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Your huge list of 2017's best cars in SA - Part 1

2017-12-25 10:00

Egmont Sippel

Image: Volvo Cars South Africa

We all like to make lists. Egmont Sippel has one of his own, regarding 2017’s best cars.

Cape Town - It’s as popular as Monopoly and Pac-Man used to be, not so – to pick Top Ten lists.

Of anything. Sports people. Movie stars. Heroes. Hotels. Cities. Mountain passes. Train trips. Villains. Beauty queens. The lot.

Bo Derek, for instance, was The Perfect 10 in her day, at least according to the movie buffs who produced '10'. And if she wasn’t, if she was only a ‘9’, Bo would at least have made it into any and all Top 10 lists of beautiful women you cared to mention, back in the 1980s.

Yet, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. People will have an opinion, even if they don’t have a clue. 

Vehicle owners and enthusiasts are amongst the guilty. They look at a picture and fall in love with a car, the same way they look at a picture and fall in love with Kate Upton or Kim Kardashian. 

And then you meet some of these girls and you think: well, I can do without her in my life.
Can you do without a M3, M4, AMG, R, Type R or F-Type? 

Or are you so aligned to a brand that just can’t see the wood from the trees? 

The other day a sixth grader told me: "I just love Jaguars." He said it about twenty times. Based on what? Knowledge? Insight? Analysis? Experience? Understanding? 

The Fallen King

So, without ever having seen or touched a specific model in the metal, let alone having sat in it or swung the engine, let alone having driven it – to the extremes – people become self-declared experts, for example, on the M3/M4. 

Gotta be the best out there. Absolutely. No doubt. It’s a given.

Except that it ain’t any more. The base model suffers from spikey and even unpredictable handling, whilst the Competition Package’s uprated springs, dampers and anti-roll bars have stiffened the ride to borderline-acceptability.

The Competition is also one-dimensional and sounds awful, truly awful – flat and synthesized – until you hit 5500 revs. That’s when the car comes into its own.

But how often are you in a position to exploit that kind of dizzying frenzy?

Apart from power and speed and grip, the M3’s strong suit has always been to engage the driver from start-up to engine kill. There used to be a warmth, a rightness, a deep satisfying feel to the wheel, a unity and synchronicity and intimacy between car and driver. 

No more. Nowadays, you are one entity and the car is another, at least up to 5500 rpm.

The new Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio has, in fact, taken over the core characteristics of what used to make the M3 so great – except that the engine and steering is even more refined, the chassis more pliable, the contact between car and road more complete.

But no, Mr BMW down the road, who has never been behind the wheel of either of these two beasts, he will hurl insults at those who dare to have doubts about the Reign of M.

The worst are people who own wheels and then disown you as a friend because they get an opinion that they’ve asked for after the car had been bought, and the opinion received ain’t rosy enough.
Hell has no wrath like a car owner scorned.

Best car in the land

With this in mind, I’ll stick my neck out and venture some opinions about cars that, hey, I’ve had the pleasure – or even displeasure – to drive in 2017; a Baker’s Dozen of the best (of which numbers 13, 12 and 11 are published today with the Top 10 to follow soon), plus a Disappointing Seven which could easily have been so much better (published later).

Roll on, then. The best car of the year is the Porsche 911 GTS. It is simply brilliant.

The second best car of the year is the Porsche GT2 RS. Then the Porsche GT3 followed by the Porsche Panamera and so forth.... 

You get the drift? Or is it more like a wave? 
Porsche is now, and has been for a while, the best car manufacturer on the planet. Stuttgart and Zuffenhausen and Leipzig and Weissach and Flacht, well, what they design and develop and build in these places obliterate the rest. Every single model seems to be better than the previous one.

So, is the GT3 RS my favourite set of wheels? 
Yes. But when I sit in the driver’s seat of the Boxster Spyder, the Cayman GT, the Cayman GT4, a GTS model, a GT2 RS, a Panamera, a Macan or perhaps even the forthcoming Cayenne I start to doubt my preferences.

Depending on criteria, one of these could conceivably be judged as superior to the GT3 RS, especially when price is a factor.

But aah, enter stage left: the soundtrack.

All animals are equal

All animals are equal, George Orwell said in Animal Farm. Except some are more equal.
Likewise on Flacht Farm (Flacht being the small town adjacent to Weissach where Porsche develop and build their race cars) where the GT3 RS’s unadulterated primordial scream is the deal breaker.

It is more equal.

So then, just for fun, we are going to rate 13 instead of the usual 10 cars and it is obvious that we cannot fill the first half a dozen places with Porsches only, even though they’d deserve to be there.
That’s just not how lists work, except that The Beatles once – on April 4, 1964 – monopolized the top five positions on America’s Billboard Hot 100. If the chart had not been sales based, it would have smacked of bias.

We want to avoid that perception, so we’ve pulled the Porsches out of our Baker’s Dozen for a separate Porsche Exclusive in January 2018 – including an analyses of the monstrously powerful and fast new GT2 RS which this writer, uniquely amongst South Africans, has had the privilege to drive already.

Excluding all Porsches plus a bunch of cars that have not been driven yet, or not been tested properly – like the Range Rover Velar, the Land Rover Discovery, the BMW M760Li xDrive, the Maserati Levante and the Nissan Navara – excluding this lot means that my Top 13 cars for 2017 look like this: 

13) Kia Picanto (R135 000 - R196 000)

It must be difficult to move goal posts in the small car market. There are only so many ways you can package rubber, plastic and metal into 3.6 meters of car, limited to less than 1.5 meters in height.

That’s why Kia’s third generation Picanto, at first glance, seems more like a facelift than a new model. At 3595mm the toddler is, for instance, identical in length to its predecessor. Yet, under the skin it has evolved in quite significant ways.

Packaging first: the front overhang is now 25mm shorter, which enabled Kia to respectively grow the rear overhang and wheelbase by 10 and 15mm to free up boot and cabin space.

At the same time ground clearance has been dropped and the roofline raised. Ditto for the dash, now mounted 15 mm higher than before to create more knee room for front occupants, the spatial gain bolstered by the top derivative’s height-adjustable driver seat.

That then, is a hard-to-spot packaging improvement. The devil is in the detail, and the detail is in the millimeters.

Experientially, the second big improvement – concerning engineering and build quality – is an even more important step forward. 

Whereas the previous Picanto was a great little car damned by a vague, overly light and lifeless rudder, the new one has been overhauled with a raft of revamped hard and software; the steering rack is new, the EPS’s electric motor is now positioned on the steering column, the ratio is quicker and weighting and feel are miles better.

So is the gearbox, now yielding smooth, easy and positive shifts, whilst the suppression of wind, tyre and suspension noise is reaching premium car levels.

Body control has also been jacked up by beefier anti-roll bars, yet the ride – on 65-profile tyres – is excellent.

All good, then?

Well, the 1.2-liter 4-cylinder mill has always been so much better than the 1.0-liter 3-pot, yet the latter’s peak power has actually been dropped from 51 to 49kW whilst torque, at 95 Nm, delivers only a single unit more than before, making it easy for VW’s 1.0-liter 3-cylinder in the Up! to outscore the Picanto in terms of power, acceleration, speed and consumption. 

Yet the Korean is cheaper and better equipped, with a marginally better ride, whilst Peter Schreyer has modernised the Picanto’s look with a bold new face sporting a wide angry mouth plus dramatically slanted headlights, the wide-eyed aggression only topped by the intensity of the stare.

Such is the mechanical, engineering and build integrity, that it all adds up to a small Korean car that can easily masquerade as a German product, albeit one with attitude. 

12) Volvo S90 T6 AWD (R860 000)
Volvo is in the midst of a massive metamorphosis.
 
It started with Geely’s acquisition of the Swedish manufacturer in 2010 and picked up pace with the signing of top designer Thomas Ingenlath shortly after. 

His first production effort, the XC90 SUV, stunned the motoring world.

Now the XC90’s class and quality, from design and engineering to safety and technology, have been successfully transferred to the S90 sedan.

At one-and-three-quarter tons the top-flight T6 AWD ain’t light. Yet, with optional air springs at the back, the ride quality on low profiled 20” tyres is surprisingly good.

So is grunt. A full 235 kW and 400 Nm from a twin-turboed 2.0-liter four cylinder is exceptional. Proof of the pudding is to be found in a sub-six second 0-100 km/h sprint; the T6 AWD is more powerful and quicker than both the 2.0-litre Benz E250 and the 2.0-litre BMW 530i, plus a R100 000 cheaper once the German cars have been specced to match the Swede.

What is also standard in the Volvo is possibly a best in class interior permeated by Zen, tranquillity and peace – something money can’t buy.

Thus analysed the T6 AWD is not only a great car. It is a satisfying buy as well. 

11)  Mercedes-AMG C63 S Cabriolet (R1.6 million)

Oi! The German car manufacturers are in an arms race rivalling the escalation of hostilities between North-Korea and the USA.

And if Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un espouse daily threats of unleashing a nuclear apocalypse, Mercedes-AMG has found a way of delivering the message in an even more, and ever more, thundering voice.

Imagine Tyrannosaurus Rex getting mad at you. Imagine Tyrannosaurus Rex raging like our two trigger happy nutcases named Big Don and Little Rocket Man. Imagine Tyrannosaurus Rex popping out of a car’s exhaust pipe and letting rip with a dark, demented blast, the clamour of which shakes the earth to its very core.
That’s the AMG C63 S in either Coupé of Cabriolet form.

Both are fired by a mighty 4.0-litre V8-biturbo delivering 375kW and 700Nm to the rear axle, which sounds like way too much for easy control.

Or to put it bluntly: it sounds – and you have to hear that sound – like a tailspin in waiting.

Yet, the C63 S’s rear refuses to step out of line, courtesy – mostly – of ample rubber on the big 20” rears (the front sports 19” alloys) plus a lot of weight over that rubber; the Cabriolet, carrying 90 kg more than the C63 S Coupé, locks down at 1.925 ton.

That’s 55 kg heavier than the C43 Cabrio with 4Matic drive.

You would be mistaken, though, to think that the 4Matic necessarily provides more grip. You would also be mistaken to believe that the 4Matic is, because of all-wheel drive, less agile.

It ain’t. And whilst a sharp turn-in alone would not all by itself represent fun behind the wheel, the lighter and softer C43 Cabrio 4Matic is really a sweeter car to drive than the C63 S Cabrio.

Ignore Sport mode, though. Merc’s focus has never been to develop dynamically superior cars. That’s BMW domain.Back in Stuttgart and Affalterbach, Sport mode just adds unnecessary weight to the steering action, with no real increase in stability, precision or feedback.

For the same reason, the best buy in a Merc range is always the Cabriolet with its built-in benefit of being able to drop the soft top whilst showing off in Hermanus or Clifton.

Who knows? Besides sunshine, you might even catch a bird or two as well.

This then, is where the C63 S comes to the fore so strongly. It looks beefier than the C43. It sounds beefier. It is beefier.

And only a few things in life carries more clout than a properly prepared Stuttgart steak, sporting a three-pointed star right in the middle of its mug.

Add the Sound of the Apocalypse to it, and the earth will tremble in tandem with that pretty woman walkin’ down the street, the kind you’d like to meet, the one that you couldn’t help but see, that she looks lovely as can be.
She might, in Roy Orbison’s words, think exactly the same thing about you and choose not to walk on by.

• Look out for Egmont Sippel’s Top 10 cars which will follow soon.


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