Review of the year, in all its hectic glory
What a year! Stellar cars, industry turmoil, incredible turnarounds and best-laid plans collapsing. Here’s our guide to the tumultuous past 12 months
THE YEAR… EV DESIGN WENT RETRO
Here comes the era of the gas-less carriage and, so far as design is concerned, it does not look an inspiring one. Design packages and styles technology to make it meaningful. When Benz’s fuel engine was a thing of wonder, the first cars still looked like ancient horse-drawn vehicles. But as the human and cultural potential of the ‘auto-mobile’ became understood, designers created sculptural narratives to tell consumers stories about cars: travel, prestige, sex, power, speed, beauty. Because no one quite understands what the gas-less carriage means, no one knows how to design one; BMW’s Benoit Jacob made the most convincing effort so far with the i3 and i8, but history will see these cars as brave freaks. In an age of anxiety, people crave security. Hence Ford offers an electric ‘Mustang’, full of comforting associations of grumbling V8 muscle. There will be better, or possibly worse, to come. SB
THE YEAR… PSA WENT UP A GEAR
Carlos Tavares’ impact at the Peugeot group is well known but bears repeating. Prior to his arrival, the French car maker lost £4.45 billion and was close to bankruptcy. A year after he joined it was profitable.
In 2017 PSA bought perennial loss-maker Vauxhall, and repeated the same loss-to-profit turnaround in just 18 months. And in 2019 Tavares’ PSA monolith delivered two fine cars: the handsome, desirable and full-of-flair Peugeot 208 we were expecting; and a truly desirable new Vauxhall Corsa we most definitely were not. Oh, and Tavares will be CEO of the about-to-be-merged PSA-FCA. BM
THE YEAR… F1’S BIG TEAMS STUCK TO NATIONAL STEREOTYPES
Previously, Mercedes-AMG dominated by virtue of having the fastest car on the grid (except when, very occasionally, Red Bull or Ferrari had the fastest car on the grid). But this season, and certainly from the European mid-season onwards (Spa and Monza), the SF90 established itself as the most powerful contemporary F1 car by some margin, and a machine ready to win race after race. Only it didn’t happen. With the cool, clear-thinking professionalism often associated with Germans, Mercedes continued to win with strong strategy, operational proficiency and a clear driver hierarchy. Ferrari, meanwhile, descended into hot-blooded chaos, sunk by sub-prime calls from the pitwall and a ferocious intra-team driver feud. The truth is less about neat national stereotypes and more about where these two organisations find themselves. The story of this Mercedes team is coming to an end. The story of this Ferrari team, with a brilliant technical department and Charles Leclerc as the twin pillars of its future success, is just beginning. BM
THE YEAR… THE WORLD GOT AN EV REALITY CHECK
As electric vehicles became an everyday sight in the high street, worries over their supply-chain sustainability and ethics went mainstream. Take cobalt: roughly 6-12kg of the stuff is needed in every EV to stop battery meltdown. Problem is, 60 per cent of cobalt is sourced from the Congo, and a third of that is hand-mined, sometimes by kids. Then there are the rare earths like neodymium, essential to maintaining electric motors’ magnetic properties. China mines 80 per cent of the world’s rare earths, and those mining techniques can be extremely toxic.
Sheesh, if it’s not one thing then it’s another… but the Responsible Cobalt Initiative is helping to ensure your EV’s cobalt isn’t pulled from the ground by primary schoolers, and solid-state batteries will eventually eliminate it altogether (a decade away, estimates BMW ⊲
R&D boss Klaus Fröhlich). Meanwhile, Toyota has developed new magnets containing significantly less neodymium. With EV sales ramping up, we’ll see car makers increasingly vying for squeaky-clean supply-chain cred. BB
THE YEAR… MCLAREN’S CUPBOARD LOOKED TRULY BARE
For eight years, McLaren has applied the Jamie Oliver five-ingredient philosophy to its automotive recipe: carbonfibre chassis, mid-mounted twin-turbo V8, twin-clutch gearbox, two seats, dihedral doors. Those basics have evolved and been upgraded, sure, and the cars have become ever more accomplished, but every one of the 20,000 or so cars Woking has produced so far has followed that recipe. The tipping point was 2019.
More precisely, 2019’s McLaren GT was the tipping point, a model that took McLaren into the front-engined two-plus-two arena with… a mid-engined layout and just the two seats. Rule-breaker, said McLaren, much like Usain Bolt would be a rule-breaker in the women’s 100 metres.
Thankfully, Woking seems to be writing a fresh shopping list: a new hybridised V6 is imminent, debuting in entry-level Sports Series models with more poke and better economy, and there’s talk of more seats too. For now, all hail the new Elva and 620R. We’ll let you guess what’s in their pots. BB
THE YEAR… GERMAN CAR MAKERS CHANGED THE GUARD
At BMW, Oliver Zipse replaced Harald Krüger. At Mercedes, Ola Kallenius stepped in for Dieter Zetsche. At Audi, Markus Duesmann will succeed Bram
Schot; three new CEOs facing numerous new challenges, not to mention the legacies of their predecessors. Krüger failed to fix the design dilemma, didn’t push hard enough for more EVs and failed to forge key strategic alliances. Zetsche’s happy-go-lucky image clashed with diesel cheating, over-budget planning issues and nose-diving profits. Schot was the fall guy who did not have enough time, energy and foresight to steer Audi back on track.
What about the new guys? Kallenius is issuing one profit warning after another while working to straighten the slack strategy he inherited. Zipse is a numbers man who needs to make sure the volume models sell. Duesmann has a powerful friend in VW Group chairman Herbert Diess, who is going to provide all the support it takes to brush up the four rings, make peace with Porsche and kick-start Lamborghini. GK
THE YEAR… TESLA BLEW HOT AND COLD; MUSK SURVIVED
Like any snotty teenager, 16-year-old Tesla gave mixed messages in 2019. In the year that flawed genius and ‘billionaire bully’ Musk got away with calling a hero cave diver a ‘pedo guy’, the covers came off the underwhelming Model Y. Meanwhile, the Model 3 landed in the UK and blew us away in the electric Giant Test in our September issue, became the 11th best-selling car in the same month and won our sister site Parkers’ Car of the Year award at the end of October.
But more sensationally, 2019 was also the year the angular Cybertruck (right) was unveiled, drawing gasps of horror and excitement in equal measure. It has a shape that will struggle to meet pedestrian safety rules and armoured glass that couldn’t withstand a metal ball thrown by its chief designer in a PR stunt gone bad, yet Musk tweeted that the truck had more than 146,000 orders just one day after the unveil. Go figure. JG
James Dyson threw in the towel on his electric car
THE YEAR… OF THE U TURN
Politics, power plays and financial pressure resulted in several car makers doing public U-turns, abandoning previously prized strategies and sacrificing valuable workforces as the challenges involved in large-scale electrification began to bite hard.
Nissan cast doubt over Sunderland, moving planned production of the next-generation X-Trail from its UK plant to Japan. ‘The continued uncertainty around the UK’s future relationship with the EU is not helping companies like ours plan for the future,’ Europe chairman Gianluca de Ficchy explained.
Dyson, meanwhile, didn’t just move production but threw in the towel entirely on its electric car project, with James Dyson saying he ‘simply cannot make it commercially viable’ after three years of planning and millions in investment.
Audi, despite being severely shaken by the Dieselgate scandal, decided to make almost all of its S cars drink from the black pump.
And fiercely stubborn Mazda, until recently convinced that continued development would save the combustion engine, announced its first EV.
THE YEAR… BMW WOBBLED
Munich’s product planning and design direction have – amid some great work, such as the latest 3-series – offered up some of the hardest pills we’ve had to swallow over the last 12 months. After years of speculation – and much to the chagrin of car enthusiasts everywhere – BMW finally ⊲
made the switch to a front-wheel-drive platform for its 1-series hatch and 2-series Gran Coupe. These, along with the X7 and Concept 4 – previewing 2020’s 4-series – garnered huge amounts of criticism for their visually challenging grilles. Not that design boss Domagoj Dukec was bothered: ‘Social media criticism? This is normal – if you want to make recognisable design, you have to do this, to polarise.’ BMW is also starting to look like it’s lagging behind in the EV race; Audi’s e-Tron and Merc’s EQC are as yet unmatched by Munich, which is also dithering about what to do with its next 7-series while Mercedes shows us the way with the EQS. JG
THE YEAR… WRC TURNED THE DRAMA UP TO 11
It should’ve been a dream year for Citroën’s World Rally squad, with six-time champ Séb Ogier back in the fold. Victory on the season-opening Monte suggested business as usual. Except even the tightly coiled Frenchman couldn’t routinely master the tightly coiled C3, and Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville and Toyota’s Ott Tänak smelt blood – the Estonian denied in 2018 by mechanical woes, but now full of predatory speed, knowing Ogier could be beaten. Ogier was already on the ropes when the season reached a thrilling (if premature) end in Spain and Tänak triumphed with a rally remaining, nonchalantly flat-out to the end.
If rallying reeled from not having a French champion named Sébastien for the first time since 2004, there were more twists than the Turini to come: Tanak dramatically switched to Hyundai, Australia was cancelled due to fires, Ogier’s wife sent her ‘#Shitroen’ tweet while him indoors left for Toyota. Citroën quit, saying there weren’t any good rally drivers anyway. And most of us watched absolutely none of it… BB
The WRC reached a thrilling climax and Tänak triumphed – the first non-French, non-Sébastien champ since 2004
THE YEAR… THE BRITISH CAR INDUSTRY HAD 12 MONTHS TO FORGET
Ariel and Caterham still exist, Land Rover’s new Defender arrived and (equally foreignowned) Lotus announced its new dawn with an electric hypercar named Evija. Clearly it’s an electric hypercar, but the jury’s out on whether it’s also a true Lotus.
But mostly there was bad news: In January, JLR announced 4500 job cuts. By February it was clear Aston’s flotation hadn’t gone to plan, with its public listing costing the company £136m. And Honda confirmed it will close Swindon in 2021.