Time for one last look into the rear-view
mirror of 2013. It was, as much as anything, a year of conspicuous arrivals and
The usual kick-off for the year in cars is the
Detroit Motor Show in early January. This one was completely dominated by a
single arrival - the mighty new Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. For the first time
in its seven generations, this one really is a car engineered and built to
world standards. It was one of many good indications of a rejuvenated GM.
By the end of the year, GM's global chief
engineer had become CEO of the whole company. Mary Barra also happens to be the
first woman to run a car company, too.
If the Detroit show belonged to the Corvette,
imagine the hulaballoo at Geneva when we finally got to look at both the
McLaren P1 and Ferrari LaFerrari. By that time we'd already been in a prototype
Porsche 918. Carbonfibre-bodied, hybrid-assisted 900-odd-horsepower hypercars
seemed to be everywhere. Not that we were bored.
They sit at the pinnacle of trends we're
seeing everywhere: light bodies, downsized engines, low drag, hybrid
assistance. The VW XL1 was the most utterly extreme example. Driving it was
definitely the best 68bhp we ever spent. That's why we just can't wait for next
year's BMW i8 - a car that sits right in the sweet spot between XL1 and 918.
The signs from this year's i3 were nothing but positive.
A drive of the LaFerrari still eludes us, but
we had several steers of the Porsche 918 and (a TG exclusive) the McLaren P1 (above).
They're brilliant, of course, but very different from each other. And we're
glad of that wider point. People said all electrically-assisted cars would feel
the same, but the P1 and 918 prove that different manufacturers can endow their
hybridised cars with radically different characters.
With luck a similar diversity will persist as
automation takes over many of the driver's tasks. Many major manufacturers are
working on this. Nissan said it'd have a self-driving car on sale by 2020. GM
is right up there too. And a Mercedes-Benz S-class drove itself 60 miles
through German mixed roads in normal traffic. That experimental Benz it wasn't
so different from the most heavily optioned S-class you can buy right now.
The hot hatch had its best year ever in 2013.
Before they arrived, we were slathering like Pavlov's dogs over the return of
the RenaultSport Clio, Peugeot 208 GTI, Fiesta ST, and Golf GTI. We were hardly
disappointed with any of them, and the Fiesta ST became our Car of the Year.
Just as the Corvette is symbolic of good
things happening at GM, so the wonderful F-Type represents a new Jaguar.
There's a new smaller saloon coming in 2015, and a crossover in 2016. Both will
be based on the company's new adaptable aluminium architecture. We learned, as
if we couldn't guess, that they'll be good-looking: see the C-X17 concept
Sadly, Jaguar also announced a departure, the
C-X75 hypercar. Never mind. It taught Jag's engineers a lot about hybrid, and
about ultra-high-performance four-cylinder engines, and about aero. Those
lessons will all be used in the firm's new more attainable metal. A fair swap.
Another notable hybrid departure was Fisker.
It was felled by bad luck as much as anything, with its battery supplier going
bankrupt, and the loss of hundreds of unsold cars in a dockside submerged by
superstorm Sandy. The insurers refused the claim. As an illustration of the
cost of entry into car manufacture, the Fisker story is salutary. It lost its
investors, including the US Government, more than a billion pounds while
selling just 2200 cars - or a hit of £400,000 per car.
More bad news, this time for workers in some
of Europe's car plants. Peugeot-Citroen couldn't sell enough cars to keep open
its giant Aulnay factory near Paris. Ford shut its Genk plant in Belgium too.
There's just too much competition from Kia and Hyundai, and their efficient new
plants in the periphery of Europe.
Kia and Hyundai probably did for Chevy in
Europe too. Why would you buy a Chevrolet Spark, Aveo, Cruze, Orlando and some
others you'll doubtless have forgotten? So we can file Chevy Europe, too, under
departures. In December, the brand decided to throw in the towel and shut its
showrooms here. Now the management can concentrate properly on making a go of
Vauxhall and Opel.
Of course Opel-Vauxhall made a deal since last
year with PSA (Peugeot-Citroen) to build a couple of new MPVs, as well as share
some bulk purchasing. But at the end of this year GM unwound its equity stake
in PSA, and the cars look like being one-generation expedients, not a long-term
alliance. In other words, it's now looking amazingly reminiscent of GM's
previous messy deal with Fiat.
Instead, PSA looks likely to raise money from
Chinese maker Dongfeng. Dongfeng has built Peugeots and Citroens for decades,
so the deal makes sense. Then, strangely, Donfeng also announced a deal to
build a factory over there with PSA's main rival Renault. It looked like the
messy last 10 minutes of a school disco.
It's not just the French. Jaguar Land Rover is
also building a vast plant there too, GM has long been busy there and Ford is
furiously building factories. The Germans increasingly rely on the country as
an outlet for their most extravagant - for which read profitable - vehicles.
You can't buy a Chinese car here yet, but the
Geneva show launch of the Qoros brand showed how serious they are.
After all, nothing stays still in the world of
cars, and nothing's very predictable. Which is why we're not making predictions
for 2014. But we hope you have a good one.