Skoda has a year to remember as Mercedes and Ford cement legacies

Declan Colley looks back on the automotive year that was 2016 and picks out the best wheels he has driven in the last 12 months — some of his selections may well surprise you.

Skoda has a year to remember as Mercedes and Ford cement legacies

Car of the year: Skoda Kodiaq

It is quite ironic in a way that, given the general antipathy in this quarter for all things SUV, we now have a second year in a row where one of these things gets the top gong in the Examiner Motoring Car Of The Year Awards.

Last year we had the brilliant Volvo XC90 and this year we have a car which, I confidently predict, will propel Skoda sales to stratospheres previously untouched by the brand. This car is going to be massive for the Czech company, part of the greater Volkswagen empire.

Coming as it does at a time when VW is in all sorts of trouble thanks to its ‘dieselgate’ emissions scandal, this Skoda will be expected to turn the sort of profits that the German giant is used to seeing from its own products.

It will do just that because not only is it an unbelievably good car to drive, it is also good looking, remarkably practical, loaded with kit, and endowed with the sort of clever design touches which are fast becoming Skoda’s hallmark.

We will not see the Kodiaq coming here in big numbers until March or thereabouts, and we have not yet had the pricing confirmed — although Skoda says the cost will be in line with Superb pricing — but this thing is going to be a sales sensation.

I gave this car a good going over at its European launch in Spain towards the end of the year and I simply could not fully comprehend what a good job the engineering and design teams have done here and what they have achieved.

The arrival of the Kodiaq is the beginning of a new era for the company and it is a product that is going to be in demand from the get-go. And when you think that they have an all-new Yeti coming along to further bolster sales, the future seems very bright indeed for a very bright company.

Supercar of the year: Audi R8+

Some might blanche at the use of the word ‘supercar’ here, but the R8+ is every inch a great example of the genre — and if the design and construction don’t convince some people, then the €300,000-plus price tag certainly should.

The fastest production Audi has ever made, the two-seater mid-engined R8+ has a lightweight aluminium/carbon fibre chassis and a V10 engine which outputs in excess of 600 brake horsepower.

The addition of stuff like carbon ceramic brakes might seem a bit excessive, but believe me you need them, such is the visceral power of this mighty machine.

The top speed of 330km/h and the 3.2-second 0-100km/h capability are mere indicators of what is on offer here. You have to experience the sheer, naked aggression of the R8 to appreciate what a tour de force this thing is.

And the odd thing is that, for all its potency, it is also a pussycat to drive around in places where you cannot max it out, which is just as well because you’d be spending time behind bars if you did try an exploit the mammoth potential of the car in an urban setting.

Hot hatch of the year: Ford Focus RS

The malevolent look of the RS is matched by the shattering performance of this latest RS from Ford. With full-time four-wheel drive and a 2.3-litre turbocharged four pot (a slightly up-tuned version of the same engine as powers the lesser of the two Mustang options) outputting 350 bhp, this RS will only add to the legend of the badge it carries.

An unbelievably well-sorted car, the RS has all sorts of tricks up its sleeve and while you can ignore stuff like its ‘drift’ function or the launch control system as mere fripperies, the essence of this beast as a performer ‘sans pareil’ remains defiantly intact.

A driver’s car of the undiluted kind, this Focus RS is a gem of wilful overkill while also having a practical five-door demeanour, so it is even possible to make a reasonable case for it as a family car.

Of course, not many family cars have a €53,000 price tag, a top speed in excess of 260km/h and a 0-100km/h capability of under five seconds, but this one does and it is worth every last penny.

Small car of the year: Suzuki Baleno

A deserved prize-winner in many COTY awards this year, the new small Suzuki is fiendishly practical and comfortable, mirroring the ‘more for less’ ethos the Japanese company displayed with last year’s excellent revival of the Vitara SUV.

The Baleno is another nameplate Suzuki is breathing new life into. Not only is it a fine, sturdy, and small family hatchback, but it is powered by a brilliant new three cylinder turbocharged petrol engine which has remarkable output and consumption characteristics. This one is a hidden gem.

Seek it out and you will be rewarded by a bombproof paragon of reliability and as eager and joyous a small capacity petrol engine as is available anywhere. And it is not just a town car either; it has proved itself to a worthy companion over long distances as well.

Its styling might be a little on the bland side, but underneath lies a little gem that represents serious value for money.

Executive car of the the year: Mercedes E-Class

Mercedes really upped the ante with this one and re-wrote the rulebook for the mid-range executive segment. With intensified competition coming from the new BMW 5 Series, the Merc will have to be good to cope — and it is.

Everything else in the class now has a very definite target to aim at and will have to be truly stunning to make up the gap the E-Class has established between itself and everything else.

Although some of the claims about it being the forerunner for truly autonomous motoring are a tad overblown, the Merc is still the car to beat in its class. Its comfort levels, elegance, and range of new petrol and diesel engines mean it is clearly the benchmark car in the segment.

Icon of the year: Ford Mustang

Introducing a right-hooker Mustang for the first time was probably a culture shock for Ford, but it was an exercise which has proven to be worth the effort for the blue oval.

Irish drivers have been queuing up to get their hands on the iconic American muscle car — in either of its two guises, the allegedly milk-and-water four cylinder 2.3 EcoBoost or the full-fat five litre V8. Those that opt for the former will be pleasantly surprised by the abilities of this ‘lesser’ model

in the range, while those that choose the hairy-chested version will not at all be surprised by booming tones and wide power spectrum on offer there. You might quibble about some of the styling touches or even some of the interior décor, but you will not quibble with this car’s sheer presence and the fact it is not just another Neanderthal yankee offering.

Ford has done a great engineering job here, making an old recipe fresh and vibrant. Either of the Mustangs on offer are a credit to Ford and it is fantastic to see how many new tricks they have taught this particular old dog. Wonderful.

Luxobarge of the year: BMW 740X

It might have a price tag well north of €100,000 and a four-wheel drive system which might seem a bit unnecessary, but the whole thing about this car is that it aims to be the biggest and the best in class.

It is a technological tour de force and it would appear the BWM engineers and designers have left no stone unturned in their quest to incorporate as much detail as possible in this amazing car.

The endless splendour of the interior is matched by the sophistication of the drive-train, while the air suspension provides the sort of magic carpet ride that has to be experienced to be believed. As an exercise in how to get things right, it does not get much better than this. Truly exceptional.

Roadster of the year: Mazda MX-5

The original and the best — still. Since Mazda reinvented the classic British two-seat roadster concept (Triumph Spitfire, MGB, Austin Healey) with the original MX-5, the company has managed to maintain the moral high ground with every successive version.

This latest one may well be the best of the lot. It’s a sheer joy to drive: Impeccable handling, a great engine, and a fantastic short-throw gearbox. The newest MX-5 is the essence of fun on wheels.

Very nearly executive car of the year: Volvo S90

The revival of Volvo is a hugely welcome thing in a world where so many car makers are struggling and some have even gone by the wayside. The company may now be Chinese-owned but it is intrinsically Swedish and that means the brand has an individualistic take on design and engineering.

It was no fluke that the excellent XC90 was our COTY in 2015 and the S90 has very nearly repeated the dose in the executive class. While not quite up to the standards of such as the Mercedes E-Class, it comes damn close and is clear evidence that with the help of extensive investment from China, the Volvo brand is in very good hands.

Executive SUV of the year: Jaguar F-Pace

This is the car which will springboard the Jaguar brand to the sort of sales success it has craved for so long. The company’s first SUV is brilliant and with this market segment now holding such sway over the buying public, Jaguar is in a position to capitalise.

The likes of the XE, XF, and XJ, not to mention the excellent F-Type coupe, have re-established the brand as a class act, but they have not propelled the company to the sort of sales performance it desired.

The F-Pace will end all that — particularly so in the critical American and Chinese markets. Although it might be treading on sister company Land Rover’s toes in some respects, the F-Pace is individual enough to overcome any perceived problems with regard to cross-fertilisation.

Beautiful and beautifully put together, this is a car with a massive future — expect to see a lot more of them on our roads in the not too distant future.

Nearly hot hatch of the year: Peugeot 308GTi

Going up against the likes of the Focus RS is a big ask for any car, but the Peugeot 308 GTi very nearly pulled it off. This is the first seriously worthy hot hatch from Peugeot for many years and it restored a reputation the French manufacturer had established in this segment a long time ago with the 205 GTi.

With a trick differential allowing the 308 to successfully lay down each and every one of the 270 horses on offer here, this is a seriously capable performer and one which has put the French manufacturer right back where it belongs in the performance segment.

Aside from its on-road capabilities, the five-door layout provides decent practicality and the pricing of the car also places it bang in contention with the class leaders. An excellent return to form from Peugeot and one which has been a long time coming. Long overdue, but worth waiting for.

Ragtop of the year: Mini Convertible

I hate convertibles - they’re normally terrible to drive with jelly-like chassis and all-over-the-place handling characteristics. The new Mini convertible set a new benchmark for the genre with a fantastically solid chassis and handling worthy of the brand.

I don’t generally enjoy driving these things because the design compromises pretty much everything about such cars, but this one was an absolute hoot to drive and displayed none of the characteristic flaws of a ragtop.

Not cheap, certainly, but when you think that this is a car which will outperform anything similar, then it is very definitely worth the expense.

While some of the performance versions might be very expensive indeed, you can have almost as much fun with the excellent 1.5 litre turbo three cylinder engine is actually quite a blast to drive, so you don’t have to break the bank to get a lot of fun motoring. Pity we don’t have the weather.

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