It’s easy to go into a test drive with presumptions, especially if you’ve been calling yourself a car journalist for more than a decade. If it’s a Porsche and it comes from the GT department chances are it’ll be good. If it’s a Porsche and comes from Leipzig chances are I won’t care. See, the thing about generalisations is that they’re generally true. But every once in a while it’s nice to be wrong and approach a car with a dull face before it turns into a grin. Here are some cars that sprung a pleasant surprise over the years.
Mazda 6 Touring
I remember lots of blank switches. It was a beautiful sight. The superleggera interior was so sparse it made me think I was in a pared-down track special, but it was just your regular fleet-spec Mazda 6 station wagon with three pedals, a steering wheel and a gear lever. It was released in Dubai around 2013 with a specific demographic in mind: the delivery guy. So I didn’t get in expecting it to deliver thrills, but those boys and girls in Hiroshima can make a car handle like nobody’s business. And when a car is designed to be thrashed by someone who isn’t paying the maintenance bills, with minimal equipment weighing it down, the red line is the only feature you need.
Ford Fiesta 1.1 (new one)
You could get away with 75 horsepower in those tin-can hatchbacks of the 1980s, but cars today are big and heavy and 75 horsepower just isn’t enough. Unless it has an Avis sticker on the boot, in which case it immediately doubles, and you get a shift-per-minute ratio higher than a lap around Monaco in an F1 car. I was hoping it would be the three-cylinder turbocharged 1.0-litre in my rental last year when I had to cover 1,200km in three days, instead Avis gave me a 1.1-litre naturally aspirated petrol-engined Fiesta with run-in mileage on the clock, and I fell for it hard. I already wrote about the brilliant handling somewhere on this site earlier, and the steering that’s better than you get in a Porsche Boxster, and I meant it. A small poverty-spec Ford that weighs nothing really brought to light what I love about eager little front-wheel drive cars.
Jaguar XF Sportbrake S
This one stood out – maybe because I never really rated the F-Type that much to begin with. And then in 2017 I drove a Jaguar station wagon that was better than their sports car. Of course, it could’ve been the setting swaying things in favour of the XF Sportbrake S – the Douro river valley in Portugal, and the N222, a stretch of tarmac voted by a clever algorithm as the best drivers’ road in the world. I’ll still give the XF Sportbrake S its due credit, even if I never did quite understand why it was so taut and responsive compared to Jaguar’s other cars. The 100kg extra weight of the wagon over the sedan also didn’t make sense, but I ended up concluding that the shift in balance must have a lot to do with it – the Sportbrake just rotates so nicely and does everything better, because the weight distribution goes from 50:50 in the sedan to a rear-biased 47:53 in the wagon, just like you get in something mid-engined.
Maserati Quattroporte (previous generation)
The incredible shrinking car… As soon as you set off, you honestly drove it in exactly the same manner as a Mini Cooper S. Like a total bellend. You could carve up traffic and get it to squeeze through ridiculous gaps. It wasn’t very socially responsible, but what do they expect from someone behind the wheel of a huge Maserati? Compassion?
The steering in the old Quattroporte is thin and small in diameter, a bit out of place in a limousine, but as it turns out perfectly in character. Quick and direct, it’s way too good for a luxury car weighing two tonnes, and you can easily get carried away by its response and the instant response from the natural aspirated Ferrari V8 engine. It’s all part of the grand illusion, which is to make you think the Maserati isn’t grand at all. So you drive it everywhere like a little sports car, right up until you get tired of changing the brakes and tyres every six months.
I would put this right up there with the old Honda Jazz as the best handling compact minivan-looking thing on the market back then, in 2010 or so. That’s some high praise right there, because a Jazz with a manual transmission is awesome. As for this collection of right angles, with a twin-cam Toyota engine under the stumpy bonnet that loved to be revved, the Daihatsu did things a box on wheels shouldn’t be able to, and responded best when driven without any mechanical sympathy whatsoever. A great beater.
Single-cab pick-up truck
It was only after I made it out to Dubai in the 2000s that I first got exposed to full-size American trucks. Then I had a week with one, and I was sold. It’s amazing how many chores appear in your life when you get a hold of a big pick-up truck. You don’t think you need it until you have one and then the next day you’re buying half a tonne of gravel and suddenly you’re into recycling and you scavenge your entire extended family’s garages and basements just for an excuse to haul crap to the dump. Trucks are great, and the best one I drove was a GMC shorty, with a bench seat, a column shifter, rear-wheel drive, and a big cupholder you could jam a KFC bucket into. They really thought of everything.
A live-axle Ford Mustang 5.0
One summer I drove across the States from LA to NY. The drive takes Cannonballers about 30 hours to pull off, but it took me 30 days. I picked only the squiggliest lines I could find on the map and the live-axle hopped and bopped along with me from coast to coast.
Skittish, loud, and dumb, the old Mustang plays the sort of games you remember from childhood. Simple stuff like hide-and-seek and slap-you-slap-me. The story was done to commemorate 50 years of the Mustang, and I’m glad I got to have a go before the independent-rear-suspension car came along as a 21st-century successor. That one never did capture the same sense of unabashed fun for me. And I won’t even mention the dire four-cylinder automatic version.
If you can find a barely abused previous generation Mustang with a stick shift and a V8, I think you’ll have yourself a hell of a keeper. Terrible interior, panel gaps for days, country on the Sirius, and burnt rubber in your wake.
2013 Mercedes-AMG A 45
I wanted to hate it. Especially after the terrible A 200 Sport.
The fake centre-lock wheels, the fake vents, the fake intakes, fake diffuser, gaudy graphics and kitsch interior, I had all the adjectives ready to go. I was gonna dive head first into this Mercedes-AMG with all the cynicism I could conjure but unfortunately it was right about then that a corner appeared. And instantly disappeared. So I grunted, and then more corners just went by, and do you even need to lift in this thing, and how is any of this physically possible? Grip beyond belief, so I just gave up and swore right then and there that I would never bring up fake vents ever again. It hasn’t worked out.
Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio
After having given them way too many chances, I expected Alfa to botch this one as well, but even just looking at it trackside at Fiat’s Balocco proving grounds, the Giulia started making a lot of sense. Right away, the little 18-inch wheels point to a good time. Everyone else goes with 20s and what have you, because the designers and the pointy-shoed lot in the marketing department say so, and dynamically speaking it’s to the detriment of basically everything. But Alfa’s engineers stuck to their guns. And the result was a four-door family car that was completely unhinged, except when you stomped on the middle pedal (yup, three pedals) and called on the best brakes in the business. It probably helped the Alfa’s cause that I didn’t really like the turbocharged BMW M3 that much, and the raw, edgy Giulia Quadrifoglio stood out in an era of synthesised noise and insulated bunker interiors.
This was Alfa’s first rear-wheel drive sedan in a long time, and it had to succeed. It didn’t. Sales are abysmal, but hey, I don’t buy ‘em, I just drive ‘em.
I wasn’t exactly wrong about this one since I expected a stupid car. But it was good stupid. Officially the only ‘car’ that ever made me vomit, though after a day laughing out loud behind the wheel of the Morgan I concluded it must have been the fumes from the Harley V-Twin spitting at me all the time. Since I love bicycles (but hate cyclists – I am conflicted, I know…), as well as motorcycles, and all things on four wheels, it’s only natural for me to view things with three wheels with plenty of suspicion. The Morgan is entirely useless, way too expensive, and will kill you in the worst case scenario if you attempt to drive it hard. Best case scenario is you end up with sick in your helmet. Great times.