Prior’s car of 2023, drive of 2023 and lay-by tea wagon of 2023
From traversing Ireland in a Kia to special moments at EV chargers, Autocar’s writers share their best moments
Witnessing the Jeep Avenger win car of the year, admiring a warehouse filled with Skoda‘s most iconic cars and driving a Cisitalia 202 are just three of the highlights Autocar’s writers have come up with for 2023.
In yet another year of new cars, new cultures, new manufacturers and new methods of propulsion, one thing has remained constant – the simple pleasures we get from the cars and the communities that surround them. Read on for the details of our favourite moments.
Matt Saunders: I have motorsport don and regular Autocar reader Jonathan Palmer to thank for my motoring highlight of 2023. It was his suggestion to gather together the greatest automotive exponents of ride quality you can currently buy, along with something older, and take a considered view of the state of the art of ride quality.
It took us a couple of days by the time all of the driving, video and photos were done, and the first of those two days might have been the greyest and wettest that springtime in the Brecon Beacons has yet delivered – and yet the occasion was still brilliant.
We had everything from a new Rolls-Royce Phantom VIII to a 1960s Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III involved, as well as a Bentley Flying Spur and a Range Rover. We had input from the back seat courtesy of JP himself (a self-confessed ride-quality obsessive) and from dynamics engineering consultant Steve Randle; we had some really testing Welsh roads at our disposal; and we had a surprise winner: the excellent, and magnificently plush, BMW i7.
As Palmer turned up in his Agusta helicopter, I knew we were in for a special couple of days. Despite the weather, I wasn’t disappointed. Thanks again, JP.
Steve Cropley: Forget cars and journeys: my highlight was a trip to Milton Keynes and Red Bull Racing to spend 90 minutes with Adrian Newey, one of my two most closely held heroes (the other is Jim Clark, the Lotus-driving F1 maestro of the 1960s).
Newey is well known as that intense-looking bald bloke on TV who rarely speaks but evidently masterminds everything good about Red Bull F1. I see parallels between Newey and Clark: both have or had a mystical capacity to do their jobs better than the opposition, whatever the opposition chucked at them.
Newey talks with conviction about the importance of teamwork but has repeatedly proved his individual brilliance by masterminding winners wherever he has landed, be it March, Williams, McLaren or Red Bull.
But do you know the most wonderful thing? Like many of us, Newey was brought up by a garage-obsessed dad who messed with Lotus Elans and Mini Cooper Ss. He simply had the genius to take it further.
Murray Scullion: My first trip to Maranello has to be up there. The brilliant thing about the Emilia-Romagna region is that to non-car enthusiasts it’s portrayed as rustic and pretty, but deep down us car folk know that it’s fuelled by super unleaded, with Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini and Pagani all within spitting distance of each other.
They bleed Rosso Corsa out there. I mean, there are two Ferrari museums. For the sake of balance, I’ll go on record here to say that whoever curated the smaller Ferrari one has a very selective memory about Enzo, and the Lamborghini one is essentially a showroom.
But the full-fat Ferrari museum is jammed full of rare and very special metal, and once an hour the whole place turns dark and they project a short documentary about Il Commendatore. And you stand there between a Daytona and 250 GTO just in complete awe.
Matt Prior: Yes, my happiest memory of 2023 is driving a sub-£20,000 car with less than 100bhp, for which you can thank the roads on, and near, the Wild Atlantic Way – a coastal route around the west of Ireland.
There are 1600 miles of them (plus offshoots), and they are some of the greatest roads I’ve driven. It was for a feature in the 26 July issue using a Kia Picanto, my favourite modern small car.
The drive was such a hoot, in fact, that I went back on my motorcycle a couple of months later and it was better still (but it wasn’t work and I wasn’t in a car, so it doesn’t count).
Jonathan Bryce: A couple of years ago, before I became Autocar’s editorial apprentice, the idea of driving any Alpina would have seemed to me as far-fetched as finding doughnuts that make you thin. On 29 June that changed.
A generous Matt Prior agreed to lend me his D3 S long-termer for a job, which meant I got one for three days – three days that turned out to be the best of 2023. Why?
It wasn’t its pace, grace, space, or excellent bass (all of which have been extensively covered). It was something you can’t smell, hear or touch.
I’ve grown up with the BMW 3 Series, and it’s such a part of my mental furniture that I have an iDrive controller for a brain.
The sentimental value of being at the helm of a car made even better by a discreetly tasteful company is not to be sniffed at and was, without doubt, a dream come true.
Will Rimell: Standing on a stretch of Tarmac in the middle of the Czech countryside, I knew then and there this would need a bit of topping – and even a passenger-seat blast up Goodwood’s famous hill couldn’t dethrone it.
Why? Surrounded by seven of Skoda’s most iconic cars, from the 1905 L&K Voiturette to the 1994 Felicia, and with the keys to all in my hand, this was a pretty unbeatable ‘day at the office’. I jumped in one after the other, experiencing the brand’s rise from double-clutch gearboxes to full plastic interiors.
A standout was the chrome-clad Popular Monte Carlo. For those who have read the feature, you will know the adventure started with a trip to the firm’s nearby treasure-filled museum, itself bursting with an incredible stable of icons.
James Attwood: I’m still not sure I enjoy visiting China – it’s a sensory overload, the cultural differences are vast and the imposing institutional presence is constantly unsettling – but it’s always fascinating. And a visit to this year’s Shanghai motor show was a golden chance to delve into the still-baffling world of the Chinese car industry.
The motor show may be an endangered species in Europe, but Shanghai’s event is thriving. Hall after hall was packed with ambitious domestic brands showing off all manner of tech-heavy, innovative machines.
And there was real variety, at least once you waded through seemingly hundreds of amorphous premium electric SUVs from seemingly hundreds of amorphous premium EV brands. Innovation, too: I didn’t know the world needed a tiny city EV with a dashboard to which you can stick Lego, but I’m now glad it exists.
How many of those brands and cars will reach the UK isn’t clear. But the Shanghai show is a real glimpse into the future of the industry – one that’s never dull and always fascinating.
Charlie Martin: I almost didn’t – almost couldn’t – go through with it. I’d waited far too long for my driving test, having searched six months for an available instructor, and held out another six months for a test date.
Knowing it would be at least another six months of delays if I then failed, I suffered a gargantuan bout of anxiety – and seeming amnesia – on exam day. There was, at one stage, serious doubts over whether I would be safe to go on.
But something incredible happened once my examiner finally climbed into the car: I drove. And I just kept driving. A nostalgic chat about their old MGB surely helped to put the business of driving to the back of my mind, because I don’t remember making a single conscious effort on the entire journey.
It all happened to simply click together under the pressure, such that I passed with zero minors. I’m told my response to the examiner was succinct: “Jesus Christ!”
Felix Page: It could so easily have been a low point. In fact, for a good hour or so, it was down there with the worst of them.
Photographer Max Edleston and I had spent so long running a Volkswagen ID Buzz up and down the Cornish coastline – at -7deg C and on fast, range-sapping roads – that its remaining battery capacity had trickled down to just 12%, and we had 80 miles to go before the next rapid charger.
Cue a frantic Google and a teeth-clenching crawl a few miles down the road to the long-stay car park at Newquay airport, where our mood was swiftly worsened by an outdated and uncommunicative 50kW charger that we couldn’t coax into any semblance of life.
But salvation arrived in the form of a cheery Mk1 Nissan Leaf owner, familiar with the quirks of said device, who helped us plug in and kindly waited his turn while we lapped up our life-saving electrons.
It was one of those rare moments of heart-warming collaboration that reminded me motoring is a community activity, and in many ways the transition to electric cars – which remains an intimidating prospect for many – could be so much slicker if everyone was as patient and helpful as our man in the Nissan.
It was cold, mind, so we left him to his business while the Buzz topped up and went inside the terminal for a tea and a sandwich, which was nice. Maybe we should have offered him one, thinking about it…
Mark Tisshaw: I’m not a gambling person, but it’s nice to back a winner. From my first drive of the new Jeep Avenger late last year, it felt like the outstanding candidate for 2023’s Car of the Year award, as unlikely as it seemed at the time.
It made it onto the seven-car shortlist for COTY at the eleventh hour then proceeded to win at a canter as votes from 57 jurors across 23 countries led to it beating the Volkswagen ID Buzz to the coveted crown.
The prospect of a Jeep winning Car of the Year had long felt absurd: let’s face it, there have been so few Jeeps you would have been likely to recommend as road cars. Yet the Avenger is the first Jeep to be designed, engineered and built in Europe, and it shows.
It shares many traits with the very best small cars from history: great proportions, a fresh and fun exterior, a clever interior and a suppleness in the way it drives. I’m now running one on the Autocar long-term fleet over the next few months, so this is one 2023 highlight that will roll over into next year, too.
Illya Verpraet: Opportunities to drive prototypes can be frustrating: your time behind the wheel is often very limited and not entirely representative of what might be to come. But on occasion they can feel like finding your hidden Christmas presents: exciting and tantalising.
In March I went to Austria to drive the new Mini Cooper E almost a year before it was due to go on sale. The cars were still very much prototypes, with covered dashboards and glitchy screens, but they were pretty spot on in the way they drove: zippy, agile, throttle-adjustable and generally a lot of fun on the road.
I think it would have been the runaway winner in our ‘fun EVs’ test. And then they let us loose on a little test track, where the front-drive Mini would go as sideways as any rear-wheel-drive car. Bliss.
We’re all looking for a bit of reassurance that there will be fun to be had in the electric era, and this was as good as anything. Now I’ve just got to wait another few months to drive a finished one. Hurry up already…
Richard Lane: During a visit to Pininfarina HQ, I was given the keys to a Cisitalia 202 – a machine of such cultural significance that it was the first car inducted into the Museum of Modern Art’s collection, in 1972.
What a privilege to slide behind that filigree and ivory Bakelite wheel. Only 170 or so of these wonderful little GT-style coupés were made, starting in 1947, but the visionary coachwork means they could just as easily hark from 1960.
The fact is that current super-GT heroes such as the Ferrari 812 Superfast and Aston Martin DBS are singing from a hymn sheet first written by the 76-year-old, 1089cc, 55bhp, 780kg Cisitalia, and of course Battista Farina, who styled the car. A drawback of the design being so ahead of its time is that the driving experience feels anachronistically old.
Even by historic standards the 202 isn’t the most cohesive, but it isn’t bad, and with weapons-grade charm, it hardly matters.
Kris Culmer: After years of distant admiration, I finally got the chance this year to drive an Alpine A110, on the SMMT’s annual media day. I didn’t stop giggling or saying things like “mad” the whole way around Millbrook’s Alpine handling course, and neither did deputy news ed Will Rimell beside me – and nothing changed when we swapped seats.
Equally, it didn’t disappoint for old-school thrills. And yet neither of these cars is the one I most enjoyed driving in 2023.
Instead, it was a largely forgotten, decade-old supermini. What fun I had with that Mazda 2, under the spell of its large, rev-hungry atmospheric engine, its Ford Fiesta-like desire to be cornered, its compactness, its lack of touchscreen and, most of all, its fabulous manual – yes, manual! – gearbox. Never change, Mazda.
Alex Wolstenholme: In April I used my own money to buy a car for the first time: a 1992 Rover Mini with almost 149,000 miles on the clock.
When my A-levels were over, my friend and I started a two-week road trip through Wales and the Lake District. In the end we covered 1500 miles, most of which were spent slightly damp because Mini’s Webasto roof was leaking, making it quite hard to dry out soggy camping kit.
Other than that, the Mini dealt amazingly well with everything we threw at it: it got stuck in mud, was ragged up mountain roads and slept and cooked in, yet was faultlessly reliable and helped make 2023 the best summer yet.