The finest cars and bikes we drove in the past year.

2021 is coming to a close, and despite the pandemic, we drove some truly outstanding vehicles through the course of the year. This was the year when SUVs made their presence felt in various niches, and sedans were hard to be seen. Of course, electric cars and scooters were the talk of the town. Here’s our pick of the best cars, SUVs, and bikes that were launched this year.

CAR OF THE YEAR

MAHINDRA XUV700

No car came close to the Mahindra XUV700. It offered seriously impressive performance (185hp and 200hp engine options), 5-star GNCAP safety rating, and class-leading safety features, including an accomplished ADAS suite, a laundry list of features, muscular presence, and a price tag that blew the competition away. The design has evolved in a myriad ways from the early days of the XUV500. On the inside, the XUV700 gets a large glass surface that houses both the infotainment and the instrument cluster (much like Mercedes-Benz offerings of late), while the dash gets a fresh new design with premium materials overall. It also features the new AdrenoX informatics system, which easily outdoes infotainment systems in cars that sit several classes above. The Sony 3D audio system, with its 13-channel amplifier powering one subwoofer and 12-speakers, is easily the best in the segment. Mahindra has tuned the ride and handling of the XUV700 for our roads, and it is a joy to drive it. The setup inspires confidence when out on the highway or while pushing the SUV hard into corners. The pliant ride also means that you can do good speeds on broken road sections with a degree of confidence that very few SUVs can come close to matching.

EV OF THE YEAR

AUDI E-TRON GT

AUDI E-TRON GT

The e-tron GT does the 0-100kmph sprint in 4.1 seconds on its way to a limited top speed of 250kmph. And it does this using electric power. That, in itself, is incredible, but in a world with Teslas and Lucids in it, these numbers probably don’t matter much. What’s impressive about the e-tron GT is how easily it goes about doing it, and how Audi has combined a performance saloon with luxury. Sharing a bespoke EV platform with the Porsche Taycan, the e-tron GT is similar to the RS7 in size, and quite possibly gets the same sort of buyers interested. But while the RS7 almost blends in despite its stunning looks, the e-tron GT has been designed to stand out. Available in shades like tactical green and with its bulging haunches, distinctive lighting elements, and purposeful stance, the car is sure to grab eyeballs wherever it goes. With 480km of WLTP range and serious performance, and you have got an EV that’s hard to beat.

BEST LUXURY SEDAN

MERCEDES-BENZ S-CLASS

MERCEDES-BENZ S-CLASS

The best car in the world got even better this year. The S-Class gets significant updates on the inside. The inside features Nappa leather seats with ten massage functions plus heating and ventilation. Then there’s the power-adjust for backrest angle and seat base angle. If you are sitting behind the front passenger seat, you can, at the touch of a button, push the front seat forward and fold it down to create room for your seat to recline even further. A powered footrest allows you to sprawl like in a first class plane cabin. For entertainment, there are screens with two 11.6-inch infotainment units for the rear passengers, a 7-inch tablet for infotainment controls, a gigantic 12.8-inch touchscreen in the front, and a 12.3-inch digital cluster. The auditory experience is elevated further with a 31-speaker Burmester sound system, while the choice between 64 different colours for the ambient lighting is sure to leave you spoilt for choice. The ambient lighting also helps while driving with the LEDs flashing warning lights when someone is in your blind spot. The performance and driving manners are as you would expect from an S-Class, with very little of the outside creeping in. Both the powertrains on offer (one diesel and one petrol) are impressively well mannered, and never make their presence felt in the cabin. There is more than enough power on tap (330hp in the diesel, 367hp in the petrol), but the S-Class is more about how quiet it is than how quick it can be. Power is put down on all four ends, with the 4Matic system working gracefully with the air suspension to provide you with a velvety-smooth ride, unlike no other car.

BEST PERFORMANCE CAR

MERCEDES-BENZ AMG A45 S

Mercedes AMG A45S

In a country where performance hatchbacks are merely lukewarm renditions of their hot hatch cousins from the west, Mercedes-Benz went ahead and introduced the hottest hatch of them all. The Mercedes-AMG A45 S features the world’s most powerful series production four-cylinder engine with 421hp of power and 500Nm of torque, propelling it to 100kmph in under four seconds. The 8-speed dual-clutch transmission that it is paired to is frantic, and provides you with eager gearshifts. Add to that the 4Matic system that powers all four wheels, and we have got ourselves a car that puts its power down very well. If you choose so, you can even activate Drift mode for a little sideways action as well. The engine power is matched by the luxury on the inside. The A45 S gets a familiar dual-screen/single slab layout for the infotainment system and instrument cluster. There is contrast stitching and yellow highlights all over the cabin, and the materials used are top-shelf. And on the outside, the Panamericana grille and the muscular haunches on the bonnet differentiate it from other AMGs. Then there are the massive 19-inch alloys and quad exhausts at the back to add more visual drama.

BEST SUV

LAND ROVER DEFENDER 110

LAND ROVER DEFENDER 110

The Land Rover Defender has been reimagined and how. Design genius Gerry McGovern has taken the boxy silhouette of the Defender, and made it modern with curved edges, futuristic lighting elements, and more. It is easily one of the most distinctive-looking vehicles to have been launched this past year. Then there’s all that it offers. It all starts with how the ‘Access’ mode allows you to drop its height using the air suspension on board for easy ingress into an otherwise towering SUV. Once seated in the throne-like seats, you’d notice materials like double-stitched leather, aluminium, and wood stand out in a cabin that also has exposed screw heads and rubberised surfaces for a perfect amalgam of luxury and ruggedness. The new Pivi Pro infotainment system, apart from serving as a hub for standard connectivity options like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, also houses controls for the Terrain Response 2 system, which has six off-road modes for everything you can throw at it. The instrument cluster is all digital and heavily configurable to boot. Then there’s Land Rover’s D7X aluminium monocoque, which blesses the Defender with incredible off-road ability while allowing for on-road ride and handling that only a monocoque can possess. The Land Rover Defender easily leaves all other SUVs in the dust when it comes to sheer off-road ability. It has a 38-degree approach angle, 40-degree departure angle, 31-degree break-over angle, and can do up to 900 mm of water wading. It would take a fearless Defender owner actually to put these numbers to the test.

BEST ELECTRIC SUV

AUDI E-TRON 55

AUDI E-TRON 55

Based on a heavily modified MLB Evo platform, the e-tron 55 is similar in dimensions to the Audi Q7. What that means is that the e-tron 55 has a size advantage over its rivals. Somewhat conventionally styled on the outside and laid out on the inside, the e-tron 55 makes a conscious effort to woo buyers coming from an internal combustion vehicle. The way the Audi e-tron 55 goes out of its way to drive and feel like a regular Audi is what makes it unique. It rides on air suspension on all four ends and offers a pliant and comfortable ride even on 20 inchers, a hallmark of Audi SUVs. The EV is good to produce 408hp and 664Nm, but it doesn’t deploy those horses with the merest prod of your right foot. It is pleasant to drive even at slow speeds. Extend your foot a bit more, and you will find the strong power delivery to be quite the surprise. And the handling experience is equally smooth. On the inside, the e-tron 55 is finished in highquality materials with the latest version of the virtual cockpit and a screen-heavy dash adding to the charm. There is also the bonus of more than 350km of driving range on a full charge. And if you feel like you might run out, there is an option to switch on ‘range mode’ that stretches the range even further.

MID-SIZE SUV

VOLKSWAGEN TAIGUN

VOLKSWAGEN TAIGUN

Volkswagen was a late entrant into the mid-size SUV space with the Taigun. That meant that it had to take on established rivals that included two highly successful Korean offerings. With the Taigun, Volkswagen has managed to carve out a niche that few knew existed. The Taigun is now the sportiest and fun-to-drive SUV in the segment. With a couple of turbocharged Petrol engines on offer (1.0-litre with 115hp and 1.5-litre with 150hp), the Taigun also allows buyers to pick from two performance-oriented motors — remember, the Polo GT gets the 1.0-litre petrol unit in the Taigun. It has to be mentioned that even though the Skoda and Kushaq and the Volkswagen Taigun share the same mechanicals, the Taigun happens to be the quicker of the two due to the differing engine maps. Also noteworthy is the styling of the Taigun, with its focus on simple, clean lines, and a distinctive silhouette. The Taigun might be a little low on features compared with its rivals, but it offers the best engine-transmission combo in the segment with the DSG in the GT Plus variant. The pricing is definitely on the higher side, but the faultless road manners and sheer performance make it our mid-size SUV of the year.

COMPACT SUV OF THE YEAR

TATA PUNCH

TATA PUNCH

The Tata Punch continues Tata’s consistent run of delivering outstanding cars in the past few years. For a while, manufacturers have slapped on labels that call their jacked-up hatchbacks SUVs, but few have made an effort to add features and functionalities worthy of the tag. The Tata Punch is one notable exception. Yes, it is a front-wheeldrive car, but Tata’s engineers have gone out of their way to make the Punch ride and handle like one of Tata’s bigger SUVs. In essence, the Punch has the composure and bad road ability that nothing else in the segment has — it rides like a large SUV. Yes, it doesn’t have much by way of performance, but it competes for attention in a space where performance is secondary. The Punch comes loaded to the brim with features including Tata’s iRA connected car tech with natural voice capabilities, a 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system developed in partnership with Harman, and more. More importantly, the Tata Punch’s engineers have packaged the Punch well with the result that it gets lots of space inside with easy ingress courtesy of the 90-degree opening doors. And all this hasn’t been done at the cost of safety — the Punch scores a 5-star GNCAP rating.

BEST HATCHBACK

HYUNDAI I20 N-LINE

HYUNDAI I20 N-LINE

On paper, the Hyundai i20 N-Line seems rather intrepid. Billed as a performance hatchback, the i20 N-Line gets the same 1.0-litre turbo petrol that’s also available on the regular i20. It produces the same 118hp of power too. But Hyundai has made changes in other places that make the i20 N-Line worth the slight premium over the standard car. Most importantly, Hyundai has stiffened up the suspension for improved handling and better high-speed cornering ability. The bumps and undulations are efficiently dealt with at high speeds without sacrificing the handling — a must on our roads where some amount of compliance in the suspension setup is necessary to make swift progress. Then there are the disc brakes on all four wheels instead of just the front wheels, which give you far greater confidence while hustling up the N-Line to high speeds. That aside, most other changes are cosmetic apart from the sportier exhaust note from the twin exhaust tips. That being said, for a small premium, you get a car that’s much more fun to drive and visually distinctive as well. No wonder then that Hyundai is witnessing strong demand for the i20 N-Line.

BIKE OF THE YEAR

ROYAL ENFIELD CLASSIC 350

ROYAL ENFIELD

Royal Enfield Classic 350 has survived the test of time over decades with just minor changes to a motorcycle that’s frankly adored in our country. This year, Royal Enfield had the unenviable job of replacing it with a new model. Royal Enfield did not play it safe, and went the whole hog to make a motorcycle that shares almost no parts or panels with its predecessor. But clearly, Royal Enfield didn’t want to mess with the design of such an iconic bike. So, the bike looks practically the same, but with a much-improved fit and finish overall. The old Classic engine has been replaced with a new ‘J Platform’ unit that produces 20.2hp of power and 27Nm of torque. It is much quicker than the old engine, and gets to top speeds in quick time. And importantly, the changes have ensured that the Classic 350 cruises effortlessly, even at triple-digit speeds. A new double downtube frame chassis and new 41mm telescopic forks work together to deliver confident handling and a slightly firmer ride. The ground clearance has also increased on the Classic 350 to 170mm, giving you a lot more leeway when leaning into the corners. And yes, the Classic 350 now gets a fuel gauge along with RE’s Tripper navigation.

BEST PREMIUM BIKE

SUZUKI HAYABUSA

SUZUKI HAYABUSA

The Suzuki Hayabusa is the stuff of legends in India. It has a cult following like no other in the country. Suzuki continued selling the old Busa till very recently in India, two decades after it was first launched. The new Hayabusa had an incredibly challenging task ahead of it. But Suzuki has delivered and how. Powered by the same, albeit heavily reworked 1340cc engine as before, the Hayabusa is now 7hp low on power with a mental 190hp of power and 150Nm of torque still on tap. That’s hardly a downgrade, though, and the Hayabusa’s motor continues to deliver a strong push, even lower down the rev range while accelerating faster with revised gearing. It is easily one of the fastest accelerating superbikes in the world. While the styling comes across as an evolution from the last Busa, the tech on offer is now on par with the best around. There is a new suite of IMU aided rider assists along with ten levels of traction control and wheelie control, three power modes, three user customisable riding modes, and more. There’s also three-stage launch control, hill hold, and a bidirectional shifter. Suzuki has opted to leave the chassis and swingarm alone, and only do minor revisions on the suspension. The 2021 Hayabusa, as a result, continues to have plush ride quality with confidence-inspiring high-speed stability.af