2002 began with the first report from behind the wheel of the Ford Fiesta and a passenger account of the new Vauxhall Vectra.
The Fiesta was rated fun, safe and sure of remaining a major player in the ultra-competitive supermini segment, while the true verdict on the new Vectra would have to wait until our first driving encounter in February.
Meanwhile, Toyota had given the Corolla a thorough makeover for the ninth generation model. We thought it provided the driving enjoyment and quality to compete at the top of the lower- medium sector.
We also had our first encounter with the new SEAT Ibiza, which was an all-round improvement over the previous car, with a spicy character deserving of the sporty brand within the Volkswagen Group.
The sleek new Hyundai Coupe was launched in the UK with a choice of fleet-friendly 1.6 and 2.0-litre models, as well as a higher performance 2.7-litre V6 powerplant. Perhaps the most radical car to be launched in 2002 was the Renault Vel Satis. First driven in January, we hoped people might be brave enough to make the leap of faith and dare to be different – the jury's still out.
FROM the Ford Fiesta at the beginning of January, one of the smallest new cars of the year, February witnessed what must have been the biggest. The new Range Rover was enormous and moved the goalposts by putting a true luxury car interior in a proper off-road vehicle.
February proved to be a busy month for new cars with the most significant fleet model being the Vauxhall Vectra, which proved an all-round improvement over its predecessor and could claim to be class-leading in some areas.
Honda's Jazz seemed to work miracles with its spacious and flexible interior and economical petrol engine.
We also sampled the impressive new Skoda Superb, the new Honda CR-V and UK versions of the Volkswagen Polo and hi-tech BMW 7-series.
Meanwhile, with an eye on the summer months ahead, we also got behind the wheel of the MG TF roadster and the Audi A4 Cabriolet.
Mercedes-Benz held the launch of its new E-class, a clear threat to the seemingly invincible 5-series, which is now in the twilight hours of its life. The E-class is the most accomplished executive car we have ever seen.
Chrysler launched a diesel PT Cruiser using Mercedes-Benz technology while Nissan revealed updated versions of more utilitarian vehicles, the Terrano and the Pickup.
CITROEN put itself back into contention in the supermini sector with the C3, injecting some character into the sector with some clever packaging and funky details. Jaguar added an extra incentive to buy the X-type with a new entry-level car using a 2.1-litre V6 for less than £20,000. The car also had the honour of being Jaguar's first front-wheel drive model.
Also at the fleet-friendly end of the range, a 2.5-litre V6 S-type was launched. However, it came at the same time as a headline-grabbing high-performance version using a new supercharged 4.2-litre V8 producing 400bhp.
Honda's common rail diesel revolution gained a kick-start with the help of General Motors – the 1.7-litre block comes from the US automotive giant while Honda did much of its own work in modifying it for the Civic. The fleet appeal of the roomy Civic instantly increased, offering low emissions and fuel consumption of more than 56mpg.
Peugeot decided to get in on the compact MPV act with the 307 SW using the stretched body of the 307 estate with the option of adding extra seats plus a large glass roof as standard.
Mazda also gave the press its first chance to try the Mazda6 upper-medium car. Mazda began with a clean sheet of paper and came up with the best handling car in its class as well as one of the best value vehicles.
FORD unveiled a high performance version of the Mondeo in the ST220 in April offering a 3.0-litre V6 to go head-to-head with hard-edged six-cylinder upper-medium rivals, as well as the Focus ST170. Next came the stunning Mercedes-Benz SL, offering a stylish roof-down body, V8 performance and the security of a folding hard roof.
April saw the first appearance of one of the fastest and most powerful front-wheel drive cars on sale. The Alfa Romeo 156 GTA offered seductive Italian design with a few spoilers and skirts and a howling 250bhp V6 soundtrack. It was a bad month for CO2 emissions.
We were given an exclusive first drive of the Peugeot 307 estate, which went on sale 12 months after the hatchback, promising residual values similar to the mighty Volkswagen Golf.
We also had our first sample of Audi's Le Mans-winning FSI (direct injection) technology in the new Audi A2 1.6 FSI. The low emission engines would also be developed for the rest of the range and one version had found its way into the A4 by September.
Hot on the heels of the 307 estate, the Peugeot 206 was given the 'lifestyle' treatment in the form of the 206 SW, broadening the appeal of the supermini.
Mercedes-Benz freshened up its CLK coupe range and, importantly for user-choosers, added a diesel for the first time, making the best-looking car in the premium coupe sector even more desirable.
Vauxhall offered us the first chance to sample the newest car in its ECO range, the Vauxhall Corsa ECO. Using a super-frugal three-cylinder 1.0-litre engine mated to Vauxhall's Easytronic sequential five-speed manual, the Corsa offered hybrid-like fuel consumption with conventional supermini packaging.
IN June we tried other Vectra variants that were about to go on sale, including the entry- level 1.8-litre as well as the range-topping 3.2 V6 Elite.
Mitsubishi revised its Space Star lower-medium hatchback and added the option of a frugal 1.9 DI-D common rail diesel.
The first MPV in the Peugeot/Citroen/Fiat partnership became available to test – the Peugeot 807 – and was tried early in the month, offering more style, space and substance than its predecessor.
Other new models in June included the eagerly awaited MINI Cooper S. We rated it as the most fun car for less than £20,000 after a spirited drive around the Scottish Highlands.
Meanwhile, Volvo added the excellent D5 common rail diesel engine to its four-wheel drive V70 Cross Country.
VAUXHALL introduced the racier versions of its Vectra range, with SRi and GSi variants. The SRi was available in 1.8-litre (using shorter gearing than the standard 1.8) and 2.2-litre petrol models as well as the 2.2 DTi turbodiesel. Meanwhile the GSi car came powered with a potent 3.2-litre V6 engine.
Land Rover launched a revised Discovery, given the Range Rover treatment at the front end, to keep the model fresh in the face of stiffer competition.
Citroen's new large MPV, the C8, appeared in Fleet News in July, and like the Peugeot 807 with which it shares engines and many components, promised to be a marked improvement over its predecessor, the Synergie.
Four-wheel drive challengers came in the shape of the Kia Sorento and Subaru Forester, while Citroen also gave us the first chance to try the 92bhp C3 1.4 HDi 16-valve.
Saab launched the new 9-3, which for the time being would be a four-door saloon and promised to be the most fun front-wheel drive car in its class.
The rest of July was a combination of luxury and high performance. We drove the new Phaeton, Volkswagen's attempt at cracking the image-conscious luxury car sector. Bridging the gap between luxury and performance was the fiery 450bhp Audi RS6.
SEAT upped the ante in the hot hatchback stakes with the 210bhp Leon Cupra R, while we also tried the Ford Tourneo Connect, the passenger car version of the Transit Connect.
Volvo's luxury sport utility vehicle, the XC90, proved a capable four-wheel drive/MPV cross-over with a commanding driving position, hi-tech features and seven seats as standard.
SEPTEMBER began with the first drive of the latest BMW 7-series diesel. The 730d will come to the UK for the first time in 2003. Recognising the importance of diesel in the luxury car sector, BMW believes the UK has an appetite for a more economical version of its flagship model.
The standard 3.0-litre straight six was given second-generation common rail technology and a power and torque boost for the new model. Mazda also launched estate versions of the Mazda6, along with common rail diesel versions of all bodystyles, giving company car drivers the option of a low benefit-in-kind tax variant.
Mercedes-Benz freshened up the S-class range with standard satellite navigation, a revolutionary safety system and the option of a 500bhp twin-turbo V12 range topping S600L. We also got behind the wheel of one of its new rivals, the latest Audi A8, which must win the prize for understated elegance in the luxury car sector.
Other cars driven for the first time in September were the new high-performance Skoda Octavia vRS estate, the Mercedes CL-class luxury coupe and the Daewoo Kalos. Meanwhile, we were also the only fleet publication to try the long-awaited Ford Focus RS.
We also took a closer look at two new Vauxhalls due in 2003 – the Meriva and the Signum. The former is a Corsa-based compact MPV while the Signum is a Vectra-based luxury hatchback. We were also the first to get behind the wheel of the LPG-powered Rover 75 and Vauxhall Astra Coupe.
AS more and more large MPVs join the fray, the European original reached its fourth generation.
The Renault Espace IV provided a wider range of engines along with two new motors at the top end – the 3.5 V6 petrol and 3.0 V6 dCi – also used in the Vel Satis.
Kia launched a revised version of its entry car, the Rio, while Nissan spruced up the Almera. We got behind the wheel of Ford's three-door Fiesta, as well as the new SEAT Cordoba, both on sale in 2003.
Meanwhile, Lexus introduced its IS SportCross estate with the six-cylinder 2.0- litre engine from the IS200 saloon as well as the six-speed manual gearbox.
FIRST drives of November included Renault's impressive new Megane, which takes some of the striking styling cues of the Avantime and Vel Satis and puts them in a high-volume lower-medium car body. It was also good to drive.
We tried Volkswagen's luxury off-roader, the Touareg. Volkswagen claims it will do the business off road as well as offer luxury car features inside.
BMW launched the new Z4 roadster to the press, with controversial styling but a more exhilarating drive than its predecessor, the Z3.
We spent time behind the wheel of the new Nissan Micra. With its mouse-like face and cute proportions it is set to offer a distinctive choice in the supermini sector in 2003.
Another month, another Mazda6 launch, this time the Sport4 AWD estate – more of a workhorse estate than a sports estate really.
Troubled Italian car manufacturer Fiat gave us the first taste of the versatile Stilo Multi Wagon, a car expected to boost sales of the competent lower medium car during 2003.
Volvo readied its high performance four-wheel drive S60R and V70R for the media before their UK launch next summer.
One of 2003's key fleet cars will be the Toyota Avensis, and we had our first look at the new saloon, hatchback and estate which promises better quality, more space and Euro IV-compliant diesels.
CITROEN gave the practical Berlingo Multispace a makeover for 2003, with the same engines carried over but the addition of more hi-tech features that were previously unavailable.
The most successful car in its van-derived MPV sector, the Citroen Berlingo seems to be going from strength to strength.
And lastly, we sampled the new Honda Accord, which seemed to have high volume upper-medium cars beaten on quality and refinement (Volkswagen Passat, Vauxhall Vectra and Mazda6 included), while it goes in search of premium rivals from Lexus, Saab, Volvo, Alfa, Rover and Audi.