THE STRAITS TIMES CAR OF THE YEAR 2015

ST-Torque Best Buys of 2015

Ford’s Kuga 1.5.
Ford’s Kuga 1.5.PHOTOS: ST FILE, BMW ASIA, TOYOTA,
BMW i3.
BMW i3.
Toyota Corolla Altis 1.6.
Toyota Corolla Altis 1.6.
Toyota Wish 1.8.
Toyota Wish 1.8.
Audi A3 1.4 Sedan.
Audi A3 1.4 Sedan.
Mercedes-Benz C200 Avantgarde.
Mercedes-Benz C200 Avantgarde.
Mazda MX-5.
Mazda MX-5.
BMW 740Li.
BMW 740Li.
Mercedes-AMG GT S.
Mercedes-AMG GT S.
Lexus ES250.
Lexus ES250.

Diesel passenger models feature among cars that offer the biggest bang for your buck

Diesel is probably the motoring buzzword for 2015.

The number of diesel passenger cars on the road has almost doubled to an estimated 6,000 from last year, fuelled by brands such as Peugeot, Citroen, Volvo, Jaguar and, of course, Volkswagen.

These cars make up less than 1 per cent of the total population, but when one thinks about how quickly the cohort has grown, it is mind-boggling.

It has taken hybrids more than 20 years to reach a population of 6,300. While diesel technology has been around for decades, it was only five years ago when Singapore's relaxed taxation policy on diesel cars began to result in a wider acceptance among buyers.

So, it took diesels five years to attain what hybrids could only manage in 20.

Diesel made headlines also because of an unprecedented scandal arising from Volkswagen's manipulation of its engines. Unlike other crises which hit other carmakers - from vehicles bursting into flames to tyres giving way to airbags killing and maiming to cars that keep on accelerating - the one that VW is embroiled in is different in one aspect: it stems from a wilful action.

It is a shame because the company actually makes some pretty good cars and its reputation has risen meteorically in the last 10 years. But it may have been a little too obsessed with overtaking Toyota to become the world's No. 1 seller.

The group will no doubt recover from this episode - and, hopefully, become wiser and humbler.

On that sobering note, here are the best buys of 2015. This year's guide to the automotive galaxy is more comprehensive, but still follows the guiding principles enshrined since the first column appeared more than three decades ago.

Cars here offer more in form, function and value. They rank high in driveability and desirability. And, yes, there are a couple of diesels among them.

• All prices include COE and are correct at press time.


SUV/Crossover

The best compact choice is Ford's Kuga 1.5 (from $143,999). It is smooth to a fault, brilliantly poised and, in the Titanium version, better equipped than some premium choices.

The Nissan Qashqai ($113,388) and Hyundai Tucson ($141,999) both offer decent value.

The Qashqai is available with a zesty road tax-friendly 1.2-litre turbocharged engine that makes 115bhp at 4,500rpm and 165Nm of torque from 1,750rpm.

At the wheel, those figures make it comparable with its normally aspirated 2-litre sibling.

The Tucson is bland at the wheel. But it impresses with a slew of premium features. You get keyless access and ignition, an electronic parking brake with self-release and auto-hold, cruise control, a multi- function steering wheel and dual- zone climate control.

Also standard issue are blindspot detection, Bluetooth connectivity, daytime-running LEDs, LED cabin lights, anti-glare rear-view mirror incorporating reverse camera monitor, motorised tailgate with hands-free access, panoramic sunroof and 18-inch alloys.

Among premium compacts, the Lexus NX200t (from $224,000) takes the cake for being supremely refined and very measured. Its turbocharged 234bhp and 350Nm powertrain ensures brisk and smooth progress.

Although older than the others mentioned, Range Rover's Evoque ($219,999) is still the most fashionable crossover in town, with a striking, edgy design that sets it apart from others in its genre.

If you are looking for a big seven-seater sport-utility vehicle, you could do worse than the Audi Q7, Kia Sorento and Volvo XC90.

The Q7 3.0TFSI ($361,600) is the best German choice. Although not as bulky or hefty as its predcessor, it is still a hulk of a car. But, magically, it moves with amazing grace and pace. A 2-litre which costs almost $60,000 less has just arrived.

The XC90 T6 ($320,000) is a showcase of high-tech wizardry and Scandinavian chic. It has the best interior among its rivals and boasts a host of semi-autonomous systems.

If you do not wish to splurge, then the Sorento 2.2CRDi ($153,999) makes a convincing case. It offers the biggest bang for your buck and that is underscored by its 2.2-litre turbodiesel engine that pushes out 441Nm at 1,750rpm. Its niftiest feature is a tailgate that opens if you simply stand near it.


Hatchback

The BMW i3 ($212,800), last year's The Straits Times Car of the Year, is still the most outstanding hatchback on the market. In day- to-day driving, the electric i3 offers sportscar-like acceleration, Lexus- like silence and unparalleled efficiency. It is futuristic and addictive.

If what you seek is a fun-to-drive supermini, the Ford Fiesta ($107,999) is unbeatable. The feisty 1-litre three-cylinder car is a hoot at the wheel despite having a 998cc engine that will rest squarely on a piece of A4 paper. It is also fairly frugal.

Almost on a par with the Fiesta is the new Mazda 2 (from $95,888), a well-built hatch that handles itself confidently on the tarmac. Its design makes women swoon, yet is not too girly for men.

The Citroen Cactus ($103,988) and Renault Clio ($101,999) are equally eye-catching.

The Cactus 1.2 is a funky 975kg runabout powered by a 1.2-litre three-cylinder engine. It has an excellent ride quality, which compensates for its lurching transmission. The Clio 1.5TdCi is a turbodiesel that will deliver an economy of at least 5 litres/100km. It is also spacious for a car its size, offers lots of amenities and is not half-bad to drive.


Compact saloon

The best pick in this category remains the Toyota Corolla Altis 1.6 ($106,888) because of its smart design, roominess and efficiency. It does not have many bells and whistles, but it offers good old-fashioned dependability.

The Mazda 3 1.5 (from $101,888) is the Corolla's keenest competitor, but chiefly because of its pricing.

Some may argue that the Mazda is more striking than the Corolla, appearing more broad-shouldered and sportier.

That it is made in Japan also wins it points. The Corolla is made in Thailand.


MPV/Wagon

Although oldish, the Toyota Wish 1.8 ($127,888) still reigns supreme among compact MPVs. It has a small footprint, but a roomy interior.

The third row easily accommodates two adults and its second and third rows can be folded to release a large, flat cargo area. Most crucially, the car is frugal and dependable.

The Opel Zafira Tourer 1.4 Turbo ($136,000) matches the Wish on efficiency, but is a bit more cramped inside. It is a good-looking and well-equipped multi-purpose vehicle that drives fairly well, powered by a 1.4-litre turbo paired with a six-speed autobox. It attracts a lower road tax than the Toyota.

Kia's Carens 2.0 ($119,999) has two things going for it: It is priced competitively and it is better put together than the Thai or Indonesian alternatives in the budget segment.

It is also better equipped than the Wish, boasting cruise control with speed limiter, keyless access and ignition, LED daytime-running lights and cornering lights, six airbags, welcome lights with puddle lamps and connectivity to mobile devices.


Compact executive

Two cars in this category deserve your attention - the Audi A3 1.4 Sedan ($152,600) and the Mercedes-Benz C200 Avantgarde ($216,888).

The A3 could arguably be placed in the "compact saloon" category, but it has the brand cachet to stand alongside the other car here.

Audi's first A3 sedan, it is a brilliant package that offers room, vroom and refinement. With a 1.4litre turbo engine mated to a seven-speed autobox, it is also pretty efficient.

If you need a relatively spacious car with a decent level of dynamism and prestige, the new C-class is an attractive proposition. It is the biggest C-class yet, with a class- leading wheelbase of 2,840mm, which is longer than a Toyota Camry's.

Rear passengers benefit the most, not only from the increased roominess, but also from the improved ride characteristics.

The car is chock-full of features, almost mirroring the equipment list of the bigger E-class. It is also fairly nimble despite its size.


Coupe/convertible

The latest Mazda MX-5 (from $158,888) is the top pick. It is a beautiful little ragtop with panache and personality. Its simplicity, lightfootedness and perfect ergonomics make it truly endearing. And for once, you do not need to pick the manual transmission - the automatic is just as fun.

The BMW 220i Coupe ($192,800) is a lovely drive that harks back to the BMWs many of us fell in love with 30 years ago. It is compact, light and energetic enough to match the early 3-series cars that were as uncomplicated as they were engaging.

The relatively modest 220i, with a 184bhp 2-litre turbo paired with an eight-speed automatic, is the variant of choice. It is somehow sweeter and purer than the manic 326bhp six-cylinder M235i .

The Lexus RC (from $325,000), the less potent twin of the RC F, is powered by a 3.5-litre V6 that takes it from 0 to 100kmh in 6.3 seconds. Like the RC F, it is easy to drive fast and completely dependable.

Twins separated at birth, the Subaru BRZ ($147,800) and Toyota 86 (from $152,888) have not been selling well. And that is a pity. Both are really a hoot to drive.

Powered by 2-litre flat-fours driving the rear wheels, they display fine balance, agility and immense road-holding, with the 86 showing a wee bit more sparkle in its steering and all-round driveability. Neither is very fast, but both are rewarding behind the wheel.


Luxury

As always, the top two contenders in this segment are the Mercedes-Benz S-class and BMW 7-series.

The Merc S500L ($578,888) offers an incredible blend of performance, technology and silkened luxury. Think of a car that offers rear seats that recline like those on an airliner and hands-free driving in slow traffic - all packaged in a cushy, cavernous cabin riding on air suspension and powered by a 4.7-litre twin-turbo V8.

The BMW 740Li ($456,800) has a longer wheelbase, which translates to unrivalled legroom at the back. But its ride is not as pampering as the Merc's, although the Bavarian - powered by a 3-litre inline-6 turbo - is streets ahead when it comes to driving dynamics. Those who love gadgets will love this flagship.

At the other end of the price spectrum is the Hyundai Genesis ($268,888), a car that offers exceptional value. The large sedan is stylish and imposing, with a creditable interior and luxe features such as soft-closing doors and adaptive cruise control.


Sportscar

Maranello and Stuttgart usually have tempting offerings. But because the revised Porsche 911 and mouth-watering Cayman GT4 are still not available for local test drives, we cannot include them. The same goes for the Ferrari 488.

The Mercedes-AMG GT S ($689,888) and Mercedes- AMG C63 ($435,888) are definitely worth considering - the Mercedes- AMG GT S for those who simply want an alternative to the 911 and the Mercedes-AMG C63 for those who want an understated missile.

But the one to have and to hold this year is the Lexus RC F ($445,000), a finely balanced modern racer with old-school charms. It is propelled by a 5-litre naturally aspirated V8 that sends it to 100kmh in 4.5 seconds.

The big displacement allows it to do whatever it likes in the city, but it is happiest when given long and relatively empty stretches of tarmac.

The Brits used to make wonderful sportscars. Jaguar's F-Type R Coupe ($580,000) is proof that all is not lost. When its 5-litre V8 fires up, all the glory and fury of the Empire comes flooding back. Zero to 100kmh in 4.2 seconds is not too shoddy, either.

The BMW i8 ($580,800) proves one does not have to carry big bazookas to make a big impact. It is powered by a 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine - hardly what one would call sportscar material. But the engine is paired with a 96kW motor. Together, they make 360bhp and 570Nm, enough to send the low- slung, carbon-fibre two-seater to 100kmh in 4.4 seconds.

It is silent when you are cruising leisurely, but roars convincingly (thanks to synthesizers) when you push it. And it looks like a million bucks.


Executive

Traditionalists will always bet on the Mercedes-Benz E-class and for good reason. The car still holds its own when it comes to ride comfort, refinement and overall driveability. But since an all-new model is just a few months away, buyers might want to hold out for a bit.

The facelifted Lexus ES250 (from $231,000, above) is alluring for its edgier stying and spiced-up interior. As before, it offers plenty of comfort and refinement - but this time, it also packs more road presence.

The new Volkswagen Passat 1.8 (from $149,800) is also a contender this year. When it comes to comfort, it is right up there. While its ride is not pillow-soft like the Camry's, it still takes on tough tarmac conditions with aplomb. Its chassis is steely and stout, allowing the car to withstand roll and yaw like most other European sedans.

The Peugeot 508 1.6 ($129,900) should not be dismissed if you want a plush, value-for-money car. It is extremely well equipped and its cabin ambience clearly surpasses what you find in a Toyota Camry or VW Passat. On the go, it is refinement personified.

Beating it by a whisker is the new Ford Mondeo 1.5 (from $155,999), a sizeable car with a smallish engine. Yet it moves with vim and vigour, betraying not a whiff of reluctance. Inside, its finishing easily matches that of the Jaguar XE. For these reasons alone, it is the best car in this segment. It is available in four- and five-door versions. Those who want slightly more should go for the 2-litre variant.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2015, with the headline 'ST-Torque Best Buys of 2015'. Print Edition | Subscribe