Inside the industry: the best car features 2021
It's been a big year in the world of automotive. Here are some of the highlights of our features section from 2021...
While 2021 may have been somewhat of a continuation of the previous year’s unusual pandemic related confusion, it’s safe to say that it has been a truly entertaining and remarkable year in the automotive world.
With a global shortage of semiconductors throwing a spanner-in-the-works for manufacturers and car buyers alike, many new car models failed to hit public roads and demand for used cars well and truly skyrocketed. Meanwhile a ramped-up interest in EVs was met with some fantastic innovations in vehicle technology and some outstanding new vehicles were born, one of which we proudly awarded our New Car of the Year award for 2021.
Throughout the trials and tribulations of 2021, the Auto Express team worked tirelessly to deliver news on the latest and greatest developments of the automotive industry. In 2021 we were fortunate enough to work on a range of exciting projects with partners across the industry to provide the best car related content for our readers.
Perhaps the greatest demonstration of our commitment to top-drawer automotive scoops was displayed on our features section, where we shared our insider stories, exclusives and news updates to keep you up-to-date with this fast-moving industry.
To celebrate 2021 and all its car related glory, we’ve put together this list of our favourite features from past the year. So, before we move forward into the new year, let’s take a quick trip down memory lane and revisit the best features of 2021.
Scroll down to check out the best Auto Express features from 2021...
Fixing a pothole for less with JCB
With winter weather devastating the UK’s roads, we took an in-depth look at the JCB PotholePro – an innovative device that can repair a pothole in just eight minutes. This means each machine is able to fill in 700 potholes a month. The PotholePro carries a price tag of £165,000, but local authorities are able to finance one for £600 a month. Using the machine, the cost of a single pothole repair is cut from £60 to £30.
Half-price heroes rated
With supplies of new cars becoming scarce, the temptation to delve into the used market is even greater. We looked at some tempting metal that cost half what it did new – and often much less.
Highlights included the brilliant previous-gen Ford Fiesta ST, now available for less than six grand, and a five-year-old Range Rover Sport – £62,745 when new – dipping below £27,000. Or how about a 2003 MINI Cooper for just £1,000?
DeLorean’s 40th birthday
We celebrated the 40th anniversary of the DMC Delorean, of which only 9,000 were made before the firm went bust. Chris Williams, secretary of the DeLorean Owners Club (UK), told us he loved this car for its “timeless design”, which won it the starring role in the Back to the Future film trilogy.
Despite its appearance, Williams said that the DeLorean shouldn’t be thought of as a sports car, especially with a 0-60mph time of 9.6 seconds and a rather modest top speed of 122mph.
Nissan powers up Re-Leaf effort
In the wake of the devastating earthquake in Japan in 2011, Nissan found its first-generation Leaf EV could be a temporary emergency power source. The brand explored this idea further with a specially modified second-generation model.
It was fitted with three 230-volt power sockets, and the 62kWh battery could simultaneously power a jackhammer, a ventilation fan, a medical ventilator and a 100-watt LED floodlight for 24 hours before needing a top-up. Or it could power an average UK home for six days.
Jay Leno talks EVs, McLarens – and spinning a Porsche at 190mph
Jay Leno made his name as a TV personality with a chat show in the US, but in more recent years he’s become increasingly known for his collection of cars, vehicles and machines that cover just about every corner of the industry. In March he spoke to us about his collection, electric cars, driving expensive models on the road, and more.
We began by asking about his first experiences, and he told us about rebuilding a lawnmower engine as a boy, followed by a restoration of a 1934 Ford as a young man. Then Leno told us a great story about choosing the specification of his father’s Ford Galaxie – complete with the ‘police pursuit package’ – that helped to kick-start an obsession.
The American still has a Galaxie just like that one, plus many more motors bought once he had found success. That includes a McLaren F1 that he drives on the road: “What I love about the F1 is that it’s a road car,” he told us. “It was never meant to be a race car. So consequently it handles best on the road.”
The conversation soon moved on to electric cars. Leno told us: “I embrace it all. You’ve got to do something to save the planet. All these Bugattis behind me are recreational vehicles as far as I’m concerned.”
But Leno still drives his cars regularly: “You have to use them... just go round the block, once a week. How arduous is that?”
We asked about the scariest cars, and he recalled two frightful incidents. The first was in a Lagonda when two wheels, not secured properly, fell off on the motorway. The second was when he lifted off at 190mph in a Porsche Carrera GT on a race track and sent the car into a spin, but thankfully kept out of the crash barriers.
We ended by asking Leno about his favourite cars. A 1986 Lamborghini Countach, a 1971 Citroen DS and his 1994 McLaren F1 were mentioned, plus a 1951 Plymouth Station Wagon that he loves using for supermarket trips.
Paddy Hopkirk meets his MINI
When we got our hands on a new MINI Cooper S variant dedicated to rallying hero Paddy Hopkirk, we thought it appropriate to take it to his Buckinghamshire home and have a chat with him about the good old days of rallying.
He told us how he was instantly impressed with the way the original Austin Mini drove and that he’s grateful BMW bought the brand, praising the firm for keeping a lot of the original car’s character in the modern version. He was also very flattered to have his name on one.
Our man drives one of the first EVs
To find out how far electric vehicles have come, we took one of the most advanced current EVs, the Ford Mustang Mach-E, to meet one of the first-ever examples: Gustave Trouvé’s ‘Salvo’ Tricycle.
The original trike managed a top speed of 7.4mph and had a range of just 11 miles – certainly a long way from the Ford’s 335-mile range on a single charge. The modern Salvo recreation we drove is set to become a museum piece soon.
In May we put together an issue dedicated to looking at some of our favourite modern classics; motors that can’t be considered old-timers, but are a far cry from the modern cars we feature more regularly.
We explored models from Italy, Japan, Germany, Britain and France, plus looked at future classics that we reckon will go up in value because of their rarity, driver appeal and other qualities. We included some of our own modern classics, too.
Rolls-Royce Phantom stereo
Rolls-Royce cars are known for providing complete silence, but most people prefer a bit of music on the move. So our editor-in-chief, Steve Fowler, who is a former editor of What Hi-Fi? magazine, put the stereo of the Rolls-Royce Phantom to the test.
Unlike many makers, Rolls-Royce uses its own system rather than one from a known audio manufacturer. There are 18 bespoke speakers, fed by a 1,300-Watt amplifier, that are designed specifically for this model, and we said it was one of the best audio systems in any car, ever.
2021 Auto Express Product Awards
Every year we test hundreds of products for vehicles – this year more than 500 were put through their paces – to help you decide which ones will best help you to improve, clean or just maintain your pride and joy.
Our annual Product Awards bring all of those tests together, showing you the best choices from each category of auto care. The 2021 product of the year was the CTEK CS Free, a clever new device that can bring a dead car battery back to life. It impressed us by being innovative, well made and effective.
45 years of the Volkswagen Golf GTI
Our chance to drive all versions of the Volkswagen Golf GTI came this year, 45 years on from the release of the Mk1.
Getting all eight generations of GTI together was a special moment, and each version had its own appeal –from the characterful early cars to the incredibly fast and sophisticated newer machines, including the latest Mk8. We particularly loved the Mk7, which felt more focused than the current car.
Brit List highlights the best UK talent
Every year we publish the Brit List, where we pick out the top car industry executives from the UK.
It was another tough year for the industry in 2021, but there was plenty of British expertise putting in the hard work – and we were there to celebrate their success. This year’s winner was Adrian Hallmark, Bentley’s chief executive officer.
Record sales figures for the iconic brand and the challenge of bringing electric powertrains to its cars showed that Hallmark was a deserving winner, having taken the helm at Bentley in 2018.
AutoExpress Awards: Hyundai Ioniq 5 is our overall winner
This year was another challenging one for the car industry, but there was no shortage of exciting new metal for this year’s Auto Express Awards.
The city car crown was grabbed by the brilliant new Fiat 500, which is great value. If you need something a little bigger, there’s always our supermini category winner, the Renault Clio. Also great value, the Clio is roomy and comfortable as well.
Our family car winner this year was the latest Skoda Octavia for a second time in a row, because it majors on practicality and has loads of tech. Its bigger brother, the Skoda Superb, took the win in our estate car category this year, thanks to its capacious interior and the fact that you get lots of car for your money.
Our company car of the year awards were split into small, medium and large segments, and were won by the Volkswagen ID.3, Hyundai Ioniq 5 and Mercedes E-Class respectively. All three use electric power to keep costs for business buyers at rock-bottom, but don’t compromise elsewhere.
The Renault Captur picked up another win in our small SUV category, while our top mid-size SUV was the well equipped Hyundai Tucson. If you need seven seats, try our large SUV category winner, the SEAT Tarraco, which also comes with lots of kit.
We picked the Mercedes GLA as our small premium SUV of the year, thanks to its impressive tech and interior, and the Land Rover Defender took the mid-size premium SUV award for a second time. The BMW X5’s top-notch comfort and quality meant it was once again the best large premium SUV, and the Bentley Flying Spur proved to be another repeat winner for 2021 in the luxury car category.
The new Hyundai i20 N took the crown as the best hot hatch of 2021, thanks to its lively but practical nature, and the MINI Cooper Convertible claimed another win in the best convertible section. Our favourite coupé of the year was the sublime Alpine A110, while performance car of the year was grabbed by the brilliant new Toyota GR Yaris.
Our affordable electric car of 2021 was the Renault Zoe, and the impressive new Hyundai Ioniq 5 picked up another win in the premium electric car category. The Toyota Yaris secured a second win in the affordable hybrid car section after its debut in 2020, and the Mercedes E-Class was our top premium hybrid car.
The Ford Ranger and the Ford Transit Custom were repeat winners in our pick-up and van awards respectively, and we added a new section for electric vans, which was won by the Vauxhall Vivaro-e. The Hyundai Ioniq 5 won our Design Award and the Citroen Ami took home the 2021 Technology Award.
The overall car of the year was the Hyundai Ioniq 5, which is one of the best all-round cars you can buy, regardless of it being electric or not
30 years of Kia in the UK
Kia first arrived in the UK in 1991, so 2021 was its 30th year of selling cars here. In that first year the brand only sold 1,786 cars, yet in 2019 it shipped 97,323 models. That is astonishing growth and Kia looks stronger than ever, so we decided to explore the Korean brand’s progress.
We drove one of the first Kias ever sold here, the Pride, alongside the latest Kia Picanto city car, then brought together a first-generation Cee’d with a modern Soul EV, before going on to compare two Sorentos: the Mk1 and the Mk4.
Poll: SUVs get the thumbs-up, with Hyundai and Kia topping the podium
Driver Power arrived a little later this year because of global events, because of global events, but it was worth the wait for the 20th anniversary of our huge customer satisfaction survey. We made the poll even more comprehensive than ever for 2021, with new questions on safety and infotainment, and a new category on value for money.
Our rigorous analysis meant that the experiences were representative on a national level based on respondents’ age and gender, and the results were more robust, valuable and detailed than ever.
Each year car owners from all over the UK report to us about the cars they’ve recently bought, covering a huge amount of detail – and we have to say a massive thank you to everyone who responded.
Once the data is in, there are around 400,000 individual data points to analyse. It’s all compiled into a digestible format by our analysts, including the top 75 cars to own and the best car brands.
The data reveals what real customers think about their cars and what they’re like to own – something we’re not able to assess with our short test-drives of new models. We rely on you, our readers, to provide others with information about reliability, practicality and more over a typical ownership period.
The Hyundai Kona took the top spot in the best cars to own list, with top-10 scores in almost every category, as rated by its owners. It was rated highly for ride and handling, brakes, steering and, best of all, value for money. The infotainment set-up was also rated very highly and the safety features also took on a high score from owners. The Kona EV was particularly highly rated, although we included responses from all Kona owners.
Kia even managed to grab second place with the Rio supermini, and Mazda was in third place with the excellent CX-5 SUV. The Toyota C-HR and Skoda Karoq came in fourth and fifth place – it was clear that SUV owners were the most happy with their new cars.
Rising prices made used car special more relevant than ever to buyers on a budget
We usually focus on new models in Auto Express, but we always have our eye on the used car market. In August we published our comprehensive guide to buying a second-hand car, with our Used Car Awards featuring picks from every corner of the market to help buyers find an affordable and appealing used model.
Our top used city car was the Skoda Citigo, a cheap but fantastic choice, while our supermini winner was the evergreen Ford Fiesta. The best compact family car to choose this year was the Skoda Octavia, we said, while the Skoda Superb Estate was our choice in the estate category – mirroring our new car awards from July.
The Vauxhall Insignia was a worthy winner in the family car class, offering a huge amount of space for a low price, and the best compact executive was the Audi A4. Moving up to an executive model, we chose the Volvo S90 for its luxury feel at a very affordable price. The
Mercedes S-Class took the award for being the best used luxury car because it retains all of its high-quality traits as a second-hand model but had lost a lot in depreciation, making it a great buy.
Our SUV categories covered small, medium and large models. The former was won by the Citroen C3 Aircross, a low-cost option with lots of space inside and excellent comfort. The best mid-size model was the Renault Kadjar, which is often forgotten in the new-car market when compared with rivals such as the Peugeot 3008, but as a used car it’s much better value. The best used large SUV was the Kia Sorento, which offers lots of space and technology.
An MPV still makes a lot of sense as a family car and the Citroen Grand C4 Picasso was our choice in this category. Like most Citroens, it’s really affordable second-hand and comfortable to drive.
Moving on to the sportier categories, we picked out the Audi A5 as the best coupé and the Mazda MX-5 as our best used convertible. The best used hot hatchback was the Ford Fiesta ST in a second win for the popular fast Ford, and our best used sports car in 2021 was the Audi R8 – particularly an earlier model, which can now be bought for family-car money.
Our overall used car of the year was the Citroen C3 Aircross, which still has a fairly modern design, but is really affordable, spacious and comfortable.
We also published some buying advice as part of our Used Car Awards issue, detailing how and where to buy a used car – useful if you are buying a second-hand model in the current climate. You can find all the winners and info on our website if you want to refer back to it now.
Driver Power rated brands
In the second of our Driver Power surveys, we took a look at the top brands of car to own – according to owners who responded to our huge, wide-ranging survey. It was Porsche that took the top spot, breaking a four-year winning streak for Lexus. Porsche finished top in the ride and handling category in our survey, and build quality, practicality, running costs and infotainment systems were also all rated highly by owners. Even servicing costs weren’t too bad, according to Porsche owners.
Kia finished in second place, with more high scores across the board, while Tesla was third in 2021.
Driver Power dealers
September brought with it another Driver Power survey, this time looking at your best-ranked dealers and breakdown firms. Having won our 2021 brands survey, Porsche took another gold: readers told us no other maker has a better dealer network. Lexus was second overall, but first for its service centres, while third place was occupied by Kia.
As for breakdown firms, the RAC placed top, praised for everything bar its call centre operations and purchase process. Its biggest rival, the AA, came second, while GEM Motoring Assist was third. Finally, we included a list of the top 50 new-car deals available.
Poll: Used Cars rated in Driver Power
Driver Power was back once again in October, with participants telling us what they thought of their second-hand motors. The best turned out to be the Lexus GS Mk4. The two other podium places went to the Skoda Superb Mk3 and BMW 3 Series Mk7, while Lexus was the highest-rated individual brand, followed by Subaru and Porsche.
Polestar store visit
Our first involvement with Polestar’s new Space retailer in one of London’s Westfield shopping centres was in the early hours of 27 October 2020, when a Polestar 2 was hauled up to the first floor of the gargantuan building – something that turned into a six-hour struggle.
Nearly a year later, easing restrictions finally allowed us to visit Space again and spend a day finding out about this new type of car dealership.
Testing times at Thatcham
We spent a day with Thatcham Research, the only Euro NCAP-accredited crash-test centre in the UK, to find out how it grades Level 2 autonomous driving systems.
One of the crucial measures we learned about was the balance between assisting a driver and ensuring they remain focused on the road. Safety back-ups for when the driver isn’t responsive and something goes wrong also need to be judged. Cars that perform well are rated “Very Good”.
Getting excited for next year? Check out our article on the best new cars coming in 2022
Check out the rest of our 2021 round-up below...