Paul Horrell 29 December 2013

2013: a review of the year in cars

Paul Horrell takes a look back at a year of conspicuous arrivals and departures in the industry

Time for one last look into the rear-view mirror of 2013. It was, as much as anything, a year of conspicuous arrivals and departures.

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 crossover.

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.

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