Autocar awards 2021: Alpine A110, Golf GTI and Defender named readers' champions
“It’s bonkers, brilliant and utterly beautiful, and its relative rarity makes it a worthwhile investment."
We asked for your dream garage, comprising a fun car, a daily driver and a wildcard
Cast your minds back, if you will, to those long, interminable days of lockdown. With many of us limited to remote working and essential journeys only, escapism was difficult to come by.
Baking, maybe? Or doing a virtual marathon? Well, it turned out that I’m no good in the kitchen and running is hard work and hurts a lot. It was better, then, to spend time daydreaming about cars. So it’s no surprise that many lockdown hours were spent playing on configurators and scouting used listings online.
Which brings us to a long-running debate: your dream three-car garage. Why three cars? Nobody is quite sure, although consensus has settled on it being the magic number of machines needed to cover all your motoring needs. And so, for our Readers’ Champion award this year, we decided to put your lockdown musing to good use and assemble the ultimate three-car garage.
We put a few rules in place, in order to guide you: a budget of £100,000, split among the three categories of car that we think all three-car garages should include: a daily driver (for around £30,000), something just for fun (for around £50,000) and a £20,000 wildcard.
Let’s begin with the just for fun category, not only because it has the biggest guide price but also because it’s the fulcrum of our trilogy: work out your dream fun car and then pick the other two to fit your needs. Not to mention, this category has the most emphatic winner of the three in the form of the Alpine A110.
That this compact coupé was your pick is no surprise. It embodies everything that a sub- £50,000 car bought purely for fun should be: it’s lightweight, dynamically scintillating and fabulously good looking.
The only thing that weighs down the 1103kg A110 is the catalogue of platitudes that we’ve already thrown at it, including an ultra-rare five-star road test verdict.
There’s little we can meaningfully add here, except to say that the A110 lives up to every word of that praise on any road you could choose to thread it down. It’s wonderfully direct and agile yet also surprisingly soft and pliant, and its 1.8-litre four-cylinder turbo engine is rewardingly responsive and very characterful.
All this puts the A110 into a sweet spot: comparable to the likes of the Ariel Atom and Caterham Seven in its handling and character but with refinement and grandeur – yet not a price – closer to Porsche territory.
Alpine owners, you suspect, must have found lockdown immensely frustrating. Having an A110 parked outside and an order to only use it for essential journeys is just plain cruel. Pretty much every moment you’re not driving an A110 could be improved by driving an A110. It’s truly a car that you will want to drive every day.
However, it’s not a car that many actually would drive every day, because much of what makes it fun requires compromise. There are only two seats, the boot is tiny, all-round visibility is questionable and the push to save weight has resulted in some flimsy interior trim.
Those compromises are absolutely worth it for everything the A110 offers, but they’re also the reason that you need three cars in your dream garage. At some point you need to take the kids to school, pop to the supermarket or haul some rubbish to the tip. And that’s when you need a Volkswagen Golf.
Of course you need a Golf. Many other daily drivers are available, but your votes reflect that when you want a well-honed all-rounder, Wolfsburg’s finest remains the car of choice.
Daily driver absolutely isn’t a pejorative term: this will be the member of your three-car garage that you will spend the most time in, calling on it to provide comfort, refinement and practicality while still being fun to drive. Tough task.
We grouped together the votes for every type of Golf when picking the winners, but the single most popular variant was the GTI, so that’s what we sought out for our garage. And while the £33,525 starting price for a manual GTI is slightly above our budget, we reckon that some intense haggling will make it work and will be absolutely worth the hassle.
The new Mk8 Golf GTI may stray a little more to the fringes of hardcore hot hatch territory, away from its traditional intoxicating balance, resulting in a slightly firmer, less rounded ride; but still, few cars are able to offer such dashing thrills when you take the long way to the shops, before it turns into a relatively benign family hatch to get your eggs and other fragile items home safely.
But this award isn’t really about that GTI badge: virtually any Golf can perform supreme daily driver duties, whether it’s the entry-level 1.0-litre petrol, a diesel estate or, if you really want to stretch the budget, the hardcore R. That’s because, in all its forms, the Golf sits perfectly balanced in the very centre of the market. It’s big enough for a family yet small enough that it actually fits properly on British city streets. It’s upmarket enough to feel special and polished but mainstream enough to feel relaxing and comforting.
The latest iteration isn’t perfect, as some of the reaction to its rather troublesome infotainment reflects. But the somewhat disproportionate disquiet caused by the dashboard’s lack of physical controls could be seen as something of a back-handed compliment to the assumed all-round excellence of the ultimate daily driver.
So with an A110 for sheer driving joy and a Golf GTI to make even the most mundane of daily chores eminently agreeable, do you even need a third car? We reckon you do, because for all their polish and brilliance, there are things you can’t easily do with our two other category winners. Like take them seriously off road, pop the bonnet and tinker away with them, use them to haul particularly unusual loads or do any of the other weird and wonderful things people love to do with cars.
That’s why we left the final spot in our ultimate three-car garage for a new or used wildcard, costing up to £20,000. Unsurprisingly, this was the most open of all three categories in terms of votes – but the versatility that makes the original Land Rover Defender great helped it secure victory. We grouped all of the wildcard used Defender suggestions together, ranging from run-down project cars to ex-military Wolf 90s.
Certainly with £20,000 to spend, there’s a huge range of Defender options. For our garage, we opted for a ‘model’s own’ option, persuading Matt Prior to wheel out his well-used 90 Td5 XS from 2005. He paid around £12,000 for it and reckons that it’s still worth about the same now. And that bargain price is also good news for our three-car garage in the event that we can’t secure a discount on our Golf GTI.
Prior’s car perfectly symbolises why the Defender makes such a fine wildcard: he has filled it with loads, used it to tow horseboxes, taken it down rough green lanes, used it as a daily driver and whiled away the hours tinkering on it with his toolkit. Essentially, if you can imagine a motoring task that you couldn’t or wouldn’t do in an A110 or Golf, you could certainly do it in a Defender.
And that, essentially, is the whole point of the three-car garage. Now is usually the time when we would contemplate which of the trio of cars we would choose if we could only keep one. But on this occasion, you can’t, really. They form the ultimate three-car garage because of their complementary strengths. And across three cars, possibly with spare change from £100k, all your motoring wants and needs are covered. All you have to do now is find room for them all…
*Just for fun*
The A110 dominated here despite some very credible opposition: the Ariel Atom, Ariel Nomad, Porsche Cayman, Porsche Boxster, Lotus Elise, Tesla Model 3 and Toyota GR Yaris were all popular picks.
Still, fun clearly comes in many forms. The Volkswagen California received several votes, with one voter noting that “the enjoyment goes well beyond driving”, and there was a vote for the Hyundai Ioniq 5, despite our voting closing before anyone had driven it. Still, that wasn’t as unexpected as the vote received for the Ssangyong Rexton – probably the only time it will ever be compared to an Alpine.
The Toyota GR Yaris came close to winning a third trophy in our 2021 awards, narrowly losing to the Golf GTI in our daily driver poll. The immensely practical Skoda Octavia vRS was another leading contender, while Volkswagen’s ID 3 led a strong electric car showing.
Not every vote went to quite such a sensible car, though. The Mazda MX-5 was a popular choice, with its advocates insisting that they don’t actually need rear seats or a big boot. And we’re not quite sure where the person who voted for the Hyundai Veloster N is planning to buy one in the UK…
The broadest category definition predictably resulted in the most diverse voting – and some truly glorious rationales. For example, why did somebody plump for a Mercedes-Benz Unimog? “Cuz.” Brevity and an excellent choice in off-road trucks: we approve.
Other true wildcards included the DeLorean DMC-12, the Pontiac Trans Am (“I grew up watching the Hoff”) and an ex-Dutch military Mercedes G-Wagen restomod. Someone even voted for the Hummer H2, asking: “Why not?” Fuel bills, that’s why.
A few readers went even further off-piste. One opted for the KTM 1290 Super Duke GT (“Yes, a bike! I found one with the touring luggage extras for less than £12,000”) and there was a vote for a jetpack. Yes, a jetpack. Why? “I’ve only got space for two cars, and my other two picks will cover everything I need.” Fair enough.
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