Who would have thought a Toyota Yaris would be among the best cars of 2020?

Toyota's pint-sized GR Yaris, the product of a company's burning desire to win the World Rally Championship. Picture: Supplied
Toyota's pint-sized GR Yaris, the product of a company's burning desire to win the World Rally Championship. Picture: Supplied

As the pandemic raged around the world during 2020, forcing widespread car factory shutdowns, slowdowns and shipping delays, car buyers stayed away from the showrooms in droves.

It was, as one large car dealer described it, an "absolute shocker for the business".

When the country went into COVID hibernation in March, the industry's downward spiral steepened even further, with October marking 30 months of market decline, the longest period since the Global Financial Crisis of 2007.

But such is the nature of the car industry and the years of gestation it takes for a new car to make its way from a blank page on a designer's desk to the market, it's a very difficult tap to turn off.

So the products kept on coming, even though there were an ever-dwindling number of buyers willing to participate in the process. The flow of new models earmarked for these shores continued as we worked from home, shopped online and sanitised regularly.

Those that ventured out to the very quiet showrooms generally fell back on their old favourites with the Toyota Hilux, Ford Ranger, Hyundai i30, Toyota Corolla and Mazda3 featuring consistently among the nation's top sellers.

However, into the mix came some cars which made 2020 a memorable one.

Here's a selection of those that caught our interest:

1. Toyota GR Yaris Rallye ($54,500)

By far the most enjoyable car launched this year and proof when Toyota sets its corporate mind to doing something really interesting, it usually succeeds (except, sadly, for its Mirai hydrogen car).

The GR is genuinely special, designed to be the basis for a very competitive factory rally car competing in the World Rally Championship (WRC).

This is where the story gets a little complex but bear with us. Under the world rally regulations, a company has to sell 25,000 examples of a base car and 2500 of these have to be the model variant being officially type-approved (homologated) for rallying.

The standard Yaris - Toyota's production mini-car - is the perfect size, but to be globally rally-competitive it needed some special adaptations you won't see in a Woolworths carpark.

Finland's former world rally champion Tommi Makinen, a freakish driver in his prime and previously in charge of the factory rally team, somehow managed to convince the motor sport-mad boss of Toyota to build a completely new three-door super-sports Yaris with a wider rear track, lower roofline and a complex double wishbone rear suspension. This was the base car for competition, so lucky us: 25,000 had to be built to comply.

The engine is a 1.6-litre turbo three cylinder producing 200kW and fed to all four wheels. It's a rapid little car with great steering and strong brakes and you need old-fashioned skills to drive it because it's only available as a six-speed manual.

Score one for those who learnt how to drive properly. Score two and added bonus points if you can heel and toe.

To whet the market appetite, the first 1000 GRs came into the country just under $40,000 and sold out in a heartbeat. In the fresh light of subsequent (although in a much higher Rallye specification) versions, that intro car was absolute bargain. Now you'll need to find the best part of (gulp) $56,000 to drive one away.

But on the flip side, it's an absolute firecracker which kicks a VW Golf GTi into the weeds. Enough said.

The Hyundai Nexo fuel cell packaging is so clever, other car makers are clamouring to borrow it.

The Hyundai Nexo fuel cell packaging is so clever, other car makers are clamouring to borrow it.

2. Hyundai Nexo (lease only)

These hydrogen fuel cell electric SUVs will soon be a regular sight on Canberra's roads because the ACT government has leased 20 of them.

There's nothing special about the Nexo's looks but the fuel cell tech under the bonnet is very clever. It's essentially an electric car, but uses hydrogen as the way of producing the power. Each car carries about 6kg of hydrogen fuel, enough for a range of around 600km.

The big advantage with hydrogen is the rapid refuelling time - generally about six to seven minutes. The downside is there's only one place in the ACT to refuel.

3. Audi e-Tron (from $137,000)

That slight whirring sound you can hear inside the library-quiet cabin of the Audi e-Tron is a lot of liquid circulating around under your feet.

There's 22 litres of coolant and 40 metres of cooling lines under the floor of the e-Tron, all aimed at keeping the complex, mini-module battery pack at the optimum temperature and to ensure a long battery life cycle.

Pure electric vehicles (not hybrids, like the Toyota Prius) haven't been sold in the Australian marketplace long enough for consumers to have any degree of reassurance about battery longevity but they know constant recharging delivers the death of a thousand cuts to driving range.

Most brands, like Audi, offer eight years and 160,000km. Where the e-Tron differs to most of the other brands is the clever way the onboard computer - combined with the cooled battery pack - manages the recharging dilemma. For instance, if you just need a quick top-up of charge to get home, you can do it in 10-15 minutes, unplug and get going.

Those wacky, wonderful Stark Enterprises virtual wing mirrors from the Audi e-tron 55 quattro.

Those wacky, wonderful Stark Enterprises virtual wing mirrors from the Audi e-tron 55 quattro.

The e-Tron drive experience is excellent, the car feels like it's been milled from a single billet of aluminium, and the three-stage regenerative braking system means that with practice, you can drive almost everywhere without touching the brakes.

And those look-at-me flying wing-mirror cameras are so Stark Enterprises they're in irresistible option. But beware: ticking that option box will cost an extra $3500.

The e-Tron is pricey at $137,000, especially when the maximum range from a full charge is 383km.

What's coming from Audi - and will be worth waiting for - is a GT model with a genuine superfast-charge capability of 80 per cent in 12 minutes. That capability will be reserved for a short time for the GT but can be expected to trickle down into all other models.

Volvo's often overlooked XC40 Recharge Hybrid.

Volvo's often overlooked XC40 Recharge Hybrid.

4. Volvo XC40 Recharge Hybrid (from $65,000)

Clever packaging and stand-out styling from the Swedes, who have generally always done these sorts of things very well (plus safety, of course).

The hybrid has a 132kW 1.5 turbo engine and a 60kW battery for its electric motor, which will give owners about 45km of emissions-free driving. The engine drives the front wheels and the battery the back wheels.

It has amazing economy (about 3.8 litres/100km), a short recharge time and rides extremely well, coping much better than expected with our awful bumpy rural roads. You can plug it in overnight to charge the battery or recharge on the move (which takes a longish drive).

The interior is very Scando-cool and it's amazingly roomy in the back seat. The battery pack is under the floor.

Volvo is now owned by Geely in China and the Australian market is sourcing some variants from there, as well as Belgium. Be warned: the China factory quality may not match your Volvo expectations. The first letter of the VIN plate is usually the country of manufacture.

The XC40 feels and drives just like a premium European small-medium car should and it's arguably the best-styled compact-sized SUV going around.

The Jimny brings Suzuki back to its glory days.

The Jimny brings Suzuki back to its glory days.

5. Suzuki Jimny (from $26,000)

OK, so it's not a 2020 car per se. But the waiting list has been so long for Jimny buyers (six months or more, for most) that their 2019 orders mostly didn't arrive until early 2020. You'd need the patience of Job to be sitting in the Suzuki queue so long.

But it's worth it. The new Jimny takes Suzuki back to the sort of cars it did best years ago.

The styling is so simple that it's brilliant; squared-off, minimalist and chunky and there's some funky, eye-catching colours in the palette. Just make sure to order the bigger alloys because that wider wheel visually sets it off.

In an engineering sense don't expect anything too flash from this little 4WD but that's the intent: keep it simple and bulletproof.

It's an affordable little daily driver that's different to everything else and is very good off-road, too. Light weight and a short turning circle means it can negotiate its way in and out of places where the big, long-locked four-wheelers can't.

The ride quality bobbles and bumps because of the short wheelbase. The 1.5-litre engine gets a little strident on the highways and there's not much luggage-carrying capacity in the back.

But this is an instant, mass-production classic that is cheap to run and keep and will retain its charm and, we suspect, its retained value, for a good time. How many cars can you say that about?

6. Mercedes-Benz EQC (from $118,000)

It's the first of the all-electric Benzes, and the start of the riptide of electric model variants arriving in the next few years.

The EQC looks sort-of like a Mercedes GLC model. But it's not. In fact, it looks like it has combustion engine. But it doesn't. We're guessing that's so it doesn't scare off too many of the uber-conservative Benz crowd.

The power output is very impressive at 300kW and it's a quick car for its size. But like many EVs, it really does weigh rather a lot. Try almost 2.5 tonnes, which is as much as a (bigger, roomier and just as good in retained value) Toyota LandCruiser wagon.

A lot of effort has gone into using recycled and sustainable materials in this car and it's as safe and as silent as a Martin Place vault. Its range is realistically around 380km to 400km.

The cabin, with less room than the Audi, is very classy with clever, customisable display screens and a plethora of functions and personalisation tweaks. Whether these tweaks and apps will get used by owners is another matter.

It hasn't sold as well as Mercedes expected here, which suggests there are many potential buyers playing the wait-and-see game.

Yes, it's good, but given the extraordinary engineering capability and resources of Mercedes-Benz, we were expecting something Tesla-crushing.

That hasn't happened ... yet. We won't need to wait long. The EQC only drives a first stake in the EV market territory. The proper fruits of the Stuttgart car company's investment will begin to pour forth in the next few years.

7. Land Rover Defender 110 (from $95,000)

If ever the weight of expectations fell like a Steinway from a great height onto a new model, this was it. That's what happens when you wait 37 years to introduce a new Defender.

But the good people at Solihull appear to have got it right, again. Although inevitably, the Defender purists are already rubbing their elbow patches and claiming it's all a bit soft.

However, that's where the money and the market has shifted these days so that's where Defender is aimed: generally at the city SUV crowd and those in the country estates, not thumping hundreds of kilometres over bowel-loosening outback corrugations every day.

After all, farmers and miners haven't bought Defenders for donkey's years; they buy LandCruiser utes and rescue the other brands broken down in Nowhere, West Arnhem Land.

However, credit where it's due: Land Rover does gentrified country styling so darned well.

Compared with the chrome bling and toothy awkwardness of the Toyota Prado, the Defender is all tweed coats, wellington boots and what-ho pints of Batham's Best bitter down at the local. How they manage to transfer such Britishness into their styling is like a black art.

The model range is limited to the long wheelbase for now and costly, but there's cheaper "shorties" - badged as the 90 - coming this year.

Like many people who have had interesting experiences in Defenders over the years, to these eyes the badge doesn't suit the new one. But there's whole raft of new buyers out there who love the LR legacy and wouldn't know a diff lock from a snatch-em strap.

And they will love it.

Eight generations on, and the Porsche 911 just keeps on getting better. Picture: Porsche

Eight generations on, and the Porsche 911 just keeps on getting better. Picture: Porsche

8. Porsche 911 ($229,500)

Australian deliveries of the type 992, the eighth generation of the 911, began in February and as expected, no pandemics or economic issues were ever going to dent demand.

Since 1963, this iconic German has just gone on and on, the formula always evolving and improving, the style the same but always slightly different, and the driving experience sublime. Aspirational and engineered with care, thoroughness and precision, it's as good as ever but the option prices are breathtakingly expensive.

It's the only car where the entry level is more than enough.

This story Powering through the pandemic: the most interesting cars of 2020 first appeared on The Canberra Times.