This year’s prestigious Car of the Year competition is set to be yet another tough one for the jury panel as twelve of the latest and greatest cars released in the country come under scrutiny for South Africa’s ultimate motoring title.

For the 2013 honours, it’s a mix of classy, rugged, sporty and funky cars – each deserving of a place on the podium. But, with such a diverse list of finalists, which one deserves to win? Here’s a round-up of them all…

BMW 320i Steptronic
Price: R380 539
Engine: 2.0 4-cyl turbo petrol, 135 kW & 270 Nm
Gearbox: 8-speed torque convertor auto
Claimed fuel economy: 5.9-litres per 100 km

Everybody knows the BMW 3 Series. It’s been around since before dinosaurs and, unlike the long-gone beasts, hasn’t succumbed to an extinction level event. Rather, it’s continued to be the benchmark in the premium D-segment parking lot for decades, its fiercest rivals (the Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class) never quite being able to topple its reign. It’s also BMW’s bread and butter car which is why the brand’s local plant in Rosslyn spews nearly 1 000 of the new 3 into the local market every single month. Is it better than the Merc or the Audi? Most times, that comes down to brand perception and loyalty. Do you want the tradition of a Merc, the quality of an Audi or the sportiness of a Beemer? They’re all good in their own right and this new 3 Series has apparently gone a long way to place BMW ahead of the competition – the current A4 and C-Class have just undergone their mid-life face lifts, so you can expect their replacements along fairly soon and they’ll be desperate to out-do each other as usual. Besides that I would rather go for the new 320d rather than the 320i, I quite like the new 3.

It feels a lot smaller than it looks – I could easily have been driving a 1 Series – and its powerful engine is mated to a truly brilliant gearbox. I also like the different drive modes which allow you to go from lazy and economical in ECO PRO mode to zesty and immediate in full SPORT+. I do however have some reservations about quality. Switchgear feels a bit too plasticky for my liking and the fact that this car is by no means cheap makes it worse. Then you have to, of course, remember that you will have to spec the standard 320i up if you want even the simplest of extras to make it a nice one. I built myself a simple 320i auto on BMW’s website while writing this review and it would cost almost R60 000 more than list, and that’s just for things like parking sensors, navigation, xenon headlights and metallic paint. So, you have to ask yourself the question: is spending that much money on a small sedan really worth it? Not in my mind.

Ford Ranger 3.2 XLT 4×4 Double Cab AT
Price: R456 992
Engine: 3.2 5-cyl turbo diesel, 147 kW & 470 Nm
Gearbox: 6-speed torque convertor auto
Claimed fuel economy: 9.7-litres per 100 km

I know it goes against the stereotype, but I do love a big bakkie. You sit high up with a commanding view, (hopefully) imposing looks and, when you feel like it and if you have four-wheel drive, you can go and play in mud and drive over rocks. However, aside from cheaper workhorse versions of bakkies like the VW Amarok and Toyota’s Hilux, who do you see driving most of the nation’s butch bakkies? Moms and dads, who buy them for their imposing stance and the perceived extra safety of being bigger than everyone else on the road. That’s fine – if you want a big bakkie, buy one. But don’t just buy any one. In days gone by (and still personified today by the Hilux), bakkies have always been harsh, crude-riding brutes with barely any redeeming features and no luxury at all. That started to change with the VW Amarok and now, the new Ford Ranger.

It’s been designed to be more car than bakkie and it sure does show. The interior is well-appointed, the ride is generally comfy and it does indeed drive a lot like a car. This version of the Ranger especially is a wonderful machine to use for its intended purposes, with the benefit of a proper 4×4 drivetrain on hand for that odd weekend when dad or hubby decides that an off-road adventure is in order. In the looks department particularly, I reckon the Ranger is the best of its competitors and with this version’s sweet five-cylinder diesel engine mated to a smooth six-speed automatic gearbox, it’s beautiful to live with. It’s also huge. So it ticks all the lifestyle boxes and has practicality licked as well. Best-in-class without a doubt.

Hyundai i30 1.8 Exclusive
R257 900
Engine: 1.8 4-cyl petrol, 110 kW & 178 Nm
Gearbox: 6-speed manual
Claimed fuel economy: 6.5-litres per 100 km

Featuring the latest Hyundai design language which uses natural elements like wind and water to sculpt and shape the body and interior elements, the new i30 came as quite a surprise when I tested it last year. Besides looking really sexy in Exclusive spec especially, I had a little revelation when I first got behind the wheel: this is the first Korean car I’ve ever driven which made me think “wow, this could even be German”. Fit, finish, quality and materials have all been stepped up a notch and are matched by superb comfort. Not only that, but the 1.8-litre petrol engine is good considering it’s unconventionally normally aspirated – although sixth gear in the manual gearbox is a little tall for my liking.

What Hyundai presents with this car is a brilliant alternative to other C-segment hatches like the VW Golf or a Ford Focus – where the quality and comfort is met by a very attractive comparative price. For me, it represents the next step in Hyundai’s quest to become the number one manufacturer in the world and, considering that the Elantra, which doesn’t feature quite the same superior levels of quality, won last year’s COTY competition, I think the i30 stands an exceptionally good chance of bagging a second win for Korea.

Kia Rio 1.4 Tec
Price: R182 995
Engine: 1.4 4-cyl petrol, 79 kW & 135 Nm
Gearbox: 6-speed manual
Claimed fuel economy: 6.4-litres per 100 km

The other Korean contender for this year’s title is as much a crown jewel for Kia as the i30 is for Hyundai. Not only a revelation compared to the old Rio, the new hatch, in range-topping Tec specification, is a fantastically-priced and worthy alternative to more established competitors like the VW Polo and Toyota’s new Yaris. Of course, it looks great inside and out and the features you get as standard – like Bluetooth and the snazzy 17-inch alloy wheels – will make both the concerned parents buying a car for their matriculant and the younger generation at which the Rio is aimed, rather happy.

It’s also nice to drive with good torque, a six-speed manual gearbox and fairly good fuel economy which means it’s cheap to run as well as buy. Like in the i30, I found sixth gear a bit too long for the Rio especially at Joburg altitude but, nevertheless, it’s a great car to live with. Despite the Kia being loaded with features, however, I would spend another ten grand and buy a VW Polo BlueMotion. It’s so economical and so well built that it would sway me away from the Rio, despite not having nearly as many wow-that’s-nice features. If the Rio is all you can afford though, buy one. It’s a great little car!

Lexus GS 350 EX
Price: R584 900
Engine: 3.5 V6, 233 kW & 378 Nm
Gearbox: 6-speed torque convertor auto
Claimed fuel economy: 9.4-litres per 100 km

It’s no secret that the new GS is a phenomenal car and, having now tested all three versions of the car, it is one very worthy alternative to Germany’s offerings like the Audi A6, Merc’s E-Class and the BMW 5 Series. All versions come loaded with a long list of extra equipment and, being Lexus, none of it is optional. So the price you see on the website is the price you’ll be paying for this classy, excellently-finished and incredibly sexy machine. And, in case you still think that a Lexus is an old man’s car, think again – the GS 350 has more than one performance ace up its sleeve, with manual shift paddles and possibly the best induction noise from any ‘normal’ sedan on the market.

Floor the throttle and at around 3 000 rpm, some wizardry under the bonnet opens up a butterfly valve and the result is a deep-throated V6 induction roar. Which, I might add, would probably scare a pensioner half to death. Would I by a GS instead of the Beemer, Audi or Merc? Well I’m a big fan of diesel engines especially in big cars like the Lexus and of course, petrol or hybrid are your only GS options. The GS 350 isn’t light on fuel, but if I wanted a petrol-powered large executive saloon, the Lexus would be in my driveway without question.

Price: R343 100
Engine: 1.8 4-cyl turbo diesel, 80 kW & 250 Nm
Gearbox: 7-speed dual-clutch auto
Claimed fuel economy: 4.5-litres per 100 km

I have had a strange love affair with Merc’s B-Class for years now and, having lived with a B200 CDI back in the day, I couldn’t wait to try out the new version’s new engine (a 1.8-litre turbocharged diesel unit) and its new seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. Of course, the fact that the new tech is wrapped in a sexy body and the interior is absolutely beautiful, means that the new B-Class makes for a very attractive proposition on all fronts. I know, it’s a mommy’s car, and most of my friends who came into contact with it turned their noses up, saying that it’s not cool enough for the younger generation and to a certain extent, I agree with them.

It’s also not cheap for what it is – essentially an alternative to a Golf, Focus or Civic, which needs rather a few optional extras before it’s really nice – but it does come with a Merc badge and in the neighbourhoods of desperate housewives, that counts for a lot. Especially if hubby is buying. Having tested the B200 CDI 7G-DCT (which is the same car only with more power and torque), its comfort levels, space, class, efficiency and quieter nature than the old model make it a wonderful car to  drive – whether you’re a single gay man with some shopping or a married woman with three children. Sure, it’s not cheap, but it is a fantastic car and as they say, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.

Nissan Juke 1.6 DIG-T Tekna
Price: R272 900
Engine: 1.6 4-cyl turbo petrol, 140 kW & 240 Nm
Gearbox: 6-speed manual
Claimed fuel economy: 6.9-litres per 100 km

If you’re looking for something funky then Nissan’s Juke just has to be on your shopping list. Created as a crossover beneath the Qashqai, the B-segment competitor offers a completely unique mix of SUV poise, hatchback proportions and a super-cool personality. I know not everyone approves of the looks but you’re sure going to be noticed in this sexy little number. You’re also likely to mess up your hair while diving thanks to the turbo variant’s punchy 1.6-litre engine which shoves 140 kW and 240 Nm to the wheels.

The snug interior features beautiful design aspects including a painted centre console modelled on a bike’s fuel tank and a smart LCD screen which provides graphic information pertaining to economy and boost. It’s fun at every corner with the Juke and I mean that in the literal sense too – it’s great in the bends as well as on the straights. Plus, it looks like an alien at night. As an alternative to something like a Polo GTI or a Clio RS, a Corsa OPC or the DS3 THP, Nissan have hit the right buttons with the Juke. That it’s great fun to drive is just icing on the proverbial cake.

Opel Meriva 1.4T Cosmo
Price: R262 900
Engine: 1.4 4-cyl turbo petrol, 103 kW & 200 Nm
Gearbox: 6-speed manual
Claimed fuel economy: 6.7-litres per 100 km

In a similar vein to the Mercedes B-Class in the running for this year’s COTY honours, the Opel Meriva is another jumped-up hatchback with a tall roofline and more mommy wagon connotations than I care to mention. However, this isn’t just a school run version of a Corsa. The new Meriva is a marvel of design and packaging, Opel having really thought about what moms and dads want and need from a car. So, the Meriva firstly features ‘Flex Doors’ – whereby the rear doors open backwards. Not only does this look really cool but they have several smart effects on the car, like making rear access, especially when fitting a baby seat, exceptionally eas

Then, they also create a safety cage effect when open in conjunction with the front doors in a parking lot. Parent and child are basically cocooned between the doors and a neighbouring vehicle so baby dearest can’t run into the traffic. The Meriva’s other smart features – like rear seats which provide extra elbow room when slid rearwards, a clever boot folding arrangement and the snazzy adjustable rail centre console – where you can customise the position of the centre cubby and cup holders and under-rail storage area – means the Meriva is as practical to a family as a Leatherman is to a mountaineer. The fact that the Meriva in Cosmo spec comes with a few fancy extras and is powered by a gutsy 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine, means that all members of the family will no doubt be impressed by both the brochure and the test drive. Would I buy one if I had 2.4 kids, a husband and a woolly dog? Probably.

Porsche Boxster PDK
R639 000
Engine: 2.7 flat-6 petrol, 195 Kw & 280 Nm
Gearbox: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Claimed fuel economy: 8.2-litres per 100 km

What do you buy if you want a fast, sexy, two-seat convertible? A BMW Z4 or Merc SLK? What about the Audi TT or even a Nissan 370Z Roadster? I’m sure you could find a number of excuses to buy any one of those, but if you had half an inkling into the world of performance motoring, the Porsche Boxster would surely be fighting for your money as well. Not that I know this first-hand – with such huge demand on the new Boxster I’ve not been able to procure one from Porsche for testing just yet, but if my esteemed colleagues are to be believed, this is one phenomenal machine. What I can tell you though is that it looks absolutely fantastic and will surely put the SLK and definitely the TT to shame. The Z4 remains dynamically impressive for me and in terms of style, is the Porsche’s biggest rival at this premium end of the market.

However, “I drive a Porsche” holds a lot more water at a dinner party, so the Boxster is definitely worth a look if you’re shopping on credibility alone. You’ll probably end up with a dynamic masterpiece as a result. However, the Boxster’s place as a COTY finalist boggles my mind. Sure, it may be an exceptional car but a two-seat soft-top sports car as the Car of the Year? Which most people in this country can’t even dream of affording? I don’t think so.

Range Rover Evoque Si4 Dynamic 5-door
Price: R616 800
Engine: 2.0 4-cyl turbo petrol, 177 kW & 340 Nm
Gearbox: 6-speed torque convertor auto
Claimed fuel economy: 8.7-litres per 100 km

Before the Evoque was even launched, Land Rover had pre-launch orders coming out of its ears for this new SUV and that’s no surprise. With concept car-like looks, the prestige which comes with the Range Rover badge and a beautifully-crafted interior (yes, Posh Spice had a say when it came to colours and materials) the Evoque was destined to be a success from day one. Having tested both petrol and diesel, three-and five-door and Dynamic and Prestige spec lines of the Evoque, I do think that the wrong version is up for this year’s COTY award.

If you want an Evoque (and you can live with the long waiting list), there are three things you should keep in mind. First, go for the five-door. Having taken four of my friends on a road trip to the Vaal in the Coupe, getting in and out of the Evoque with its super-long front doors is a mission, especially in a typically tight South African parking bay. Secondly, it must be Dynamic. While the Prestige option is still gorgeous, the Dynamic’s deeper air dam, aggressive rear valence and larger wheels make it far more imposing. And lastly, it has to be a diesel. Comparatively, the Si4 I tested drank 11.1-litres per 100 km whereas the diesel returned an average of 9.2. In the grand scheme of things however, it doesn’t really matter which combination of engine, doors, leather, wheels, luxury extras or exterior designs you choose – any Evoque is a fantastic car to live with, and the waiting list is proof of its popularity.

Toyota 86 High Spec
R334 500
Engine: 2.0 4-cyl Boxer, 147 kW & 205 Nm
Gearbox: 6-speed manual
Claimed fuel economy: 7.8-litres per 100 km

Toyota’s promise to start producing cars which are fun to drive started with the new 86 and I can tell you right now, they’re onto something. Developed as a joint venture between Toyota and Subaru, the 86 is a proper sports car – in theory at least. Its engine sits up front, it has a manual gearbox in the middle (for goodness’ sake, don’t even think of buying this with the automatic gearbox) and drive goes to the rear wheels. That is technically the recipe for awesomeness and the 86 is like a Gordon Ramsey master class. I know, with ‘only’ 147 kW from its Subaru-sourced normally-aspirated 2.0-litre Boxer engine, it may sound a bit limp especially if you live in Joburg. But, and this ‘but’ is the size of a continent, it doesn’t matter.

Sure, it might not be quick in a straight line and yes, any teenager with a hot hatchback is going to beat the pants off it, but this car is all about cornering. Not only does it sit nice and low to the ground for a properly grippy ride, but thanks to the rear-wheel drive and its ability to break traction with nothing more than the power of your mind, the 86 is fun no matter where you are. It’s a car you drive because it makes you happy and, with a nanny-like half-off traction control setting, you can slip and slide around your favourite corners with a big smile on your face and still stay out of the way of trees, pavements and hedges. It may seem a bit expensive but to have the sort of fun you can in an 86, you’d have to look at something like a MINI. And they won’t go sideways.

Toyota Yaris HSD Xs
Price: R230 600
Engine: 1.5 4-cyl petrol, 74 kW & 111 Nm + electric motor
Gearbox: CVT
Claimed fuel economy: 3.8-litres per 100 km

Toyota is of course the market leader of hybrid vehicles in SA and that’s partly due to the fact that it has the most hybrid vehicles available of any brand (including the Lexus hybrids) but also because the Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) system is one of the world’s greatest engineering marvels. Without going into too much detail, an HSD Toyota (or Hybrid-badged Lexus) is able to run on either petrol or electricity or both. And each car is capable of managing its power source without concerning the driver – that is unless you really want to save fuel. I tested a Prius last year with the sole intention of saving fuel. After 1 000 km I had basically lost my mind from the intense concentration it requires, and so when the Yaris turned up for testing I decided to just drive it normally, but economically at the same time. The results weren’t overly impressive thanks to a long road trip, where the VW Polo BlueMotion, which I was testing at the same time, was far more economical overall.

However, the Yaris HSD and other full hybrids make a whole lot of sense if you drive around in the city. Why? Because you spend most of your time sitting in traffic jams or slow-moving queues or sitting at a robot and it is here where an HSD Toyota or Lexus for that matter is brilliant – because you can run on electricity. The Yaris HSD Xs is however rather pricey (and it’s not quite as loaded with extras as the more expensive XR version), which means you really have to want a hybrid rather than just need to save fuel. If you want to save fuel everywhere, by a BlueMotion. If you want to show of your green side however, and you spend most of your time in traffic, and you can afford it, then the Yaris HSD is worth it.

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