck behind very few cars. And even fewer near its $49,990 price tag. If you can’t afford a Porsche 911 GT3 RS, get an 8:08. If you can, get one anyway.

3. HSV Maloo R8 SV

The HSV Maloo R8 SV makes it into my top three not only because I'm a fan of entertaining rear-wheel drive cars, but because it’s a brilliant sports car, full stop. Although it would seem a hefty 340kW of power and 570Nm of torque from a 6.2-litre V8 going to the rear tyres might be a handful, the Maloo R8 is properly dynamic and terrifically well balanced. Despite our test car being fitted with a six-speed automatic transmission, the 1795kg Aussie ute is sharp, punchy and great fun through tight, twisty (and even wet) roads. And despite sitting low and muscular on 20-inch wheels, the R8 rides incredibly well with little to hint at its performance car abilities. And that’s just it, ute or not, the HSV Maloo R8 SV is a genuine performance option that can hold its own with many other sports models from far more prestigious brands. Shame this will end up being Australia’s last performance ute.

Alborz Fallah - Founder and Journalist

1. Ranger Rover

If the Mercedes-Benz S-Class were an SUV it would get this spot. Alas, it’s not, so it goes to the best SUV in the world, the Range Rover Autobiography, which adds an extra dimension of practicality over the German sedan. It is the ultimate in comfortable commuting, with an interior that outclasses even ultra-luxury vehicles, yet remains tasteful. From the outside there’s no mistaking the Range Rover Autobiography as anything but what it is - a big, bold and confident British-made luxury SUV. It turns heads wherever it goes and while its little brother, the Evoque, has become far too popular to be cool, the flagship Autobiography remains a more unique weapon of choice for the wealthy. Priced at $240,100 for the 5.0-litre supercharged V8, it’s certainly not cheap, but its virtues are only further emphasised in a perverse way by the fact that it simply doesn’t care about fuel economy or other worldly problems. It’s a proper Range Rover in a time when most car companies have become obsessed with changing their image to appease greenies.

2. Lotus Exige S

Although it received just three stars in my review (mainly given its go-kart-like ride and crude cabin are not fitting of its price), the Exige S was one of my driving highlights of this year. It’s the sort of car that tries to kill you as often as possible and I have a soft spot for such things. It’s about as ridiculous as they come, particularly given its $119,990 price tag, for what is essentially a kit car, not to mention the $16,430 worth of options for such mundane things as rear parking sensors ($950). Nonetheless, around the forgotten countryside a few hundred kilometers out of Sydney, I spent a few hours at the limit with the Lotus and the Exige S proved just an epic driver’s car. If you want to know what it’s like to actually drive a fast car that demands to be driven, buy a Lotus Exige S.

3. Mazda 3

It’s with great delight that I jumped into the new Mazda 3 in Los Angeles in September to realise that it really could challenge the Volkswagen Golf to be the pick of the small car class. While the majority of Japanese manufacturers are seemingly petrified of change, Mazda has essentially created a BMW 1 Series-rivalling interior for the price of a, well, a Mazda 3. Head-up display, iDrive-like infotainment system with the best in-car technology of its class, plus driving dynamics that put most of its competitors to shame, it’s hard to fault the third-generation Mazda small car. While it may ultimately not be as comfortable and classy as a Volkswagen Golf, it has a reliable reputation on its side and that will be enough for many (and me) to pick the Mazda 3 overall.

Anthony Crawford - Founder and Journalist

1. Porsche Cayman

It may be derisively billed as the poor man’s Porsche 911, but behind the wheel the Porsche Cayman is anything but second rate. Even with a 2.7-litre flat six engine the base Cayman doesn’t hang about, especially if it’s equipped the optional Sport Plus and PDK transmission. The engine sits directly behind your head and at 7400rpm it sounds better than an old school, air-cooled 911. Positively intoxicating is the only way to describe it. But it’s the handling and ride that make the Cayman truly sublime. The car remains beautifully composed regardless of the condition of the road surface. The steering is exceptional. Every pedal is perfectly weighted, every response, just so predictable. The Cayman is also extraordinarily practical, offering serious soft bag-storage under the bonnet and behind the engine. The Porsche Cayman is simply a masterwork of performance and handling, as well as a superb bang for buck proposition.

2. Volkswagen Golf 90TSI

It’s not often that we award a five-star rating to a base model hatch, but the seventh-generation Volkswagen Golf 90TSI represents a major standout in the segment. What we get is a premium grade package in an entry-level guise. The blend of soft-touch plastics and metallic accents are of a quality equal to some Euro models costing twice its price tag. The 1.4-litre turbo four is barely audible most of the time, such is the refinement of this 90kW engine. While that might not sound like a lot, there’s 200Nm of torque available from 1400-4000rpm, providing a wonderfully willing driving experience. The standard-fit, six-speed manual transmission is faultless, with a shift action so smooth and effortless that we think it deserves to be called ‘fluid drive’. The ride quality, too, is simply superb. The Golf offers passengers unrivalled comfort no matter what the condition of the road surface. From $21,490, this is the benchmark in entry-level motoring.

3. Aston Martin Vanquish

When it comes to sheer automotive glamour there’s little if anything to rival the 2013 Aston Martin Vanquish. Aston’s range-topping grand tourer also happens to be the best car ever made by the century-old British sports car manufacturer. In fact, you could fairly claim that the Vanquish’s combination of stunning looks, supercar performance and superb handling and ride place it among the world’s premier autos. Packing 421kW and 620Nm, the Vanquish holds the crown as most powerful production car Aston has ever built, meaning straight-line performance is huge. So to is its ability to dissect kilometre-after-kilometre of windy country roads while remaining completely flat. The steering is simply brilliant. Cat-like response and bucket loads of feedback urge the driver to push on, while the car remains totally composed, even over the rough stuff. Then there’s the engine note. Never mind the cold winter mornings – for the full effect of Aston’s revised V12, lower both windows, pin the throttle and prepare for a mechanical crescendo up there with Ferrari’s 458 Italia.

James Whitbourn - Road tester

1. Ford Fiesta ST

It was difficult to imagine a new affordable performance cult-car arriving in the Toyota 86’s lifetime. But it’s only been 18 months and the Ford Fiesta ST is exactly that. The Ford is impressively good value at $25,990, and even $4K saved compared with Toyota’s retro-inspired rear-driver is enough to matter at this price point. But beyond price, it’s about what you get in the Ford that you don’t in the Toyota – broad, turbo torque. The ST’s 134kW, 240Nm 1.6-litre four-cylinder delivers effortless, traffic gap-zapping performance that complements its all-round, hatchback practicality, which is another thing you don’t get in the tiny-booted, two-plus-two 86. And when you go to the trouble and flatten your right foot, the compact front-drive accelerates with alacrity and a rorty exhaust note that are sure to keep you happy for countless days and kays. Despite major differences in drivetrains and philosophies, there’s little between them in the steering and handling stakes. But the Ford is quicker around corners because it comes standard with bigger, better tyres than the Toyota’s. Given that even the base Fiesta is a fine drive, no one doubted that the hot-hatch would be a cracker. But the Fiesta ST is even better – and cheaper – than I expected it to be.

2. Holden VF Commodore

No one wants a big car anymore. Aussies have fallen for Euro premium. The local car industry equation no longer adds up. There are elements of truth in each of those statements, but none of them change the fact that the VF Commodore is the best car Australia’s ever made. Building on the billion-buck, clean-sheet VE, the GM Zeta-based sophomore Commodore is a thoroughly evolutionary effort. The VF is like a next-gen wishlist – lighter, more aerodynamic, less thirsty, safer, more refined, less expensive, with a well-designed interior equipped to please Euro-snobs, with the likes of self-parking, internet radio and blind-spot monitoring systems. But, most importantly, with help from a new quicker-ratio electro-mechanical steering system, and suspension revisions, the VF is a fabulous family touring car and, in V8 SS form, a satisfying sports sedan, and it’s this that marks it as a fitting finale for a once-loved model.

3. Volkswagen Golf

The not-so-secret to the Golf’s winning formula? It’s pretty close to being all things to all men, and that’s just in base-spec. Consider what the seventh-generation Volkswagen hatch does best – its cabin is classier and richer than those of rivals, and it’s quieter and better refined, and rides more comfortably than most, which equates to small car that’s a perceptible cut-above. But its allure doesn’t end there. Even the entry-level 90TSI is among the quickest in the class, and feels it in all kinds of driving, thanks to a fat torque band that tees off at just 1400rpm. It’s one of the most parsimonious players too, in terms of both the 1.4-litre turbo’s official 5.4L/100km figure and its translation into the real world. Would you believe the Golf’s a fine handler as well? Sure some steer more sharply, but the base Golf is well balanced and represents an expertly judged blend of sporty sophistication. Would you trade a tiny bit of the Golf’s soothing ride or polished refinement for greater handling capability? If you did you’d be in the rorty, excellent GTI. Top all of that with the fact that it’s more affordable than ever, and with the Mk7, Volkswagen has played its best Golf yet.

Curt Dupriez - Road tester

1. Audi R8 e-tron

In one short by very fast, gobsmacking drive, Audi’s stillborn electric supercar converted CarAdvice’s resident techno-luddite to a believer of an ‘alternatively’ powered future. Having nearly written off electricity as universe without soul and future prototypes as, by and large, facades for the motor show stages made mostly of smoke and mirror, Ingolstadt had built 10 near-production ready examples, down to e-tron-specific tyres, and flung their e-keys to journos in Berlin. While I had little doubt the e-tron would actually work, I was very sceptical as to whether it could meet any other real-world petrol head wants of driveability, communication, grin-inducing fun factor and, yes, soul. The e-tron was, and is, a revelation. I expected a driving experience as detached from reality as Gran Turismo, but discovered a true supercar, not just technically but – with its own, inimitable electric car slant – emotionally, too. It’s such a shame that lithium-ion technology hadn’t advanced at a rate Audi’s boffins had hoped, with the costs and complexities of the battery system ultimately (officially) causing the e-tron’s 11th-hour demise.

2. Chrysler 300C Core

The Core became quite a significant car for me in 2013, not through merit of greatness, per say, but by how, and how much, it influenced my world-view of cardom. Punting this two-tonne, iron-blocked, push-rodded limo in Targa Adelaide, it demonstrated how much the driver plays in the equation of ultimate road speed. It was unimaginably quick once I’d finally mustered up the requisite brave pills over many days of the road rally. I became fond of that same car, on long-term loan after the event. By nature of the beast, the Core strips away much of the irrelevant, techo-dazzling, often annoying ‘conveniences’ almost every other car this year spruiked as needs, leaving an unfiltered, perhaps low-tech device that was utterly feel-good. And, much to my surprise, its combination of bank-vault build, monstrous shove, symphonic soundtrack and don’t-mess-with-me aesthetics, I decided, was me all over, circa 2013. And I wondered that, if Chrysler can import this into Aussie showrooms for $56K, it doesn’t bode too well for local Ford and GM muscle car offerings… not long before Broadmeadows raised the white flag on local manufacturing.

3. Porsche Cayman

As proper game-changers go in 2013, there were plenty: Fiesta ST, A45 AMG, LaFerrari, RSQ3 all immediately come to mind. But few were as multifaceted as the arrival of the new Cayman. It’s dynamic and sporting brilliance is well documented: almost every journo who’s driven one has raved ad nauseum. But what really struck me were three facets of the Boxster-with-a-roof often overlooked in the gushing praise of its pace and driver tactility. For one thing, it’s beautifully built, conspicuously so from inside the cabin. That Porsche does it this well at the base Cayman’s price point should send fear through rival makers. Secondly, the Cayman’s fundamentals – its platform, wheelbase/track, centre of gravity, engine positioning – are fresher and more conducive to go-faster development than that of the halo 911. As good as the Cayman currently is, there’s so much headroom for pushing performance ever higher. And, thirdly, the nameplate betrays the fact that the Cayman embodies exactly what purists yearn for from old 911s (bar the air-cooling business): the sort of simple, raw, uncomplicated purity that the ever-pricier, ever-nicer 911 no longer fulfils, thanks to marches of so-called progress led by both the maker and the customer.