Most innovative cars
Want to drive one of the most innovative cars on sale? Our list rounds up 10 cars from around the motoring world with new features.
We live in exciting times. Scarcely a day goes by without a new technological breakthrough, even if few are actually reported by the media and thousands of advancements in medical and computer science will pass most of us by every year. There’s one thing forever being developed for the better that we can relate to, though – the cars we drive every day.
Innovation has always been a vital force in the car industry and increasingly car companies can’t afford to sit back and watch rivals march ahead. Since the dawn of the motor industry, it has been clear that technology sells. Every advancement a car manufacturer makes potentially gives it an advantage over its rivals.
Innovation is inspired by a number of factors. Recently, the most pressing has been consumers’ growing concern about the global environment, while legislation has forced companies to reduce exhaust emissions and either improve fuel consumption or introduce alternatively fuelled cars. Safety is another area where innovation can be readily seen – every manufacturer wants a strong reputation here and there’s a huge amount of prestige in being the first to offer a safety feature that later becomes an industry standard.
Even technology that has no environmental or safety benefit is worth developing, because offering innovative new features can give your company’s cars a unique selling point. Ford’s ‘Quickclear’ heated front windscreen was exclusive to the company for years and was beloved by its loyal customers. Not all innovations are appreciated, though – when British Leyland designers equipped the Austin Allegro with a squared-off ‘quartic’ steering wheel in the early seventies, it was roundly ridiculed and promptly dropped.
The entries on our list of most innovative cars are those where we see the relevance of the thinking behind each clever feature. Cars that have mere novelty value have been left out – only genuine advances to the motoring cause have been included.
Read on for our pick of some of the most innovative cars of recent years.
The Hyundai is the first vehicle to be offered with a choice of all-electric, hybrid and, coming soon, plug-in hybrid propulsion. That means in hybrid and plug-in hybrid guises, it can be considered to be a true alternative to the Toyota Prius – albeit with more conservative styling. The Ioniq Electric is a zero-emissions rival to the Nissan Leaf. In any version, you'll enjoy a decent driving experience and low running costs in a practical package. Why have we given it top billing on our list, though? The answer is simply because it looks, feels and drives like a normal car. Rather than feeling out of the ordinary, the Ioniq – particularly the Ioniq Electric – offers a real glimpse of a future where cars like this are the rule, not the exception. For making low-emissions vehicles truly relevant to all, the Hyundai Ioniq takes first place. It may even become ‘iconic’.
Second place is awarded to the Toyota Mirai, for no other reason than it indicates how determined Toyota is to make zero-emissions motoring a reality. Almost every car manufacturer has some sort of electric or hybrid model on the market these days, but having already explored that territory with the Prius, Toyota is branching out to another potential future power source: hydrogen. The Mirai generates power for its electric motors by mixing hydrogen with oxygen and emits only harmless water vapour. Right now the technology is in its infancy and consequently extremely expensive. There is currently only a handful of hydrogen refuelling locations in the UK and hydrogen cars are unlikely to become truly popular until filling locations approach the ubiquity of petrol stations. However, the Mirai still gives a fascinating insight into the possible future of personal transport.
Volvo has always been a car safety pioneer, so it’s not surprising to hear that the firm’s flagship, the Volvo XC90 SUV is crammed full of safety equipment. So much in fact, that no model has achieved a better result in the Euro NCAP crash test programme. With airbags galore, and electronic safety systems that can brake the car automatically to avoid a crash fitted as standard, there’s simply no safer car available. That’s not the sole reason it’s featured on our list, though – we reckon the interior of the XC90 is the most exciting and interesting we’ve ever seen in an SUV. The dashboard is dominated by a huge touchscreen panel that resembles a large iPad, which controls most of the car’s functions. It’s intuitive to use, too. Spend a little time to learn its capabilities, and you’ll wonder how you managed without it.
The Tesla Model S is, quite frankly, one of the most remarkable cars to have ever gone on sale. Tesla’s first car was a Lotus Elise-based electric roadster and few could imagine that its second would be a large luxury hatchback with world-class design and epoch-defining performance. Previously, the concept of an electric car was at best unromantic, but Tesla created the Model S as a truly desirable machine; an opulent car that puts a host of otherworldly technology at your command. On some models, if the relaxation of the near-autonomous Autopilot system doesn’t suit you, engaging the aptly named ‘Ludicrous Mode’ makes 0-62mph possible in less than three seconds. Why not a higher position in our list, then? It’s solely because the Model S is priced beyond the reach of the majority of motorists.
The Mercedes S-Class has long been the transport of choice for top-ranking officials and wealthy lovers of luxury alike, but there’s far more to it than just beautifully stitched leather. For generations the S-Class has been a rolling showcase for technical progress and is often the first boast features that more humble cars get several years down the line. It was the first with a driver’s airbag and seatbelt pretensioners and the latest generation builds on that with rear seatbelts that inflate for comfort. The spirit of innovation continues with the car’s hybrid drive system, built-in wi-fi, a 24-speaker stereo, reclining rear seats and suspension that automatically sets the car up for the road ahead by scanning its surface. Put simply, looking at the exciting features a Mercedes S-Class offers today will give you a good idea of what to expect in a family car in a few years’ time.
Having forged a reputation for sporty saloon cars that deliver real driving pleasure, BMW was keen to demonstrate that dabbling in electric cars was definitely not a sign of brand dilution. On the contrary; with its i8 hybrid sports car, the German company has demonstrated some of the most innovative thinking we’ve ever seen, proving that low-emissions cars really can be embraced by enthusiasts as well as environmentalists. The i8 still grabs attention wherever it passes, but its outlandish shape and space-age details aren’t just for looks. They contribute to a brilliantly aerodynamic whole that slips through the air efficiently, combining near supercar performance with low 49g/km emissions. Its petrol engine is a compact 1.5-litre unit, and combined with an efficient electric motor system claimed economy is 134.5mpg. A green future never looked so exciting.
You might wonder why the Nissan LEAF isn’t in this list. Well, that model might be the world’s best-selling electric car, but it’s still rather pricey. Step forward the Renault ZOE – a car that’s just as useable on a daily basis as the LEAF, but is an awful lot cheaper to buy. There are three versions of the ZOE available; two of which are capable of nearly 150 miles between trips to a mains charger according to official figures. Renault has taken the unusual step of providing ‘real-world’ ranges, calculated to acknowledge the effects of the weather. Operating your air-conditioning or heating will use energy and batteries deliver power better in warm weather, too. Renault claims the ZOE is capable of travelling up to 106 miles on a charge in the summer, but when the temperature drops in the winter, so does the range – in this case down to 71 miles. It’s transparency like this that gives would-be buyers confidence and increased trust in electric cars.
The Citroen C4 Cactus is another car that proudly earns its slot on our Most Innovative list due to its imaginative design. It may compete in the fiercely competitive small SUV category, but the C4 Cactus really doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. Hence it sticks rigidly to its guns, combining the butch go-anywhere looks of an SUV with the user-friendly layout and shape of a the compact hatchback Citroen C4 that it is derived from. Made even more distinctive by the unmistakeable ‘Airbump’ soft mouldings along its flanks, the C4 Cactus has to be the perfect car for taking on the urban jungle. Eschewing the use of painted panels at contact points, it shrugs off light impacts from supermarket trolleys, bicycles and the like when other cars would suffer dents and scratched paint. By refusing to follow the competition, the C4 Cactus has arguably created its own niche.
The Renault Megane RS is one of the newest entrants into a crowded market that includes the Hyundai i30 N, VW Golf GTI, SEAT Leon Cupra and Honda Civic Type R. Its 275bhp 1.8-litre engine isn’t the most powerful fitted to a hot hatch, but it features something that nothing else has at this price point: four-wheel steering. Up to a certain speed, the rear wheels slightly turn in the opposite direction to the front wheels to improve agility, but at speed they turn the same way to improve how stable the car feels. That, plus Renault’s chassis wizardry, means the Renault Megane RS is one of the fastest hot hatchbacks around a circuit. There’s now also a Trophy version with 300bhp and stiffer suspension.