Head in the clouds
Standing on its own, beyond the touch of anything else I've driven this year, the Ferrari 458 Italia has become the reference point by which I now judge all other performance cars. For once, you should believe the hype - it really is that good. Blessed with enough power to endow it with performance levels beyond what any of us actually need, its trump card is that it manages to feel utterly exciting no matter what speed you're doing.
It feels playful, chuckable and grips the road with such force that you don't think it will ever let go. It does eventually, of course, but then it's pretty easy to reign in without you paying an early trip to the morgue. The three days I spent in the Italia were some of the greatest in living memory for me and I did wonder to myself how Ferrari would manage to top it. And then they did, by taking the top off. I only spent a day driving the Spyder in Italy but it became apparent that losing the roof had neither harmed the 458's stunning looks nor blunted its dynamism or performance in any way.
In either guise, this car is Ferrari's greatest achievement and I'm counting the hours until the Scuderia version arrives. At that point everyone else might as well just pack up and go home.
Feet on the ground
A genuine concept car made real, the Range Rover Evoque started off life as a pure show car (albeit one that could be driven) to display what a Land Rover of the future could look like. Everyone went nuts for it and this year it went into series production after having been promoted to Range Rover status.
It's worthy of the badge, too, being luxurious and capable off road. But none of that matters because the Evoque, when in the right colour and alloy wheel combination, looks utterly stunning. It's a fashion icon, ahead of its time and yet it holds fast to the traditions of Land Rover, meaning it's as comfortable in the literal jungle as it is in the urban one.
I was expecting to be bowled over by the Evoque's gorgeousness (and I was) but I wasn't expecting to be bowled over by the way it drove on the road. The fact is, this SUV drives like a sports car. Its chassis has been honed and refined to make it come alive on challenging routes that would test a low-slung two-seater. The way it drives makes you forget it has excellent ground clearance, long-travel suspension and the ability to cross mountain ranges, because it doesn't wallow in the bendy bits. It just corners flat and true, keeping the speed on and the fun levels extremely high.
You won't find too many Evoques dune bashing as their natural habitat will be the city streets. But just knowing that this is a car for all men and women, one that will still look cool in 10 years' time and still be able to deal with the rough stuff, is enough to make it my biggest surprise of 2011.
2011 has been a vintage year for me on many fronts, not least because of some of the cars I've been privileged to get behind the wheel of. Some have bitterly disappointed to the point where I've been flabbergasted, but others have delighted the senses and provided untold levels of enjoyment.
Ferrari's FF, for instance, was immense. It looks like nothing else and drives like no other Prancing Horse thanks to its remarkable four-wheel-drive technology. While the 458 is still my Ferrari of choice, the FF is undoubtedly the most important model in the firm's history and it deserves to be a resounding success story.
But it isn't just the exotica that gets the thumbs up from me this year. I've been equally impressed by a Korean and a Czech. Hyundai's Azera proved beyond a shadow of doubt that it's now building cars that are beautifully made, intelligently designed and fun to drive. Nissan, Toyota, Honda and the like should be very afraid. And then there's Skoda. I've driven three this year: the Octavia RS, the Superb and the new Fabia RS. And each has been remarkably good, laying to rest the ghost of communist-era motoring forever.
2011 was also the year I treated myself to the best car I have ever owned. My Volkswagen Scirocco 2.0TSI has exceeded expectations on every single level, proving to be blindingly quick, economical, surprisingly practical and, best of all, enormous fun. I can't recommend it highly enough but perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay it is that, no matter what supercar or luxury limo I drive in the line of duty for The National, I cannot wait to get back into my 'Rocco. One of my favourite cars of 2011 is the one I own - I never thought I'd utter those words.