We’re very lucky to have driven a range of new cars in 2021, from EVs to W12 monsters, hot hatchbacks to two-seat sportscars. So for the first time ever we thought it would be good to look back and figure out our favourites. So here goes, GRR’s ten best cars of 2021, as driven by Ben Miles and Seán Ward.
The 10 best cars of 2021
Porsche Taycan Cross Turismo – Seán Ward
We’ve spent a great deal of time in various Porsche Taycans over the last 12 months. When we look back at the three versions of Taycan to have been unveiled, however, one just about nudges the rest for its eclectic range of abilities: the Taycan Cross Turismo.
To my eyes, the regular wagon Taycan Sport Turismo is the better-looking car, but the Cross Turismo is a wild blend that’s really rather cool. You might dismiss its higher ride height as a novelty, and a lot of the time that might be the case, but having driven it I can tell you it can tackle terrain you wouldn’t think of going near in anything other than a Macan or Cayenne. Day to day, that extra ride height means you don’t have to worry quite so much about kerbs, potholes or mounds of earth or grass as you would in a regular Taycan. The Cross Turismo, however, possesses near-identical performance and dynamics i.e. it’s chuffing quick and wants to pull your face off in the corners. Silly? Perhaps, but a lot of fun.
BMW M4 Competition – Ben Miles
We need to talk about that nose first. It’s probably the first time that any reasonably small feature redesign has caused so much invective and conversation. The truth is, on the M cars at least, it works, it looks fine.
That should not be the defining point about the M4 though. The price is higher than it’s ever been, there’s more power and more expectation to live up to. And the joyous thing is that it does. The M4’s brilliance is that it’s an almost endlessly customisable car. With so many settings to fiddle with and a genius traction control system that can be changed over 10 different notches to suit the driver, it’s your car to make it as you wish. With 510PS (375kW) and 550Nm (407lb ft) it’s also an absolute rocket ship in a straight line. Available in rear-wheel or all-wheel-drive you can also have it in as lairy a mode as you want. Ignore the face: whether you like it or not, the M4 Competition is brilliant.
Mazda MX-5 Sport Venture – Seán Ward
Mechanically at least the MX-5 hasn’t changed since 2018, so there’s really no reason for one to feature on a list of ‘best cars from 2021’. However, the Sport Venture special edition is new and I did drive it in 2021… So it counts, right?
What do you get with Sport Venture? The 1.5-litre, 132PS (97kW) engine, Deep Crystal Blue Mica paint, a grey fabric roof, and silver door mirrors and roll hoops. Only 160 cars will be sold. Mazda nerds like me might see some similarities to the Strato Blue NB 2.5 Nevada special from 2003.
A short while behind the wheel reminded me just how fun MX-5s can be. Light, unintimidating, simple – just good, easy fun. And I finally cottoned on to something many have said for years, that is just how good the 1.5-litre engine is. Yes, the 2.0-litre is faster, but the smaller motor just works.
Bentley Continental GT Speed – Ben Miles
What the Bentley Continental GT Speed is for is a question that’s completely open for interpretation depending on who you are. As comfortable as any Conti GT has ever been and not really any faster than the standard W12 car (it’ll do 1mph more) you could conceivable argue that it has no point. It also doesn’t really look any different.
But that viewpoint would be to show that you’ve not driven it. A special traction control system allows more slip than normal and with a bigger rear bias and rear-steer, it’s now a much more nimble car. That’s a relative term, it’s still the size of a flat, but the GT Speed feels fun, a little bit naughty if anything. The rear wheels will happily break traction, the chassis feels like it’s ready for engagement. But it all still feels like a Bentley. Just don’t spec the interior with carbon inserts... Please.
Ford Focus ST Final Edition – Seán Ward
In most hot hatchbacks it takes the mere press of a button or twist of a dial to change how a car feels and drives. The steering weight, throttle response, exhaust sound, stiffness of the suspension – all can be tweaked without much thought at all. Except in the Focus ST Edition.
The name might be confusing but how it drives is delightfully simple. It’s a standard Ford Focus ST and, as such, there are drive modes to tweak the steering, throttle and more. But the suspension isn’t connected to the drive modes – there’s no hydraulic springs or magnetic dampers. Instead, we get KW coilovers and some lightweight wheels. The wheels reduce unsprung mass by 10 per cent at each corner, but it’s the suspension that’s the real talking point because you have to make adjustments yourself, and by doing so you have to learn how to set the car up for a certain road or track. Coilovers are nothing new, but to have them offered on a modern hot hatch is really refreshing.
Caterham 170S – Ben Miles
This could be the exact opposite of the Bentley. In fact, it has about ten per cent of the engine of the Conti GT. It’s the smallest car Caterham has ever made and more importantly the lightest (its predecessor was the same size, but had more mass). With an engine the size of two cans of coke, just 84PS (62kW) on tap, leaf springs and drum brakes at the rear it’s not a promising equation when you read it on paper. Thankfully the whole is so much better than the sum of its parts.
Drive the Caterham 170 and you’ll realise how far a lot of the automotive world has started to go wrong. You don’t need power and all the widgets. This tiny Caterham has no power steering or traction control, no servo on the brakes and it is all the better for it. There’s allegedly a heater but it really doesn’t work. Sure it hates cruising in fifth and the acceleration is out done by some SUVs, but nothing can be chucked into a corner with such abandon you’ll struggle to compute it. There are fewer happier cars that have ever been built and if the 170 doesn’t sell, whether here or in its Japanese Kei car territory, then the driver’s car is dead and we should all give up.
Lotus Exige Final Edition – Seán Ward
In April this year, the GRR team took a trip to Hethel to drive the Lotus Elise and Exige Final Editions, and it was my job to courier the latter from Goodwood to the company’s famous test track, a journey of around four hours and 190 miles or so. The only trouble was we had to arrive at 08:00, which meant a 03:30 departure time, allowing for traffic. Well let me tell you, a 3.5-litre supercharged V6 really does wake you up in the morning.
While I’m excited to see what the new Emira is like to drive it’s sad to wave goodbye to the Exige, Elise and Evora, and what brought that into focus was our experience at Hethel. The unassisted steering is incredible, the handling and balance so impressive (it only weighs 1,138kg, remember), the ride quality impeccable and the sound of the engine so addictive. Yes, the way the exhaust comes on is a little silly (there’s nothing, and then at 3,500rpm it’s like a brass band has erupted into song) but it’s a seriously delicious noise. And even with a six-speed manual, you’ll hit 62mph in 3.7 seconds, and that’s just in the 390PS (287kW) Sport 390, beyond which is the Sport 420 and Sport 430. As cars get heavier and heavier, and in many cases less engaging, climbing into the Exige was a standout treat.
Kia EV6 – Ben Miles
The Kia/Hyundai revolution is in full flow. The complete reinvention from the butt of jokes to the go-to for affordable family cars was completed in the last decade. Now Kia has ideas above its station. The EV6 is aimed squarely at far more expensive cars and it’s not just aiming for that lofty goal, it’s already there.
The EV6 drives better has better and more impressive tech, looks better and is nicer to be inside than any EV from the big three in Germany. With a series of options for rear-driven and all-wheel-drive and an exceptional and realistic range, the EV6 can challenge at both the £40k end of the market at the £55k. In fact, it also drives fantastically, with a proper bespoke platform that showcases just how wrong Mercedes got it with the EQC. If 800V chargers can catch on soon then you’ll be able to charge it in about 18 minutes too. Is this the best EV in the world? Only the Polestar 2 can really challenge that, or its biggest enemy: the platform-sharing Hyundai Ioniq 5.
Vauxhall Mokka-e – Seán Ward
From a silly-fast electric Porsche to a Vauxhall. An odd transition but, hand on heart, my time with the Mokka-e was delightful – it was an unexpected surprise, which is why it makes my list.
It wasn’t a car without fault. The suspension served up a decent enough ride but was flustered by repeated bumps, while the steering was relatively lifeless, although not unreadable. But it charged quickly and simply, the cabin was easy to use and gimmick-free, it looked great, would do the mileage it is quoted as doing (201 miles, if you’re asking) and performed well. The electric powertrain really suited the Mokka.
My time with the Mokka also coincided with my best charging experience, where there were no broken chargers and none that required me to sign up to an app – for a whole week I just pulled up, plugged in and charged. A good EV combined with a system that was actually stress-free – what a joy.
Lotus Elise Final Edition – Ben Miles
Seán and I disagree here. There’s no denying that both of Lotus’s “Final Edition” cars are brilliant, a fitting send-off to an absolute automotive icon and having both on this list is fine. But as great as the Exige is, the Elise is just so much more.
Here we talk about a car where the existence of a petrol engine is just a bit superfluous. It’s a four-cylinder with enough power, but nothing exciting. This car is all about the chassis, the handling. It’s about that almost telepathic communication with the driver. Like lift-off oversteer? You got it. Like power oversteer? You got it. Want to just take the corner fast without any slip? Sure, we can do that.
The Elise saved Lotus and this Final Edition might be the absolute greatest of the greatest. It isn’t as light as it used to be, it’s perhaps not quite as pure. But with a proper heater, some brilliant seats and a small boot you will not find anything that can come close as a driver’s car. The base Elise has always been the best really, never mind Cups, wings and the rest. The Exige is great, but it’s too focused, too reliant on power compared it its little bro. Rest in peace Elise, we’ll miss you. Emira, you’ll need to be damned good.
Ford and Lotus images by Joe Harding.
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