By: Alex Forrest

We road tested more than 60 new cars in 2021. Here are our top picks.

The tidal wave of change that washed across the car industry in 2021 forced many players to swim like they never have before.

Those manufacturers suffering supply constraints were forced to take orders and give car-hungry customers an approximate and often distant delivery date. Some dealers were instructed not to take orders until production timeframes became clearer.

Due to the semiconductor shortage, the new Kia Carnival, launched in January 2021, initially missed out on auto wipers and a full LCD screen in front of the driver. Kia says these will be added later as a running change.

Minor electronic features or not, the new Carnival brought more space and versatility, plus much improved exterior design, and it remains the best people mover on the market.

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RAC's Alex Forest with a Genesis, Subaru and Toyota car
RAC's Alex Forest with the Genesis GV70, Subaru Forester and Toyota Landcruiser 300 Series

Soon after, at the other end of the size spectrum, the Toyota GR Yaris hit our roads.

This 98 octane petrol-sipping, three-cylinder turbocharged all-wheel drive grocery getter was arguably the most hysterical, irrational and disproportionately expensive ($49,500 drive away) car ever to wear a Toyota badge. Yet, Toyota could not build enough of them to satisfy demand.

We road tested a range of electrified vehicles in 2021, including the Volvo XC40 Recharge plug-in hybrid, Kia Niro, Toyota Kluger and Camry Hybrids, Nissan Leaf, MG ZS EV, Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross PHEV and Outlander PHEV, and the Tesla Model 3 Long Range.

Twin-cab utes also had a big year, with 2021 being the first full year of sales of the new Isuzu D-Max, plus a new flagship Mazda BT-50, a heavily revised Nissan Navara and some important upgrades to the Toyota Hilux.

The small and medium-sized SUV segments also saw plenty of new arrivals, including the Hyundai Tucson, Peugeot 3008 and 5008, Citroen C5 Aircross, Kia Sportage, Genesis GV70 and GV80, Subaru Forester and the Land Rover Defender 90.

As an industry with arguably the world’s most complex set of supply chains and myriad regulatory, economic and political inter-dependencies, car makers faced countless challenges in the last two years.

If 2020 was the year of COVID-driven upheaval and uncertainty, then 2021 was the year of change and adaptation, with the one certainty being that more change – and opportunities – lie ahead.

For now, these are the stand-out cars we drove in 2021.

Small car – Hyundai i30

Red car on front of lake and mansion

We drove the current Hyundai i30 early in 2021 following its launch in late 2020, with the standouts being the inclusion of most of Hyundai’s suite of electronic safety gear (“SmartSense” is the marketing term) across the range. This includes autonomous emergency braking and lane keeping assist and driver attention warning. A major styling upgrade for 2021 also modernised the range, especially the i30 sedan. Rides and handles well, too.

Category: Small car
Make and model: Hyundai i30
Price (drive away from): $27,490 (auto)
ANCAP safety rating: 5 stars
Body type: Hatch
Fuel economy/fuel type: 7.4L/100km; unleaded 91
Engine/transmission: 2.0L petrol/6-speed auto

Medium car under $50,000 – Toyota Camry Hybrid

Grey car on urban street

Medium passenger sedans may not be favoured by consumers right now, with SUVs having usurped their job years ago. However, the Camry Hybrid remains, and may just be enough to stop you boarding the SUV bandwagon. The Camry Hybrid’s electrified drivetrain makes it punchy to drive in traffic but also refined and very fuel efficient. It’s as roomy for occupants as a mid-sized SUV and arguably better value. It’s also quite cheap to service.

Category: Medium car under $50,000
Make and model: Toyota Camry Hybrid
Price (drive away from): $37,670
ANCAP safety rating: 5 stars
Body type: Sedan
Fuel economy/fuel type: 4.5L/100km; premium 95
Engine/transmission: 2.5L; electric hybrid; CVT

Medium car over $50,000 – Audi A4 Avant

White car in front of country hills

While SUVs grab the attention (and wallets) of most consumers, there remains a small but devoted group of drivers who love a low-slung, good-handling, efficient, practical and premium car-based wagon. The Audi A4 Avant is one of those wagons, and with this one you get all-wheel drive, which you don’t get in some of its pricier competitors. With a finely finished interior, the A4 Avant is the reason many are wooed by a wagon.

Category: Medium car over $50,000
Make and model: Audi A4 Avant
Price (drive away from): $84,300
ANCAP safety rating: 5 stars
Body type: Wagon
Fuel economy/fuel type: 7.3L/100km; premium 95
Engine/transmission: 2.0L turbo petrol; 7-speed dual clutch

People mover – Kia Carnival

Blue car with sunset in the background

We were able to road test the new Carnival in March 2021 and along with the newly added niceties like a rotary transmission dial, mood lighting on the Platinum model and SUV-like external styling, the new Carnival has retained all those features that make it so versatile. These include those two big sliding side doors, moveable and removable seats, and huge spaces for luggage, which help make the Carnival better suited to the needs of big families than most SUVs.

Category: People mover
Make and model: Kia Carnival
Price (drive away from): $50,890
ANCAP safety rating: 5 stars
Body type: Van
Fuel economy/fuel type: 9.6L/100km; unleaded 91
Engine/transmission: 3.0L V6; 8-speed auto

Sports under $65,000 - Toyota GR Yaris

White car on country road

Consider that the standard Yaris makes 88kW from its 1.5-litre engine, and suddenly the GR Yaris’s 200kW from its slightly bigger (1.6-litre) engine begins to hint at the sort of driving experience this car provides. With all-wheel drive, a widened body and a taste for 98 RON petrol, the GR Yaris has little more in common with the regular Yaris than its name. The Rallye Edition, with lightweight wheels and limited-slip differentials, sharpens up the sportiness even more.

Category: Sports under $65,000
Make and model: Toyota GR Yaris
Price (drive away from): $49,500
ANCAP safety rating: Not rated
Body type: Hatch
Fuel economy/fuel type: 7.6L/100km; premium 98
Engine/transmission: 1.6L turbo three cyl; 6-speed manual

Small SUV under $40,000 – Mazda MX-30

Side of red car driving on the road

Mazda remains a keen innovator and this continued to be showcased in 2021 with the release of the MX-30 mild hybrid. ‘Mild’ is the key word because there’s no direct electric assistance when driving, however it does help the engine stop/start system keep the engine stopped for longer. Even calling this a hybrid is a stretch to some extent, but it also has a well-designed and ergonomic interior and those funky rear-hinged doors. Plus, it runs on 91 RON fuel, which can’t be said of all small SUVs.

Category: Small SUV under $40,000
Make and model: Mazda MX-30
Price (drive away from): From $38,160
ANCAP safety rating: 5 stars
Body type: SUV
Fuel economy/fuel type: 6.4L/100km; unleaded 91
Engine/transmission: 2.0L four cyl; 6-speed auto

Medium SUV under $55,000 – Subaru Forester

Blue car in the bush

Given the Forester is Subaru’s best-selling model and the sixth-best selling medium SUV in WA overall, the brand is well motivated to ensure it stays competitive. So, added for 2021 was autonomous emergency steering, lane centring and lane departure prevention. With all-wheel drive all the time and good ground clearance, the Forester remains highly capable both on and off road. The ability to detect driver drowsiness and reversing AEB are standard in all variants except for the base model.

Category: Medium SUV under $55,000
Make and model: Subaru Forester
Price (drive away from): $40,680
ANCAP safety rating: 5 stars
Body type: SUV
Fuel economy/fuel type: 7.4L/100km; unleaded 91
Engine/transmission: 2.5L four cyl; CVT

Large SUV $55,000-$70,000 – Hyundai Palisade

Grey car on dirt track

One of the biggest advantages of the Hyundai Palisade, compared to the Santa Fe, is the room in the third row of seats, which is almost useable for the average-sized adult. It can be had as an eight-seater too, meaning the Palisade is the SUV you get when you really want to avoid getting a people mover. It has plenty of space and luxury for the money, and the full-sized spare tyre is also a plus.

Category: Large SUV $55,000-$70,000
Make and model: Hyundai Palisade
Price (drive away from): $61,085
ANCAP safety rating: Not rated
Body type: SUV
Fuel economy/fuel type: 10.7L/100km; unleaded 91
Engine/transmission: 3.8L V6; 8-speed auto

AWD SUV $70,000-$150,000 – Genesis GV70

Red car in front of the beach

The GV70 has the potential to be a threat to the main players in the medium-sized premium SUV segment, which include the Audi Q5, BMW X3 and Volvo XC60. As Hyundai’s luxury brand, Genesis is less well-known than its established competition, but comparably well-appointed with clean-slate styling and good driving dynamics. Servicing is being promoted as free for five years, but of course that’s rolled into the purchase price.

Category: AWD SUV $70,000-$150,000
Make and model: Genesis GV70
Price (drive away from): From $74,920
ANCAP safety rating: 5 stars
Body type: SUV
Fuel economy/fuel type: 9.6L/100km; premium 95
Engine/transmission: 2.5L turbo 4 cyl; 8-speed auto

All-Terrain SUV – Toyota Landcruiser 300 Series

Red 4WD over rough terrain

Much of the public focus on the 300 Series has been on its new V6 twin-turbo engine and its limited availability. However, one of the 300’s most impressive party tricks is its electronically controlled kinetic suspension system. A development of the non-electronically controlled system on the previous 200 model, the new system makes for an incredibly smooth ride over some of the roughest terrain, which we discovered on the Mundaring powerlines track. It’s more powerful yet more fuel efficient and refined, but also a lot more expensive.

Category: All-Terrain SUV
Make and model: Toyota Landcruiser 300 Series
Price (drive away from): From $99,470
ANCAP safety rating: Not rated
Body type: SUV
Fuel economy/fuel type: 8.7L/100km; diesel
Engine/transmission: 3.3L V6 twin turbo; 10-speed auto

4x4 twin cab ute - Toyota Hilux

Large ute in front of mountains

Another off-road Toyota takes the cake here, and in the face of newly introduced competition in 2021 that included the Isuzu D-Max and Nissan Pro-4X, the current model Hilux stood out as having improved interior functionality and refinement while still being able to do ute things well. Additions to the Rogue variant, like the motorised tray blind and chunky sports bar, do reduce its practicality, so a cheaper variant might be a better bet for those looking to fully utilise their utility.

Category: 4x4 twin cab ute
Make and model: Toyota Hilux
Price (drive away from): From $67,600 (SR5 4x4)
ANCAP safety rating: 5 stars
Body type: Twin-cab ute
Fuel economy/fuel type: 7.9L/100km; diesel
Engine/transmission: 2.8L diesel 4 cyl; 6-speed auto

Electric car – Tesla Model 3

Blue Tesla car on the road

In 2021, the Tesla Model 3 faced more new competition in Australia than it ever has, with more to come. However, being inherently designed to be an electriconly car from the ground up (unlike many other electric cars), the Model 3 was the standout electric car we drove in 2021. We drove the Long Range variant, and by that Tesla means 614km. Playful hidden features in the infotainment system, including Monty Python references, sweeten the experience.

Category: Electric car
Make and model: Tesla Model 3
Price (drive away from): From $66,403
ANCAP safety rating 5 stars
Body type: Sedan
Fuel economy/fuel type: 14.9kWh/100km; electricity

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Last updated: January 2021