ST-Torque Best Buys of 2017: The cream of the crop

Here are the best buys of the year

Emissions, or rather what they translate to in dollars, rule the car buyer's consciousness this year.

Euro 6, the highest European emission standard, came into effect for petrol cars on Sept 1. From Jan 1, it will apply to diesel models too.

But it will be the new Vehicular Emissions Scheme (VES) which will have a bigger impact. To be rolled out in two stages next month and in July, the scheme will mete out tax rebates and surcharges according to five pollutants emitted by a car.

Several dealers have been playing the VES card for the last two quarters, egging consumers to buy before the scheme kicks in.

Their claim? Most cars which enjoy rebates today will lose them or could even face surcharges with VES.

But how car prices will eventually change remains to be seen because there are other price-determining factors such as COE premiums.

So, for this year's Best Buys list, we are not going to consider VES. Simply because the rebates are insignificant if you consider the total ownership cost (remember a car's scrap value also becomes smaller if it has qualified for a rebate).

 

As for cars which attract surcharges, many will, in fact, be better off - the maximum will drop from $30,000 to $20,000.

And not all diesels will be penalised.

This year's list follows the guiding principles enshrined since the first column appeared more than three decades ago. The cars mentioned here offer more in form, function and value, and rank high in driveability and desirability.

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


Coupe/Convertible

A British two-seater with a long bonnet, a taut silhouette and big wheels is still magical. And Jaguar's F-Type 2.0 ($336,999) makes owning such a car less painful too because you do not have to worry about the lofty road tax and fuel costs associated with its 5-litre predecessor. The smaller-engined car is still spirited enough to keep most drivers happy.

 Jaguar F-Type 2.0, Mazda MX-5 and BMW M2.
Jaguar F-Type 2.0 (above).

For roadster fun, the Mazda MX-5 (from $183,800) is still the standard bearer. The latest model goes back to the simplicity of the first car 28 years ago, with a manually operated roof and a normally aspirated 2-litre high compression engine. It is a superbly balanced car, with styling lines that beckon a second look. The automatic is preferable.

 Jaguar F-Type 2.0, Mazda MX-5 and BMW M2.
Mazda MX-5 (above).

Serious sports fans have only one car to go to: the BMW M2 ($294,888). It is an absolute blast. 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. Enough said.

 Jaguar F-Type 2.0, Mazda MX-5 and BMW M2.
BMW M2.


Sportscar

Look no farther than the Lexus LC500 (from $500,800), this year's Straits Times Car of the Year. This unusual beauty has an uncommon blend of refinement, build quality and comfort for a sportscar. So, it is not just about raw power.

 Lexus LC500, Honda NSX, BMW i8 and Audi R8 V10 Spyder.
Lexus LC500.

Along the same avenue is the Honda NSX ($928,999 without COE), a petrol-electric supercar that is lethal on the tarmac, (relatively) gentle on the earth and candy to your eyes.

 Lexus LC500, Honda NSX, BMW i8 and Audi R8 V10 Spyder.
Honda NSX.

The BMW i8 ($584,888) follows a similar recipe. The plug-in hybrid has a design to die for and a driving sensation quite unlike any other. The 2015 ST Car of the Year charms with those dramatic butterfly doors too.

 Lexus LC500, Honda NSX, BMW i8 and Audi R8 V10 Spyder.
BMW i8.

If, however, you yearn for a car which packs a good old-fashioned wallop, nothing comes close to the Audi R8 V10 Spyder ($872,000). The hardtop may have an edge on the track, but the softtop enhances everything else this rarefied Audi delivers. Namely, drama, drama and drama.

 Lexus LC500, Honda NSX, BMW i8 and Audi R8 V10 Spyder.
Audi R8 V10 Spyder.


Compact Executive

Life is too short for ordinary. So here are two bristling extraordinary choices here.

The Audi RS3 ($306,300) is just what the doctor ordered for those who are sick of run-of-the-mill sedans. With 400 horses in rein and a century sprint of 4.1 seconds, it offers a life-changing experience behind the wheel.

Audi RS3 (top) and Mercedes-AMG C43 sedan.
Audi RS3.

The Mercedes-AMG C43 sedan ($323,888) may not be as hardened a racer as the RS3, but it will still have you grinning from ear to ear. It is a tad cushier and still offers a respectable performance - just under 370 horses and a century sprint of 4.7 seconds.

Audi RS3 (top) and Mercedes-AMG C43 sedan.
Mercedes-AMG C43 sedan.


Sport Utility Vehicle/Crossover

Plenty of picks here. The Audi Q2 (from $152,391) is a mighty mite suitable for empty-nesters or first-time buyers. It is a compact package, with enough amenities to keep many people happy and a decent level of driveability.

 1. Audi Q2; Audi Q5; 3. Volkswagen Tiguan; 4. Volvo XC60; 5. Peugeot 3008; 6. Ford Kuga; 7. Kia Niro; 8. Jeep Renegade; 9. Range Rover Velar and 10. Mazda CX-9.
Audi Q2.

The Audi Q5 (from $244,000) would be the next logical step up, since the Q3 is just marginally bigger than the Q2. The new model is sizeably bigger than its predecessor and would be adequate for young families. And it is not as unwieldy as a full-blown choice like the Q7.

 1. Audi Q2; Audi Q5; 3. Volkswagen Tiguan; 4. Volvo XC60; 5. Peugeot 3008; 6. Ford Kuga; 7. Kia Niro; 8. Jeep Renegade; 9. Range Rover Velar and 10. Mazda CX-9.
Audi Q5.

In the same vein, the new Volkswagen Tiguan (from $159,400) tempts with a bigger body, a more powerful engine and more features.

 1. Audi Q2; Audi Q5; 3. Volkswagen Tiguan; 4. Volvo XC60; 5. Peugeot 3008; 6. Ford Kuga; 7. Kia Niro; 8. Jeep Renegade; 9. Range Rover Velar and 10. Mazda CX-9.
Volkswagen Tiguan.

But if you are looking for something really stylish, dynamic and punchy, the Volvo XC60 (from $215,999) is hard to beat. This car leaves all the other luxury SUVs in its wake.

 1. Audi Q2; Audi Q5; 3. Volkswagen Tiguan; 4. Volvo XC60; 5. Peugeot 3008; 6. Ford Kuga; 7. Kia Niro; 8. Jeep Renegade; 9. Range Rover Velar and 10. Mazda CX-9.
Volvo XC60.

Costing appreciably less than the Swede, but packing almost the same level of appeal is the Peugeot 3008 ($123,999). There is good reason why this incredible car almost became The Straits Times Car of the Year (it lost the title to the Lexus LC500 by two points).

 1. Audi Q2; Audi Q5; 3. Volkswagen Tiguan; 4. Volvo XC60; 5. Peugeot 3008; 6. Ford Kuga; 7. Kia Niro; 8. Jeep Renegade; 9. Range Rover Velar and 10. Mazda CX-9.
Peugeot 3008.

An old favourite in this segment is the Ford Kuga ($139,999), which still holds its own for smoothness, balance and equipment level.

 1. Audi Q2; Audi Q5; 3. Volkswagen Tiguan; 4. Volvo XC60; 5. Peugeot 3008; 6. Ford Kuga; 7. Kia Niro; 8. Jeep Renegade; 9. Range Rover Velar and 10. Mazda CX-9.
Ford Kuga.

On an even smaller budget is the Kia Niro ($135,999), a worthy hybrid that offers plenty of bang for the buck and plenty of distance for a litre. More impressively, it is not as anaemic as you would imagine a hybrid to be.

 1. Audi Q2; Audi Q5; 3. Volkswagen Tiguan; 4. Volvo XC60; 5. Peugeot 3008; 6. Ford Kuga; 7. Kia Niro; 8. Jeep Renegade; 9. Range Rover Velar and 10. Mazda CX-9.
Kia Niro.

The true SUV connoisseur should, however, consider the Jeep Renegade ($148,888). Although Fiat-based, the Renegade still conveys old Jeep values in the way it moves and sounds. Despite its compactness, it offers a commanding driving position. Never mind that it is a two-wheel-drive.

 1. Audi Q2; Audi Q5; 3. Volkswagen Tiguan; 4. Volvo XC60; 5. Peugeot 3008; 6. Ford Kuga; 7. Kia Niro; 8. Jeep Renegade; 9. Range Rover Velar and 10. Mazda CX-9.
Jeep Renegade.

The Range Rover Velar (from $282,999) still has four-wheel-drive, but the additional traction is more for exiting a quick corner than climbing a muddy bank. It is also over the top when it comes to gadgetry, so tech fans will love it.

 1. Audi Q2; Audi Q5; 3. Volkswagen Tiguan; 4. Volvo XC60; 5. Peugeot 3008; 6. Ford Kuga; 7. Kia Niro; 8. Jeep Renegade; 9. Range Rover Velar and 10. Mazda CX-9.
Range Rover Velar.

Those who want a roomy seven-seater crossover have a few choices, but the most interesting one this year is the new Mazda CX-9 (from $196,800). The car is massive and propelled by a 2.5-litre turbo engine. It has plenty of creature comforts and, best of all, it is surprisingly lively at the wheel.

 1. Audi Q2; Audi Q5; 3. Volkswagen Tiguan; 4. Volvo XC60; 5. Peugeot 3008; 6. Ford Kuga; 7. Kia Niro; 8. Jeep Renegade; 9. Range Rover Velar and 10. Mazda CX-9.
Mazda CX-9.


Hatchback

The BMW i3 (from $193,888) is really too cool to ignore. The best-selling electric car here since it arrived in 2014 has been enhanced. It now has a longer range, giving drivers more time to enjoy the car between charging time. But just in case, it still comes with a range extender - a small petrol engine which acts as a generator.

 BMW i3, Volkswagen Golf GTI and Opel Astra.
BMW i3.

The Volkswagen Golf GTI ($175,400) is still the hot hatch champ. Facelifted and given a bit more juice, it is a royal hoot. Its ride also seems to have become a bit more comfortable than previously, which is a good thing in the long run.

 BMW i3, Volkswagen Golf GTI and Opel Astra.
Volkswagen Golf GTI.

But if you feel the GTI or Golfs in general are too commonplace, give the Opel Astra (from $89,888) a second glance. It is sexier than a Volkswagen Scirocco and just as practical as a Golf. Yet, it flies so low on the retail radar that few buyers think of it when they want a good-looking and well-built hatchback which drives well.

 BMW i3, Volkswagen Golf GTI and Opel Astra.
Opel Astra.


Executive

There are only two worthy candidates here - the evergreen Mercedes-Benz E-class and the newly launched BMW 5-series.

The current E-class (from $264,888) is the best Mercedes-Benz E-class ever produced. It is handsome, regal and roomy. The way it drives and the way its cabin cocoons occupants are also hard to match.

 Mercedes-Benz E-class and BMW 5-series.
Mercedes-Benz E-class.

The new 5er from BMW (from $263,888) may not differ vastly from its predecessor in terms of driveability or performance, but its attraction lies within its cabin. The car is cushier now, with better insulation and a better ride. And there is tech galore for those who cannot be away from their computer for even a moment.

 Mercedes-Benz E-class and BMW 5-series.
BMW 5-series.


Luxury

Cars in this segment have long proffered comfort and finery as their strong suits - as it should be. But for those who prefer to self-drive, luxury cars must be fun at the wheel too.

In this respect, the new Porsche Panamera Executive (from $426,088 without a certificate of entitlement) ticks all the boxes. It has loads of legroom, is furnished like a business-class lounge and drives like a dream.

 Porsche Panamera Executive and BMW 730i.
Porsche Panamera Executive.

Far less extravagant but just as engaging is the BMW 730i (from $408,888). Powered by a 2-litre engine with 400Nm of torque, it still puts on a creditable performance, with the benchmark century sprint done in 6.3 seconds. Like the Panamera, it steers as sharply and handles with as much agility as cars that are one size smaller.

 Porsche Panamera Executive and BMW 730i.
BMW 730i.

Multi-Purpose Vehicle/Wagon

Let's start wih the oldest, the Toyota Wish (from $99,988). This soon-to-be-retired seven-seater offers plenty of space for its compact footprint. It has bullet-proof dependability and near-hybrid efficiency. It is also value for money.


Toyota Wish.

Renault's Grand Scenic ($129,999) comes close. The new Scenic has a longer wheelbase, more glass area and a frugal 1.5-litre turbodiesel (which will still qualify for rebate next year). It compares favourably with the Wish in terms of pricing.

 Toyota Wish, Volkswagen Touran, Volvo V90, Volkswagen Passat Variant and Renault Grand Scenic.
Renault Grand Scenic.

Volkswagen's Touran (from $137,400) is roomier than its predecessor and a tad more stylish. Further draws include its low road tax (from its 1.4-litre engine) and high-quality equipment.

 Toyota Wish, Volkswagen Touran, Volvo V90, Volkswagen Passat Variant and Renault Grand Scenic.
Volkswagen Touran.

As far as station wagons go, the range has never been wide here. The Volkswagen Passat Variant ($197,400) is a full-size wagon with plenty of cargo-lugging capability. Yet it is a sporty drive, with a 2-litre turbo under its bonnet. And like its sedan sibling, it is well built and well furnished.

 Toyota Wish, Volkswagen Touran, Volvo V90, Volkswagen Passat Variant and Renault Grand Scenic.
Volkswagen Passat Variant.

The big and powerful Volvo V90 (from $215,9999) remains the top choice if money is no object. The car is even more stylish than its sedan twin (the S90 and the Straits Times Car of the Year 2016), which is saying a lot.

 Toyota Wish, Volkswagen Touran, Volvo V90, Volkswagen Passat Variant and Renault Grand Scenic.
Volvo V90.


Compact Saloon

Renault's new Megane Sedan ($116,999) has plenty of presence, super-cushy ride quality and is chock-full of features. It is also a very sizeable vehicle and offers decent value for money.

 Renault Megane Sedan, Toyota Corolla Altis, Subaru Impreza and Mazda 2.
Renault Megane Sedan.

The Toyota Corolla Altis (from $96,988) remains a stalwart because of its dependable and efficient reputation. It is also not half as boring to drive or be in as you think, even if it is a favourite among private-hire operators.

 Renault Megane Sedan, Toyota Corolla Altis, Subaru Impreza and Mazda 2.
Toyota Corolla Altis.

A Japanese choice that is underrated is the Subaru Impreza (from $105,800). The car has the best chassis among its peers and exudes a big-car feel on the move - even if it will not qualify as swift. Those who want a break from the mundane should consider this interesting alternative.

 Renault Megane Sedan, Toyota Corolla Altis, Subaru Impreza and Mazda 2.
Subaru Impreza.

The most fun car in this segment remains the Mazda 2 ($76,800), probably the best little notchback in town. It is smaller than the other cars here, but it makes up for that by being immensely driveable.

 Renault Megane Sedan, Toyota Corolla Altis, Subaru Impreza and Mazda 2.
Mazda 2.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2017, with the headline 'The cream of the crop'. Print Edition | Subscribe