As journalists and automakers get ready to unveil the South African Car of the Year at a glittering Wesbank banquet at Gallagher Estate, (probably the SA-built, Volkswagen Polo btw) autocirca.com takes a step back to reward what it thinks are the five best cars to have thrilled and spilled (petrol) in the last twelve months of motoring.

Kia Sportage CRDi AWD – R334, 995

Lets start with Peter Schreyer’s finest design offering yet in his role at Kia. A lot’s been made of the ex-Audi mans influence on the Korean brand and one has to say, rightly so. The Sportage looks brilliant. Like it’s leapt straight off the page of a Californian design studio and because it’s a Kia it’s not half as expensive as it would be if it had a fancier name. The only problem is trying to get hold of one; they’re harder to find then “Kings of Leon” tickets. The diesel motor churns out a very respectable 130kW and 392Nm, and in AWD guise it’s as sure footed on and off the black stuff as a Sherman tank. In fact the handling on road is even better than that… it’s a real hoot to drive. My only misgivings are a less than perfect driving position, a soggy vehicle dynamics control system that works in prehistoric time, and a small 55-litre fuel tank that must be filled strictly with low sulphur diesel. Making plans for long, family trips a bit tricky. Amazingly for a Korean company, it’s the design that wins it a spot in our top five.

Peugeot RCZ (manual) – R376, 335

Forget everything you think you know about Peugeot… this is my surprise car of the year. And by that I mean forget hand-me-down 207’s with bung taillights, whose only purpose in life seems to be to hold up the fast lane. The Peugeot RCZ is a fully fledged, road strafing sports coupe. Not only is it fantastic on the eye, and comfortable like any French softie, but the willfully stylish design is built with genuine attention to detail. The cabin welcomes you with the alluring aroma of quality leather; the subtle double bubble roof is absolute genius; as is the elegant, elongated tail and the bonnet that opens over the front wheel arches like the clam shell of a supercar. Under that bonnet you’ll find a 147kW and 275Nm, 1.6-litre turbo engine, which doesn’t sound like much for a sports car, but trust me, it’s juicy. It’s economical at a cruise, but picks up its skirt with real verve. It’s fast. The best part of the RCZ though, like all sporty Peugeot’s, is the handling, totally flat and totally poised. It’s the perfect sports coupe for a modern world.

BMW 530d – R630, 000

The new BMW 5-Series is like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and all the worlds’ coalition governments all in one. It’s the embodiment of “politically correct.” I say this because it looks like a response to all the BMW dissidents out there. It’s safely rounded at the edges, has an unmistakably un-intimidating face and in any profile: front, side or rear, it melts into a familiar Bavarian shape. As a drive it goes about its job like a brilliant receptionist: accurate, efficient, uncomplaining, and without any humour. Sure, it’ll linger at the boardroom door and indulge smilingly at your jokes, but for the most part it has more important things to do. In that way it’s cold… but still a sublime car. Grip levels are amazing when you point it at some corners; the power rivets you into your plush seat especially in the turbo diesel model that produces 180kW and 540Nm. And yet only produces 160g/km of CO2. I drove a 7-Series a year ago and it feels totally identical, hand on heart. It’s a big chunk of change but for something this good you’ll gladly pay the money.

Audi R8 V10 Spyder – R2, 169, 140

My time in the R8 Spyder was all too brief but in that time the experience was thrilling, tear-inducing, infuriating and totally unforgettable. The soft top version of Audi’s blistering R8 V10 is not however, as a driving machine, Audi’s finest hour. It’s not better than the coupe because it’s 100kg heavier and losing the roof, in any car, invariable errs it more towards a cruiser than a battle hardened, black ops specialist. However, a 383kW and 530Nm, 5.2-litre V10 convertible can still blow your head off and provide lots of appeal. I’ve always imagined in my own special way, that people were cheering me along as I drove down the road, but in the R8 Spyder they actually are. With the roof folded away the R8 is nauseatingly gorgeous and people in Mazda Etude’s will go to great lengths to tell you how proud they are of your success. The V10 soundtrack is the tear inducing part. The R-tronic six-speed, automatic gearbox is the infuriating part. But neither that, nor the hefty price tag is enough to put me off. It easily stars in 2010’s Car of the Year list.

Ford Focus RS – R487, 900

Here’s the thing… You might imagine an Audi R8 V10 Spyder to be the purest expression of automotive perfection, right? Huge price, huge sound, huge power, huge excitement and that’s that. But the truth is, and believe me when I say this, the Ford Focus RS delivers exactly all that, for five times less the price. The Focus RS is a supercar – a leviathan of automotive brilliance. 224kW and 440Nm from its 2.5-litre turbo charged atom bomb under the bonnet, Ford’s much discussed “Revo-knuckle” front suspension, and wings, skirts and spoilers protruding from every side move the RS so far away from a standard Focus its like discovering Vodka comes from potatoes. Which it does. The Focus RS is bristling in the metal and just as worthy of a passerby’s attention as an R8. And when you drive it, it begs to be punished; it revels in being pushed harder and faster than anything else; unlike a supercar – you can touch the limits of its controllable, front-wheel-drive grip, and more often than not that’s why it’s just as quick as a fully fledged, hunkered down supercar. It is my Car of the Year from the last twelve months without a shadow of a doubt.

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