After being down for the count by the king hit that was 2020, the car industry bravely pulled itself off the ropes and went back into the ring only to face another near-fatal body blow by way of the microchip shortage, all the while fighting climate change and investing billions to chase zero emission targets with electric vehicles, hydrogen and clean fuel development.
Nevertheless, a smattering of new cars did make it to showrooms this year. In no particular order of relevance, desire or sales success, here are the 11 best of 2021 that I’ve driven first-hand. For the few that are yet to hit showrooms, the order books are open.
The QX60 is Infiniti’s most popular model with more than 400,000 units sold. With more people now working flexible hours, and melding family and work time (that can mean doing the school run on the way to a meeting), this is where the QX60 excels. It’s versatile, stylish and practical for both trips to the office and sports day. Its 275bhp, 3.5-litre, V6 has a nine-speed automatic. If you’re seeking luxury family transport, you can’t ignore the QX60.
For 2021, the Rolls-Royce Cullinan received a mild update with new colours and trim options, and it’s a great reminder that this is not only the best luxury SUV, but also the most versatile model in the Rolls-Royce fleet. It offers Phantom-like, five-star luxury for the two rear occupants, who are isolated from the outside world by a glass partition when the rear tailgate is opened. However, the Cullinan also rewards the driver, as, unlike the company’s chauffeur-oriented Phantom flagship, the buyer profile of the Cullinan is split evenly between the driver and the driven.
MG ZS EV
It’s clear we’re heading into a world of electric vehicles, despite the fact nearly all EVs are still far too expensive. MG has brought EVs to the masses with this Dh105,000 ZS, which is the most affordable EV on the market and could be the catalyst needed to get more people into their first electric car.
A 44.5kWh battery sends drive through the front wheels and will charge in 6.5 hours from home or will give you 160 kilometres in 45 minutes with an 80 per cent DC charge in less than 30 minutes if you use a 43kW fast charger with the Type 2 socket.
McLaren 720S Spider
The 720S Spider is easily the best supercar of 2021. It can be driven at 325kph with the roof down and 341kph with the roof sealed, loses just 0.1 seconds to 200kph and gets there in under eight seconds from its 710bhp twin-turbocharged 3.9 V8. The 720S Spider was designed with the coupe so that even without a roof, it remains as rigid as its hard-topped sibling. Simplicity and a minimal approach to the interior differentiates McLaren from its Italian rivals, with the emphasis on the driver by offering a no-compromise dash and a steering wheel free of buttons and other distractions.
Volvo C40 Recharge
Volvo is committed to being a fully EV car company by 2030. While the XC40 Recharge is adapted from a petrol model, the C40 is all-new with no hangovers from the combustion engine era. A 78kWh lithium-ion battery pack feeds an electric motor in each axle for a combined output of 300kW and 659Nm of torque that gets you to 100kph in 4.5 seconds. On a 150kW, DC fast charger, Volvo says the C40 should charge from 10 per cent to 80 per cent in 37 minutes, while flat to 100 per cent will take eight hours on an AC charger with a full charge returning 440km.
Cadillac CT5-V BlackWing
The Cadillac CT5-V BlackWing is the last V8 manual saloon in the world and, for that, it outs the BMW M5 and is more desirable than a C63 AMG Mercedes, which will soon be a 4-cylinder hybrid. Simply put, this is the best four-door performance car.
Its 6.2-litre, supercharged V8 delivers 660bhp and 893Nm of torque through either a 10-speed auto or a six-speed manual. Practical for the family and luxurious for the executive car park, it’s also at home on the track with traction control that lets you get away with just enough before intervening. The 3.4 seconds to 100kph and a 320kph top end are music to the ears, too.
In a Jekyll and Hyde moment, the Audi RS3 has turned from a performance Euro compact into a street brawler thanks to a trick new diff that gives it loads of oversteer moments and even has a drift mode. This is the best European compact performance car of this year by a long shot, and helped in spades by a glorious 2.5-litre, in-line 5-cylinder engine that mimics Audi’s greatest Group B rally cars of the 1980s. Don’t let its diminutive size fool you, as the new RS3 is good for up to 290kph and 3.8 seconds to 100kph
If this is not the best value all-rounder for the UAE roads, I don’t know what is. Surprised to find myself liking VW’s T-Roc so much, I stood back and studied it piece by piece. Its short wheelbase gives it the manoeuvrability of a small car to tackle shopping mall car parks, but mixes that with an SUV-like high driving position and raised ground clearance for speed humps and the occasional roadworks detour. That’s it in a nutshell, the result of a car designer who seemingly studied our daily and weekend day-trip driving habits, and found a solution for less than Dh80,000.
Bugatti Chiron Supersport
What a way to farewell the internal combustion engine as the 8-litre, 16-cylinder quad turbocharged unit in the Bugatti Chiron Supersport is the zenith of petrol engines and an incredible example of mechanical engineering. This latest version is the ultimate iteration before Bugatti’s new owner Rimac takes it electric, and for that we get 1,600bhp with a governed 440kph top speed after it passes 100kph in 2.3 seconds, 200kph in 5.5 seconds and 300kph in 11.8 seconds. Despite its Dh13.6 million price, Bugatti has strong order books with 460 of its 500 Chirons already sold.
Porsche Taycan Cross Turismo
Finding an EV that delivers driver satisfaction seemed near impossible until I discovered the Porsche Taycan. When I sampled its mild off-roading sibling, the Cross Turismo with 849Nm of torque and 671bhp driving through all four wheels, raised ground clearance, underbody protection and fat Dakar-style guard extensions, I became a convert.
Taycan is the benchmark for sports EVs with a sports car-like driving position and a two-speed transmission, but add Gravel mode to Normal, Sport and Sport Plus, and it becomes the 911’s wild off-roading electric brother we never knew could exist.
Toyota Yaris GR
The biggest surprise of the year, Toyota’s giant-killing, rally-bred GR Yaris is the grown-up go-kart we all want. Built as a homologation special to compete in the World Rally Championship, nothing other than the lights, door mirrors and roof fin are carried over (despite the familiar looks). With a price likely more than Dh200,000 if it came to the UAE, it’s a loss-maker for Toyota and even more so when the company withdrew from the rally programme before this GR was launched. A 1.6-litre, 357bhp, turbocharged, 3-cylinder with six-speed manual makes this the Lancia Delta Integrale of our time, and a sound investment.