Best new cars of 2017: our road tests of the year
We take a look at the best cars we drove throughout 2017
2017 will go down as an extremely interesting year in the car market, both in the UK and across the globe. There was some serious upheaval as Government upped its efforts to divert car buyers towards alternatively fuelled cars at the expense of diesel, while SUVs and crossovers continued their seemingly unstoppable takeover of UK roads. All the while, the Auto Express team continued to deliver our verdicts on every new car on sale.
Each year there are always stand-out cars and this is exactly what we are celebrating here. From conventional hatchbacks and estates, to SUVs and hypercars, the past 12 months have been ram packed with a huge number of fantastic new cars and those shown below are the cream of the crop.
We aren’t necessarily talking about the cars which top their market segments - we have our Car of the Year Awards for that - but any models launched in 2017 that grabbed our attention and imagination from the moment we got in the driver's seat. These are the best new cars we drove in 2017...
Best new cars of 2017
Alfa Romeo Stelvio
Our first taste of Alfa Romeo’s new SUV showed it had been well worth the wait, taking the stylish looks and great handling of the Giulia saloon and packaging them into the kind of off-roader-inspired bodystyle buyers have been lapping up.
BMW 5 Series Touring
AS the 5 Series saloon was already established as one of the best all-rounders on sale, it was no surprise when our first drive of the new Touring version revealed it was just as impressive. With a 570-litre boot and air suspension that allows it to carry up to 750kg, the Touring is arguably even more appealing.
Despite being packed with technology, the latest 5 Series Touring is also lighter than the car it replaces, helping our favourite 520d variant claim up to 62.7mpg and emit just 114g/km of CO2.
THIS month, we took a long look at the current state of the electric vehicle (EV) market. With more makers than ever offering battery-powered cars, we had a rundown of the contenders in the field, as well as finding out how owners are getting on with their EVs.
One highlight was senior staff writer Lawrence Allan’s trip from Electric Avenue in Brixton, south London, to Electric Mountain in Wales in a BMW plug-in hybrid i8. The drive was designed to sample the charging infrastructure of the UK, as well as see if the BMW could really entertain like a true supercar on twisting Welsh roads.
As Lawrence found out, while the charging situation is getting better, there’s still a little way to go before the i8’s petrol engine can be cut out of the equation completely.
BMW rolled out the top-spec M40i model for our first taste of the new X3, complete with its 355bhp 3.0-litre straight-six. It’s an engine our man Richard Ingram described as “hushed and refined” on the motorway, but which “comes alive” on twisting roads.
He also found that the new X3 steers with a level of precision that trumps its premium-badged SUV rivals, and said the 5 Series-inspired cabin is “first rate”.
Has Bugatti built the ultimate hypercar? That’s the question we set out to answer with our first-ever drive of the 1,479bhp Chiron. Costing £2million before tax, the Chiron is the replacement for the incredible Veyron, and it uses an enhanced version of that car’s 8.0-litre, quad-turbocharged W16 powerplant.
Alongside that extraordinary power figure is 1,600Nm of torque pumped out from 2,000rpm all the way through to 6,000rpm, channelled through a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox to a sophisticated four-wheel-drive system.
To slow the Chiron from its incredible 261mph top speed, there are 420mm front carbon brake discs surrounded by vast calipers that each contain no fewer than eight individual pads.
So exactly how fast does the Bugatti feel? Our man Richard Meaden’s sense of awe was palpable when he summed it up thus: “The acceleration is emphatic, unrelenting and, truth be told, rather unsettling. It gives you that rollercoaster feeling without the death-defying plunge to oblivion.”
It wasn’t only the Chiron’s speed that impressed us during that first test, but also how easy and refined the hypercar was to drive, resulting in what Meaden called “a remarkable feat of engineering and a totally unforgettable experience”.
We sent our man Steve Sutcliffe to try the Ford GT supercar for the first time back in May, and he came back suitably impressed with the 216mph machine. However, not everything was rosy with the mid-engined flier. It had clearly been designed with race wins in mind, and it felt barely usable on the road, thanks to its brutal power delivery, poor visibility and a character that was far from relaxing when taking it easy.
But then this simply added to the GT’s appeal for Steve, while its on-track performance was especially impressive, thanks to the hi-tech aerodynamics and composed handling at high speed. Add in the brutal drama of the powerful 638bhp twin-turbo V6, and the Ford GT more than lived up to its race car looks.
We got behind the wheel of the new 10th-generation Honda Civic for the first time in February, and concluded that the latest model had benefited from its ground-up redesign.
There is a sleeker look than before – although it’s just as likely to split opinion – while Honda’s new 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine provides enough power for most needs. In corners the latest Civic proves competent, with plenty of grip and secure handling.
The car’s new layout means that the previous model’s neat flip-up ‘Magic’ rear seats have been ditched, but overall practicality remains the same, with a generously proportioned boot and plenty of passenger space inside.
Less impressive is the Civic’s touchscreen infotainment system, which has been carried over wholesale from the last car. We don’t find it particularly user-friendly.
Honda Civic Type R
While the previous Honda Civic Type R took an age to appear after the Mk9 Civic made its debut, not four months had passed between our first drive of the new standard Civic Mk10 and that of the hot flagship.
We headed to Germany to try the Type R, and our man Jonathan Burn didn’t need long behind the wheel to confirm that it’s once again a class front-runner. Yes, it’s still front-wheel drive when many rivals are switching to 4WD, but the 2.0-litre turbo’s 316bhp is handled well. And while the over-the-top body additions won’t be to all tastes, the Type R can be surprisingly civilised when you’re taking it easy.
Hyundai i30 N
Nobody knew what to expect from Hyundai’s first hot hatch, but it’s safe to say the i30 N was an instant hit. “The steering is lovely, with instant response just off-centre,” enthused our man Steve Sutcliffe.
He also loved the slick six-speed manual gearbox and how the turbocharged 2.0-litre engine feels strong without ever being overwhelming. It is, noted Sutcliffe, a “deeply impressive” first effort.
One of the biggest and most anticipated new SUVs of 2017 reached us towards the end of the year, when we were finally handed the keys to Jaguar’s new E-Pace for the first time.
“There’s little doubt that the E-Pace is going to be another smash hit for Jaguar,” said our man John McIlroy. Its blend of agility, good interior packaging and punchy engines makes it the best of its kind to drive. The rather poor infotainment system meant it missed out on a full five-star verdict, though.
Jaguar's all-electric Tesla rival is not set to arrive in showrooms until the second half of 2018, but that didn’t stop us getting a short drive in the only I-Pace prototype in existence.
Our time behind the SUV’s wheel was, of course, pretty limited, but it was still clear that with a touted range of just over 300 miles and a 0-62mph time of around four seconds, the I-Pace is set to be one of the most exciting Jags ever.
Our first taste of the new Kia Stinger highlighted the brand’s foresight in hiring ex-BMW engineer Albert Biermann; his expertise has given the four-door coupé a sporty edge previously unseen in Kia cars.
We got to try the standard diesel and the powerful GT, as they were being developed in the UK, but even at this early stage it was clear that the company was on to a winner.
Lamborghini Huracan Performante
For a short while Lamborghini’s Huracán Performante was the fastest production car in the world after setting a new lap record at the Nürburgring race track in Germany.
“The Performante elevates the standard car’s game to the next level,” said our chief reviewer Sean Carson after driving it in May. The 631bhp V10 makes it ferociously fast, with the engine pulling hard from low revs. It’s also “a joy to rev it out”, said our man.
Land Rover Discovery
Land Rover’s new Discovery got a full five-star rating when we first took the wheel. We loved the spacious seven-seat interior, marvelled at the supple ride delivered by the standard air suspension and were impressed by the performance of the four-cylinder Ingenium diesel engine.
So good is the new Discovery, in fact, that it would go on to be named the Auto Express Car of the Year for 2017.
Nissan’s Micra Mk5 was another debutant in the supermini class at the start of the year, and we went to Spain to drive it for the first time. European launches can paint new cars in a favourable light, but we could tell that the Micra was now a definite class contender.
A funky new look cast aside its predecessor’s dowdy image, while a great drive on Spanish roads boded well for its chances in the UK. We thought the top-spec model was a bit pricey, but it did come with a raft of standard kit and it proved pretty efficient, too. In our opinion, the Micra could definitely now be added to any supermini buyer’s shortlist.
We got behind the wheel of Nissan’s big- selling Qashqai back in June, but despite the extensive facelift we came away thinking it was a bit of a missed opportunity for the Japanese brand.
The updated Qashqai doesn’t feel any different to drive – it’s comfortable but not particularly exciting. You also have to wait until the middle of next year if you want Nissan’s new Pro Pilot safety systems.
McLaren handed us the keys to the open-top version of its entry-level sports car, the 570S Spider, back in July.
Our first taste on the roads around Barcelona showed that the British marque was on to another winner. Thanks to the 570S’s carbon fibre tub the Spider only weighs 46kg more than the coupé, which means the blistering performance and impressive refinement remain intact.
MINI was one of the first manufacturers out of the starting blocks in what has been an incredible year for new-car launches. Its fresh Countryman arrived in January, and it’s the largest MINI to date.
The second-generation model is based on the same UKL2 platform as the BMW X1 and MINI’s own Clubman, which makes it 200mm longer and 30mm wider than the previous model, and means it offers a useful 100 litres of extra boot space. Finally, then, there is a MINI that truly can work as a family car. After his first drive, Auto Express senior staff writer Lawrence Allan noted that the new Countryman is “bigger, more practical, more grown-up to drive and more luxurious” than ever.
As a result, however, it is also heavier and more expensive to buy than its predecessor, with the £28,000 price of our Cooper S test car proving tricky to justify. Better, our man reckoned, to wait for the cheaper Cooper – and so it was proven.
Peugeot's switch from MPV to SUV models was completed with the arrival of the 5008, which we drove in February.
While the old MPV was its own distinct model, the newcomer is essentially the seven-seat version of the 3008 Mk2. That’s no bad thing, because the smaller car is one of the best crossovers on sale; the 5008 builds on its talents. The biggest difference between the two is the new car’s extra row of seats. These are a bit small, but boost versatility, while the extended body creates extra head and legroom. On the road, the 5008 drives as well as the 3008, although the lack of a 4WD option might disappoint.
Range Rover Velar
We got our first chance to sample the Range Rover Velar when we headed to Norway in July. Editor-in-chief Steve Fowler came away impressed by the car’s technology, with the hi-tech cabin proving intuitive to use, despite the sheer variety of options and settings to play with. Even better was how the Velar drove. The V6 diesel model was smooth and refined at all speeds, with hardly a trace of wind or road noise when travelling faster.
And while the handling isn’t as responsive as the similar Jaguar F-Pace’s, the Velar more than makes up for this with its cruising comfort. It’s a tougher contender off the beaten track as well.
After three years on sale, the seventh-generation Volkswagen Golf benefited from an update in 2017, and we drove the new family hatchback for the first time in February.
While the looks have barely changed, we were delighted to report that the Golf ‘Mk7.5’ drove even better than before. So the car’s combination of comfort, performance and efficiency remains intact, but with new engines and technology on board.
The biggest update under the skin is the addition of VW’s new 1.5 TSI turbo petrol engine. We tried the 148bhp version, which has the latest cylinder deactivation tech, so not only is it powerful, but it can also return a claimed 55mpg on a good run. The car includes semi-autonomous traffic jam driving and trailer assist as well, although the biggest overhaul was reserved for in-car tech.
All Golfs now get an eight-inch infotainment touchscreen as standard, while top-spec models come with the Discover Pro system. This includes gesture control, so you don’t have to touch the screen to navigate through functions.
In practice, we found the system didn’t work as well as we expected, although it can also be operated via a smartphone, and the Car-Net system boosts vehicle safety and security.
2017 has been a busy year for superminis, with new versions of the Citroen C3, Seat Ibiza and Ford Fiesta among those to go on sale. In September, it was the new Volkswagen Polo’s turn to come under the spotlight.
Being based on the same platform as the new Ibiza means the Polo has grown inside and out compared with its predecessor, and gained some neat new technology. This includes VW’s 11.7-inch fully configurable Active Info Display screen as an option in place of the standard dials.
The most popular engine will be VW’s three-cylinder unit, which is precisely the model we drove. “We’re already well versed in the VW Group’s excellent 1.0-litre petrol range, and the 94bhp one in our test car is as good as ever,” said our tester Sam Naylor. He added that “the Polo’s traditional strong balance of ride and handling has stayed intact for this new model”.
The combination of Volkswagen Golf dimensions with the raised ride height of an SUV should make for a winning formula. So, we wanted to find out if that was the case when we drove the new T-Roc for the first time.
There’s plenty to like about the new car, especially its stylish looks and decent interior space, while the relatively small dimensions for an SUV mean it’s good to drive in town. Choose a higher-spec model, and the larger-diameter wheels will add a firmer edge to the ride, but whichever version you go for, you’ll be rewarded with decent handling.
The main issues we had were the cheap-feeling plastics inside – we’d argue that the smaller and cheaper Polo has a more upmarket cabin – and the rather high list prices. With the T-Roc costing from £21,000 to £32,000, it’s at the same level as around half of the Tiguan range, and that’s a larger car. Still, if you want a smart-looking crossover that’s decent to drive and comes packed with the latest connectivity and safety tech, then the T-Roc makes a good case for itself.
Given how plush and refined Volvo’s two current SUVs (the XC60 and XC90) are, we had a good idea of what to expect from the new XC40 when we got behind the wheel.
And so it proved. According to deputy editor John McIlroy, there’s nothing in the class that combines space, design and comfort as well as the Volvo. “A winning package, then? We reckon so,” our man went on to conclude.
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Review of the year 2017
• Review of the year 2017: index• Best new cars 2017: the road tests of the year• The BIG car news highlights of 2017• Big car quiz of the year 2017• Head to head: best car group tests of 2017• The long haul: Our greatest long-term test fleet cars of 2017• Inside the world of cars: the best motoring features of 2017• Best car videos 2017• Amazing moments: our year in cars 2017• Motorsport review of the year: from F1 to WRC and BTCC