Star cars 2021: Autocar road testers’ best drives

99 road testers cars of 2021 lead

For a rundown of the best cars of the past year from an objective perspective, look elsewhere. These are our writers’ favourite new cars of 2021, warts and all

Our road test team gets to drive exciting new metal almost every week. They can’t all be winners, but of the ones that did impress, which stood out the most? 

We’ve already asked the wider editorial team which cars stood out for them over the past twelve months and why, which you can read elsewhere. This list is more focused on the cars themselves. If it made the cut below, you know it’s something very special indeed.

Caterham Seven 170 R – Matt Prior

Whisper it, but the Caterham Seven 170, my favourite car of this year, actually isn’t my favourite Caterham to drive. But I’ve decided that doesn’t matter. 

When Caterham set out to revive its cheapest and least powerful model, fitted with a small threecylinder turbocharged Suzuki engine, it decided to do something special with it. It decided to make the lightest Seven it has ever produced. And that is the kind of idea that I can get behind every day of the week.

Specifying the engine and the fivespeed gearbox that all Caterhams drive through these days was presumably the easy bit. It’s the rest where the firm had to be brutal, either designing the lightest-possible version of something – fashioning the rear wings, narrower than other Caterham wings, out of carbonfibre– or not fitting parts at all.

There are two versions of the 170, the R and the S. With the S, you get a windscreen, a heater, the full weather gear and suchlike, plus carpets and some plush seats. In the R, you don’t (although Caterham’s options list means you can put comfort equipment back in).

In its lightest-possible form, the 170R weighs no more than 440kg. I didn’t find it an instant hit. I liked it when I drove it around Sussex and Kent, but its appeal didn’t truly come alive until I tested it at Trac Môn and on the surrounding Welsh roads.

You can’t drive very quickly on any road these days, so it’s important that a car is a lot of fun at sensible speeds. Weighing nothing, with unassisted controls and being exceptionally narrow, the 170 would do that even if it didn’t handle superbly. But it does. Autocar was banging on about the advantage of narrow cars as long ago as the 1970s. At 1.47m wide, the 170 isn’t just narrow by general standards, it’s even 105mm narrower than any other Seven.

And then there’s the 170 on track. This isn’t a car whose power will get you into – or out of – difficult situations. But it’s one whose chassis will let you throw it at a corner with wild abandon, whereupon it will drift like some kind of historic race car while actually retaining surprisingly high cornering speeds. It’s possible that, even though it wears 155-section tyres, it has too much grip.

To be honest, I like my Caterhams with a little more power than this. But in chasing purity of lightness, the 170 occupies a particularly special place in modern motoring – and therefore also in my heart.

Lotus Evora GT410 – Steve Cropley

If you consider the sum of its parts, the Lotus Evora GT410 certainly wasn’t the best car that I drove in 2021. Or even the fifth best. Yet despite its considerable age (it was launched in 2009), some of its key constituent properties and parts were the equal of those in the very finest cars made today. Or, I suspect, tomorrow.

We’re talking chiefly – because this is a Lotus – of the Evora’s ride and handling. It’s well known that Lotus engineers have always made a fetish of delivering superb dynamics in whatever they build, continuing to polish details and chase tiny chassis quirks long after others would think the job finished.The mission on my most recent Evora drive, just a couple of months ago, was to celebrate the end of the car’s 12-year life. It entailed a controlled sprint into the middle of Wales, where the roads inspire you in great cars and disappoint you in others. The effortless precision of this Lotus’s steering and the way it consumed corners with ease was downright wonderful: I kept thinking of the thousands of hours those Lotus engineers had so obviously invested in driving. (Not so much in the trim, though, which rattled at times, and it failed to kill wind noise.)

Plaudits were also due to the Toyota-sourced, Lotus- supercharged 3.5-litre V6 engine, so flexible and strong. On those roads, it was ideal for catapulting us rapidly between apexes, emitting a decent supercharged howl in the upper reaches of its rev range but nothing vulgar in towns.

The Evora is compact against McLarens and the like but on the heavy side for its size. In the electrified tomorrow, however, it’s pretty light. At around 1400kg at the kerb, it’s a cool 250kg lighter than the original battery-powered Tesla Roadster, which was based on the Lotus Elise. Fully electrified future sports cars won’t be hitting 1400kg any time soon.

The best thing, though, was the ride quality. The suspension rates were perfectly chosen for roads like these: the Lotus simply laughed at any need for new-fangled driving modes. It always felt alert and ready for any complex manoeuvre, yet its damping seemed subtle and never stiff. Again, you could feel the effect of the painstaking test miles.

I remember arriving home in the dark after a long day out, elated from the driving, having hardly bothered to use the radio (just as well, because it was poor). It was simply more fun to listen to the car.

The Evora is the embodiment of the qualities that have always made brilliant traditional British sports cars. I suspect it will be ranked among the very best in dynamic terms for as long as the genre lasts.

BMW M5 CS – Matt Saunders

My fondness for the BMW M5 super-saloon has been the cue for plenty of praise for M5s on these pages over the years, but it doesn’t border on partiality, I promise. There are plenty I’ve tested that I didn’t much like. The current Competition always struck me as annoyingly highly strung and over- egged; the previous-generation F10 disappointingly heavy and numb- feeling; and the old V10-engined E60 likeably daft but quite flawed with it.

Before this year, identifying my favourite of all would have been as easy as naming your favourite ice-cream flavour (salted caramel, obviously; oh, and the V8 E39). But now there’s a new contender for that acclamation: a brand-new M5 with the feedback, balance, interactivity and natural charm that so many of recent years have been short of – and all of the usual bruising four- wheel-drive pace to go with it.

For me, the M5 CS restored a long-running love affair for this German performance heavyweight when we road tested it back in June and – with one hand tied behind its back, really – it secured a special place in our road test record books, too. No four-door saloon had ever lapped our benchmark dry handling circuit in less than 70 seconds before. But the M5 CS put its 626bhp V8, its torque-vectored four-wheel drive system and its widely revised suspension system to spectacular good use at the MIRA Proving Ground, lapping in 1min 09.9sec: a tenth quicker than a Ferrari F430 managed back in 2005.

In deliciously naughty style, the car largely destroyed a set of Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres in the process of going that fast – and it did so within about six or seven laps, in 4WD Sport driving mode to boot. And the really impressive thing? BMW offers the car on Pirelli Corsa tyres, too, so the Michelin is actually the more sensible tyre option. On the Pirellis, I reckon we could have taken another second off that lap time, or close to it, which might have made this 1940kg executive car quicker than the Ferrari 812 Superfast.

Suffice to say, this is a special performance car – and nowhere does it feel more so than simply coursing down an interesting country road, where it feels infinitely better damped than the regular M5, breathing with bumps rather than pummelling them; communicating so much more enigmatically through its chassis and steering; swivelling through corners that bit more sweetly and keenly; and growing menacingly through that new stainless-steel exhaust in a way that – finally – can compete with BMW’s digital engine-noise fakery.

Before the M5 CS, my mind was increasingly made up: the modern era’s big, angry, overblown mega- saloon had lost its way and only became less relevant and usable with every new power and price hike. Ironically enough, it took a £140,000 M5 to give me renewed hope.

Alpina B8 Gran Coupe – Piers Ward

It’s the touchpoints that are key. That’s what I really remember about the couple of days I was lucky enough to spend with an Alpina B8 Gran Coupé. In a world where Nike is trademarking virtual trainers for people to ‘wear’ in the metaverse (me neither), the B8 is a wonderfully tactile thing.

The steering wheel, in particular, sticks in my mind. It’s clothed in Alpina Lavalina leather and, while you could never argue that the cow used in a normal BMW is sub- standard, the richness of the material on the Alpina is another level. It’s wonderful to grip, feels expensive in your hands (as it should, on a car far north of £130,000) and immediately sets the Alpina a part from a run-of-the-mill Beemer.

The wheel is the first thing you touch when you get in, and that’s key, helping to get your mindset correct and tuned into the Alpina way of doing things: subtly but crucially different from the BMW monolith. Even the stitching sets it apart, as Alpina sinks the weave into the leather to make it much smootherto run your fingers over. In most cars, the stitching stands proud, but not in the B8.

Of course, none of this would be of any use if the driving experience didn’t back it up. The road testers thought the B8 didn’t quite deliver the flair they were after from an Alpina, and I wouldn’t disagree with them – but that didn’t faze me.

It’sabigoldbruteofacar,and the fact that it’s a mix of outrageous pace, easing comfort and surprising agility is beguiling, and would do me nicely. And besides, my driving talent runs out a long way before my colleagues’, so I’m happy with something that tickles my fancy just about enough.

Any Alpina is a special event (they’re the cars that stick in my mind from when I was doing work experience on Autocar back in the early 2000s), but the way that this one soaked up the miles, delivering effortless speed mixed with comfort and luxury, meant it matched all those rose-tinted memories.

This was a funny year, but it was reassuring that, despite all that went on, Alpina was still delivering.

Alpina A110 Legende GT – Illya Verpraet

These are supposed to be cars that were new for 2021, but I’m going to go ahead and use a loophole: the special edition. I’m rather late to the Alpine A110 love-in: it has been around since 2017, but I haven’t been. Joining Autocar this year, I finally got to spend some time in a Légende GT, which combines the more powerful engine tune of the A110 S with the more supple suspension set-up of the regular A110s. It lives up to the hype.

This particular version doesn’t change anything fundamental about the A110, but that just highlights how much of a landmark car the little coupé was and still is. In almost four years, nothing else has come along that offers the same easily accessible driving fun.

It ticks almost all the boxes for me. It’s not quite as delectably tiny as a Caterham, but by modern standards it’s pretty narrow – enough to fit down the average B-road with some wiggle room. Despite the retro design, I can’t help loving how it looks (although perhaps not in the press car’s primer grey). The interior is basic but has just enough Gallic elan to feel special. The automatic gearbox shifts crisply and the engine even sounds pretty good when you wind it up.

It’s also no more taxing to drive long distances in than a Renault Clio, yet the interaction it offers on the road is something that’s been lost in most modern cars. I love how there is a hint of body roll to tell you how hard you’re working the chassis. It always feels on its toes, and you can easily and confidently tighten its line both on and off the throttle. In a world of locked-down, point-and-shoot, all-wheel-drive hot hatches, it’s so much fun.

I would have it over anything that was at the 2021 Britain’s Best Driver’s Car contest, because nothing would let you have as much fun as often. And it’s the latter nuance that’s key. I absolutely love the Caterham, but driving it in winter or anywhere further afield is a commitment that requires planning. The Porsche 911 GT3 is awesome, but away from deserted Welsh roads and race tracks, it’s too fast and too big to enjoy as often as I would want to.  

I would gladly use the A110 every day, and I could enjoy it every day, rather than having to seek out special occasions to get the best from it.

Range Rover – Mark Tisshaw

Yes, I’m aware that a shiny new fifth-generation Range Rover was revealed in October yet you’re looking at and reading about the nine-year-old Mk4 Range Rover in a feature eulogising our favourite cars of 2021. I haven’t taken leave of my senses: there’s sound logic here.

A car is judged at launch, and opinions are formed that stick with the car throughout its time on sale. In the case of the L405 Range Rover, those opinions were very good. I drove it a fair bit just after its launch and put plenty of comfortable, relaxing miles on an Autocar long-termer that followed.

It wasn’t until the spring of this year that I drove one again. And, my, how it had evolved into an even more sumptuous proposition. Land Rover had extensively updated the Range Rover even for its last year on sale, adding new mild-hybrid drivetrains including the straight-six diesel D300 that I spent a couple of weeks in. Its refinement was quite extraordinary – I was blown away by it at the car’s launch all those years ago, but this was even better than I could recall.

That’s because it is better and more refined. And so should it be, really: by the time a car is at the end of its life, its maker has perfected the build process and tweaked and tuned the car through successive facelifts and model-year updates to the point that it’s as good as it’s ever going to be. For a car as luxurious as the Mk4 Range Rover was fresh out of the box, that refinement made for a quite exceptional car at the end of its life.

When it was with me, we suggested the D300 and the Bentley Bentayga residing on our long-term fleet would make for an interesting twin test – even though the latter cost almost twice as much as the former and had a couple of extra cylinders. The Range Rover won, and fairly comprehensively, too. 

I didn’t oversee that test, but I did get to drive them both back to back, and in the first few metres it was clear that the Range Rover was the superior luxury car. Its ride was smoother, its steering gentler and its visibility better, thanks to its lower beltline (being light and airy is such an underrated quality), and it felt altogether less sporty – a trait it’s very good for a luxury car to avoid.

For the new fifth-generation Range Rover to start its life even as good as the car its predecessor had become after so many years of development, it will be very special indeed. And, ominously for the competition, it will get even better during the years of improvements and tinkering that follow.

Alfa Romeo Giulia GTAm – Andrew Frankel

Ferrari has the tifosi, but if you’re an Alfa male like me, you’re Alfisti. I grew up in the back of Alfa Romeos: Giulias, then Alfettas, then Alfasuds. Then, just around the time I got old enough to drive Alfas, Alfa stopped making them. Decent ones, at least. We had one 33 and that was enough: Alfa had lost the plot and was showing no sign of even wanting it back.

It pains me to list all the awful Alfas that filled the decades to come: the Alfa 6, 90, bloody Arna, 155, 146, 166, 147, Brera, Brera Spider, Mito and 4C, to name too many but by no means all of them. There had been a few glimmers early on, but after the 75 and its SZ derivative died, they were few and far between. The 164 was a decent effort in its day, but probably only because it shared development costs with Fiat, Lancia and Saab, and I’m not counting the 8C, because in all important regards it’s a Maserati under the skin.

What I’m saying is that it has been 30 years, three decades, aka almost my entire career to date, since Alfa last did the one thing it once could have been guaranteed to have done before anything else, and that is to produce a car that’s not just decent to drive but brilliant. A car to set an alarm for and head off in without destination for literally no reason other than that you can.

But the Giulia GTAm is that Alfa. I know, it’s preposterously expensive and I wouldn’t even buy one, because if I wanted an impractical two-seater for that money, I’d have a Porsche 911 GT3. So how can it also be my favourite car of 2021? Because it still made my heart soar, not just for what it did on road and track across two days of hard driving in North Wales but for what it meant. For an Alfisti of my vintage to drive a new Alfa that delivers a driving experience worthy of all that name means to me is to watch your best childhood friend whom you’ve not seen in half a lifetime and feared might be dead walk up to your frontdoor and ring the bell.

It’s an expensive, niche and sold-out product, but it’s something else, too: a lesson that if Alfa starts to make proper driver’s cars again, proper drivers will start buying them again. After 30 years, it has been long enough.

Porsche 911 Carrera GTS – Richard Lane

When I was asked to identify and advocate for my favourite car of 2021, two machines came screeching into my mind’s eye. But I can’t really write about either of them. When Alfa Romeo revealed the Giulia GTAm in 2020, the early images and details gave me an intestinal hit of excitement that I hadn’t felt since I was a teenager and cars like the 996 Porsche 911 GT2 and Ferrari Enzo were being launched. It’s also a truly epic car to behold in the metal and fabulous to drive, but Andrew was quicker to the buzzer, so he got to tell you all about it.

The second car was the Caterham Seven 420R Championship. This is the top-level racing Seven, for 2021 made even more unhinged with the addition of slick tyres. I adored driving it at Llandow on a sunny morning early in November. I love the way it demands so much commitment but, once you give it that commitment, and also a little free rein, it becomes malleable and fluid and perfectly intuitive. The experience set my whole body fizzing for the rest of the day. Alas, the Championship isn’t road-legal, so it wasn’t allowed. Tsk.

That leaves the new Porsche 911 GTS, the example I recently drove being solely rear-driven and with three pedals. Predictable, eh? Maybe, but I’m choosing it over the GT3 Touring I tried in the summer – a car that also comes in RWD manual form but has the finely honed GT-division chassis and Porsche’s current cracker of an atmospheric 4.0-litre flat six, whereas the GTS uses a smaller twin-turbo unit, because in the real world it’s just a better 911. Yet it still feels appreciably special and racy compared with mainline Carreras.

Part of that is down to the engine. It makes more power than in the 911 Carrera S, yes, but the exhaust has also been tuned and the extra surge in acceleration and rasping note at the top end make you wonder how sweet it might sound without the turbos and particulate filters. My suspicion is ‘very’, and I’ve never had that thought about the regular Carrera S unit.

The GTS suspension is also stolen from the 911 Turbo, and dear lord is the vertical control good on poor British B-roads. Combine all that with more invigorated steering and a light-footed adjustability in the chassis that also exists in the regular Carrera but is harder to uncover (full disclosure: I drove the car on damp roads), and you’ve got an everyday star on your hands.

With the GTS, you’re getting 85% of the on-road GT3 dynamic experience but with 140% of the rolling refinement and 50% of the attention-seeking bodywork. What an irresistible proposition that is.

Hyundai i20 N – James Disdale

There was a time not so long ago when pocket rockets like the Hyundai i20 N were two-a-penny. Almost every manufacturer had one loitering with intent in its price list, helping to add some much-needed street cred to an otherwise sensible line-up of shopping trolleys.

However, ever-encroaching emissions regulations and the seemingly insatiable customer appetite for SUVs means that these tiny tearaways are becoming vanishingly rare. So rare, in fact, that until the hot Hyundai came into view, the Ford Fiesta ST was the only game in town.

Yet for many, these superheated superminis still represent the most cost-effective and least compromised way into quick-car ownership. They’re not only fast and pack just enough airs and graces to tackle the daily grind without complaint but also compact enough that you can exploit every ounce of performance potential on the road in a way that theoretically quicker cars can’t.

I make no bones about being a big fan of this type of car, so much so that, for a split second, I was tempted to give the i20 the nod simply for existing. Happily, it didn’t come to that because, as it turns out, the Hyundai is a bit of a hot hatch hit.

From the moment you settle into the driving seat (set low and nicely embracing), you know you’re going to get along with it. Yes, it looks a bit too try-hard and its low-speed ride is a bit gnarly, but get a wriggle on and any concerns quickly evaporate.

For starters, the steering is meaty and direct, while the turn-in bite is as tenacious as a Newsnight reporter tailing a disgraced MP. Pitched into a corner, the Hyundai simply grips and goes, zapping from entry to apex to exit in a gloriously squat four-square stance.

Yet there’s a sense of playfulness too, the perfectly neutral mid-corner balance shifting just enough with every lift of throttle, tweak of wheel or brush of the brakes to let you know you’ve got options. It’s immense on track as well, the unflappable body control, tireless brakes and grippy slippy front diff allowing you to lap up the action until the fuel runs out.

Niggles? Very few, really. Its 201bhp turbocharged motor is a strong old slogger, but it could do with a bit more fizz and fury in its delivery and, well, that’s about it.

Would I have one over a Fiesta ST? Tough one. They’re both surprisingly different, but in a world of rainy weather, wet leaves and blind crests that can result in a sudden need to stick rather than twist, then by the width of a white centre line, I would plump for the hot Hyundai’s cast- iron composure over the fast Ford’s slightly edgier on-limit antics. And that’s enough for it to seal the deal as my top pick of 2021.

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