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James Cleary's Top 5 cars of 2023: From Fiat 500e to Porsche 911 GT3 RS

It's a diverse group but 2023 was an interesting year for new cars.

This year’s top five was a relatively straight-forward selection process. Yes, there were one or two new arrivals on the edge of the cut, but in the end the five below stood out.

A diverse group including a couple of hatches, an SUV, a convertible GT and a take-no-prisoners supercar. Pure electric, hybrids, turbo combustion and a naturally aspirated screamer, with prices ranging from a fraction under $50K to roughly 10 times that amount.

Disparate market segments, different buyer profiles and priorities, but all these cars excel in my opinion. Here’s why… 

Nissan X-Trail e-Power

The X-Trail e-Power features a 1.5-litre turbo-petrol, three-cylinder engine. (Image: Sam Rawlings)

It’s not a new idea, but Nissan has executed it extremely well. The X-Trail e-Power is a series hybrid combining an internal combustion engine with electric propulsion, its twin electric motors powering the wheels, exclusively, at all times.

Its 1.5-litre turbo-petrol, three-cylinder engine is only ever used as a generator, sending DC charge to the lithium-ion battery and/or AC charge direct to the inverter, which in turn powers an electric motor on each axle.

It’s not as fuel efficient as its arch enemy, the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, and Nissan’s okay with that, saying it chose this configuration primarily because the car drives smoothly and quietly like an EV, rather than a predominantly petrol car.

The X-Trail e-Power is a series hybrid combining an internal combustion engine with electric propulsion. (Image: Sam Rawlings)

The car’s active 'anti-phase' noise cancellation tech works beautifully. It’s positively tranquil inside and the nice thing is the engine’s revs build in linear fashion in line with accelerator position and road speed, so it feels like a quiet combustion car with the urgent acceleration and smoothness of an EV. 

On top of that comes impressive safety and solid value-for-money with the car giving little away in terms of day-to-day practicality as a consequence of its distinctly different powertrain set-up.

It won’t appeal to everyone but hats off to Nissan for such a thorough execution of this hybrid configuration.

Honda Civic e:HEV LX

The Civic e:HEV LX wears a price tag of around K drive-away.

Honda’s Civic e:HEV LX gets it right in so many areas. Comfortable, refined, efficient and easy to drive as well as practical, good looking and impressively polished in its design and execution.

Its powertrain moves seamlessly between pure EV, parallel hybrid and internal combustion, delivering ample performance, smoothly.

Packaging, within a classic five-door, compact hatch footprint, is thoroughly thought through, so there’s plenty of breathing space in the cabin and generous luggage capacity in the boot (although the hybrid gives away 45L to non-hybrid Civic variants).

The advanced powertrain moves seamlessly between pure EV, parallel hybrid and internal combustion.

The dash is an appealing blend of digital screen-based controls and physical dials for high-use stuff like audio volume and ventilation. And its sophisticated design neatly balances form and function. For example, a horizontal lattice divider with a brushed metal effect border, housing the adjustable air vents.

For around $55K drive-away it’s also chock full of standard fruit including digital instrumentation, a panoramic sunroof, leather upholstery, heated and power-adjustable front seats, a heated steering wheel and active noise control.

Safety is top-shelf and claimed combined cycle fuel consumption is 4.2L/100km (around 40 per cent less than the ICE VTi equivalent). Maybe the small hatch is on the way back? 

Fiat 500e

The 500e’s undoubted charisma will prove irresistible for some.

If ever there was a car that’s been improved by the shift to electric propulsion it’s the Fiat 500. Around town EV zip suits the recently released 500e perfectly. Only snag is its $52,500 (before on-road costs) price tag.

That’s a bigger ask than the Mini Electric Hatch ($49,990 drive-away) and at least $10K more than emerging small EVs like the BYD Dolphin, GWM Ora and MG4.  

But the 500e is a textbook ‘have to have it’ car. And those deciding to spend the extra dollars will be rewarded with a three-door hatch that’s chock full of personality and great fun to drive.

The Fiat 500e wears a price tag of ,500 (before on-road costs).

It’s not practical - rear room is tight, in-cabin storage is relatively sparse and boot space is modest. But I, for one, love the distinctive split headlight and DRL design as well as the fresh interpretation of the familiar elongated central panel across the dash, two-spoke steering wheel and circular instrument binnacle.

Another highlight is the super-cool ‘FIAT’ monogram pattern on the synthetic leather seats, throwing back to the brand’s typography from the 1960s and ‘70s. Worth noting, however, others (hello, Byron) aren’t onboard with it.

A niche, heart-over-head purchase, the 500e’s undoubted charisma will prove irresistible for some. And I can see why.

Mercedes-AMG SL63 4Matic+

The SL63 features a 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 engine.

Over seven iterations Merc’s SL has stood for performance, glamour and exclusivity. And this time around the Mercedes-AMG SL63 4Matic+ is a ‘2+2’ rather than a strict two-seater, with a weight-saving soft roof rather than the folding hardtop of its immediate predecessor.

Sure, looks are subjective, but I defy anyone to see this car as anything other than stunning; perfectly proportioned, with a wide stance and sleek design (inside and out) that strikes just the right balance between sporting intent and high-end sophistication.

Power comes courtesy of AMG’s hand-built (M177) 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 sending 430kW (around 580hp) and 800Nm to all four wheels via a nine-speed dual-clutch auto. Zero to 100km/h is dispatched in 3.6 seconds. 

The SL63 wears a price tag close to 5K.

The raucous engine induction noise and rumbling exhaust are suitably arresting and thanks to an ultra-light and rigid aluminium space-frame chassis, fat rubber and tricky powertrain and suspension tech, the SL63 is huge fun to drive.

It’s beautifully put together, luxuriously equipped and even though close to $375K is a solid asking price it’s not out of line relative to its premium convertible sports and GT competition. What a superb machine.

Porsche 911 GT3 RS

The 911 GT3 RS features a naturally aspirated 4.0-litre flat six-cylinder engine.

While the automotive world turns towards electrification in all its forms, some performance-focused models are holding onto tradition… tight.

Think atmo heroes like the front-engine, RWD, V8 manual Ford Mustang GT, monstrous V12-powered Ferrari 812 Superfast, or this amazing machine; the latest, 992 iteration of Porsche’s 911 GT3 RS.

Powered by an all-alloy, naturally aspirated 4.0-litre flat six-cylinder engine producing 385kW (516hp) and 465Nm within an engine speed ceiling of no less than 9000rpm, this two-seat only, rear-wheel-drive, track-focused weapon is a masterpiece. Throttle response is like cracking a whip

The 911 GT3 RS will set you back well in excess of half a million dollars.

The extreme aero package (including a fully panelled underbody and F1-style Drag Reduction System), brilliant seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, rose-jointed suspension with ‘Porsche Active Suspension Management’ (aka PASM), monster rubber (Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2) and professional grade brakes make this a carbon-rich Porsche Cup car for the road.

Properly stretching this car’s legs on a circuit as ‘big’ as The Bend Motorsport Park in South Australia was a 2023 highlight. If you can get your hands on one it’ll set you back well in excess of half a million dollars. But hey, it’s only money. What a car! 

James Cleary
Deputy Editor
As a small boy James often sat on a lounge with three shoes in front of him, a ruler between the cushions, and a circular drinks tray in his hands. He would then play ‘drivings’, happily heading to destinations unknown for hours on end. He’s since owned many cars, raced a few, and driven (literally) thousands of them at all points of the globe. He’s steered around and across Australia multiple times, spent time as an advanced driving instructor, and had the opportunity to experience rare and valuable classics here and overseas. His time in motoring journalism has included stints at national and international titles including Motor, Wheels and TopGear, and when asked to nominate a career highlight, James says interviewing industry legend Gordon Murray, in the paddock at the 1989 Australian Formula One Grand Prix was amazing, especially as Murray waived away a hovering Ayrton Senna to complete the conversation. As Deputy Editor, James manages everything from sub-editing to back-end content, while creating written and video product reviews, as well as the weekly 'Tools in the Shed' podcast.'
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