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Your huge list of 2017's best cars in SA - Part 3

2017-12-29 16:16

Egmont Sippel

DROP-TOP SUPERCAR: Audi expands its R8 supercar range with the addition of thew new with a Spyder variant available in South Africa. Image: Quickpic

Cape Town - In the third instalment of a four-part article, Egmont Sippel looks at four of the five best cars driven in 2017 – Porsches excepted.

The No. 1 car, the winner, will soon be announced in a separate article.

5) Ford Fiesta ST200 (R340 000)

OK, it has reached the end of its lifetime. The Ford Fiesta ST200 is on its last legs. Overseas, the current car has been launched in 2016 already, as an update of the 2013 model. Only 400 units were built, of which a staggering 160 were off-loaded on local shores in May 2017.

And not a minute too late, for it is brilliant, absolutely brilliant, this recently updated iteration of the hot Fiesta that will soon make way for a 3-cylinder turbo replacement.

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

In the meantime, the ST200’s swansong has been ushered in by power and torque hikes of 10 and 20% respectively, pushing 1.6-litre four-cylinder peaks to 147kW and 290Nm, with overboost reaching 158kW and 320Nm for 20 seconds at a time. 

All of this lusty punch, accompanied by a feisty soundtrack – full of song and grunt – is distributed to the car’s north-pole via a positively lovely 6-speed manual box, paired with a smooth and well-weighted clutch.

A shorter final drive than before also helps to accelerate 1.16 tons from 0-100 km/h in 6.7 seconds, whilst in-gear acceleration delivers a veritable little storm in mid-range, delivering explosive overtaking power. Think about what the ST200 can do in third, if the fourth-gear run from 50 – 130 km/h is obliterated in a mere 5.2 seconds.

Keep going, and eventually the ST200 runs out of puff at 230 km/h.

Other tweaks involve revisions to the suspension, including a 15 mm drop, softer shocks, a beefier front anti-roll bar and increasing the rear twistbeam’s roll resistance by 30% – a combination that works a charm in conjunction with sharpened electrical steering.

The ST200 rides firmly, make no mistake. But there is a pliability around the edges doing a good imitation of soaking up all but the most jarring intrusions, without interfering with the chassis’ ability to transmit necessary surface information.
Front end grip and accuracy, enhanced by sharpened steering plus highly efficient brakes using torque vectoring to assist in turning the nose, is so inspired that the ST200 often lifts an inside rear wheel on corner entry. This, in turn, lightens the backside so that the fun factor goes through the roof when the little pocket rocket is thrown around with gusto, especially with stability control switched out.

Not everything is perfect, though. 

The 1.6-litre turbo ideally needs another 600 r.p.m. to play with in mountain passes, the rev ceiling at 6 400 just managing to curtail that final bit of flat-out fun.

The car’s age is also starting to show in a busy dash lay-out full of buttons, whilst the Sync 1 voice activated infotainment system relays via a tiny little screen. The seating position is also way too high for a sporty number, there is a distinct lack of storage space, the rear is cramped and doors are impractically long.

Yet, the ST200 ultimately delivers in the way that it connects driver and road via the machine. There is a joyous interplay between all the required elements, from steering through the drivetrain to the chassis and tyres; the ST runs on capable 205/40R 17 Bridgestones. 

Add an Aston Martin-like grille, a hooded wing at the rear, two-tone alloys, red brake calipers and a proper diffuser at the back, and Ford of Europe’s Cologne headquarters have dished up the perfect little storm.
No wonder the ST200 is, or was, available in only one colour, called Storm Grey!

4) Suzuki Ignis (R170 000 – R205 000)

The Ignis has been around for a while, since 2000, and right off the bat it expounded the theory of maximum space and utility in a minimalist body. With its square mini-station wagon-cum-SUV shape, the original was, in fact, somewhat of a precursor to Fiat’s brilliant little Panda II.

Clever design, then, and practical – especially in four-wheel drive iteration.

But was it something special? Mmmm. Not really.

The new one is. 

Motivated by a 1.2-litre 16-valve four-cylinder churning out 61 kW and 113 Nm, performance (via the front wheels only; all-wheel drive is available in some overseas markets) can’t be described as earthshattering – but remember that the Ignis weighs in at a really neat and tidy 900 kg, enabling the little crossover to punch well above its weight.

OK, it won’t obliterate the open road. But with claimed consumption of 4.7 litre/100 km for the manual (the only derivative available locally), it won’t obliterate your wallet either. Even in the real world you’ll get close to 5.0 litre/100 km, enabling the Ignis to tap in the order of 600 km-plus from a 32 litre tank.

The little Suzie is big on fun, too. It’s cute. It’s striking. It’s perky. It rides high, and not only with a tall roof, but also a ground clearance of 180mm.

The wheels are small, yes. But they’re framed by bulging arches and placed in the corners of the car to create a stable stance. Tyre profiles are also deep and in being so tall, the Ignis provides lots of space for proper suspension parts to absorb much of what would normally have translated to a choppy short-wheelbased ride.

And don’t you just love those black rims, projecting a really hardegat self-assurance; somewhat cheeky, somewhat brash, somewhat devil-may-care. 

Plus those headlights, cocky as can be. 

Plus striking two-tone colour schemes on GXL variants. 

Plus fat C-pillars, tri-angulated towards the top, with each pillar adorned by three shark gill-shaped indentations.
The latter ain’t nothing new. It was first seen on the C-pillars of a sporty Suzuki mini from the mid-1970’s, named the Cervo (or nicknamed the Whizzkid in Britain, where the legendary automotive journalist, LJK Setright, was so enamoured by the Cervo that he acquired one).

Built on the same platform as the Suzuki Baleno hatch (locally available with a 1.4-litre four-pot to compete against the likes of the VW Polo and Renault Clio) the Ignis is not only differentiated by an irreverently styled exterior, but also an entirely modern and modular interior, again in a two-tone colour scheme.

At the price, equipment levels impress, starting with electric windows, aircon, ABS brakes, halogen headlights, two airbags and a full-sized spare wheel on the entry-level GL model, the GLX adding alloy wheels, satellite controls on the steering wheel, LED headlights, parking sensors at the back, roof rails and a push button for engine start-up.

Faultless? Not quite. Steering can do with a lot more self-centring.

Beyond that, the Ignis is hard to beat, not only in terms of value for money or sheer affordability, but also for a surplus of the feel-good factor.

3) BMW 540i (R1.005 million)

The notorious ex-BMW designer, Chris Bangle, used to say that every second car under his stewardship will be evolutionary and every other second car revolutionary.

Clearly, in terms of this particular rhythm, Munich has now skipped a beat in the chronology of 5-series development. If 2010’s sixth generation F10 was an evolution of 2003’s fifth generation E60, 2017’s G30 should have introduced the next revolution in the Fiefdom of Five.

Yet, the new car is clearly just an evolution of its predecessor. 

Or so it seems. G30 is 36 mm longer than F10, with seven of those extra millimetres squeezed between the two axles, stretching the wheelbase to 25 mm short of three metres, comfortably longer than E-Class and A6 wheelbases.

G30 is also ever so slightly taller and wider than F10, but – depending on drivetrain –about 100 kg lighter.

'A shrunken 7'

In terms of styling, the front end has been streamlined, notably with headlights running into the huge grille, the latter now sporting nice, fat double kidney chrome frames. F10’s flat rear deck has also given way to a more raked window and boot lid.

The Five, in essence then, is a shrunken Seven, the marginally smaller twin. More evidence of that can be found in just about everything that’s hidden from the eye, from technology and drivetrains to new rear wheel drive architecture called CLAR.

CLAR is short for Cluster Architecture, a modular lightweight solution that will underpin all rear-wheel drive Beemers, including next year’s new 3-series and future Rolls-Royces. The rest, including the Mini, will be based on Munich’s FAAR platform, a next-generation development of the existing UKL platform, for front-wheel drive models.

One difference between the Oberklasse Seven and its Five sibling, the latter described by BMW as a ‘business athlete’, is perhaps that you can order the aforementioned with air springs, an option not available on the latter, although rear-wheel steer is. You’ll have to fork out R23 000 plus, but it improves agility in a car that’s already renowned for top class dynamics.

READ: Your huge list of 2017's best cars in SA - Part 2

Add an impressive array of electronics and equipment, plus BMW’s classic 3.0-litre straight-6, and the 540i is the jewel in Beemer’s new 5-series. 

Twin turbochargers, fully variable valve lift, timing on both cams and direct petrol-injection conjure up a truly smooth and refined 250 kW and 450 Nm to blast the car from 0-100 km/h in 5.1 secs, electronics limiting V-max to 250 km/h.

The soundtrack might not quite be as enthralling as the normally-aspirated straight-6’s of yore, but if it’s off, it’s only by a whisker. 

Effortlessness, conversely, has been ratcheted up another notch: power delivery, acceleration, big speeds, handling, the way the car feels smaller than it is . . .

Never dinky toy small, take note. Even David Copperfield can’t make 1.67 tons disappear. There is bulk to shift and weight to be thrown about. But it’s all under supreme control, making the Five that little bit easier to brake, turn and place than the bigger Seven, which, in its own right, handles magnificently for such a behemoth. 

Which brings me to the braking phase, in preparation for turn-in. 

The anchors are great, but in the Five and even more so in the Seven, the pedal ramps up in a rather soft and docile way over the first two-thirds of travel, meaning that you have to dig deep over the last third to arrest momentum and slash the tremendous speeds gathered during pedal-to-the-metal driving.

All of this now, to transition from a straight line, into curved space, without the nose pushing on – which especially the Seven might do if you don’t work the brakes with intent, straight off the bat.

Once there, once in the apex and back on the power, the 540i will plant its wide 275/35R 19 Michelin Primacy 3’s with no letting go at the rear, unless you’ve turned off the electronic nannies for a bit of sideways fun.

Electronics, sure, is integral to the new Five. Semi-autonomous driving can keep station with the vehicle up ahead in slow-moving traffic. At an additional cost of R8 000 the Beemer can park and unpark itself, even via remote control, which is super-handy when parking slots are ultra-narrow; get out first, then let the nanny chauffeur take over. Voila!

Active cruise control also adjusts automatically when speed limits change. You can preset it to cruise at up to 15km/h above or below this limit. The stop/start system has been reworked to recognise moments, via satnav and real-time traffic info, when it would be better to keep the engine running at intersections, all in the name of immediate responses if and when that elusive cross-traffic gap appears. 

You can even speak to the car and, que?, often would have to speak again, as the machine sometimes finds it difficult to follow. Or you can use hand signals to control certain functions and then gesture again until you’re dilly and just give up.

You can check your car’s status and access the internet – to get a heads-up on the weather five days down the line, for instance – on your key fob display, the unit being as big as a small book. 

Then you get to matters of refinement, and not only on the drivetrain. The doors, for instance, open and close with minimal effort and noise.

So, why is the Beemer not top dog of the year?

Well, identity, really.

The Five is superb in almost every way, but rather than being a car in its own right, as it used to be, it has now simply been morphed into a mini-Seven; a bit smaller, slightly less luxurious, a tad more dynamic, things like that.

But a mini-Seven nonetheless, which also means an outdated dash. The latter is crying out for an update to a formulathat is decades old. The philosophy behind Munich’s dash design might be one of simplicity, but in reality Beemer dashes abound with lines and angles and curves plus a host of nasty coloured screen icons (like neon orange and lime green), all of which create a slightly el cheapo look.

By contrast, modern Mercs present us with dramatic el expensivo lay-outs. Audi dashes are exquisite. Volvo understands the art of Zen. From behind the wheel, Gothenburg’s latest radiate luxurious class and calm. Ditto at Porsche. The Art of the Interior has moved on.

BMW dashes? 

Dour and generic, and lacking in character. The 540i’s steering column also fails to be lowered far enough (if you set the driver’s seat rock bottom which, admittedly, is quite deep) whilst the test car’s telescopic action was unrefined and inelegant, not befitting so much else offered by such a luxuriously equipped gentleman’s express. 
On the whole, though, the new Five raises the bar. It’s wonderful car.

2) Audi R8 Spyder (R2.905 million)

It’s difficult to disentangle the web of who designed what in the motoring world. But after Audi design chief Walter de Silva was promoted in 2009 to oversee VW Group Design while Satoshi Wada resigned at a similar point, Audi’s presentations have steadily taken a turn for the worse.

The Q7, for instance. What a brilliant vehicle, what a styling disaster. 

Mind you, De Silva and Wada were both still active in Ingolstadt when 2010’s A8 had been born on paper, and that won’t be remembered as a great looker either.

Ditto for the new Q5. The car’s face suffers from Audi/VW’s current obsession with horizontal lines – call it line sickness – but the big culprit is the low positioning of the belt line, with door handles so far south that men can open it with hands in their pockets.

Maybe that was the idea.

The overall effect, though, is an imbalance between the car’s base and superstructure resulting in a top heaviness reminiscent of 2001’s Pontiac Aztek.

The Audi R8 likewise sits a little uncomfortably on the eye. The nose is short and low and the overhang quite long, even more so because the grille is carried by a protruding box, whilst the side-on view is emasculated by a drooping character line. 

But that’s only in pictures.

In the metal, the R8’s cab-forward Bauhaus look makes a lot more sense. The car is wider and flatter than before, the face less serpentine and more angular, more modular, more refined, whilst the elongated twin-hooped rear deck – carrying two silvery metal cowls with integrated air intakes – leaves absolutely no doubt about the power harboured underneath the Spyder’s exotic sheet metal. 

Of significance here, though, is not peak values of 397kW and 540Nm. The imminent Spyder Plus, after all, pushes those up to 449kW and 560Nm.

Of significance is rather a normally-aspirated screamer that will, in the foreseeable future, be replaced by hybrid turbo power until electricity and hydrogen takes over.

The new R8 really then embodies the end of a breed. And what a glorious last breath, using 12.7:1 compression on a 5.2-litre V10 to blast 1.6 tons of sculpted metal to a 318 km/h top end, the 0-100 km/h run blitzed in 3.6 seconds.

That’s Porsche 911 GT3 territory – whilst lugging an extra 200kg around.

Handling is therefore not quite as laser sharp as the GT3’s, the longer-wheel based R8 displaying a teeny-weeny bit of generally well-disguised understeer on turn-in when driven overenthusiastically.
The Audi is slightly softer sprung, as well – which makes for a fantastic ride, especially at low speeds – whilst variable steering ratios are more relaxed in medium-speed corners than the Porsche’s, the R8’s rudder being a fraction light as well.
Which is not to say that the Audi is a town poodle or a long distance cruiser, only. Switch out traction control and you get a track ready animal, even in Spyder shape. Handling is sharp by any standards apart from the most extreme, an aluminium-carbon fibre chassis doing its bit whilst body flex and scuttle shake is conspicuous by the absence thereof, some extremely advanced technologies having upped structural rigidity by 55%. 

Traction, specifically, is a strong suit as the R8’s revised quattro system propels all four wheels with a power split good for 100% either way. Get it all on the rear axle, with the limited-slip diff locked up, and it’s even possible to drift, if you have the cajones to do so.

Not everything about the Spyder translates to smooth sailing, though. The test model was slightly unstable under really heavy braking with a tendency to veer left – I never got an answer from suppliers as to what the problem could have been – and the gearbox did jolt itself into and out of first gear on more than one occasion. 

It even went slightly haywire at one point, which necessitated engine kill to reset the whole lot. 

The rest was simply superb.

Yet, those who are truly serious about driving can always wait on the limited edition rear wheel drive R8, which should introduce the same fun factor as the Lamborghini Gallardo Balboni did, the latter so named in honour of Sant’Agata’s long-serving test driver, Valentino Balboni, whose prayers for a real wheel drive monster gave rise to the LP 550-2.

To this day, it remains the most exciting Gallardo, the Superleggera and Spyder Performante notwithstanding. Boy, can you turn that baby sideways at will, the Balboni!

And now that we’ve mentioned Lamborghini: the R8’s V10 is obviously closely related to the Huracán’s, although it is only in Plus-iteration that the Audi will match Lambo outputs. 

R8 power delivery of the 397kW kind is, nevertheless, relentless and ever more pleasurable because of a diabolically quick 7-speed S tronic double clutch box, the speed of which is not matched anywhere else in the automotive world.

Combine this sophistication with a supple ride plus civilised on-road manners and the Audi is an altogether less robust machine than the rampaging Huracán.

The Lambo, for instance, is characterized by an intensely focussed fighter jet cockpit; the R8 by an open cabin architecture boasting a floating dash, top quality materials and the usual impeccable fit and finish.

Add Ingolstadt’s unique wide-screen virtual cockpit display with high-resolution 3D graphics, and a rather relaxed cabin ambience lives quite comfortably in tandem with ultra-modern digitalisation.

Which leaves a rag top to be folded away in 20 seconds if you want direct access to the V10’s sonorous scream. Or, for close encounters of the mellifluous kind when conditions call for a closed roof, you can lower the rear window independently for an unfiltered experience of that Spyder snarl, punctuated by blipping and backfiring on downshifts when investing in Performance mode retardation. 

Yet, around town, in Comfort mode, the R8 drives more easily and comfortably than any other supercar, courtesy of ultra-light steering and that supple chassis.

Blast away at more than 200 km/h, though, and Bang & Olufsen speakers, integrated into the headrests of two magnificently stitched sport buckets, will still ensure a great acoustic experience, should you wish to hook up with your favourite band.

Unless, of course, your kind of rock & roll emits from the V10 directly behind you.

Then you just listen. And drive. And enjoy.

Keep an eye open for Egmont’s 2017 winner, Porsches excepted.

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