2011: West Wheels choice
Steve Lague and Stephen Williams pick their cars of 2011.

West Wheels editor Steve Lague and motoring writer Stephen Williams choose the cars they've enjoyed most in 2011.

Having each tested about 75 vehicles this year, we pick our their stand-out models in the categories in which we believe most families
shop for their new car.

We also get to dream for just a moment, revealing our favourite drives for 2011. We won’t try to pick the best one, just give you our highlights from a busy 12 months in Australia’s motoring industry


BEST VALUE

STEVE LAGUE CHOOSES KIA OPTIMA
It does not seem that long ago that cheap was the most common word used to describe cars built by Kia.

And it is something that the Korean car maker continues to work extremely hard at to overcome. Today, great value for money is a much more apt description of its renewed model range.

For me, the car that started it, the Optima, is the best value-for- money family car on the market.

The new Optima is not only equipped with a new direct-injection engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission with a sport mode, but it has class-leading safety technology.

It is also hard to beat when it comes to styling and features.

The Platinum model comes packed with a long list of premium features. They include a reversing camera, smart key with push- button start, leather trim with wood-look interior, heated four-way power front passenger seat and heated and ventilated eight-way power driver's seat with memory, cruise control with steering-wheel mounted controls, seven-function trip computer, height and reach adjustable steering wheel and cooling glove box.

You also get dual-zone climate control with rear air vents and a seven-speaker audio system with MP3 and Bluetooth compatibility and a sunroof.

But the Optima is not just about the looks. The 2.4-litre GDI engine is the most powerful in its class and has been specifically tuned for the Australian market.

The engineers have come up with a pretty good set-up for both the steering and suspension.

The driving dynamics of this car, I am sure, will surprise most.

Kia Optima
Model: Platinum

Price: $36,990
Drivetrain: 2.4-litre GDI, six-speed auto
Outputs: 148kW/250Nm
Thirst: 7.9L/100km
Crash rating: Five stars

STEPHEN WILLIAMS CHOOSES FORD FOCUS
OK, I’m looking like a Fordophile, with three winners, but the car maker has had a great year for cutting-edge releases.

When you add the $2300 Executive Pack to the Focus Titanium ($33,090 petrol, $36,590 diesel) there is no car as future proof within cooee of its price.

The pack provides bi-xenon headlights, a power/tilt sunroof and the wonders of adaptive cruise control.

People who haven’t experienced the super-brightness of bi-xenons wouldn’t know themselves, especially in country driving. They come with a cornering function and LED daytime driving lights. Adaptive cruise control is an addictive feature that allows the car to adjust its speed to that of the vehicle ahead.

It’s very relaxing where traffic speeds are waxing and waning. Such a pack as the Executive would cost about $6000 in a German luxury car.

The Titanium also has myriad hands-free features – self-parking, smart entry, auto lights/wipers, Bluetooth and voice control. The latter allows the audio, climate and telephony to respond to their master’s voice — yours.

The drivetrain is a high-tech combo – a direct-injection engine and dual-clutch auto. Other features include sat-nav, 18-inch alloys, part-leather trim, heated seats, electric driver’s seat and dual-zone climate control.

The Titanium provides fun driving and frugality, 6.6L/100km being terrific for a petrol auto. It is beautifully designed and crafted inside and out.

Available as a sedan or hatch, my favourite look is the hatch in red, as shown on the cover. In a world where car buyers are looking for smaller packages without sacrificing luxury and style, the Titanium is a downsizer’s delight.

Ford Focus
Model: Titanium

Price: $35,390 (with Executive Pack)
Drivetrain: 2.0L petrol 6sp auto
Outputs: 125kW/202Nm
Thirst: 6.6L/100km
Crash rating: Five stars


STAND-OUT DRIVE

Lague chooses BMW 1 Series Coupe
If I were picking the 2011 Car of the Year, there is a fair chance the BMW 135i Sport would not be the winner. It has its shortcomings.
For starters, the two doors and curvy roof that contribute so much to its sleek lines make it difficult to get into the back seat, which, at best, could be described as snug.

But after recently becoming an empty-nester, these are features that have become less important in my car selection.

After more than a quarter of a century of being practical, I can now let my heart rule over common sense. Looks, performance and driveability — features that in the past have given way for rear-seat room, cargo space and versatility — now rate much higher on my selection criteria.

The BMW 135i Sport has all of those things in spades.
And the boot is big enough to hold a set of golf clubs, or even two, if you fold those unused back seats.

On the road it is all about the driver. With great seats, ample steering adjustment and perfectly positioned controls, driver comfort is excellent.

The strong brakes and sharp, tactile steering make it easy to access its agile responses, abundant grip and great balance. It basically goes exactly where you want it to, thrilling and delighting in the process.

The car I drove had a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, an option I strongly recommend.

It not only ensures that changes are smooth and seamless but its quick shifts improve the driving experience, keeping the engine in the power band better than the standard automatic.

Add the 3.0-litre, twin-scroll turbocharged inline six-cylinder engine and it is a hard combination to beat.

Model: 135i SPORT
Price: $78,500
Drivetrain: 3.0-litre inline six-cylinder turbo-petrol, seven-speed dual-clutch auto
Outputs: 225kW/400Nm
Thirst: 8.5L/100km
Crash rating: Five stars

Maserati GranTurismo
Williams opts for Maserati GranTurismo

I’m going to be a painful name-dropper and talk about a momentous day in June.

I drove the Maserati MC Stradale on Shanghai’s Formula 1 track. It was the exact 100th anniversary of the birth of Juan Fangio, the legendary race driver for the sexy Italian brand.

Maserati, like most European high-end goods, is fast becoming a darling of the Chinese, hence the location for the Asia-Pacific press launch of the MC Stradale.

The brand was founded in 1914 by Alfieri, Bindo, Carlo, Ettore and Ernesto Maserati. (Another Maserati brother, Mario, an artist, is believed to have devised the company’s trident emblem, according to Wikipedia.) Car nuts all, who would never have foretold China becoming a hot market.

Though I had watched Crossing Over to learn how to channel dead people, sadly I was unable to infuse the great Fangio into my hands, feet and eyes, not to mention reflexes and pluck.

My 301km/h weapon, the fastest-ever Maserati street car, is based on the gorgeous $290,000 four-seat GranTurismo four-seat coupe, but loses the back seats and makes myriad other weight savings to optimise track-day fun.

The MC Stradale also gained aerodynamic inspiration from the Maserati Trofeo GranTurismo MC race car. For example, new bumpers, splitters and skirts act as a unit to push the nose down at high speed.

While very fast (0-100km/h in 4.6sec), the MC Stradale is not all about straight-line speed. It is a delicious mix of fine design, materials, touch, feel, balance, steering, ride and handling.
Nicely, for a track-day star, it has lovely road manners when tootling in suburbia.

If you ignore the regular growl.

Model: MC Stradale
Price: $364,900
Drivetrain: 4.7-litre V8, six-speed auto
Outputs: 331kW/510Nm
Thirst: 14.4L/100km
Crash rating: Five stars


CAR UNDER $20,000

Lague votes for VW Polo 77 TSI Comfortline
This is a highly competitive market segment, highlighted by the fact I finished with four finalists, the Ford Fiesta, Suzuki Swift, Kia Rio and VW Polo.
I settled for the latter and decided on the five-door variant with the superior 1.2-litre turbo-charged engine matched to a manual gearbox over the entry-level three-door model with the 1.4 and seven-speed DSG auto.
The Polo sets the standard in safety, performance, quality, interior finish and technology in this class. SL
Price: $19,850
Drivetrain: 1.2-litre turbo-petrol, six-speed manual
Output: 77W/175Nm
Thirst: 5.5L/100km
Crash rating: Five stars

Williams opts for Ford Fiesta CL
Recently merely cheap, this sector now brims with class and safety. The best are the $19,850 Volkswagen Polo and $18,990 Skoda Fabia but I’m overlooking them.
They don’t make the $20,000 cut-off as automatics, the preferred mode in this sector. So, for me, it’s the Ford Fiesta CL hatch and sedan, whose advanced dual-clutch auto underpins zesty performance and sipping fuel use.
It looks hot and has involving driving dynamics to go with it. Add the $1000 safety pack to get five-star safety.
Price: $19,990 (with safety pack)
Drivetrain: 1.6-litre petrol, six-speed auto
Outputs: 88kW/151Nm
Thirst: 6.1L/100km
Crash rating: Five stars

CAR $20-35,000

Lague says Ford Focus Hatch Titanium
One of the best-value cars on the market. In another tough field I put the Focus just ahead of the VW Golf and Jetta, which both have superb engine/transmission combinations and first-class cabins.
I felt the Focus matched its German competitors in this area and trumped them with technology including self- parking, keyless entry and electric heated front seats. It is also a lot funkier looking. If you are prepared to che and spend just over the $35,000 mark then add the $2300 Executive Pack.
Price: $33,090
Drivetrain: 2.0-litre GDi Ti-VCT, six-speed dual-clutch powershift
Outputs: 125kW/202Nm
Thirst: 6.7L/100km
Crash rating: Five stars

Williams says Volkswagen Golf 1.4 90TSI Wagon

With kids to cart, I’m showing my bias towards practicality and safety here. This is another brilliant segment, where prices haven’t lifted in 15 years but quality sure has.
My winner provides typical Golf quality and class with wagon practicality – a 505-litre boot that grows to 1500 litres with the rear seats folded.
A superb drivetrain delivers zesty driving dynamics and the most miserly fuel use you’ll find in a petrol car of this size — 6.2L/100km. If you have only two kids, do you really need a much thirstier SUV?
Price: $29,490
Drivetrain: 1.4-litre turbo-
petrol, seven-speed auto
Outputs: 90kW/200Nm
Thirst: 6.2L/100km
Crash rating: Five stars

CAR $35-50,000

Lague says Volvo S60 T4
A superb high-tech, force-fed petrol engine that never leaves you feeling like you are underpowered, sumptuous leather interior, world-leading safety, vastly improved driving dynamics and a five-year warranty.
That made the S60 my choice in this category that had me list cars like the Ford Falcon ECO LPi, which matches the space and performance of the six-cylinder engine but uses 20 per cent less fuel, and the Audi A1 1.4 TFSI Sport, which is one of those fun cars to drive, as my other finalists.
Price: $48,990
Drivetrain: 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo-
petrol, six-speed dual-clutch auto
Outputs: 132kW/240Nm
Thirst: 7.4L/100km
Crash rating: Five stars

Williams says BMW 116i
So what’s with the BMW 116i’s skimpy price tag? It’s about reaching younger buyers. Yet it’s no stripped-out hull — with Bluetooth, a big display and even BMW’s high-tech iDrive controller with favourites buttons for dummies.
The auto is eight speeds, unheard of in this segment. Unlike the previous 116i, it’s no slug, mixing zip with sip. There are three driving modes — eco, comfort, sport — and the engine shuts down during stops. Five doors are practical. But the best door? The entrance to a brand thought unattainable.
Price: $39,593
Drivetrain: 1.6-litre turbo-
petrol, eight-speed auto
Outputs: 100kW/220Nm
Thirst: 5.8L/100km
Crash rating: Five stars

SUV UNDER $40,000

Lague says VW Tiguan 103 TDI
The Tiguan’s strong all-round ability makes this my pick, ahead of the likes of the Skoda Yeti and Kia Sportage in this highly competitive category.
It is one of the more expensive vehicles in the segment but is still good value with its quality engineering and outstanding interior finish and comfort.
It also rides better than most and is a competent off-road performer. I could be swayed to buy the 132 TSI petrol variant for slightly less money.
Price: $38,490
Drivetrain: 2.0-litre turbo-diesel, seven-speed DSG auto
Outputs: 103kW/320Nm
Thirst: 6.2L/100km
Crash rating: Five stars

Williams says Kia Sportage Platinum
I could easily live with this car. It’s brilliantly styled, full of creature features, agile, practical and powered by a quiet, punchy diesel.
The cabin has flair, quality and comfort. Its features include a powered driver’s seat, heated seats, smart key, big sunroof, leather trim, quality infotainment system and sun-visor extensions.
Rear vision is a bit dodgy, though a rear-view camera and reversing sensors help. Check out also the closely related Hyundai ix35 Highlander.
Price: $39,720
Drivetrain: 2.0-litre turbo-diesel, six-speed auto
Outputs: 135kW/392Nm
Thirst: 7.5L/100km
Crash rating: Five stars


SUV OVER $40,000

Lague chooses Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo Diesel
This was a battle between two very different styles of vehicles, the Jeep and the Ford Territory Diesel.
If I was picking an SUV to use exclusively on the blacktop and for towing, I probably would have gone to the latter.
But the Jeep is a better all-rounder. It is very good off-road and Jeep has significantly improved its interior and on-road drive comfort. It can also tow 800kg more than the Territory.
Price: $50,000
Drivetrain: 3.0-litre V6 turbo-diesel, five-speed auto
Outputs: 177kW/550Nm
Thirst: 8.3L/100km
Crash rating: To be tested

Williams says Range Rover Evoque Si4 Pure
Of those I tested, the technology and value stand-out was the Volkswagen Touareg. Seven-seat diesel: Ford Territory. Surprise packet: Jeep Grand Cherokee with air suspension.
Style shoo-in: Range Rover Evoque. But the Evoque is not just pretty. It drives like a sports car and is surprisingly roomy and capable off-road.
So it gets my gong. For an open feel, get the entry Pure spec, light trim and bargain $1050 full sunroof. The turbo-petrol is the star.
Price: $60,395
Drivetrain: 2.0-litre turbo- petrol, six-speed auto
Outputs: 177kW/340Nm
Thirst: 8.7L/100km
Crash rating: To be tested

DUAL CAB UTES

Lague says Mazda BT-50 XTR
The three new boys on the block — the BT-50, its under-the-skin twin, the Ford Ranger, and Europe’s first ever one-tonne ute, the VW Amarok — were clear leaders in this category, raising the bar significantly with major improvements in driving refinement and safety.
I went for the BT-50 for its overall performance, quality and, most importantly, value for money.
The interior, with standard sat-nav, was also more passenger-car like, which is important for a vehicle bought by families.
Price: $50,810
Drivetrain: 3.2-litre inline five-cylinder turbo-diesel, six-speed auto
Outputs:147kW/470Nm
Thirst: 9.2L/100km
Crash rating: Five stars

Williams says Ford Ranger XL 4x4
OK, so I’m looking like a Fordophile with three winners but the Ranger is a game-changer. The practicality of dual-cabs for hard work, recreation and families has made them very popular. But the sector has been the big lagger in safety. Now, though, we’re seeing six airbags and ESP across the range of the Ranger, Mazda BT-50 and VW Amarok.All have been designed from the ground up to be sophisticated passenger and work vehicles. They’re hard to split but I’m going for the Ranger because of Ford Australia’s role in its global design.
Price: $34,990
Drivetrain: 2.2-litre turbo- diesel, six-speed manual
Outputs: 110kW/375Nm
Thirst: 8.1L/100km
Crash rating: Five stars

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