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Our highlights of 2023: the amazing moments from an action-packed year in cars

Auto Express staffers pick the cars, events and features which stood out in 2023

2023 draws to a close and the time arrives once again for the Auto Express team to cast their minds back through the last 12 car-packed months and pick a single moment that stands out from the rest. It’s never an easy task and 2023 seems particularly tricky with so much having been packed in.

Nevertheless, the people behind the UK’s favourite car magazine stretched their grey matter to breaking point, picking the drives, events and occasions that they’ll remember most fondly from 2023. They each elaborate on their own selections below.

We’ve got the usual test drives in exotic cars on unforgettable roads but also manufacturer events that stood out for what they revealed about the future of the automotive world and features we planned ourselves that were great fun to do and a huge hit with readers. Read on to find out about our motoring highlights of 2023 and tell us about yours in the comments.

John McIlroy - BMW M2 Coupe launch

It feels like it’s been significant year of transition for EVs, with gains in costs and range, albeit with a continued focus on SUVs. But while I still can, I nominate a good old-fashioned thrash in a six-cylinder sports car as my top moment of 2023.

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Truth be told, the first day on the launch of the BMW M2 in Arizona wasn’t stellar; we’d been forced to drive the (decidedly average) XM, and when the time did come to get behind the wheel of the baby coupe, I found the manual gearbox a little clunky. Would there be the faintest chance of snatching an auto for half an hour the following morning, I asked?

The answer was yes, so I made for one of the country roads not far from the launch HQ. The road was sweeping, fast and with plenty of blind crests and camber changes – a proper test.

With the slick auto at its heart, the M2 was mighty; the straight-six engine sounded fantastic, the car’s ability to change direction at speed and hang on through corners was exceptional. I was fizzing by the end of it – a little out of breath, but exhilarated. Isn’t that what a sports car should do?

Steve Fowler - China’s growing car industry

Motor shows are struggling to make a comeback in Europe – this year’s Munich expo was basically German and Chinese brands, plus Renault – but in the far east, and China in particular, they’re still big news. My trip to the Shanghai Motor Show in April was truly eye-opening, and a clearer indication of the future direction of the car industry than anything I’ve seen since the pandemic. 

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What struck me was the speed at which the Chinese car industry works. There were brands that didn’t exist just a few years ago, already making cars that can compete with the very best that established marques have to offer in terms of quality and tech. Two that stood out were Nio and HiPhi – both doing things differently, and well.

We’ll reserve judgement on many of the others until we can actually drive and buy them, but their effect on the global car business is already being seen. Volkswagen, for example, is working hard to reduce the development times of its cars in order to compete.

It seems the Chinese brands have learnt fast from Western car makers, but the firms that don’t learn from the Chinese face a very uncertain future.

Shane Wilkinson - Hanover VW Bus Festival

I’m a big fan of classic car culture and I’ve always wanted to visit Germany, so when the chance came up to drive a Volkswagen Grand California to Hanover to celebrate the Type 2’s 75th anniversary, it was inevitable that I’d be writing about it here.

I’m a regular visitor to many classic car shows in the UK – big and small – but nothing could prepare me for the sheer scale of VW’s first official Bus Festival. And when I say festival, I mean a full-scale affair complete with a massive stage, belting tunes from a huge line-up of live bands, tens of thousands of people, free-flowing beer and some rather upsetting toilet facilities. 

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Then, of course, there was the campsite, which played host to a staggering 6,000 VW vans of all generations, colours and specifications. The level of dedication to this long-standing line of vans and campers is like nothing I’ve ever seen, and partying with enthusiasts made for some of the most entertaining interviews that I’ve ever conducted.

Pete Gibson - Cars and canines with Dogs Trust

For most of 2023 I spent my time at the wheel of a Skoda Karoq, and it proved to be a great all-rounder that could take anything I threw at it. That included being one of the four-wheeled stars of our dogs in cars feature, when we visited Dogs Trust in Manchester to get some handy hints and top tips on carrying family pets in the car. 

I have to confess that I came to the feature with some previous experience, because I’ve already ferried my dog, Benson, a springer spaniel/border collie cross, in plenty of test cars. While Benson stayed at home for this trip, we lined up some local talent to demonstrate what makes a dog-friendly car and how to transport your precious pet safely.

I already knew the Skoda would do well, thanks to its great ride and decent boot with easy access, but it’s always good
to get an expert opinion.

Paul Adam - Our MG celebration

My highlight of the year was a fantastic team effort, with the production of our MG special. It proved to be a showcase of what Auto Express does so brilliantly every single week: talking to manufacturers, engineers, dealers, customers and enthusiasts to bring together some amazing and insightful stories for all you readers to enjoy.

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We looked at every angle of the resurgent British marque, covering models from the past, present and future, while a particularly exciting moment was taking a ride on UK roads in MG’s all-new two-seat electric roadster, the Cyberster.

Conjuring up an MG ‘Hall of Fame’ was a terrific way to reflect on some of the brand’s greatest hits, and provided an interesting contrast to the company’s latest EVs, such as the striking MG4 – which we featured in 300-mile Extended Range and 429bhp XPower form.

Up against some super-tight deadlines, the team aced the delivery of this MG ‘mini mag’, all while still ensuring your regular weekly copy of Auto Express landed bang on time. Therefore I’m raising a glass to the whole team this Christmas – they really are the best in the business.

Alastair Crooks - Lamborghini’s 60th birthday

It’s the year of the rabbit in China, but for me it’s the year of the bull, because I’ve had some great experiences with Lamborghini in 2023. This year marked the Italian firm’s 60th birthday, and of course it went big with the celebrations, including unveiling its long-awaited Aventador replacement, the 1,001bhp Revuelto. 

There was also an attempt to break its own record for the largest number of Lamborghinis on one track at the same time. We helped do this at Silverstone in one of its very best models – the Huracan STO. The parade lap was done at a snail’s pace (having more than 300 Lamborghinis and their owners chomping at the bit behind you is very unsettling), but it did give me enough time to soak in the stunning visuals, only matched by the glorious soundtrack from some of the greatest engines ever made. Exactly how Lamborghini tops this year’s celebrations we have no idea. 

Dean Gibson - Le Mans Classic with BMW

A road trip is always a great way to get familiar with any car, so the opportunity to head to Le Mans in the new BMW M2 was a chance too good to miss. The smallest M car proved to be a blast, taking the journey in its stride and delivering a surprising amount of comfort for such a focused performance machine.

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However, the reason for my trip was to visit the Le Mans Classic, a bi-annual celebration of the cars and drivers that have competed in the 24-hour sports car race. For 2023, the Classic was marking the centenary of the first running of the event, with hundreds of cars from every era and thousands of fans in attendance. The sprawling site was filled with cars of every description, from limited-run hypercars to 2CVs and Jeeps, while the paddocks were split into different eras, with each group of racers putting on a show, day and night.

Of particular interest for this trip was the M2’s ancestors, including the class-winning CSL Batmobile and flame-spitting M1 Procar, the model that established BMW’s M division as a force to be reckoned with in motorsport.

With so much to see and do, the Le Mans Classic was an impressive event, and if you’re a motorsport fan, it’s a must-do trip that ranks alongside the likes of the Goodwood Festival of Speed and Revival in terms of appeal and atmosphere.

Alex Ingram - Driving a Jimny with a Twist

As chief reviewer, I’m fortunate enough to drive a vast number of new models each year. But few cars in 2023 – or any other year, for that matter – have made me grin from ear to ear as widely as the Suzuki Jimny by Twisted

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Back in the summer, I visited the Yorkshire-based firm to sample its latest creation. As with its previous Land Rover based offerings, the formula was simple: add lashings of luxurious leather inside, develop some more robust suspension, and bring it all together with a smattering of cosmetic tweaks. These all had a positive impression, making an already lovable 4x4 a little more refined (so still a little crude, given the starting point) yet even more capable. 

But the crowning glory came under the bonnet, where Twisted bolted a big turbo on the 1.5-litre petrol engine, bumping power from 100bhp to 165bhp in the process. This made the Jimny genuinely rapid, with a boosty, addictive power delivery. Best of all, it caused loads of loud turbo whooshes and chatters. It sounded brilliant. 

Was the Twisted Jimny the best car I drove this year? No, not by a long shot. The most daft? Certainly. But it was also my biggest laugh by some distance.

Jordan Katsianis -  Pininfarina Battista drive

It’s not often that you’re asked to do something that truly is a once-in- a-lifetime experience, but for me it happened this year. I was one of the few lucky people asked to try out the multi-million-pound Pininfarina Battista electric hypercar over a couple of warm, beautiful days in the hills above Piamonte in Northern Italy. 

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Here was a name from the top echelon of motoring, reimagining itself with the spectacular 2,000bhp Battista. Yet perhaps even more telling than the romance of the brand or our beautiful surroundings, is that the Battista offered a genuinely mind-blowing driving experience. This was a hypercar defined not by a musical engine, but by sheer, brutal performance in a package that felt every bit as exotic as other Italian rivals. 

In reality, it’s fairly easy to build a fast EV, but having experienced plenty of high-performance cars over the years, I can say the Battista somehow remains a cut above, reaffirming that the magic of the hypercar will live on into our future electric age.

Chris Rosamond - BMW’s next steps in hydrogen power

Hydrogen: the universe’s most prolific element, and solution to the planet’s clean energy crisis. If only we knew how to harness it effectively. 

Well, we’re getting close, judging by the billions being invested globally on clean, green hydrogen (H2) production from renewable sources. Yet policy-makers in the UK see green hydrogen as a limited resource to be sequestered for use by heavy industries. Using it to fuel cars is wasteful, or so their thinking goes. 

Other countries take a longer view of H2, which explains why the EU is already planning a network of hydrogen filling stations at 60-mile intervals on major routes. You can count the number of H2 filling stations in the UK on the fingers of one hand.

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Even so, BMW brought a fleet of fuel-cell powered X5s here in the summer, partly to warm up Whitehall mandarins to hydrogen's opportunities. There’s not much to suggest it worked, but spending time with BMW’s pragmatic hydrogen programme chief Jürgen Guldner brought joy to my heart, reinforcing my belief there’s a future for motoring beyond the rechargeable battery, and it may be closer than some think.

Ellis Hyde - Kia Sportage anniversary

Becoming news reporter at Auto Express is unquestionably my highlight of 2023, but following in a very close second was the random Tuesday morning I spent bombing around back roads in the Cotswolds at the wheel of a first-generation Kia Sportage.

I actually had all five generations of the popular crossover at my disposal, because the best-selling family SUV turned 30 this year and we were curious to see just how the Sportage had evolved over the past three decades. However it was the wonderfully preserved Mk1 model from Kia’s heritage fleet that left the biggest impression.

Not because it was fun to drive in the traditional sense, mind you. The car rolled a great deal when cornering and there was a comical amount of play in the steering. The engine sounded like it came from an old Ford Transit, too. 

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Combined with the fact the indicator stalks were on the right-hand side, and how extremely delicate I had to be with the clutch, the driving experience was simply chaotic, but it had me in stitches the entire time.

Steve Walker - Polestar Day 2023 in LA

Polestar is already a familiar brand to many UK motorists, but in the next three years it plans to expand further. To launch it on a trajectory towards household name status, the Geely-owned Volvo offshoot has a convincing queue of new EVs, plus a brand identity founded on sportiness and sustainability

We were treated to the full Polestar sales pitch in a somewhat stuffy Los Angeles aircraft hangar packed with investors and customers at Polestar Day 2023 – an event that had more than a whiff of Tesla’s grandstanding product reveals about it. 

On the face of things, Polestar’s plans look a lot more plausible than many of Tesla’s hotly anticipated projects. The Polestar 3 and Polestar 4 SUVs will arrive in 2024, before the Polestar 5 four-door coupe in 2025 and the Polestar 6 in 2026 – two cars that will rival the Porsche Taycan and 911 respectively. Beyond that, Polestar might even look to its striking Synergy concept as inspiration for an electric supercar

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The thread of sustainability runs through it all, with the brand’s Polestar 0 (zero) project recruiting manufacturers of innovative carbon-neutral materials to reinvent how cars are made. By 2030 Polestar plans to sell a fully carbon-neutral volume-production car – built, used and recycled with net-zero emissions. It’s a lofty aim and another reason why Polestar is one to watch in the coming years.

Richard Ingram - VW California Concept

Anyone who knows me, knows how I love a purpose-built campervan. I’ll borrow one at any opportunity, and was even fortunate to run one on the Auto Express fleet a few years back. So when Volkswagen invited us to check out the next-generation California, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Based on the latest plug-in hybrid T7 Multivan (not the electric ID. Buzz – that's coming later) it blew me away with
its trick features and novel storage solutions. Better than the outgoing camper in every way – from the clever kitchen to the twin hobs and removable tablet screen – I could have bedded down and slept in it right there and then.

Bosses insisted it was just a concept, but they were pretty candid about production intent. With a new California already confirmed for 2024, we don't expect many features to be diluted over the coming months. At least I hope not – I’ve already promised my wife and daughter we’ll level up for next year’s summer holiday!

Darren Wilson - New Car Awards

I always pick our annual New Car Awards photoshoot as my highlight of the year. That’s no real surprise, because it’s a wonderful opportunity to get really creative. This year senior photographer  Pete Gibson suggested we work at Calvert Studios in Leighton Buzzard. They have a huge overhead digital LED light box, which can be coloured in numerous ways to position different pools of light across our award-winning cars and the studio floor. 

Pete and I complemented the overhead effect by adding simple background lighting using coloured gels over floor lights. Once a shot was set up and I was happy, Pete photographed at least three images: a version in pure white light, then coloured light and finally no lighting at all. When combined in Photoshop, we got one stunning image with punchy colour, highlights and shadows (thanks to our creative repro team of Dave Kinnard and Danny Brown).

We wanted a set of images that did justice to our award-winning cars, but I’ll let you in on a trade secret. We test cars right up to the week prior to the awards, so the winners aren't always finalised during our shoot, so sometimes we have to shoot cars 'just in case'. This Jeep Avenger shot was one of mine (and Pete's) favourites of 2023, but the Jeep was just pipped to a class victory by our eventual Car of the Year, the Hyundai Kona. So this is the only time you'll get to see our efforts with the small EV.

Just follow the link for the rest of our 2023 Review of the Year pages...

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