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2011 Year in Review

2011 wasn't all high points, and one of the low ones was the Chery J1

But it's been a year of highlights for me. Monday, June 27 is my best working day of 2011.

In fact, it hardly qualifies as work, since I am cracking around the Top Gear test track in Britain with a wicked black McLaren MP4-12C providing me with miles and miles of high-speed smiles.

The mighty Mac is a bonzer beastie that provides the ideal antidote for too many motor show treks, too many middle-of-the-road cars that only qualify as transport modules, and far too many days away from home. It almost manages to erase memories of the massively underwhelming Nissan Micra we have as a Car of the Year contender. Almost . . .

But the 12C is not the most memorable car of my year, even though it's one I would most happy park in the driveaway any time alongside a Benz E63 AMG wagon. No, my hero car of 2011 is the Ferrari 458 Italia.

It does not have the pace or grace of the McLaren, or its overall refinement and liveability, but there is nothing in Carsguide land to match the raw emotional pull of the howling Italian supercar. A single day of driving in Sydney, including a fun run with a close mate who cannot stop himself giggling - is it excitement or fear? - is seared into my memory.

But, so too, is time with the Chery J1. Everyone says Chinese cars will get much better quickly, and Chery does update the gearbox within a fortnight of my whingeing first drive, but there is lots and lots and lots of room for improvement.

Some people say there are no bad cars these days, and it's mostly true. But they should also get behind the wheel or a J1, or the Mitsubishi iMiEV that promises future motoring but really illustrates the current shortcomings of plug-in electric cars, for a little calibration.

My diary for 2011 opens in predictable style as Toyota claims sales champion status for 2010 and predicts a repeat for the coming year. Despite natural disasters in Japan and Thailand, Toyota is delivering and will do the same again - trust me - in 2012.

The numbers game for 2011 reflects everything from the failures of the Ford Falcon and the blue brand's sales team to the popularity of small cars - now one sale in four in Australia - the incredible pull of the Mazda3, and little things like Volkswagen's growth to a top-10 brand and the ongoing drive that has Hyundai and Kia doing big things downunder.

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But those numbers only reflect the cars and crews at each company, as it takes people to create something special and get it onto the road and into new homes. 

My personal heroes include Mark Reuss, who wrote the current game plan for Holden, including the local Cruze, before returning to clean up the spilt milk at GM in the USA; Graeme Gambold, who takes Hyundai suspension and makes it so much better for Kia; August Achleitner, who heads development of the all-new Porsche 911 before leaving to weave some magic at Bentley; Murray Dietsch, the brilliant Ford Australia-trained engineer who is responsible for the Range Rover Evoque and everything else coming out of Land Rover; and Ian Callum, who does great work for Jaguar and has so much yet to come.

Driving cars is fun, but it's also work and that means the BMW M5 gets marked down for flaws and too much focus on fuel economy; the updated Nissan GT-R is brilliant at Phillip Island but plain awful on regular roads; the Ferrari California sounds great but is a girlie car; the new Toyota Yaris is not as good as the old one; and the new Camry is surprisingly unbad, but saddled with history that includes the chicken sales campaign.

There are plenty of cars I drive and like in 2011, from that Camry back to the Kia Optima, but very few I want to keep in the driveway and not just return with a polite 'thank you'. 

The Benz E63 makes the cut, so does the battery-powered Nissan Leaf. I also really like the Evoque, despite its expensive failure at COTY time, and the BMW 1 M. And the 458 is a definite.

imageOn the motorsport front, it's hard to go past the excellence of the Triple Eight team run by Roland Dane and fronted by Jamie Whincup and Craig Lowndes, or to understand why Mark Webber makes such lousy starts for most of 2011. And then Jason Richards dies and nothing else on the racing front seems to matter.

In so many ways, 2011 is another landmark year. Cars have never been better, or better value buying in Australia. And, whoops, I almost forget the Toyota 86 that completes my new-car crew for the year. It's a ripper drive, even if Toyota and Subaru are fighting for bragging rights over ownership, and a car that shows what Brand T can do when it shifts out of conservative Corolla mode and gets serious.

Right now, as the curtains come down and dealerships race to crunch the final deals, it is still a little tough to get the retrospectacles into sharp focus. But there is no time anyway, as it's less than three weeks until Toyota opens 2012 with a celebration of its 2011 sales successes, and then another week before the Detroit Motor Show shifts the new year into top gear.

Best car: McLaren MP4-12C (Pic: right)
Worst car: Chery J1
Biggest suprise: COTY win to the Kia Rio
No surprise: Falcon sales continue to fall
You're not serious?: A BMW M5 introduced as a fuel miser
Oh, you are?: LPG, diesel and four-cylinder engines for Commodore and Falcon
Cannot wait: BMW M3
Pass: A trip to the Dehli motor show in India

 

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