Britain’s best-selling cars of 2014 were the Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra and Ford Fiesta. Slightly middle of the road for your tastes? It doesn’t require Three Wise Men to tell you that none of that trio is going to set your pulse racing.
Fortunately, there’s still plenty of automotive Viagra out there if you know where to look; cars just waiting to eat into your new-found disposable income. So as a 50-something with no prospect of a school run or imminent grandchildren, here’s my sideways look at the best cars I’ve driven in 2014.
The Car You Always Wanted But Could Never Afford: Range Rover Sport
Luxurious SUVs aren’t very PC these days but it’s a struggle to find a good reason not to buy the Sport. Big Range Rover’s little brother is a performance-focused all-rounder that ticks every box.
Use it as a long distance tourer, or hurl it around a corner at breakneck speed. Somehow the cavernous Sport defies logic and takes everything in its stride. You can load up with seven seats, or crash through muddy fields with 4×4 surefootedness.
The sumptuous cabin is model of refinement, with design cues from the full-size Range Rover. An eight-speed, automatic gearbox takes the strain of out driving and I found the latest infotainment system child’s play to use.
Prices start at around £60,000 for the SDV6 diesel – or you can opt for the lunatic fast, 5.0 supercharged petrol version that gives Porsche a run for its money. In 2015, the new hybrid version is bound to be a big seller too.
Best Sportscar To Re-Live A Hooligan Youth: VW Golf GTI Performance
It’s always been the benchmark for hot hatchbacks: nearly 40 years of tyre-squealing dominance. There are faster rivals, like the Ford Focus ST and Vauxhall Astra VXR, but none can match the all-round ability of a Golf.
Earlier this year I tried the Performance Pack version, with an extra 10bhp squeezed from the 2.0 petrol engine. Not surprisingly, it’s sensationally fast, superbly balanced and immensely engaging to drive.
The Golf GTI is as desirable as ever, although I could live without the classic, tartan-patterned seats. This tweaked model is expensive at just under £30,000 but it’s a small price to pay to re[live your youth.
The Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing Award: Jaguar XFR
It’s based on an everyday saloon but look a little closer and there are plenty of clues as to the performance of the XFR. Standard 19-inch alloy wheels, discreet bonnet vents and four rasping tailpipes suggest something special lurks underneath.
This baby Jaguar packs a mammoth 5.0 supercharged engine, capable of rocketing the XFR to 60mph in 4.7 frantic seconds. It’s quick but there’s a loopy ‘S’ version too that adds even more power.
With the Jaguar guzzling petrol at a rate of 20mpg, I can’t say it was the most cost-effective week in a test car. And with 503bhp powering the back wheels, the XFR was a handful in the wet. But for those who crave understated and discreet, this is the car for you.
Most Sensible Car To Impress Your Accountant: Mazda3
You don’t want to turn up at the tax office in anything too flashy. The latest Mazda3 may be shaped like a giant slipper but it packs an air of refinement missing from so many family cars.
Your accountant will love it, too, because the 3 is super-frugal and sits in a low tax band. The diesel can return almost 70mpg and even the sporty 2.0 petrol I tried can manage over 40mpg.
The no-frills interior is a bit dull but everything is there, from an air-conditioned glovebox to a head-up instrument display, flashed on to the windscreen. Ultra reliable and safe, the hatchback starts at £17,000.
Car With The Toughest Name To Spell: Kia pro_cee’d GT
Silly car names are nothing new (remember the Ford Probe or Mazda Bongo?). However, the Pro_cee’d is also incredibly annoying to write and spell. Described as the company’s first performance car, it’s really a lukewarm hatchback with only modest performance.
So why’s it on this list? The Kia redeems itself by being a brilliant all-rounder, loaded with every conceivable extra and still under £20,000. It doesn’t rival a fast Mini or the Golf GTI but you’re saving a packet over both on the forecourt.
It also looks fantastic, with eight daytime running lights, a sleek profile and a sporty interior that makes you feel like you are travelling much faster than the speedometer says. A wild card coupe that shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.
Best Car For Terrible Parkers: Citroen Cactus
A bubble-wrapped car – are you mad? All vehicles need a unique selling point and this funky Citroen is protected with ‘Airbumps’, or plastic pads of air stuck to the side panels. They’re tough enough to see off a shopping trolley, or the accidental bump of another car door.
The padding works surprisingly well, although it’s hard not to resist the temptation to give the soft, durable plastic a hefty boot with your foot. Even without the Airbumps, the Cactus is a very good car. The diesel version sips fuel at a rate of 90mpg and it even looks cool – for a Citroen.
I thought the Airbumps were just a gimmick, until I opened the driver’s door against a lamp-post and dented only my pride. As an urban runabout, this tiny SUV is a cost-effective superstar. Prices kick off at under £13,000.
The Lesser-Seen SUV Award: Infiniti QX70
Infiniti is the luxury division of Nissan. The brand hasn’t taken off in quite the same way as Lexus did for Toyota but the QX70 is a luxury SUV that still looks every bit as good as a Porsche Cayenne – while costing much less.
The bulbous wheel arches hide enormous, 20-inch alloy wheels and low-profile tyres. They’re not just there for show, the V8 petrol version is phenomenally fast and returns a meagre 13mpg. Most UK buyers naturally opt for the more frugal 3.0 diesel.
But what makes the QX70 so desirable is that it is equipped with electric everything. It’s luxury personified for £43,000 and just that little bit different.
Best Car To (Almost) Save The Planet: Lexus RX 450h
How does an SUV with a chunky 3.5-litre diesel engine boast green credentials? The 450h is a hybrid that comes loaded with an electric motor too.
At almost £52,000 it’s not cheap but being a Lexus it has luxury oozing out of every stitch of the leather seats.
Visually pleasing from every angle, the RX is more than a poor man’s Range Rover and like all Lexus, is super reliable too.
Best Small Car You Will Actually Love To Drive: Renault Twingo
Hang on, where’s the engine? The new generation Twingo is an attractive, rear-engined city car that gives both the Fiat 500 and Skoda Citigo a run for their money.
Placing the motor in the back means the tiny Renault is fantastically manoeuvrable around town and very easy to park. There’s a huge amount of space for rear seat passengers and it’s pretty cute too.
Prices start from under £10,000, with plenty of scope to personalise your Twingo by opting for various ‘packs’ of extras. Small yes, but perfectly formed.
Most Practical Estate That Doubles As A Sportscar: SEAT Leon ST FR
Don’t be fooled by the Plain Jane looks of the Leon ST. Fast estate cars are all the rage at the moment, with VW preparing to launch the new R version of its Golf load-lugger.
The Leon ST FR is a compact estate that hides it abilities well. However, the 184bhp 2.0 diesel I drove was mind-bogglingly fast, performing like a roomy hot hatchback with extra luggage space.
Prices start at just over £20,000, although you can buy a less performance-orientated versions from £16,600.