A terrible year for most of us but a great year for incredible cars. Let’s talk about 2021’s finest.
Another very strange year has now left us in the form of the Covid-stricken 2021. With petrol almost as expensive as gold, the semi-conductor shortage leaving showrooms empty and second-hand cars as pricey as new ones, the last 12 months have been unforgettable – for better or for worse. Mainly worse.
Anyway, the best minds in the business were still able to come up with incredible cars and 2021 was not, under any circumstance, a poor year when it comes to new metal. In fact – and I know this is totally subjective but, hey, I am the one writing – last year I got to drive two cars that immediately became all-time favourites of mine. I even bought one of them.
Now, these awards have no consideration for price or purpose of the cars present and, rather noticeably, no car on this list is what you would call cheap. Even if the Fiat and the Toyota are not ruinously expensive, they are compromised in what they do and no one will buy them as their only car, for sure.
So, without any further ado, let’s begin. In fifth place, I give you the Fiat 500e. The electric Italian is the only EV that made the cut, but it is definitely not the best EV I drove this year. Why, then, is it here? Well, because, unlike the Porsche Taycan Cross Turismo and the BMW iX – for me the two best electric cars on the planet right now –, the 500e can actually be used as its makers intended and, therefore, makes more sense than the Germans, for whom the infrastructure is and will remain for quite some time their weakest link. I also don’t understand their respective six-figure prices and so, for both of those reasons, I could not include them here.
In the world we live in today, an electric car, from my perspective, still makes more sense as a small city runabout than an expensive, state-of-the-art tech-machine. The 500e has a real-world range of 200km, it looks spectacular, it’s comfortable, well made and every drive puts a smile on your face.
Fourth place is reserved for what is, objectively, the best car in the world. From a purely objective point of view, the Mercedes S-Class is simply unbeatable.
The quality is unparalleled, the prestige unrivalled, the engineering absolutely peerless. The S-Class has been the benchmark in luxury for almost seven decades and driving around in one for a week was a fantastic experience. I have now driven three generations of S-Class in this job and every time I ask myself, how can they improve on it? But improved it they have, yet again.
Why is the Mercedes not on the top step of the podium? Easy answer: it’s not a car that lives in petrolheads’ dreams. It’s not a machine to be taken out on an early spring morning in search of a twisty road because you want to revel in the ability of the chassis, the brakes or the engine.
The S-Class is a car bought by rational reasons – all the right reasons at that – but it’s not a car that stirs the heart or the mind. It’s the best car in the world, but of a world where cars are a tool for a purpose, not a toy or an indulgence. I admire the S-Class immensely and I will always endorse it, but for a car-obsessive type such as myself, it could never ‘the one’.
The lowest step of the podium is thus occupied by the first BMW that blew my mind this year: the M3 Competition. I already wrote about it on these pages, proclaiming it to be the best M3 ever made, and I still believe that. I loved every second behind the wheel of this thing and I even googled ‘how to rob a bank without getting caught’ to see if I could find a way to own one.
This car is a dream to drive and the perfect daily for anyone with petrol running in their veins. The engine is so strong you barely believe there are ‘only’ 510 horsepower available. But the engine is not the best thing about this car – the chassis is. It is so rigid, it seems it is built out of carbon fibre when, in fact, it is ‘just’ an evolution of the previous M3 platform.
The way the new car tackles a road balances all-out aggression with a finesse that I am sure cost millions to engineer into the car and a dedicated team of super-smart tech weirdos and incredibly skilled drivers. Even for a constructor with a back catalogue full of extremely good driver’s cars, the new G80 M3 is a highlight. I am very worried in fact, because, ever since I can remember driving, I have said my dream daily driver would be an M3 Touring and there is one coming this year…but at more than €100,000, it will only serve to fuel my frustration.
And so, we come to the runner-up of 2021: the Toyota GR Yaris. I have written extensively about this car on these pages and, if you are a follower of the Resident, you will know I have even bought a new one myself. It is very rare for a car to make me fall in love the way the small Toyota did. Ever since the first news about it started leaking to the press, back in 2018, that I had hoped the guys at Toyota would build a car in the same mould as the Lancia Delta Integrale, the Subaru Impreza, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo or the Ford Escort Cosworth.
Those are called homologation specials and were developed to go racing in the stages of the World Rally Championship. The closer the road car is to the race car, the best the race car is, so it pays off to build the best road car you can. But for almost 20 years, nobody dared to come up with such a project from scratch, mainly because the idea around the industry was that there was no market for cars like these anymore.
Well, it seems the industry was wrong. The GR Yaris has done more for the image of Toyota in the last 12 months than all of their cars put together in the last decade. A Toyota for petrolheads is something no one was expecting, but the one-year waiting list is proof the little Japanese hatchback has won everyone over and got its rightful place in the pantheon of the greatest rally cars in history. Believe the hype, the GR Yaris is that good.
So, just how good does the BMW M5 CS have to be to be better than the extraordinary Toyota? Well, it has to be something truly exceptional. And it absolutely is.
The M5 CS is the last step in the development of the current M5, after the standard version and the M5 Competition. It is also the swansong for the model and, very likely, the last BMW M with a V8 engine that won’t feature some sort of electric assistance. And what an engine this is: 4.4 litres, 630 horsepower and 750Nm of torque make the M5 CS the most powerful BMW ever produced. Changes abound when compared to the M5 Competition and they intend to make the M5 lighter and more focused.
The bonnet is carbon-reinforced plastic, brakes are carbon-ceramic and the gorgeous bronze-coloured wheels are forged for super resistance and lightness. The bronze grille looks great, while the new front and rear bumpers, front splitter and rear spoiler give the CS an air of always being ready for maximum attack.
The steering wheel is covered in Alcantara and the paddles in which to control the ZF eight-speed automatic transmission are carbon-fibre. The race-inspired seats are lifted from the M3 Competition and are the best I have ever tried on any car. The driving position is, therefore, perfect, and makes you want to drive this car forever.
The M5 CS balances overwhelming performance with an ability to do the mundane stuff as well as a regular diesel 5 Series. Better even, because the suspension set-up is so right, every kilometre feels very, very special.
For the four days I called it mine, I had to deal with this interior conflict of knowing I was driving the best BMW ever made – sorry all you purists who love the original M3, the M1 or the E39 M5, but it really is – and the fact I will probably never own one.
For those whose life revolves around cars, it is easy to get sucked into the romanticism of older cars and recall great drives we had in them that made us think they were a revelation. And sometimes they were and remain so, but we must accept that, in this sometimes horrible, money-driven world we live in today, where marketing rules and most cars are getting ever more pragmatic and tools for increasing the company stock price, it is possible – just – that a brand like BMW is still capable of outdoing itself and give us a car that defies logic and preconceptions, and patently show us what a group of brilliant people can do when those in charge give them free rein.
Of course, that freedom comes at a price, and it starts at €225,000, a whopping €75,000 more than the normal M5. The CS will be built in limited numbers and sold for a limited period of time. A sure-fire classic, I am certain the M5 CS will have a cult following in the years to come as one of the best cars in the world, ever. I am also sure I will be surfing the classifieds for the rest of my life, hoping I am finally able to afford one.
In the end, what a year 2021 has been for amazing cars. Can 2022 possibly beat it?
By Guilherme Marques