2021 was a good (recovery) year for the auto industry

It's that wonderful time of year again when the malls are playing that one song by Jose Mari Chan and that other one by Mariah Carey. Of course that comes with all kinds of caveats too like watching your 13th month pay vanish as quickly as it arrived along with your time in a veritable traffic paradise. Still this time of year is a good chance to look back and take stock of another 12 months gone bye.

In the auto industry, a lot has happened. 2020 was horrendous for the obvious reasons, so every automaker was raring to get out of P and into D this 2021. We were up to our gills covering all kinds of new car launches this year. Many were virtual and it was honestly hard to keep track. Only a select few braved the situation and held an actual launch or even an actual test drive event. Every brand really pushed to get their new models out in a market that has become increasingly competitive, and we were literally playing catch up as the market went into high gear.

This year the industry is projected to hit around 290,000+ units which is a huge bump compared to last year's dismal 248,171. Mind you, that's still a long way compared to the bar set in 2017, 2018 and 2019, but the auto industry is clearly on the road to recovery even though there are still many hindrances. The chief of these is the more stringent auto loan approval process as banks clamp down on granting loans or require higher downpayments. That's very understandable as loan defaults are up given the uncertainty of the times.

Here's the question we want to answer though: what new models stood out above the rest in 2021?

So before the year ends, we thought we'd have a little confab and determine which four wheeled vehicles we thought hit the mark very well. In 2020, we picked the Geely Coolray. We were wowed by this little crossover that wasn't only perfectly timed and competitively priced, but well built, styled very well, and was undeniably fun and efficient.

2021's top pick has to be better, and we even had to expand our honor roll to twelve vehicles from last year's six. Believe us when we say, there were more. Such was the volume of new vehicles introduced this year, but we had to whittle down the list to something more manageable. We will only include vehicles that we have driven and thoroughly reviewed, so that means this won't cover models that have only just been launched and haven't been handed to us for a full test drive.

Each vehicle suits a certain individual or set of individuals. What we did do was to judge them if they fit our criteria for this honor roll by how well the fit the class, how they take what the expectations are to a new level, and whether we would actually pick one if faced with the choice to buy.

We will, however, select one as our top pick. So let's get started.

Autoindustriya.com top cars of 2021 image

TOP 12: Toyota GR Yaris

Had you asked us 10 years ago that Toyota will build a car that can supplant the memory of the Lancer Evo, we would have laughed you out the door. Back then, Toyota didn't seem to have any interest in fast cars, motorsports, or even fun cars in general.

To say Toyota surprised us in the last decade is an understatement. They launched the 86 in 2012, and locally they set up the Vios Cup the following year. They started competing in Le Mans and won it thrice now. They launched the new generation GR Supra in 2018, reviving one of their greatest nameplates.

It was when Toyota started entering and winning the World Rally Championship that we were really interested. It wasn't so much about the competition, but rather the prospect of having a homologation rally car in the same way that it resulted in the likes of the Subaru Impreza WRX STI (or just STI now) and the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. And they delivered with the Toyota GR Yaris.

This tiny three-door homologation special marries two platforms to achieve four wheel drive dubbed GR-Four, uses a tiny turbo engine that punches well above its displacement, and has the handling of finely tuned go kart. It's unbelievable that Toyota was able to achieve that and actually had the will to see it through. We've driven it on the road and various tracks, and yes the hype is real and absolutely spot on. Just make sure you give it the respect it deserves when you drive it.

Read More: Toyota GR Yaris 1.6 Turbo GR-Four

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TOP 12: BMW 7-Series

It will sound very strange that the flagship BMW sedan is in this list. Usually we go for cars that are exceptional for the price of admission, and generally that means we try to look for that sweet spot that we wouldn't normally classify a 7-Series in.

Yet for some reason, it is in that sweet spot.

When BMW launched the 7-Series in late 2020, we weren't exactly excited. These are cars that people in my profession would generally not own... unless being a motoring journalist was just a side gig. But what stirred the imagination was the pricing of PHP 5.99 million. BMW was seriously undercutting all of their rivals even with all the options for the new 7-Series. That's something that just doesn't happen because the 7-Series for our market is built in Germany; a country we have no FTA with. They still offer a long wheelbase version with a plug in hybrid

What BMW Philippines did was clever. They did not go the the “decontent” approach; that means removing all the luxury features to try and achieve a lower price. Instead they offered the standard wheelbase version to get the car to a price that is very enticing and with the features expected of the class. The 2.0L turbo engine may seem tiny, but after driving it for a few days it just doesn't seem underpowered at all. If anything it's just right.

We appreciate that BMW Philippines is changing its approach by going more for sales volume rather than the standard practice in the luxury sector of going for a hefty profit margin. Truth be told, 7-Series customers probably won't care what we say, but we think the 7er belongs because it's a great car, offered at a great price, and thus great value in the luxury sector.

Read More: BMW 730i Pure Excellence

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TOP 12: Nissan Navara

A facelift amongst mostly all-new models?

Needless to say, the Navara has always appealed to us. Nissan's approach to go for an all-coil spring truck in 2014 (2015 in the Philippines) was a big risk, but one that paid off. The Navara became a solid choice for those looking for a truck that has the capacity but with a ride that you won't regret if you're driving solo. That's why I picked one.

The 2021 upgrade (revealed internationally the year prior) is a big one. It may seem like a mild cosmetic job, and in many ways it is. Nissan didn't even touch the dashboard nor did they touch the engine, but we really like how they listened to customer feedback to improve on the model.

The first request was better looks, and that's what they delivered. Customers wanted more advanced safety and convenience features, and so they put in more. Customers wanted a higher payload rating without sacrificing ride too much, and so Nissan fitted the truck with dual rate springs in the back. They even improved the rear seat cushion profile for better comfort. 4x4 enthusiasts wanted capability, and they delivered a Pro-4X variant with all-terrain tires, a 4x4 system that now gets diff lock (also for VL), and a 360 camera system that functions as a virtual spotter when you're on tricky terrain.

Oh, and Nissan offered the Navara with very good pricing and a much longer 5 year warranty.

Read More: Nissan Navara Pro-4X Review / Nissan Navara VE Review

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TOP 12: Kia Stonic

Kia needed a shot in the arm in the Philippine market. The brand has had a tough time when it comes to offering affordable cars that will be a hit among Filipino customers because they don't participate in certain segments like the pick-up class, the PPV class or the small MPV class.

But this year they introduced something that could well be their new hope: the Stonic. This little crossover is packed with potential, competing in a class that is fast becoming the new battleground in the industry.

The Stonic has a lot going for it. It's got good looks inside and out, it's easy to drive, comfortable, very fuel efficient, and practical for everyday use. Yes, it's made by Kia in China, but that is becoming less and less of a factor especially at the price point. The only thing going against it is perhaps the ground clearance, but it's hard to argue against a good looking little crossover for less than the price of a similarly specced Vios.

If Kia plays their cards right (and convinces the banks to start being more liberal with the loans as the economy improves) they can really set the market in a category that was largely left behind after the EcoSport started to get more and more expensive. And given that Kia is also looking at manufacturing in Malaysia with a view to export to the Philippines, Kia could have some big things in store for the future.

Read More: Kia Stonic 1.4L Review

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TOP 12: Isuzu mu-X

It is not surprising that the Isuzu mu-X is part of the list, but what may be a shock is that is isn't at the top of the list.

Mind you, we really like the mu-X. It was a year when rival automakers were busy marketing updated versions of their models like the Montero Sport and Everest, as well as redesigning and upgrading the Terra and Fortuner. But while the rivals were updates and refreshes, the mu-X was all new.

The vehicle looks great; not so rugged, but it stands out as a classy-looking option in a sea of vehicles that want to look as 4x4 as possible. The interior has really stepped it up too with increased comfort, greatly enhanced driving ergonomics (thanks to the partnership with Mazda for the D-Max), better appointments, more advanced features, so on and so forth.

Good as the mu-X is, we felt it was held back by two aspects, the first of which were decisions made on certain features like the not-so-integrated audio system (local install), the lack of a diff-lock feature (for the 4x4 model) as well as the use of PP plastic for the tailgate. The third is the price, as Isuzu's SRP for the model is quite high vis-a-vis the category. If the diff-lock was fitted to the 4x4 or if they offered a more capable 4x4 variant (there's only one), if the audio system was better across the board, or if they didn't price it as high, then this would be definitely a contender for the top spot.

Read More: Isuzu mu-X 3.0L LS-E Review

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TOP 12: Lexus LM

This one is indeed a surprise.

When we first got wind that Lexus was indeed working on a minivan several years ago, we were rather puzzled. Lexus does have a tradition of taking an existing Toyota model and “Lexusing” it up with better appointments, better materials, an insane attention to noise control, and an artistic approach to perfect paint finishes. That, however, was in the past; Lexus has worked hard on distinguishing themselves by veering away from that initial practice.

But that old trick seems to be working for Lexus, as the LM 350 is their best seller of 2021 so far, and it's hard not to see why. The vehicle looks outstanding for a van; properly beautify for what is really just a box. The paint is immaculate, the interior is very upscale, and the features list befits a vehicle of this stature and price. They even have a 4-seater limo version that retails for over 9 million pesos; the “base” 7-seater LM 350 is at 5.4 million.

What really gets us with the LM is what Lexus has been perfecting all this time: comfort and refinement. Close those doors and you're basically in first class. Everything outside is a muffled hum or whisper, including motorcycles with modified exhaust systems. Nothing seems to bother you.

At the end of the day, that's what you pay for in a vehicle like this. And while it did start out as an Alphard, Lexus definitely made it their own.

Read More: Lexus LM 350 7-Seater Review

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TOP 12: Land Rover Defender

Okay so the Defender isn't exactly a vehicle that debuted in 2021; they did launch it in the Philippines last year.

Despite the many external challenges of that timing, the new generation Defender is becoming a fairly common sighting on local roads (and by local, we mean Metro Manila). Just recently Land Rover celebrated a rather unusual milestone by releasing their 200th Defender just a year after its launch. So they must be on to something, despite the opposition from purists.

When we finally had a chance to spend a few days with one, we can't help but realize what the fuss was all about. This new model took the many attributes that make the Defender name such a legend, and tossed in many qualities that current customers actually wanted.

They wanted classic styling albeit modernized, and that's what they got. They wanted an interior that isn't too fussy and that could be cleaned easily if things got muddy, and that's how it was designed. They wanted the space, comfort, and modern conveniences demanded of a modern car, and that's what this delivers. And if you do want to go off road or have to cross a river (or an urban flood) then you can raise it up to help get you through the trail or home after a long and rainy day.

Land Rover went against their staunchest fans by thoroughly modernizing perhaps their most iconic models, and judging by the popularity of the model and how well it suits out kind of road conditions, they really nailed it.

Read More: Land Rover Defender Review

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TOP 5: Nissan Almera

The Almera could have been our favorite of 2021.

Don't get us wrong: it's a very solid car. The Almera is good looking inside and out. It's comfortable to ride in and it's easy to drive. The features list is long, and yes the A/C is ridiculously cold if you want it that way. And it comes with a long 5 year warranty.

But the Almera to us stands out because it tells us an automaker is driving to change what a customer can expect in a subcompact and entry level car. In our market, this class of vehicle does not normally focus on tech that can be considered to be on the leading edge. Just look at how other automakers spec down their vehicles and go for older naturally aspirated engines. Nissan wanted to change that.

They specced this with their advanced safety package, which is why it's the only one in the class that can be had with a fully integrated 360 camera system, forward collision warning, autonomous braking, blind spot warning, and rear cross traffic alert. This kind of safety feature package is unheard of in the class the Almera is in; actually these features are even rare even if we go up to two classes up into the midsize segment.

And then there's the engine: after a long absence, the subcompact sedan class has a 1.0L turbo again. In the VE and VL, it has a ho hum CVT, but wow is it efficient. Don't be surprised if you're getting around 20 km/l on the highway. We're actually relishing the idea of driving the manual transmission versions, but that will have to wait for the time that they actually activate one.

If it has cruise control (the adaptive kind) it would be better, but still we can't hide that we really like which way Nissan went with the Almera.

Read More: Nissan Almera VL N-Sport Turbo Review

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TOP 5: Honda City Sedan + Hatchback

Of course the chief rival of the Almera had to be on this list too: the Honda City. And while some would argue that the hatchback shouldn't be lumped together with the sedan, the badges on the back both say City so we'll put these two cars together.

Truth be told, we were iffy about the City when we first got behind the wheel of one because we encountered a major issue with the electrical system. That seems to have been a one-off because it hasn't manifested in the other two vehicles we drove, including the hatchback.

Still, the City sedan and hatchback represents a solid evolution of their predecessors; and by that we mean the previous City sedan and the now phased out Jazz. We like what Honda did with the look with a more grown-up aesthetic, but still has the sporty side with the RS styling. We like how the interior is more functional than before, particularly with the center console. We also like that Honda retained that excellent rear seat folding mechanism from the Jazz for the City hatchback, which is why we prefer that over the sedan.

The powertrain -while not as forward as the Almera's- is solid. The refinement has improved yet somehow it's still as fun to drive as ever. Like the Nissan, it has its caveats, but we are looking forward to the idea of really having a head to head between the Almera an the City in the future.

Read More: Honda City RS Sedan Review / Honda City RS Hatchback Review

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TOP 5: Nissan Terra

The selection of the Terra as a finalist in our honor roll will perhaps be the most contentious here. It's an update and upgrade of the same generation whilst the mu-X is a new generation model. It's also the third Nissan on the list. So what gives?

The answer is simple: It wasn't broke, but they fixed as much as they can based on what customers were saying.

The restyling of the exterior was well done, especially with the front. The rear... well they could have done away with the chrome trim up top, but that's a preference thing. But the revisions to the interior are what got to us because they really upped the luxury factor with the Terra. It just feels like you're riding in a far more premium SUV than its rivals, and that counts for a lot.

Nissan also upped the ante on the features package for the Terra. Again, it's that advanced safety and features list that they brand (rather redundantly) with intelligent anything. The rear view mirror has that camera system to go along with the 360 camera package. The vehicle has autonomous braking, forward collision warning, blind spot warning, and so much more. The only thing missing is adaptive cruise control and a motorized tailgate which the Fortuner LTD has, but we'd pick the fold flat system of the Terra any day.

If you like off-roading, the Terra 4x4 one has diff lock and the 360 camera doubles as a spotter system. The audio system is great too; even more so if you go for the 4x4 with Bose. And there's no question the Terra can really be an adventure vehicle, and comfortably too.

We would have wanted a change with the transmission especially when it comes to city driving, but we can look past that because of the price Nissan is charging for the Terra. The 4x4 VL is more than 200k less than a similar Fortuner LTD 4x4 or mu-X LS-E 4x4. The 4x2 VL is more than 100k less than the mu-X 4x2 LS-A and almost 300k less than the similarly specced Fortuner LTD 4x2.

The Terra may not be everyone's thing, but the price is definitely more than right.

Read More: Nissan Terra VL 4x4 Review / Nissan Terra VL 4x2 Review

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TOP 5: Geely Okavango

We'll say this flat out: the Okavango could easily have been our top pick this year much like its smaller brother last year. In the end, we were splitting hairs to find out which car belonged where, but that doesn't mean the Okavango was edged out because something was amiss. There really wasn't anything glaring at all.

We like how Geely applied the styling cues of an SUV into a vehicle that is definitely more MPV. We like the individualized seating, the third row space, the fold flat mechanisms, the safety package, the connectivity package, and so much more with the Okavango. It's hard to find fault in it apart from the redundancy of the inner doorhandles for the middle row that consumes a bit of space. The panoramic glass roof on the Urban Plus more than makes up for that though.

In a way, Geely was even handicapped with the Okavango because they couldn't use a larger engine which a seven-seater could definitely make use of. The import duty with a larger engine would have made it uncompetitive on price. So they adapted and fitted the local units with the mild hybrid system to give that already outstanding 1.5-liter turbo the extra boost it needs. But perhaps what we really enjoyed in the Okavango was the ride comfort; it just felt like a much larger vehicle in the way it rides over corrugated concrete roads and bumpy asphalt.

For what it is supposed to be, the Okavango is an outstanding MPV. If there's a car brand that the rest of the auto industry should keep a close eye on and be very wary of, it's Geely. The vehicles that they are producing now are of a higher caliber than we would expect for the price they are charging, and it is absolutely no surprise that the Okavango is becoming a very common sight on our streets and villages. It won't displace the Innova, but it's good to see that there is finally a worthy contender on merit.

The only challenge for them now is to get past the growing pains, particularly with after sales. That's always the challenge of any new brand on the rise.

Read More: Geely Okavango Urban Plus Review

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2021 TOP PICK – Isuzu D-Max

Some would argue why we picked the D-Max as our favorite of 2021, and the answer is simple but needs a bit of background.

Unlike Thailand and the USA, pick-up trucks -historically- aren't that popular here. Much of that can be attributed to the ride; trucks were just uncomfortable on our already bumpy roads. But 15 years ago that changed when Mitsubishi offered a more comfortable Strada, followed 5 years later by Ford with the Ranger, and then by Nissan with Navara. Trucks were starting to really catch on, but still not anywhere near as much as the all-coil spring SUVs that used the same platforms.

A couple of years ago that started to change too. Trucks started to become really popular in our market. We have taxes to thank for that as the TRAIN law effectively wiped out the excise taxes for pick-up trucks. That also includes ones made in the USA which is why we're seeing models like the F-150, Dodge TRX, and the Gladiator. More and more, pick-ups are starting to become a very popular option in our market, and having a great truck is critical in the lineup now.

And that brings us to the D-Max. Isuzu is known for rugged trucks be it a tractor head, a light duty truck, or a pick-up like D-Max. Solid as the D-Max was, it was never something we considered to be a leading option in the segment. But for the new generation model, they really worked to deliver something that was truly impressive.

The styling is spot on for a pick-up. The interior is also a big improvement over the plasticky one in the previous model. Even the list of features is also much longer compared to before, and includes things that were never seen in any Isuzu like adpative cruise control or even lane departure warning. Isuzu even finally fixed that little glove compartment on top of the dashboard.

Honor Roll: 2021 AutoIndustriya.com Editors

But more importantly, Isuzu really improved the driving characteristics of the vehicle. Wwhile not the most powerful in the class, the engine seems to have an effortless time with the vehicle even when loaded, and the reliability of that is already proven. The suspension manners are just right; it strikes a balance between comfort when the bed isn't carrying anything heavy, yet has excellent cargo capabilities. Isuzu reworked the chassis, the body, and even selected better steel for certain components. They even upped the wading depth to 800mm with the way they reworked the intake system.

The one we like the most is the improvement in driving ergonomics, and that's where their partner Mazda came in. Instead of teaming up with GM like before, Isuzu worked with Mazda for the D-Max and BT-50 project, and that's probably why the ergonomics are right on the money. You'll enjoy driving this truck; we certainly did, and we even took it on a rally cross track, but more on that later on.

Honor Roll: 2021 AutoIndustriya.com Editors

Isuzu also offers a wide selection of variants in the D-Max model range, including the 1.9L RZ4E engine in the 4x2 models. But we really like the 3.0L with the 6-speed auto. Some will lament that the 4x4 LS-E doesn't have diff lock, but for hardcore off-roaders the choice will really be the one with the manual 4x4 which does have it. Maybe in a future update Isuzu will include that for the LS-E.

Just as much as it has shifted from sedans to crossovers and PPVs, the tax law has made trucks more attractive to customers. And given what we've experienced with the D-Max so far, Isuzu has a truck that is ready to maximize of the way the wind is blowing

Read more: Isuzu D-Max 4x4 LS-E Review