IT GENERALLY takes quite a lot to surprise the Wheels road test team.
They’re a grizzled bunch who tend to know what’s coming down the pipe with new cars, but every once in a while there are cars that either exceed their expectations or fail by a fair margin to meet them. Here’s a selection of this year’s unexpected treats and tribulations.
1. JUST HOW QUICK THE 911 GT2 RS WAS
Okay, so it’s fairly reasonable to expect the Porsche 911 GT2 RS to be rapid. What blew away editor Inwood was the accessibility of that performance, even on a track as gnarly as Portimao. The GT2 RS has, in previous generations, more than earned its Widowmaker nickname, but the genius of the latest car is how Porsche has kept the excitement but reduced the malevolence of its handling.
As a measure of how quick the car was on circuit, Alex registered 290km/h into the braking zone at the end of the pit straight, where a Mercedes-AMG GT-R had registered a 264km/h top whack with the same driver on board a few months earlier. In a division where we separate the cream by fractions of a percent, that’s nigh-on ten percent quicker. The Porsche is nearly twice the price of Affalterbach’s finest though. That was a bit of a shocker too.
2. THE TESLA MODEL X CAN GET ITS HUSTLE ON
Say what you want about the Tesla Model X, and there’s a lot to divide opinion here, there aren’t too many complaints about the way that it steps off the mark, especially if you’re packing P100D power. What was genuinely refreshing was that it doesn’t all fall apart at the very first corner. This massive chunk is actually really good fun to hustle.
Yes, we know about all the torque and the centre of gravity and everything, but it’s still somewhat otherworldly to emerge from a fast corner in a perfect four-wheel drift as you light up each and every Goodyear Eagle F1. Yes, it’s irrelevant, but we’d be lying if we didn’t point out that everyone got out of this car with big, dopey grins on their faces.
3. THERE’S STILL A CASE FOR THE MANUAL GEARBOX
This might not come as any great surprise to the hardcore amongst you, but even if you have yet to nail the perfect heel and toe downshift or you’re not quite sure how to pitch a car into oversteer with just a pop of the clutch pedal, it doesn’t matter. A manual box can still spell big fun. Nothing demonstrated that quite so clearly as Suzuki’s latest Swift.
With a mere 66kW to conjure with, the entry level Swift GL manual is an absolute hoot. Even though only around five percent of Swift customers will choose the entry-level car, it earns a solid recommendation for us. It’s a throwback in some ways to a simpler time, but we adore the fact that $16K nets you a driver’s car of surprising ability. It’s just a set of better tyres away from greatness.
4. THE HOLDEN EQUINOX ISN’T TERRIBLE
Cards on table time. We thought the Holden Equinox would be a duffer. We think you did too. I mean, just look at it. It’s an uninspiring-looking thing inside and out, but the guys and gals at Lang-Lang have excelled themselves with the dynamic set up of this car. Does that matter to the target buyer set? Probably not. Nevertheless, as an exercise in making the best of a dealt hand, the Equinox has a lot going for it.
It’s big, it’s well equipped, it’s packed with smart tech (including active aero), and the 2.0-litre car is so much quicker than any of its direct rivals. Embarrassingly so. If you can look beyond the plain Jane styling, the Equinox is right up there as one of this year’s more pleasant surprises.
5. MAZDA’S SKYACTV-X ENGINE REALLY WORKS
The promise of diesel-like fuel economy from a refined and clean petrol engine sounds too good to be true. Mercedes-Benz tried ‘compression ignition’ of petrol engines but eventually relegated it to the too hard bucket. Mazda’s breakthrough was creating a sparkless-ignition engine that uses spark plugs.
Sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but using the tiny fireball in the combustion chamber as an additional piston, in effect squashing the remaining air fuel mix downwards as the real piston comes upwards is a spark of genius (sorry). It also allowed Mazda to use the spark plug as one of the engine’s key control functions, which we didn’t see coming. It seems to do exactly as promised. Expect to see it first in the all-new Mazda3 in 2019.
6. THE CIVIC TYPE R: BOOKS/COVERS ETC
To date, the Honda Civic Type R is like wine from an inconsistent terroir. One vintage will be great, the next year’s pretty unpalatable. So it was with some trepidation that we parked ourselves behind the wheel of the latest version. Turns out we needn’t have worried.
Beneath all the juvenile plastic nonsense slathered all over the exterior is the heart of a truly great hot hatch. It’s so much more civilised than its styling suggests, yet it can dissect the toughest section of road or track you can throw at it. If only they’d develop a mechanically-similar sleeper version. Type-O anyone?
7. FINALLY, A SAFE CHINESE CAR!
We’ve come to expect Chinese-built cars to have all the structural integrity of a Sarah Huckabee Sanders press conference, but it seems the days of making wisecracks about these cars might be drawing to an end. The MG GS is the first Chinese product to receive a full ANCAP five-star rating after upgrading the safety specification of the small SUV for our market. The 5 star ANCAP safety rating applies to all MG GS models built from August 2017 and on sale from October 2017.
8. TESLA GOES FULL PLAID
The award for the best-kept secret this year goes to Elon Musk, who pulled one heck of a blinder, unveiling the Tesla Roadster 2 halfway through the press unveil of his semi truck.
Must have sucked to be the sports car journo who turned down an invitation to a truck launch, but the hype machine instantly went into full swing, and punters were stampeding to throw their credit card details at Tesla’s website for a chance to land an early Roadster build slot. 0-100km/h in 1.9 seconds and a top speed of 400km/h sounds pretty tempting. Even if he can’t build it, they will come.