There's a popular saying of the moment in North America that holds firm here as well: SUVs rule; cars drool.

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On the rise for three years now, the new vehicle sector it went particularly gangbusters in 2016 with every known record being broken, including for overall volume.

One key first: sports utilities outsold road-tuned passenger fare. A whopping one in three new passenger vehicles registered nationally had some degree of high-riding, off-road flavour.

The SUV swing would have been much greater still had it included those one-tonne utes that increasingly feature as primary recreational choice with private buyers; Ford’s Ranger, after all, was our top selling vehicle.

Yet, even though it and most others have car-like features and safety standards, traydecks nonetheless continue to count as commercial vehicles.

So, anyway, enough of looking back. Time to look ahead. It’s highly probable those quasi dirt-trekkers will continue to rule, yet some of the most interesting and important vehicles going on sale this year won’t be SUVs.

Here are my picks:

Alfa Romeo Stelvio

Alfa Romeo Stelvio.

Alfisti – that’s the name given brand faithful – will say a marque whose entire pedigree is based on a succession of sporting coupes and sedans has no right creating a large SUV.

But, even though Alfa will keep its hardcore fans sweet with a new Giulia four-door this year, it’s the biggest thing they’ve ever attempted that’ll quite literally keep the factory lights burning.

No, really: Alfa has had more relaunches than the Russian space programme, but this time Fiat Chrysler is serious – they categorically state that all hopes rest on this swank five-seater high-end rock-hopper.

It is the key to realising a plan to turn Alfa into a leading luxury brand and also generate the funds needed to mount a nine-car assault spanning the next five years.

No pressure then.

Named after a famous mountain pass much loved by enthusiast driver, Stelvio arrives in hot Quadrifoglio format, with a Ferrari-derived V6 and promising excellent dynamics plus a ton of style.


Audi Q5

The Audi Q5.

Remember when Audi ruled the local luxury car sector? Yeah, they’ll have trouble answering that one, as well.

Seeing Mercedes easily defend that standing in 2016, for the second successive year, would have rankled – falling to third behind BMW, though, was the real stinger. Audi fortunately has its Q-car bedrocks.

The new Q5, like last year’s Q7, is packed with technology but is even more suave and more accessible price-wise, though the performance-enhanced SQ5 will carry a premium. With SUVs now dominant, it needs to be the volume ace.


Holden Commodore

The Holden Commodore.

Despite what Holden says, the new Opel-designed and built NG is coming this year. Albeit with a caveat. The only way to catch a ride is by being naughty; the NZ police will be the only customers getting the car in 2017. Public delivery doesn’t start until next January.

Commodore as we know it now is, of course, out of Australia and rear-drive, in large wagon and sedan format, with the option of a V8. Commodore as it is to become has none of that. Are you ready for a front and four-wheel-drive medium hatch (and wagon) in V6 and four-cylinder, including diesel? That’s how much times have changed.

Holden couldn’t keep on as they were because, even though the VF II has been our favourite large sedan, the category is diminishing. Mind you, so too now is the medium sector. So is this car destined to die, in the public mindset, before it’s even born?


Hyundai Ioniq

Hyundai's Ioniq

An automotive ground-breaker in being the world’s first production car that will be presented in three ‘BlueDrive’-badged fuel-saving formats – hybrid, plug-in hybrid and full electric.

All three formats are coming here and, more importantly, the ground-breaking (and headline-making) electric starts the charge. The PHEV follows around mid-year and the hybrid will be last, at the end of next year.

Announcement the EV, which ranges 280kms before requiring replenishment, will kick out at $59,990 is huge. That’s the same price as the country’s most popular plug-in hybrid, the Mitsubishi Outlander.

That pricing suggests the plug-in petrol-electric Ioniq might be up to $10,000 cheaper – thus potentially positioning against the Toyota Prius in its hybrid and used-import, previous-generation PHEV formats - while the hybrid (basically, a petrol car with electric assist, so a cheap but old tech sop) might, while measuring up against a full-blown Prius, could conceivably end up pitching against the Prius C and Corolla Hybrid that sit in the $30-$40,000 zone.

New Zealand is not as enthusiastic about EVs as some places. Nonetheless, the Government’s April-announced initiative to have 64,000 electric cars in operation by 2021, the private sector plan to develop an ‘electric highway’ by strategically siting rechargers along State Highway One, commitment by 30 big name companies to at least 30 percent of their corporate fleets being electric vehicles by 2019 are all positive connects that bode well for Ioniq being the breakthrough EV we’ve been waiting for.


Land Rover Discovery

The Land Rover Discovery.

Here’s something that bucks the modern trend – a ‘new-age’ sports utility that actually promises to be highly adept off-road.

Of course, anything less would be a travesty. When it comes to dirty work, Land Rover doesn’t do ‘lite’. Even the most street-wise Land Rover – at the moment, that’s gotta be the Range Rover Evoque convertible – has gloop-conquering capability and the Discovery, of course, has built a reputation as an tough but comfy, access-all-areas family large-sized mud wagon over three decades.

Even so, with trad off-roaders now no longer achieving significant sales (look no further than how far the Land Cruiser 200-Series has slipped), the fifth-generation model will intend to push harder than any forebear for acceptance into the precinct occupied by road-first high-riding five to seven-seater fare.

Conceivably, the posh cabin will become a major selling point. To us purists, though, it’ll win because it’s so good in the places most SUV drivers never bother to tread.


Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV.

It’s all about DC. Not the comic label; not the back half of a geriatric Aussie hard-rock band. Direct Current. An update to DC charging means the improved Outlander PHEV, here in March, is fully formatted for high-energy recharging, a facility the current edition lacks.

Why is that important? Because while overnight trickle-charging on low-ampage power was the best option when the original PHEV arrived two years ago, times have changed.

Fast-charging has come to the fore through the Charge Net initiative to implement a Kaitaia to Bluff network of public replenishment stations. Which means perhaps 30 minutes being plugged in for a ‘refuel’ rather than at least five hours.

The updated petrol-electric Outlander introduces another significant update to its drivetrain, with a new 'EV priority' switch that prevents the system from switching to hybrid mode. This means it can be driven the 50km electric range without the engine coming on and using fuel.

Japan market (but perhaps not export) versions also have a 1500W AC power supply for connecting up electric equipment.


Skoda Kodiaq

Skoda Kodiaq.

This is the car that could elevate the Czech brand to the same standing as parent Volkswagen and half-brother Audi in this country.

Points of difference presenting here with Skoda’s first big sports utility will include the smallest engine in the large category, an extra-rich specification – including Wi Fi connectivity – and a price span peaking below where some cited rivals start.

In addition to confirming that a 110kW 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol four-cylinder will be the entry engine, there’s talk the entire family might price in the $45,000 to $65,000 zone – comfortably below rivals such as its dimensional ringer and category big gun, the Hyundai Santa Fe – even though it will be especially well provisioned here.

An April start is still planned for a range of seven-seaters that will span several trim lines, front- and four-wheel-drive and three other engines - the 138kW/320Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol and a turbodiesel in two performance formats, 110kW/340Nm and 140kW/400Nm.

You’re going to see a lot of Kodiaq. Skoda NZ wants 500 sales this year.


Toyota C-HR

Toyota C-HR.

Toyota New Zealand is set to stir up its small car standing with the sharp-looking CH-R, a sub-compact crossover just a couple of months from release here.

An ultra-angular five-door shape isn’t the only appeal. It also presents further exposure to Toyota’s New Global Architecture (TNGA) that the maker assures is rigid enough to deliver on “the promise of advanced driving pleasure.”

Another aim is to shake up by introducing a snazzy 85kW/185Nm turbocharged 1.2-litre petrol engine, driving a constantly variable transmission.

And how much for all this? Well, there’s another big blow: TNZ assures this model will come in for around $35,000 – thus pricing at the heart of the sector, even though it’s loaded, including a full suite of technology including a pre-crash system with autonomous emergency braking, all-speed adaptive cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assist, automatic high beam and a reversing camera. I’m also hearing heated seats, keyless entry and start, privacy glass and 18-inch alloy wheels. The sole option being whether to buy in front- or four-wheel-drive.

The big pitch is recognition not only that the compact crossover market is a goldmine, having shown a threefold lift in sales in the last five years but, with 22 models now against 11 then, it is also a packed playzone.


Volkswagen e-Golf

The VW e-Golf.

This is the electric Golf buggy you cannot take around the course; it’s a Tesla-beating version of the top-selling compact hatch that swaps a fossil-fuelled powerplant for 300kms’ battery-pure urge. How’s that going to go?

Potentially the e-Golf will be niche, but it’s nonetheless an important flagship for a broader VW New Zealand electric drive kicking off around mid-year and also delivering a Passat wagon and another Golf with plug-in hybrid technology.

Both battery-included models, which look orthodox save for their GTE badging, also stand as special stars of a refreshed mainstream Golf lineup here in June. The Golf GTE runs the same 110kW 1.4-litre petrol and 75kW electric running gear as the A3 e-tron from sister brand Audi that has been on sale here for two years.

The wholly electric model also sets the scene for the longer-term introduction for the brand’s first fully-bespoke electric vehicle, previewed by its I.D. concept, expected to render in production form in 2020 and deliver an astounding 600kms’ operation between recharges.

So who’s going to buy an e-Golf? VW New Zealand boss Tom Ruddenklau identifies a bigger market than simply private sector Green intenders.

“When you look at the role of an EV as a pool car for a corporate – well, it’s perfect. It’s got a charging place every night and travel that is reflective of its range. It (e-Golf) will work really well and we’ve had really good expressions of interest from that corporate space.”

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