A great drive is often not made up by the numbers on paper, or its looks. It’s often a celestial situation of planets aligning, everything coming together for a perfect moment in time blessed by the driving Powers That Be to etch into your memory forever: The road, weather, tyre performance, engine and driver’s mood all combining to achieve bliss point. These are my bliss-point drives for 2019, they are not cars that have necessarily been newly launched (although most are), they are the cars that have left an indelible mark on my memory, some at first glance make absolutely no sense to be included on a list of Top Drives though if you read on you’ll find out why I consider them special. We’ll be updating this list daily so stay tuned to find out what takes the Number 1 slot. These are my Top Drives for 2019 and they could easily be yours in 2020.
Mini Clubman Cooper S
The original go-kart, the Mini Cooper, except a lot has changed over the last 50-years for Mini. First, they’re owned now by BMW. Second, they’re the size of regular hatches now. Third, there’s a crossover Mini which makes no sense besides buying it for the badge dahling. But I digress. When the Mini’s first came out there was a Clubman Estate model, it was the station-ish wagon of the line. More seats, more space, and more practicality. The good news is nothing has changed, except it has four doors and I can live with that.
You can’t level the same criticism at the Clubman as you can at the Cooper and Countryman; this is not a rebadged BMW 1 Series even though it shares engines. And I specify Cooper S here as it’s the sweet spot of the range, underestimated and over-delivering. The new John Cooper Works model on the Clubman is just too much and that makes it no fun at all.
This is a Clubman, low to the ground, longer wheelbase, practical, wheel on each corner, goes like you don’t expect it too, superb handling, the noise from the engine overrun is music to the ears from a 1.5-litre turbo engine. To me the Clubman retains the essence of Mini from the original cars, yes there’s all the technology now and they’re bigger and badder but something in its mannerisms reminds me of the early Minis – it has a soul and charm that I don’t get from a lot of cars these days. To me the buyer of a Clubman sat down and thought about practical needs and didn’t choose the Countryman, they weighed up the pros and cons, drove the cars and the Clubman’s soul shone through.
Audi RS4 Avant
Nothing beats a fast wagon. And no one makes a fast wagon better than Audi under the Audi Sport moniker. Rather mournfully South Africa never really cottoned on to the practicalities of the estate body shape and thus they’re no longer an option to purchase here unless you’re in the market for something with an RS badge. Fast, loud, comfortable, practical, fits the dog, shopping, bicycle and surfboards. Why would you want a tall, ungainly SUV? I love the huge grille, because a massive grille gulping in air means one thing, something get’s very hot behind it and heat means a monster of an engine and a monster means serious performance. Another thing that most petrolheads love is the bodykit on the RS4 Avant, while to most, they assume that it makes the car look wider and meaner, though to me I know that all the curves are creases are there to direct cool air over hot mechanical components and brakes and to create downforce which means it sticks to the road better. And boy, it sticks to the road like a tick to a rhino. Audi RS models have been critisiced of late for being too clinical in their execution; the RS4 Avant is clinical with a soul. The steering input is telepathic, the response from the throttle is perfection, and the gearbox should not be interfered with unless you’re downshifting with paddles to make it pop and rattle. No one on the school run will ever appreciate your great car because it’s not an SUV with the correct premium badge, but you’ll know and you’ll smirk as you hurtle past Fillet-Mignon’s mother into the last available parking bay. How’s them apples.
Tucson Elite R2.0 CRDi Sport A/T
There’s something about a bonkers diesel SUV that gets my heart racing. Unique to South Africa, the Elite spec’d Sport diesel Tucson is something else. To start there’s the looks, sporting a body kit, dark grille, side sills, black alloys and the twin tailpipes it looks the sporty part. Inside, everything is much of the same as the standard Elite Tuscon we know and love with the panoramic sunroof and leather seats. Except, until you breathe on the throttle, then you know this is something special. Powered by the 2.0-litre turbo diesel unit except it’s been to the magic department and now produces 150 kW – all sent to the front wheels! The throttle booster that has been specially fitted returns an immediate response from the engine, eliminating traditional diesel lag. What you get instead is a surge of power that if you’re not aware could be a bit unnerving. However, if you’re up for some fun, it’s fantastic. When driving it needs to be handled in the same way you’d handle a muscle car – no accerlerating and turning at the same time. If you do this you’re sure of chirp out of the front wheels, at 20 km/h it’s hysterical, other road users think you’re a hoon and nothing is flailing about, it’s just talking back to the driver. Out of the city it’s a perfect car for cruising, the diesel climbs to the eighth gear and sits there. The 8-speed automatic gearbox wouldn’t be my first choice, though the clever clogs at Hyundai clearly know what they’re up too as it’s perfection. Initial trepidation was that it would be slow and clunky, thus making the diesel work hard by holding gears too long or dropping gear on the downhills under braking. Not so, the automatic gearbox is virtually flawless, other manufacturers could take a page out of Hyundai’s book regarding diesels and automatic gearboxes.
Peugeot 3008 GT-line
I have a strange affinity for Peugeot. One of the first cars I drove many moons ago was the first 3008. It was the MPV that wasn’t. Underestimated and overlooked by so many looking for a practical family car with flair, not some drab and dreary blob of design that only considers the needs of the passengers in the second row and not the needs of those piloting the vehicle. For the newest 3008, once again, one has to use the phrase ‘nailed it’. And it makes no sense, I should know better than to like a mini-MPV (I’m not buying the SUV moniker Peugeot are selling with the 3008), but I do. It’s the whole package, the styling will last for a while, a futuristic edge without going to far over the top. The interior follows futuristic styling cues, yet manages to make it comfortable and very likable. The boot is massive; enough for a stroller, kids bike and luggage and on the topic of storage space, there are many clever nooks and crannies in the cabin to store items.
All of this though is inconsequential to the selling point for me as a motoring journalist – the 1.6-litre THP engine. It makes me want to drive, I have fantasies of going on roadtrips behind the wheel. I went for a drive and came home 600-odd km later. It’s that good, you just keep going. The engine is the same one that Opel is using in the Grandland X, except the entire package comes together that much better in the 3008. The gearbox is an auto. The urgency from the drivetrain is thoroughly encouraging if you’re a dialled in driver, though it’s happy to toddle along if you’re more into taking the scenery in. If you own one and see a random woman giving you a thumbs up, that’s me congratulating you on making great choices.
Hyundai Kona 1.0T Executive
My 2019 started off in this Hyundai on stilts. Initially sceptical of a small crossover with a 1.0-litre turbo and a 6-speed manual, I simply didn’t think it would have the grunt to get around and carry four adults. It arrived, it looked too small to be practical, I was fully committed to enduring my three weeks with it. I left it in the driveway for three days, working up the patience to get in and be underwhelmed by the engine response and presumed lag from what I assumed to be an undersized turbo engine in an oversized car. You know what they say about assumptions being the mother of all stuff ups… That. Day four I decided I better get on with it and hopped in. Toddled down the road and set off up the hill.
Well, hello there Kona! Where did you come from with a Hyundai badge? First impressions included; zippy, great manual gearbox and planning a roadtrip to maximise the time with it. The Kona was the first time Hyundai brought the three-cylinder 1.0-litre to South Africa. The 88 kW engine provided more than enough power for the size of the Kona; five adults and a full boot couldn’t dim the Kona’s eagerness under throttle.
The interior is a Goldilocks effect of just perfect – enough tech that you need and not the expensive stuff you don’t. Features that stood out included the Hill start Assist Control (no rolling backwards taking off on an incline), Blind Spot Detection, Cruise Control, Park assist with rear camera and cross traffic alert. Safety features are six airbags, ABS with all the electronic controls and programmes to keep you safe.
To be continued…