Best buys of 2016: From hot hatches to sports cars

ST VIDEO
The new Volvo S90 (left) is the best all-round executive choice. The Mercedes-Benz E-class is a regal model with plenty of space. The Audi A4 2.0 TFSI quattro (above) and Mercedes-Benz C200 Avantgarde (left). From top: BMW i3, Ford Fiesta, Mazda 2 an
The new Volvo S90 is the best all-round executive choice. ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH AND MARK CHEONG
The new Volvo S90 (left) is the best all-round executive choice. The Mercedes-Benz E-class is a regal model with plenty of space. The Audi A4 2.0 TFSI quattro (above) and Mercedes-Benz C200 Avantgarde (left). From top: BMW i3, Ford Fiesta, Mazda 2 an
The Mercedes-Benz E-class is a regal model with plenty of space. PHOTO: DAIMLER AG
The new Volvo S90 (left) is the best all-round executive choice. The Mercedes-Benz E-class is a regal model with plenty of space. The Audi A4 2.0 TFSI quattro (above) and Mercedes-Benz C200 Avantgarde (left). From top: BMW i3, Ford Fiesta, Mazda 2 an
BMW i3PHOTOS: BMW, MAZDA, MINI, ST FILE
The new Volvo S90 (left) is the best all-round executive choice. The Mercedes-Benz E-class is a regal model with plenty of space. The Audi A4 2.0 TFSI quattro (above) and Mercedes-Benz C200 Avantgarde (left). From top: BMW i3, Ford Fiesta, Mazda 2 an
Ford FiestaPHOTOS: BMW, MAZDA, MINI, ST FILE
The new Volvo S90 (left) is the best all-round executive choice. The Mercedes-Benz E-class is a regal model with plenty of space. The Audi A4 2.0 TFSI quattro (above) and Mercedes-Benz C200 Avantgarde (left). From top: BMW i3, Ford Fiesta, Mazda 2 an
Mazda 2PHOTOS: BMW, MAZDA, MINI, ST FILE
The new Volvo S90 (left) is the best all-round executive choice. The Mercedes-Benz E-class is a regal model with plenty of space. The Audi A4 2.0 TFSI quattro (above) and Mercedes-Benz C200 Avantgarde (left). From top: BMW i3, Ford Fiesta, Mazda 2 an
Mini Cooper S Clubman.PHOTOS: BMW, MAZDA, MINI, ST FILE
The new Volvo S90 (left) is the best all-round executive choice. The Mercedes-Benz E-class is a regal model with plenty of space. The Audi A4 2.0 TFSI quattro (above) and Mercedes-Benz C200 Avantgarde (left). From top: BMW i3, Ford Fiesta, Mazda 2 an
The Audi A4 2.0 TFSI quattroPHOTOS: AUDI, ST FILE
The new Volvo S90 (left) is the best all-round executive choice. The Mercedes-Benz E-class is a regal model with plenty of space. The Audi A4 2.0 TFSI quattro (above) and Mercedes-Benz C200 Avantgarde (left). From top: BMW i3, Ford Fiesta, Mazda 2 an
Mercedes-Benz C200 AvantgardePHOTO: ST FILE
Ford’s Kuga 1.5
Ford’s Kuga 1.5PHOTOS: ST FILE
Infiniti Q30
Infiniti Q30PHOTOS: ST FILE
Lexus RX200t
Lexus RX200tPHOTOS: ST FILE
Volvo XC90
Volvo XC90PHOTOS: ST FILE
The Honda NSX clocks a 3.3- second century sprint and a top speed of 303kmh.
The Honda NSX clocks a 3.3- second century sprint and a top speed of 303kmh.PHOTO: ST FILE
Toyota Wish 1.8
Toyota Wish 1.8 PHOTOS: ST FILE
Volkswagen Passat Variant 2.0TSI
Volkswagen Passat Variant 2.0TSI PHOTOS: ST FILE
The Honda Legend is a high-tech, high- performance limousine with the efficiency of a compact sedan.
The Honda Legend is a high-tech, high- performance limousine with the efficiency of a compact sedan.PHOTO: ST FILE
The Audi TT Roadster
The Audi TT RoadsterPHOTOS: ST FILE
Mazda MX-5
Mazda MX-5PHOTOS: ST FILE
The Toyota Corolla Altis 1.6 offers old-fashioned dependability with its smart design.
The Toyota Corolla Altis 1.6 offers old-fashioned dependability with its smart design.

New and established models make up this year's recommendations

Diesel and petrol-electric cars were the two fastest-growing segments this year.

As at end-October, there were 9,530 diesel-powered cars on the road - 59.5 per cent more than at the end of last year.

Their popularity grew despite the monumental diesel scandal which is still rocking the Volkswagen Group, an indication that Singaporean car buyers are swayed largely by their wallets.

Diesel models get sizeable carbon rebates in Singapore and in many other cities because of their lower CO2 emissions, never mind that they tend to produce a lot more of other pollutants.

Petrol-electric cars posted one of their biggest growth rates since they appeared more than 20 years ago. As at end-October, there were 8,801 petrol-electric hybrids here - 38 per cent more than at the end of last year.

Despite the increase, the hybrid cohort is now trailing that of diesels for the first time.

In line with this green theme, there has been plenty of engine downsizing.

With that in mind, here are the best buys of 2016. This year's guide follows the guiding principles enshrined since the first column appeared more than three decades ago. Cars here offer more in form, function and value, and rank high in driveability and desirability.

•Prices include COE, and are correct at the time of writing.


Executive

 

The new Mercedes-Benz E-class (from $263,888) is a handsome and regal model with plenty of space and panache. Its drive quality and comfort level may not be much different from what you had in the previous E-class, but you get a lot more road presence and fanciful options.

If you want unbridled performance in a respectable package, the Lexus GS F ($469,000) is hard to beat. With a 5-litre naturally aspirated V8 that makes 470bhp, 530Nm and soul-stirring music, the steroidal sedan goes from nought to a hundred in 4.6 seconds and onto a top speed of 270kmh. At the same time, it delivers Lexus comfort.

The best all-round executive choice, however, is the new Volvo S90 (from $212,999) named ST's Car of the Year this year. It wins hearts by being quite exceptional in its design, spaciousness, build quality, comfort, driveability, refinement, competitive pricing and extraordinary performance.

Its performance is courtesy of its twincharged 2-litre engine, which puts out 320bhp and 400Nm, making it more powerful on a per-litre basis than the GS F.


Hatchback

The BMW i3 ($208,800), 2014's Straits Times Car of the Year, is still the most outstanding hatchback in the market. In day-to-day driving, the electric i3 offers sportscar-like acceleration, Lexus-like silence and unparalleled efficiency.

If what you seek is a fun-to-drive supermini, the Ford Fiesta ($97,888) 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 Mazda 2 (from $89,300), a well-built hatch that handles itself confidently on the tarmac.

If you are looking for a blend of space, status and sportiness, look no further than the new Mini Cooper S Clubman ($175,300). This roomy Mini is still a hot hatch at heart and it makes a statement wherever it goes.

The Opel Astra ($105,888) is the sleeper hit here. It is sexier than a Scirocco and just as practical as a Golf. It drives as well as any other car here (well, except for the Mini), and offers plenty of bang for the buck with its 1.4-litre engine making 150bhp and 245Nm. It is also surprisingly well-built.

Audi's RS3 Sportback (out of stock, but last sold at $287,800) could also be categorised as a sports car here. It is the hottest hatch on the market, with 367bhp and 465Nm churned out by its 2.5-litre inline-five engine. Zero to hundred is done in 4.3 seconds, equalling the BMW M2's ballistic blast-off. But unlike the M2, the RS 3 offers a good measure of practicality too.


Compact executive

Two cars in this category deserve attention - the Audi A4 2.0 TFSI quattro ($229,999) and the Mercedes-Benz C200 Avantgarde ($215,888).

While the A4 is also available with a 1.4-litre engine, it is the 2-litre version that steals the show. With 252bhp and 370Nm channelled to its four wheels via a seven- speed dual-clutch transmission, it paves the way for endless joy on the tarmac. Zero to a hundred is acomplished in just 5.8 seconds, and acceleration is strong across the rev range. A wonderful car in the city as well as on the long and winding.

The C-class remains an attractive proposition. It is the biggest C-class yet, with a 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.


 Sport utility vehicle/crossover

The best compact choice is Ford's Kuga 1.5 (from $139,888), even if it is pricey. It is smooth to a fault, brilliantly poised and, in the Titanium version, better equipped than a few premium cars.

The Nissan Qashqai 1.2T (from $105,800) and Hyundai Tucson 1.6T ($122,999) 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.

The Tucson's new 1.6-litre turbo engine is paired with a smooth seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. It puts out 175bhp and 265Nm, which means it gets a decent helping of driving performance along with its looks, space, practicality, value and overall refinement.

Honda's HR-V is now a contender, since authorised agent Kah Motor managed to get its hands on the Japan-made variant. This makes it more competitive against the parallel-imported version. Kah Motor has also priced it more attractively ($108,999) than before. For peace of mind, go for the Kah Motor version.

Among premium choices, the Lexus RX200t (from $254,000) takes the cake for being refined, spacious and luxurious. It is now available with a tax-friendly 2-litre power plant with 238bhp and 350Nm. More crucially, this variant is nearly as polished as its V6 twin.

In a similar vein but smaller, the Infiniti Q30 (from $191,800) offers a good blend of fun and driveability. With its 2-litre turbo power plant, it makes 208bhp and 350Nm, allowing it to hit the century mark in 7.3 seconds. It is an accomplished car in its own right, even if it is based on a Mercedes-Benz model.

If torque is all you want, go for the Ssangyong Tivoli Diesel, ($126,888). Its 1.6-litre turbodiesel produces 115bhp and an eye-popping 300Nm of torque. It is unusually refined and driveable for a small-capacity diesel and it offers superb economy.

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

The Q7 is now available with a 2-litre engine ($282,999) to an eight-speed Tiptronic gearbox. It has 252bhp and 370Nm to its name, allowing it to clock a 7.1-second century sprint - which is impressive for a massive seven-seater SUV.

Likewise, the XC90 is now available as a 2-litre T5 (from $272,999). It beats the Q7 in price, but not in performance. Still, it has the best interior among its rivals.

If you do not wish to splurge, then the Sorento 2.2CRDi ($156,999) offers the biggest bang for your buck and that is underscored by its 2.2litre turbodiesel engine that pushes out 441Nm at 1,750rpm.

If, however, money is no object, the ultimate SUV to have must be the new Range Rover Sport SVR ($660,000). While other carmakers have tried to cross-breed a coupe with an SUV with mixed results, Land Rover simply straps a beefy 5-litre supercharged V8 to its Range Rover Sport and tune it up to produce 550bhp and 680Nm. What you get is power and glory and utility - with no compromise at all.


Sportscar

The new Honda NSX ($980,999) delivers supercar performance, efficiency and ease of use - traits which are usually conflicting. Its magic lies in its powertrain, a high-revving 3.5-litre twin-turbo V6 paired with three electric motors driving all four wheels.

With 580bhp and 646Nm available across a flat power band, it clocks a 3.3-second century sprint (with two occupants) and a top speed of 303kmh. Superb aerodynamics, brakes, steering, transmission and weight distribution contribute to its ease of use.

The BMW i8 ($572,800) 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 when you push it. And it looks like a million bucks.

Both cars make a refreshing change from the usual offerings.


Multi-purpose vehicle/wagon

Although oldish, the Toyota Wish 1.8 (from $112,988) still reigns supreme among compact multi-purpose vehicles. 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 for a large, flat cargo area. Most crucially, the car is frugal and dependable. Last but not least, it is priced very competitively now.

The new Volkswagen Touran (from $134,900) comes close. It is noticeably bigger than its predecessor and offers significantly more room and practicality. It is also lighter and its 1.4-litre turbo engine has been tuned up slightly.

On paper, the new seven-seater has 150bhp and 250Nm on tap, up from 140bhp and 220Nm (although its predecessor's peak torque arrived at lower revs). It is also less boxy than the previous Touran.

The Volkswagen Passat Variant 2.0TSI ($186,900) offers excellent value for money. With 220bhp and 350Nm on tap, it is also a punchy wagon with a good spread of pulling power. It has above-average stowage and plenty of premium amenities.


 Luxury

The top contenders in this segment are usually the Mercedes-Benz S-class and BMW 7-series.

But this year, Honda's new Legend ($350,999) deserves special mention. The unusual Japanese contender is a high-tech, high-performance limousine with the efficiency of a compact sedan. It is powered by a hybrid powertrain - a 3.5-litre V6 assisted by three electric motors.

With 308bhp and 369Nm on tap, the huge Honda takes off from standstill to 100kmh in 5.9 seconds. It is at the same time surprisingly agile for such a large barge.

Equally impressive is BMW's 730i ($401,800), a Bavarian limousine with a downsized engine and an upsized attitude. Its 2-litre power plant makes 258bhp and a mind- boggling 400Nm, enabling it to go from zero to 100kmh in 6.3 seconds. At the same time, it exudes luxury, charm and perfect poise - even when driven with verve.


Coupe/convertible

The Mazda MX-5 (from $163,300) is the top convertible pick. It is a beautiful 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 M2 ($297,800) is an absolute blast. In fact, it is the most enjoyable M car you can buy today. Powered by a turbocharged 3-litre straight-six with 370bhp and 465Nm from 1,400rpm, the pocket rocket goes from standstill to 100kmh in 4.3 seconds. Its compactness contributes to its unrivalled dynamism and perfect road manners.

The Ford Mustang 2.3 ($253,888) is worth your while, even if it is not the most scintillating coupe in town. It has a certain wild streak which you can learn to tame, and a somewhat unique feel at the wheel.

The latest Audi TT Roadster ($239,999) delivers barrels of fun without breaking the bank. It packs a lot more firepower than its predecessor and feels significantly livelier. Its ride quality too, is high for its genre.

Those who are partial to British brutes should go for the Jaguar F-Type (from $358,999), available as a V6 or a V8, and as a coupe or a cabriolet. The 3-litre V6 Coupe, supercharged to produce 380bhp and 460Nm, offers plenty of bang and bite for the buck. It may not be the sharpest handling machine around, but it oozes charm and character, amplified by its soul-stirring exhaust note.


Compact saloon

The Toyota Corolla Altis 1.6 (from $103,988) remains a top pick because of its smart design, roominess and efficiency. It does not have many bells and whistles, but it offers good old-fashioned dependability.

Honda's latest Civic ($125,999) comes close, with a sharp and sizeable body powered by a 1.5-litre turbo engine. With 173bhp and 220Nm to its name, it offers pace and space.

The Mazda 2 Sedan (from $92,300) is probably the best little notchback you can buy today. It is smaller than the other two cars here, but it makes up for that by being immensely driveable. Its endearing ways belie its relatively modest power plant - a 115bhp/148Nm 1.5-litre four-cylinder paired with a six-speed autobox.

Toyota's new Prius ($131,988) is a strong contender here. It is spacious, economical and drives better than any other Prius before it. And it scores well in equipment level, refinement and comfort too. No wonder it is such a hit with taxi companies.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2016, with the headline 'Top picks'. Print Edition | Subscribe