Our motoring expert Mark Gallivan reveals the top five cars that wowed him in 2019 from the leading car brands.

An unreported revolution took place last month. For the first time an all-electric car won the Irish car of the Year award – the Kia e-Soul.

It’s significant for two reasons. Of the 116,119 new cars bought up to the end of October it was a coup for the BEV, hybrid and PHEV phenomenon even though electric cars accounted for just 2.77pc of the market. Secondly, it suggests the 32 journalists that voted in the different categories have grown to accept electric cars as a legitimate third wave of car transport. That said, peer behind the PR veneer of the event and there are category winners in there which are equally deserving of your money.

I’ve picked my top five cars from this year – the most talented ones – and the overall choice of 2019 that I believe is assuredly outstanding.

So settle back and have a read. Every car listed here delivers great ownership satisfaction and should be on your list for 2020.

The 2019 Toyota Corolla Hybrid

Picture of a silver Toyota hybrid Corolla.

Think of a Toyota Corolla and images of secondary school teachers, farmers and mostly undemanding folk needing a car springs to mind – nothing more. It’s a subcompact hatchback or saloon that sold around 44m units and has always been built precisely right up the levels of dynamics, comfort and excitement that’s expected. It got so dull, in fact, that Toyota even dropped the name and replaced it with the Auris back in 2006.

Bored already? Don’t be. The new Toyota Corolla Hybrid (in saloon or hatchback) is a 2019 sensation. By employing a self-generating petrol/hybrid engine the Corolla has opened one of the most convincing solutions for buyers determined to ditch a diesel engine without going fully electric. By cleverly self-regenerating the battery the car can spend up to an average 60pc of driving in electric mode. There are no cables to plug in or electric outlets to track down.

Along with Lexus, Toyota has brilliantly nailed the question on every journalist’s mind – why are people talking-up fully electric cars when the Irish infrastructure is simply not there to legitimately support it? Aside from the clever powertrain the Corolla is cheap to run: the 1.8 Hybrid emits a tiny 78 g/km and sip unleaded at a rate of 4.7 litres per 100km (60mpg). Safety is strong with 5 Star NCAP rating along with lane departure warning, auto emergency braking and traffic sign recognition. You’ll be treated to a good driving position, quality cabin and space for five adults.

Best of all it now narrowly beats the Volkswagen Golf for driving brio, slotting in between the Golf and the entertaining Ford Focus – the best handling hatchback. Toyota and the sister brand Lexus has deep engineering form, here. The 2019 Toyota Camry and Lexus ES saloons are delightful cars to drive and enjoy and either is worth a very serious look in their segment and price range. But the Corolla is the winner here.

An exceptional car in its own right and my surprise favourite hatchback of 2019

You’ll like: Rewarding to drive. Excellent Hybrid/Petrol solution. Improved interior comfort and seats. Reliability. Cheap to run.

You’ll grumble: Infotainment remains so-so. Road noise intrusive.

The 2019 Volkswagen T-Cross

Picture of a blue Volkswagen SUV along the Irish coast.

Photo: Paddy McGrath

Volkswagen makes cars that are well constructed, sensible, good to own and display the correct image for buyers keen to have that veneer of premium ownership. The thing is, in basic specification some models lack any degree of excitement. Two cases in point – the Tiguan and the Passat. They’re both missing any degree of entertainment.

Enter the new Volkswagn T-Cross. Based on a Polo and sharing the SEAT Arona platform this a few months ago I tested the T-Cross R-Line priced from €29,895 fitted with VW’s generic 1.0-litre petrol engine producing 115hp. It was a little belter. There’s much to commend: attractive design, practicality, fun to drive and economical in petrol– I achieved 6.2 litres to 100km (46mpg) – the little T-Cross was the best small SUV I drove this year.

I liked the good use of interior space in the small cabin. Then there is the impressive refinement from the 1.0 litre petrol engine and how nothing irritated or irked me. The T-Cross is a small star in the Volkswagen line up.

You’ll like: Excellent road refinement/manners. Performance of 1.0 litre petrol engine. Practical for such a small car.

You’ll grumble: Hardly inexpensive to buy. Some cabin fixtures feel cheap.

The 2019 Kia e-Niro

Picture of a silver-grey Kia electric SUV.

Surely I mean the Kia e-Soul? After all, it won The Irish Car of the Year 2020. Has an electric range of 452 km and as far as passenger room goes the e-Soul’s tall proportions fully optimises the cabin space. Though, as much as I admired the e-Soul’s quirky, sired-by-Zanussi design, it was one step too far for people that encountered it – including me. Which is why the €37,495 e-Niro is my pick of the most convincing electric car I drove this year. There was strong competition as Tesla’s Model 3 is supremely impressive but you will need to spend €11,400 more to buy one.

The Kia e-Niro in the Long Range version gets 485 km range with 204PS and like all electric cars it pulls instantly from rest. That said, it’s the e-Golf rival that will feel more refined on the move. The comfortable cabin, generous standard equipment and good safety features are all top-notch.

In summary, the e-Niro is the best priced, most normal BEV I’ve tested that finally offers a proper battery range. If you need more convincing then Kia’s 7-year/150,000 km warranty may help you decide.

You’ll like: Outstanding range/price/warranty offering. Looks better than the e-Soul. Don’t want a Volkswagen e-Golf? This should be your second choice for 2020.

You’ll grumble: Very little. Maybe avoid a white one.

The 2019 Audi Q3

Picture of a blue Audi Q3 on an Irish road.

Photo: Paddy McGrath

It was a particularly high bar that the Volvo XC40 set in 2018. Few journalists were surprised when it emerged as the eventual winner of the Irish Car of the year 2019.

Now the all-new Audi Q3 is launched as a rival to Volvo’s baby SUV and this year grabbed a category win as the Irish Medium SUV of the Year 2020. Amongst my personal favourites in 2019 Audi’s Q3 almost picks up from the Volvo XC40 and, along with the exceptionally well-conceived and facelifted A4 Saloon, proved highlights from Audi.

Released in 2011 as a family SUV, the Q3 is now a second-generation car, borrowing the imperious looks and front grille from the bigger Q8 flagship SUV. Now bigger stretched by 97mm the cabin is dominated by a 10.1 inch touchscreen and Audi’s Virtual Display is standard and is a very good place to spend time. You’ll easily find a good driving position and rear visibility is better than the Volvo XC40. Boot capacity is generous at 530/1,525 litres split with rear seats up/folded.

The Q3 I tested was fitted with Audi’s 1.5 TSI engine and the seven-speed S-Tronic that suffered from notable hesitancy when accelerating but this was the only disappointment while driving the car. Of the mid-size SUVs I drove this year it was the Q3 that convinced me the most. The Q3 is available in standard form or Sportback the Q3 starts from €38,600. But the elephant in the room for the Q3 is slightly more expensive Audi A4 at €40,520 which has just been face lifted.

Few cars listed here have impressed me as much for being a quality proposition. Soothing to drive, with exceptional construction (try the Audi A4 door-thud test at your dealer if you don’t believe me) and economical: if the A4 was an all-new car and not a facelift it would possibly be my Irish Car of the Year.

But not quite – one car I drove this year set the bar so high that nothing in my mind came close to driving perfection.

The 2019 BMW 3 Series

Picture of a silver-grey BMW 3-series car.

Step into the new BMW 3 Series and after 500 yards you’ll be recalibrating your expectations for a great driving car. There’s the steering weight and feel or the unparalleled agility that’s rare to find in this segment. Few cars with four doors even get close to the high levels of fun and feedback that the new 3 Series communicates.

Back in March I drove the 330i petrol version and knew then it would take something exceptional to topple the car from my high opinion. But I was wrong. I have recently tested the optimum specification of the new 3 Series – the 330d X-Drive M-Sport Touring guise. Where I took time detailing the previous four cars and their strengths and foibles, it’s not necessary here.

The BMW 3 Series is the very best, most complete car I’ve tested during 2019.

You’ll like: Exceptional dynamics, delivery of performance, thrilling chassis, high quality infotainment and sound system – even fuel economy in 330d X-Drive.

You’ll grumble: You’ll struggle to find fault, here.

Written by Mark Gallivan

Published: 4 December, 2019

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