Alfa Romeo Stelvio. Picture: SUPPLIED
Alfa Romeo Stelvio. Picture: SUPPLIED

 As we head into the festive season it’s time to reflect on another busy motoring year in SA. Despite a dip in new-car sales, a barrage of desirable metal (and carbon fibre) was unleashed on our roads in 2018, from humble commuters to fire-breathing supercars and everything in between.

Among our favourites are:

Alfa Romeo Stelvio

Yes, we know Alfas don’t sell well in this country, but they deserve to be more popular.

If only people dropped their prejudices and took them for a test drive they would find that the Italian brand’s firstSUV isn’t just a pretty face. It’s a latecomer to an already crowded segment, but beneath that sexy Italian skin is an adventure vehicle with typically sporty Alfa handling and sharp steering.

It’s solidly engineered too, but the biggest surprise is how comfortably it cruises over rough gravel.

Performance is fairly lively from the 2.0l petrol turbo version, but a powerful 2.9 turbo QV version is to soon join the range.

Hyundai Kona

Hyundai Kona. Picture: SUPPLIED
Hyundai Kona. Picture: SUPPLIED

The handsome new Kona brings out the party side of a “bread-and-butter” Korean brand usually known for making solid but not terribly exciting family vehicles.

This crossover SUV really swings from the chandeliers with its flamboyant vibe, combining sleek curves with slit-shaped LED headlamps. Things are similarly vibrant inside the cabin, but its colourful accents are matched with premium-feeling materials.

The Kona’s the first car to offer Hyundai’s impressive little 1.0l turbo petrol engine in SA, and it’s a punchy little performer with a lot more zest than its modest cubic capacity suggests. It’s also available as a normally-aspirated 2.0l.

Hyundai offers one of the best warranties in the business with a five-year/150,000km plan.

Nissan Micra

Nissan Micra. Picture: SUPPLIED
Nissan Micra. Picture: SUPPLIED

With a much more appetizing design than before, Nissan’s all-new small hatch has morphed into a roomier and smarter car with one of the most premium-feeling cabins in the segment.

It’s also geeked-out with modern touch screen infotainment and music/phone connectivity, and the high-level features list includes stability control, auto headlights, six airbags, and cruise control.

All versions are moved along by an economical and reasonably peppy three-cylinder 900cc turbo petrol engine.

The pricing is attractive too and so’s the 6-year/150,000km warranty.

Volkswagen Polo

Volkswagen Polo. Picture: SUPPLIED
Volkswagen Polo. Picture: SUPPLIED

It’s not hard to see why this is SA’s best-selling car. It’s an all-round class act with its solid feel, good refinement, and easy-to-drive nature. The cabin sets the standard in the compact-car segment for its smart look and feel.

New high-end tech available in the latest Polo includes blind spot monitoring, self-parking, adjustable suspension, and a digital instrument cluster like you get in Audis. The updated infotainment is right on point.

The highlight of the range is the turbocharged Polo GTi, now bumped up to a hearty 2l for performance that comes very close to matching its more powerful (but also heavier) Golf GTi cousin.

Renault Duster

Renault Duster. Picture: SUPPLIED
Renault Duster. Picture: SUPPLIED

The second-generation Duster has gained polish and sophistication — including a classier new interior —but retains the good value-for-money that made its predecessor such a popular family SUV.

In a segment of road-focused crossovers and SUVs it has gained a reputation as one of the more dirt-capable vehicles. The new Duster maintains the same formula but it’s been perked up with improved refinement, new styling and a fuller spec sheet.

Raised ground clearance and better approach and departure angles make it an even better adventure vehicle, and the 4x4 version to be launched here early next year will also have hill descent control.

Haval

Haval H9. Picture: SUPPLIED
Haval H9. Picture: SUPPLIED

A Chinese brand? Yes, Haval is the premium division of blue-collar brand GWM and it has raised the bar with a range of modern SUVs that truly shake off the cheap-and-nasty image.

Havals like the H6 C and H9 offer significant price savings over more well-known rivals but without the quality shortcuts that have plagued many Chinese vehicles in the past. They’re well stacked with toys and safety features, and come with upmarket trimmings like soft-touch dashboards, all supported by a decently-sized dealer footprint and a five-year/100,000km warranty.

Long-term build quality and reliability is still an unknown factor for this new brand, as are resale values, but Haval seems to have turned a corner for Chinese products.

Mercedes-Benz A-Class

Mercedes-Benz A-Class. Picture: DENIS DROPPA
Mercedes-Benz A-Class. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

The fourth generation A-Class has grown into a larger and more family-friendly premium hatchback, but the biggest drawcard is the dazzling new technology.

At the heart of it is the new MBUX multimedia system which Mercedes calls “a revolution of the user experience in the car”. The starship-like all-digital dash brings out one’s inner Captain Kirk, and there’s artificial intelligence that learns and adapts to suit the driver.

The premium interior fit and finish makes this compact Mercedes feel like a scaled-down S-Class.

In the entry-level A200 the little 1.3l turbo petrol engine is a zesty-performing revelation, and a longer wheelbase has smoothed out the previous car’s rather jarring ride.

Suzuki Jimny

Suzuki Jimny. Picture: SUPPLIED
Suzuki Jimny. Picture: SUPPLIED

People either “get” boxy shapes or they don’t. For those who do, this squared-off Jimny’s the cutest, baddest little 4x4 to hit the streets and trails in a long time. Under that mini-Hummer shape is a vehicle with an enlarged cabin that can now seat four adults. The technology’s grown up too with touchscreen infotainment available on the higher-specced GLX model.

With a hoisted ground clearance and new Brake Limited Slip Differential and electronic stability control, the diminutive 4x4 scurries over offroad obstacles better than ever.

There’s more thrust under the bonnet too with the engine growing from 1.3l to 1.5l, and best of all it’s very affordable.

Volvo XC60

Volvo XC60. Picture: SUPPLIED
Volvo XC60. Picture: SUPPLIED

The midsized XC60 is the current World Car of the Year and continues the Volvo renaissance started by the larger XC90 SUV. The typically minimalist Scandinavian interior now has a more premium edge that oozes class.

The Swedish car is an appealing cocktail of luxury, refinement and technology, and it’s available with air suspension that blends a cushy ride with sharp handling.

The Pilot Assist semi-autonomous tech is better than most, particularly the self-steering mechanism.

BMW X3

BMW X3. Picture: SUPPLIED
BMW X3. Picture: SUPPLIED

It’s bigger and bolder looking than before, making for an appealing mix of practicality and road presence. The smart new interior also gets more pizzazz while the vehicle gets the latest infotainment and semi-autonomous driving technology.

Having shed some weight, the new X3 is graced with more agility and has outstanding roadholding for an SUV.

Rounding off its appeal is that it can do some mild offroading, thanks to a decent ride height and an intelligent xDrive all-wheel drive system.

Honda Civic Type R

Honda Civic Type R Picture: SUPPLIED
Honda Civic Type R Picture: SUPPLIED

Honda’s latest hot hatch is not only a better track car than before but also a more comfortable daily driver.

Japan’s riposte to the Volkswagen Golf R and Ford Focus RS has shed weight and gained upgraded suspension and a stiffer body to make it a better driver’s car. Aided by a limited-slip differential to reduce understeer, the front-wheel drive Type has lapped the Nurburgring faster than any other front-wheel drive car.

The secret to its dual personality is the addition of a new Comfort mode (along with Sport and +R modes) which lightens the steering and softens the ride for a more mild-mannered demeanour – when you want it.

Porsche GT3 RS

Porsche GT3 RS. Picture: DENIS DROPPA
Porsche GT3 RS. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

The money’s-no-object, pure-thrills car of the year? It has to be this track-focused, naturally-aspirated 911 which handles like a race car and sounds like a rock concert. Even now while writing this, I get goose bumps remembering what it sounds like revving at its 9,000rpm redline.

The sound and fury of the thing makes it the 911 for drivers seeking the most intense sports car experience. Rear-wheel drive and razor-sharp steering complete a viscerally satisfying drive that will make any sports car purist go weak at the knees.

It’s also one of a small handful of road-legal cars that’s lapped the Nurburgring in under seven minutes.