Features

Special moments: our motoring highlights of 2020

The Auto Express team share their best moments of 2020

We think it’s fair to say that 2020 has been something of a global ‘annus horribilis’, bringing huge challenges and restricting everyone's opportunity to get out and about.

However, our staffers here at Auto Express are a dynamic, creative bunch, and it’s safe to say there’s never a dull moment. So, despite its meddling with our carefully drawn up plans, this year has still managed to provide some great experiences for the whole team. 

From bagging the latest news scoop, to testing the mettle of the new Land Rover Defender in the harsh Namibian desert, and even finding the time to launch an all-new website, we’ve covered the lot this year - and enjoyed every minute.

What were the top moments? Well, we've rounded up some of the best drives, features and treasured moments just for you...

Our highlights of 2020

Fiat 500 Turin drive

Steve Fowler, Editor-in-chief

Under normal circumstances, the Auto Express team frequently finds itself abroad; it’s always easier for car manufacturers to set up shop in one place and let journalists come to them. Lockdown changed that, but in August I joined Fiat in Italy for an early drive in the all-new, all-electric 500.

So it was off to Turin and the old Mirafiori factory that’s been revamped to build the new 500, to speak to the team behind the new car, including FCA chief designer Klaus Busse, who showed me around his new pride and joy. It’s a very clever update that takes full advantage of the benefits an electric car can bring, with more than a nod to the original 500.

In Fiat’s underground car park, I could listen to the sound chosen to warn pedestrians of the 500’s presence, a version of the famous Italian Amarcord melody by Nino Rota. I love it when car makers inject some humour and character into their cars.

Of course, it’s harder to make a great small car than a great large one, such are the tight profit margins. So I was delighted to report that the new 500 is a cracker. It’s one of the best cars I’ve driven this year, particularly as Fiat has stuck to its word, with a starting price under £20,000.

New Auto Express website

Steve Walker, Group web editor

The hugely popular Auto Express website hadn’t changed a whole lot for the best part of a decade.

And with a growing audience of well over four million readers a month, you could argue that it was a winning formula we didn’t really need to change. But – to put it in motoring parlance – the old girl was starting to rattle a little, there were more than a few advisories on the MoT certificate, and you felt the need to offer a little prayer before starting her up in the mornings. 

We needed a new online home that was sleek, hi-tech and offered high performance to deliver our unbeatable content in a manner befitting the 21st century. On 2 March this came to pass: we launched the all-new autoexpress.co.uk. 

Our new, fully mobile-optimised website is more than twice as fast, and comes with an array of exciting features. Easier navigation, better surfacing of the most popular editorial, full specification and pricing for all our reviews, better integration with our social media channels, and a new valuation tool are just some of the improvements, and there are more to come. It’s night and day compared with its much-loved predecessor that trundled off to the great digital scrapyard in the sky, and it’s all for you. We hope you enjoy it!   

Food delivery in new Transit PHEV

Richard Ingram, Carbuyer and DrivingElectric editor

In these unprecedented times, it’s easy to forget how many people are even worse off than usual – mentally, physically or financially. So when Ford offered us the chance of paying a visit to the Trussell Trust food bank in south London in its latest Transit plug-in hybrid, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to lend a hand and, in a small way, help some of our capital’s most vulnerable people.

Having collected our food packages from the home of Ford’s new Transit PHEV at Here East in Stratford, east London, we navigated our way through the centre of the city, bypassing the daily Congestion Charge thanks to the van’s rock-bottom CO2 emissions. It was our first chance to try the electrified Transit, and we declared it an instant hit, arriving at “exactly the right time for many operators”.

Pulling up to the food bank in Streatham, south London, highlighted the scale of the task in hand for the centre’s volunteers and full-time staff. Before lockdown, the unit was packing 25 to 30 parcels a day – a number that more than doubled to 70 overnight. Seeing the food and toiletries stacked as far as the eye could see hammered home what a devastating effect the pandemic has had on our most vulnerable communities.

Driving a rental car on holiday in France

Stephen Errity, DrivingElectric managing editor

Usually, my highlight of the year would involve attending an iconic motorsport event or driving a particularly interesting or exciting new car. But in the bizarre world of 2020, piloting a modest Volkswagen Polo rental car up a French autoroute on-ramp with a destination programmed into the nav gave me a greater thrill than anything else. 

Getting away for a few days during the summer, when Covid cases were low and travel restrictions relaxed, gave a brief respite from working at home five days a week and not managing to get up to anything much at all. 

Those first few miles driving from Marseille airport were a powerful reminder of the sense of freedom, possibility and adventure you get every time you sit behind the wheel – which is easy to take for granted in normal circumstances.

Abarth hill climb

Tristan Shale-Hester, Consumer reporter

I knew spending a day learning how to tackle Shelsley Walsh hill climb would be fun, but I still couldn’t help feeling somewhat nervous. My grandfather, David Shale, enjoyed a fairly successful racing career in the fifties, and this was one of the many venues he had competed at.

I had zero racing experience and no one expected anything of me, but I couldn’t help feeling I’d let him down if I didn’t set a semi-decent time. 

I really enjoyed my six runs up the course in an Abarth 695 75th Anniversario, but when I found out I had achieved the joint second-fastest time of the journalists there that day – and had only been beaten narrowly by a semi-professional racing driver – I couldn’t believe it. 

That evening, I went to see my grandmother and told her about it. I could tell the accomplishment meant just as much to her as it did to me. In what has been a strange and difficult year for everyone, that day was a high note and a welcome reminder of how I first developed a fascination with the car.

Defender in Namibia

Sean Carson, Chief reviewer

Little did I know at that point that my week in Africa would be one of few drive events I’d do this year. But from the moment the little Beechcraft plane touched down on a gravel landing strip in northern Namibia, I knew this would be one of the best events I’d ever have the fortune to do.

I spent three days pushing the new Land Rover Defender to its limits; 36 hours off road with just 1.2 miles on tarmac proved an epic test for the new car. From streaking through the desert at 90mph to crawling down ridiculously steep and jagged rocky mountain passes at less than 1mph, both the Defender and the trip were epic.

The streaky coloured sand of the Marienfluss valley gave way to punishing gravel trails and switched back to the lunar-like sandscape of the Skeleton Coast National Park; the landscape changed around us as we travelled, and Namibia’s beauty was laid out for us in full clarity through the panoramic frame of the Defender’s bluff, upright windscreen.

Spotting giraffes and elephants, camping under starry skies, ploughing through river beds and covering the snorkel-equipped green Land Rover in a thick mud sludge are memories that’ll last a lifetime. There wasn’t a car more fit for the task than the Defender.

Exclusive Fiat Panda scoop

John McIlroy, Deputy editor

I’ve spoken to execs everywhere from test tracks to motor show stands. But I first met Fiat boss Olivier Francois via Zoom; he was in an apartment in Florida, I was in my study – with my seven-year-old’s artwork on the walls. I could have chosen a neutral background, but think to get something out of such an interview, you should give a bit of yourself. 

When the chat shifted from home-schooling to product plans, it wasn’t the new 500 but the Panda I wanted to talk about. Making a small premium EV is a challenge; making a really cheap vehicle of any sort is on another level.

After a gentle nudge, Francois opened up. “There will be a future for Panda,” he said. “That’s why I pitched the latest 500 initially as a high-end convertible. Because the day I introduce the future Panda, I’ll probably introduce the most naked version with an incredible price.”

The story was the front cover on one of the best-selling issues in a period when it was harder for you, our readers, to buy a copy. And all down to a transatlantic internet chat.

Essex boy meets XR3

Stuart Milne, Executive editor

Standing in a car park in Hampshire shouldn’t have been my highlight of the year. But for a few fleeting moments I was transported back to arguably simpler times, when the Ford Escort XR3 was king of the ring road. I was there to meet a better-than-new XR3, and its owner, to celebrate 40 years of the working-class hero.

The car looked, sounded and (thanks to the Feu Orange air freshener) even smelled like the Fords I used to spend time in back in the nineties. Even then, they weren’t new cars, but Stuart Holdway’s immaculate example took me straight back. 

So I was thrilled when he passed me the keys and told me to take it for a run. In its day, the original XR3 was criticised for its ride, but its spongy tyres meant it was still more supple than many of today’s hot hatches. The steering was vague, the brakes fairly ineffective, but the chance to drive one of my childhood heroes left me grinning for days. 

It also reminded me of an important lesson about classics: in almost every sense, objectively, modern cars are better, but driving an old one is so often the more memorable experience.

Bernd Kober MINI interview

Jonathan Burn, News and reviews editor

The part of this job I love the most is quizzing the people who run car companies. I want to know what’s coming next, what tech is being developed and when it’s going to arrive. Sadly, a lot of that hasn’t been possible this year, but one of the few chances I got to quiz a boss in 2020 turned out to be my most fruitful interview ever. 

It was a fairly informal dinner – steak and chips all round – with Head of MINI Bernd Kober in a hotel in Munich. Clearly the pandemic had allowed Kober and his team to finalise the plan for the next phase of MINI’s history, as he explained to me – in great detail – the idea behind three all-new models due in 2023 and 2024. A three-door hatch will take MINI back to its roots making small, functional cars, while a new EV crossover and jumbo Countryman will help expand the brand in markets like China. 

It’s unusual for a boss to be so candid, but Kober has a clear vision and he wants people to know about it. There’s an exciting few years ahead. 

Auto Express New Car Awards

Darren Wilson, Creative director

This is an absolute no-brainer. I’m still traumatised by working from home, locked down and frantically trying to fill these pages with a team who, in the summer, were shackled by a collective inability to drive cars or attend events. 

We had no choice but to bump our annual New Car Awards from their usual summer slot towards Autumn with the faintest hope of testing and photographing our favourite cars of 2020. 

By October, it became clear that our shoot (which usually has weeks of prep) was on. We had 24 winners to source, then just two days to photograph them with failing light and Storm Alex battering the country. 

None of that mattered. It was the first time I’d seen the team in person since March and they were just as great seven months on. We socially distanced, we wiped down the cars when switching drivers, and got the job done. Everyone was brilliant.

Driving Aston’s Bond collection

Hugo Griffiths, Consumer editor

Aside from our trip to Norfolk to sample a pair of Lotus Elises on their home turf (page 48), my highlight of the year was putting a selection of Aston Martins from the James Bond franchise through their paces back in February. 

I can still feel the granular, analogue nature of the Silver Birch DB5’s throttle pedal under my right foot, and hear the straight-six engine’s induction bark as I pressed it open around Aston’s private Silverstone track. The impeccable luxury of the DBS Superleggera, and the sensation of barely contained power as it wiggled its rear when pushing out of a corner, are also still familiar, while the wood and leather aroma of the eighties V8 Vantage is similarly fresh. 

Catching up with long-time Bond stuntman Mark Higgins was something of a treat, too. And although spinning the custom-built, BMW M3-engined DB5 stunt car – complete with spaceframe-chassis and carbon-fibre bodywork – from the still-forthcoming No Time To Die Bond film might be something I’d rather forget, I was fortunately able to get my foot onto the brake pedal before the car made contact with anything solid. And it’s given me a great yarn to spin ever since.

£60k baby Bugatti driven

Alex Ingram, Video content producer

Looking back at all 2020 has thrown at us, I’m very fortunate to have chalked up some amazing experiences: slithering a VW Passat around a frozen arctic lake, and blasting an Audi RS 4 through the Atlas mountains in Morocco. But my 2020 highlight is both closer to home, and much more silly.

The location was Oxfordshire, and the car was the Baby Bugatti II. Built by the Little Car Company with Bugatti’s full blessing, the three-quarter-scale Type 35 replica shows what happens when plans to build a toy car get a bit out of hand. A circa-£60,000 price tag seems barmy, but look at, feel, and drive it, and it starts to make sense. Almost.

The stunning attention to detail and finish are on par with any multi-million-pound creation from Molsheim itself. Then there’s the way it drives. 

Imagine driving a go kart from a high chair. Your body is exposed to the elements, the ride is bumpy, and the skinny tyres have you sawing away at the steering wheel like a pre-war racer to find the car’s limits of grip. 

Yes, it’s daft; yes, it’s expensive; and yes, it’s pointless, but little else on four wheels is as joyous to drive. And the world needs all the joy it can get.

Stelvio to Scotland

Pete Gibson, Senior photographer

It seems a lifetime ago now, but little did I know that joining chief reviewer Sean Carson on an epic drive from Essex to the very top of Scotland would be my last long trip for quite a while. Yet that’s not what stayed with me. It was the sights and sounds of the Scottish countryside, with surely the UK’s prettiest SUV, the Alfa Stelvio.

The journey was a 1,457-mile epic, over a blend of motorways, A and B-roads and small, winding lanes. The Stelvio felt comfortable, smooth and muscular, and we got to Inverness tired, but not achy. We were in breathtaking countryside for the next two days, driving part of the North Coast 500 route and peaking at the Kylesku Bridge in Lairg. The drive back was no less remarkable, though – and my highlight. The sky was brooding as we turned into Glencoe, the dying embers of the day creating an aura as enchanting as you’re ever likely to see.

And the Stelvio? Proof, if any were needed, that SUVs can be all things to all men: comfortable, spacious, fun, and very, very pretty.

Aston Martin and Airbus helicopter

Luke Wilkinson, Staff writer

Back in January, I covered the launch of Aston Martin’s first helicopter at Battersea Heliport in London. After a short presentation, I was ushered outside and steered into the chopper for a jaunt up the Thames.

It was my first time in a helicopter, and the pilot –a Frenchman who looked and acted like the A-Team’s ‘Howling Mad’ Murdoch – did little to ease my nerves. 

Once he’d fired up the engines, he pirouetted around the landing pad and then rocketed up the Thames, before hovering over Waterloo. Normally, if your aircraft suddenly stops mid-flight, it’s all gone wrong, but not here – and I even managed a few photos before we headed back.

Driving Mazda’s greatest hits

James Brodie, Senior staff writer

You could feel bad for Mazda having to celebrate its centenary this year, but the brief respite from the pandemic in the summer was enough time for the firm to throw a birthday party – and we were invited to drive some of Mazda’s back catalogue. 

A trip down memory lane is always special, and the rotary-powered FD-generation RX-7 from the nineties didn’t disappoint. However, two other cars stole the afternoon. I was hugely surprised at how enjoyable the original 323 hatch was, while my first taste of a Mk1 MX-5 went well beyond my expectations. I’ll be shopping for one when the world is back in order.

Land Norris eSports

Alastair Crooks, Content editor

With the 2020 F1 season on hold, a host of racers showed real initiative by helping to set up a virtual series. A mix of professional drivers, celebrities and gamers were on the grid, meaning ‘eSports’ has attracted a wide variety of fans – from traditional F1 spectators to the new breed of gamers. British F1 driver Lando Norris was key to the series’ success and I was lucky enough to chat to him. 

Like Lando, I’ve been a fan of driving games from a young age, and while some may think sim racing is just ‘playing’ a game, there is real skill involved. As Norris says, “You can take the skills you’ve learned [on a simulator] and transfer them to the F1 car.” I’d say that’s a good endorsement. 

Check out the rest of our 2020 round-up below...

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