It was definitely a year many of us will never forget. But in dusting off the turmoil, we thought we’d take a look back at some of the more positive aspects of the year in terms of new vehicle arrivals. Welcome to our top 10 best cars of 2020 — editor’s picks.
These cars are listed not necessarily because they are the most powerful or fastest, but because they have done something big for their respective segment. Whether it be introducing new levels of helpful technology, in-car design and practicality, or being capable of reprogramming your brain for what you thought was technically possible in terms of driving dynamics and/or performance, these are the cars that have stuck in my mind.
As with our top 10 cars of 2019, only cars that we have actually driven are eligible to make the cut. And of course this is all just my personal opinion from my personal experiences with the cars, with no financial influence or favouritism with any manufacturer.
Yes, of course our first car has to be the most powerful vehicle Australia has ever made. Well, technically the Mustang R-SPEC is made in the USA, but a lot of work was carried out in Australia to create this wild steed. The 5.0-litre Coyote V8 is given a 2.65L roots-style supercharger from the Ford Performance catalogue (2650), running at up to 12psi. There’s also an intercooler to keep intake temperatures down. Giving it the full beans results in a colossal 522kW. That’s 700hp. Even more exciting is the fact that it can be had with a manual transmission only. Sure, the driving dynamics aren’t quite at European standards (after all, it’s not a European car), and the steering is pretty crude, but boy what a bag of fun you can have in this beast. I guess this is also included in the list because I fear cars like this will not be around for much longer. We should cherish them while they still exist.
9. Isuzu D-Max
This definitely deserves the ‘most-improved’ award. While the previous D-Max was very hardy and dependable, the interior was always really basic and utilitarian, with not much in the way of technology or modern convenience. Now, the 2021 model has really changed all of that. The cabin showcases actual aesthetic detail, with higher quality materials in loads of areas. There’s also a big 9.0-inch touch-screen on the dash that offers more than just AM radio. Okay, the old model wasn’t that rudimentary but this is now at a completely new level. I think the exterior design is also much more modern than before, with nice attention to detail and muscularity for its intended purpose.
Thanks to big advancements in safety tech, the new model is smarter than ever as well. Although, I do think some teething problems exist that Isuzu will no doubt iron out with a mild facelift in the near future. Lastly, the trusty 4JJ 3.0-litre turbo-diesel four-cylinder – the largest-capacity four in its class – gets a major overhaul to drastically improve refinement, quietness, and power and torque. It’s a good rig.
Jaguar Land Rover are, in my opinion, the leaders in mainstream car design. Pretty much every model it offers (except the Discovery) presents an emotionally stirring and uplifting theme. And all of them are somehow very consistent across the portfolio. The Velar is just gorgeous, the Jaguar F-TYPE is pure sex, and it’s impossible to resist the empowering allure of the Range Rover Sport. Reinventing the classic Land Rover Defender was never going to be easy. But I think they’ve done an extraordinary job. There is definitely a connection to the rugged shape of the past, but it is all in a modern and stylish way. The design is also very versatile in that, it looks tough out in the bush yet, when it’s all sparkly and clean, it turns into a refined and sophisticated SUV for the evening.
Technically, the new model is the most capable ever, too. You can get it with a 294kW turbo-petrol inline-six, and there’s even a 386kW supercharged V8 on the way. There’s also a range of economical yet torquey turbo-diesels. This is one of those vehicles that, to me, seems like a concept car that won’t actually make it to production. But you can totally buy one. Now. The very clever vehicle dynamics also provide excellent off-road capability, with things like adjustable air suspension providing a wider range of versatility than ever before. The biggest downside is the price. But considering the amount of tech and potential performance and luxury you’re getting, it’s similar to a Discovery or even a Range Rover anyway, just with a cool, retro exterior design.
Rear-wheel drive? Check. V10? Check. Open top so you can hear the V10 loud and clear? Check. Really, that’s all that needs to be said of the Huracan EVO Spyder. Driving one of these provides a truly unforgettable experience. The noise and feel of this machine is so stimulating that you instantly forget any problems of your world and just immerse yourself into a dream-like euphoria. The steering is pinpoint sharp yet not overly sensitive, and with rear-wheel drive you can predictably kick the tail out to tuck the nose into the next corner.
The engine is ridiculously responsive and obviously very powerful, churning out 449kW in RWD form, but the dual-clutch transmission ensures completely seamless gearshifts, with a goosebump-inducing pop from the exhaust with each upshift. And then there’s the design and attention to detail. You can literally spend an hour just sitting and looking at this car and taking in all of its exquisite shapes and trimmings. To me, this provides everything that defines a supercar.
It’s the most powerful hot hatch in the world. How could I possibly ignore it? But there is much more to the latest A 45 than sheer power. It is such an enjoyable machine to drive, almost cornering like a rear-wheel drive, and the steering feel is mechanical and very engaging. From point to point, especially in varied conditions such as in the wet, I reckon this practical hatch would be just as quick as any Ferrari or Lambo. And unlike a supercar, you can fit the groceries in the back and even a medium-size dog, if you need to. Although, it’s probably best not to cart both around at the same time.
Like all modern Mercedes-Benz vehicles, the interior is very fancy and you can immediately see where your money is going. Most of the dash and centre console is showcased in a distinctive theme, with metallic garnishes providing instant wow factor. Twin digital screens spearing across the dash also provide a very modern and even futuristic feel. And I love that you can customise the instrument cluster into various, completely different themes. The gadgets, such as real-time power outputs and performance gauges, also give it a playful character. But you soon forget all of this when you take it for a blast up or down your favourite mountain route. It is such a blast to drive.
Although we have only driven a prototype example, the all-new Hyundai i20 N is going to be a cracking little driver’s car. It has all the makings of a fun-loving hot hatch, including a popping engine sound, excellent drivability and controllability, even at the limit, and it is a very practical daily driver and city runaround. Final production specifications are yet to be locked in for Australia, but as a guide the i20 N uses a 1.6-litre turbo four-cylinder engine producing 150kW and 275Nm. Essentially, it is the same engine that’s featured in the Veloster Turbo and i30 N Line, but with some tuning and revisions to liven it up for hot hatch credibility.
During our preview drive at Wakefield Park Raceway in a left-hand drive prototype, I was blown away by its highly-engaging drive character. You really get a sense of what all four wheels and tyres are doing, at any given moment, allowing you to input and adjust the controls to get it to do exactly what you want it to do. It also responds brilliantly to both grip-driving styles, taking the racing line and maintaining traction, as well as sliding around in more playful driving styles. This will definitely be one to watch in the future. It’s set to go on sale in Australia later this year.
When it comes to driver’s cars, it doesn’t really matter which model you go for, a Porsche is a Porsche. And the cream of the entry-level crop is the Cayman GT4. Think of it as like a junior and more accessible alternative to the famed 911 GT3. Power comes from a spectacular naturally aspirated 4.0-litre flat-six engine that revs to 8000rpm, providing 309kW along the way. With a tare weight of 1369kg, a six-speed manual transmission and rear-wheel drive, and a perfectly balanced midship layout, driving pleasure doesn’t get much higher. This is a car you just want to drive and drive and drive. If you have access to a track, be prepared to make some serious investments in club membership, tyre store membership, and anything else that can keep you at the track for as long as possible.
3. BMW M340i
If you like the idea of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, this is the practical sedan equivalent. The M340i features a 3.0-litre turbo inline-six – one of the best-sounding engines on the market in my view – producing 285kW and 500Nm. That doesn’t seem like much on paper but boy does it get up and go. The Germans always have a way of ensuring every spec of power is put to good use, and it’s the same with this unit.
Think of it this way; the Toyota GR Supra, which is a very good car, has the same engine and does 0-100km/h in a claimed 4.1 seconds. This, although weighing around 170kg more, does the sprint in a claimed 4.4 seconds. However, during our testing in normal, real-world conditions we saw it done in just 4.18 seconds. It’s ridiculously fast. This isn’t an M3 remember. And that’s why we love the M340i; it is a genuine sleeper. You can fly under the radar while still enjoying all of the qualities and practicality of the regular 3 Series, which is, in my view, the best sedan in the class, but when the time calls you can also thoroughly enjoy and confidently explore its underlying performance.
2. Kia Sorento
If you’re after a practical, family-friendly seven-seat SUV, you simply cannot look past the new Sorento. At least check it out and take one for a test drive. This, in my opinion, is exactly how it’s done. It is entirely fit-for-purpose, with frosting. You get the perfect blend of practicality, features, design (inside and out), and powertrain performance. Heck, the thing even handles really well thanks to a heavily revised platform. Kia offers a wide variety of trim levels to suit a wide variety of budgets and needs, and as usual Kia stamps on its industry-leading seven-year/unlimited kilometre warranty.
On a more personal note, I love the way the new model looks. It has all the right proportions, including wheels mounted flush with the guards, short front and rear overhangs, and with the right amount of sophisticated details but without going over the top. If anything, the interior is even more attractive. I love the sheer level of storage around the centre console, connection points in convenient areas, and the way most controls are easily accessible and logically arranged. If I was in the market for a seven-seat SUV, I’d buy one of these.
So this is a strange one. And I’ve placed it in number one position. That means, according to my original definition of this list, the M8 was the most memorable car I drove in 2020. How, you might be wondering. It’s just a big grand touring Euro coupe, right? Wrong. The M8 Competition offers proper supercar levels of speed and performance. Honestly. With our Vbox we clocked 0-100km/h in just 3.14 seconds. And that’s not on a drag strip or with any rollout times included. For perspective, we also clocked a McLaren 720S on the same piece of tarmac in similar conditions in 3.11 seconds. However, unlike the 720S, which is a very serious supercar with two seats, more carbon fibre than a top Tour de France team, and the practicality of a deep-diving suit in a running race, the M8 is perfectly suitable for everyday use. It even has both RWD and AWD settings.
The nose isn’t too low, there’s room for four people inside (especially if you go for the Gran Coupe model), and the powertrain can be as conventional and quiet as a mild hot hatch. It also looks pretty normal on the roads, so you can fly under the radar to some extent. But if you want to stand out BMW’s M Performance department does offer plenty of personalisation possibilities, if that’s what you’re after. I also really like BMW’s latest in-car design and its functionality; most systems are easy to operate and navigate, but you can explore deeper into the digital world if you want to, and play around with various vehicle settings and display modes. I can’t think of any other car on the market that offers such a broad spectrum of skills. Actually, the M5 Competition would probably be my pick of 2020, although I haven’t driven one.
Honourable mentions: The new Toyota HiLux should be in this list as well, but there’s not enough room for two utes. And really, the D-Max deserves the spot more because it is such a big improvement on the previous model. In saying that, for me, the HiLux remains the best all-rounder for 2020, especially with the new 150kW engine.
The new Ford Focus ST and Fiesta ST are also thoroughly enjoyable yet practical hatchbacks, while the Suzuki Swift Sport Series II is one of the friendliest and most fun hatches you can buy for under $30k. Lastly, the new Porsche 911 Turbo S is pretty much the bee’s knees. But as my drive was only flat-out on a runway (yeah, someone’s gotta do it), this model will be reserved for this year’s top 10 (normal review coming very soon, btw).