If you hold even a passing interest in cars and the industry that makes them, you surely won’t have failed to notice that 2010 was an absolute cracker.

We’ve seen some hugely significant cars launched within the last 12 months, including among them some of the most radical machines yet produced, and arguably the most complete supercar to see the light of day. Oh, and the most expensive car ever to go into production.

We’ve also had some memorable stories to feast on; Toyota has been hit hard by the coverage (if not the reality) of its various recall issues, Saab confounded everyone with its return from the brink of collapse, and of course there are the intriguing new ambitions for the future of Lotus, which not even Paul the octopus (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11626050) could have foreseen back last January.

Oh yes, and there’s the small matter of one of the most fascinating Formula One seasons in the history of the sport. But more on that in a bit.

MINI spawns a niche

2010 has been a year of innovation, of moving things on apace and keeping up with the rapidly changing landscape of the motoring world. It’s been a fitting start to a new decade (which, incidentally, is still nameless. Teens? Tennies? Answers on a postcard if you please).

Photo: Citroën DS3 Racing - it's hard to think of a more affordable, yet desirable car on sale at the moment.

Citroën’s DS3 has gone down a storm with press and punters alike, and for good reason. Taking on the ubiquitous MINI at its own game was always going to be a risky business for the French firm, but it has managed to pull off a masterstroke by producing something with bundles of chic, yet which is forward-looking enough not to be cast into the retro bin; something with just the right balance between intricate detailing and fussiness to avoid coming across as contrived. The icing on the cake comes in the form of the driving dynamics, which, while not being MINI-esque in their sharpness, are nonetheless surprisingly involving for something wearing the double-chevron badge.

Photo: Audi A1 (mit funky options)

While we’re on the theme of MINI rivals, it’s worth giving Audi’s A1 a mention. Ingolstadt’s new baby is, and does, exactly what you’d expect of a small Audi: it wears a sharply chiseled suit, is furnished somberly yet impeccably inside, and by all accounts behaves very nicely on the road. I’d still have a DS3, mind, but I don’t doubt that the little Audi is destined to sell by the bucketload.

The beginning of the end for the combustion engine

Meanwhile, 2010 has also been busy whetting the appetites of electric car fans – and no-one more so than Nissan, whose LEAF has become the world’s first mass-produced car powered entirely by batteries. With a range of 100 miles if you’re being sensible (40 if you drive it like a 370Z), it offers an interesting new choice for city dwellers with short commuting distances. Ok, it might not serve the needs of much of the country’s population just yet, but don’t underestimate the importance of the LEAF to the industry as a whole.

[It’s just a shame that most red-blooded males would probably rather be castrated than be seen driving one – a car is as much a style statment as a means of travel and the LEAF has somehow wrestled the anti-style crown away from the Prius, which actually looks quite good these days – Ed]

Photo: Lexus CT200 h - let's hope Lexus continue to produce hybrid cars like this that you wouldn't mind being seen in.

Also playing the electric fiddle, only this time to the accompaniment of internal combustion, is Lexus’ new CT200h, which holds the honour of being the first hybrid car in the 1-series class. Cynical marketing ploy or otherwise, it does at least give Toyota’s luxury arm a USP in a generally dull area of the market. If only the drive lived up to the hype.

Renaissance Brand

Speaking of hype, there was plenty of it surrounding the launch of the new Saab 9-5 this year. And who can blame them? It replaces a car that, despite numerous botched facelifts, had been around so long that rumours abound of the Stonehenge architects using it as inspiration.

Photo: Saab 9-5 - saved from the brink of oblivion in 2010, the market just wouldn't have been the same without the Trollhattan marque.

No matter, because it’s a revelation that the new 9-5 made it at all. The now well-travelled story of Saab’s brush with the grim reaper is an extraordinary one, not least because of just how close it came to oblivion. When the proposed sale from GM to Koenigsegg, a deal which had been on the cards for a good few months, fell through the trapdoor, it looked like time was up; GM had even announced that it would wind down Saab’s operations. As it is, we can still buy brand new Saabs, and that makes me feel all fuzzy inside.

Last cry for the Supercar?

Supercar fans had it good in 2010. The Ferrari 458 Italia and gullwing-doored Mercedes SLS both went on sale, as well as the usual raft of predictably brilliant Porsche 911 variants.

Photo: Ferarri 458 Italia - this might just be the best car in the world right now.

I was lucky enough to have a ride in the Ferrari 458 Italia a few weeks back, and how special it felt too. Not only does it represent an emphatic return to form on the part of Maranello’s design gurus – it really is staggeringly pretty in the metal – but if those whose job it is to report upon such things are to be believed, the 458 is perhaps the best driving tool ever to go on sale. I honestly believe that in 30 years time, we will look back on the 458 as one of the very best and most significant Ferraris of all time.

If there was one car which caused more of a stir than the Italia last year, it was once again the Aston Martin One-77. Rarer than a solar eclipse and even more beautiful, delivery of the 77 cars to some very lucky customers started in October. Sadly, you’re unlikely to ever see one out on the road, as most will surely be kept safe from the outside world and the possibility of being rear-ended by a 1998 Nissan Micra on the A1 near Highbury.

What next? Interstellar travel?

If you’d told me a year ago that, come 2011, Lotus would have launched five new concepts at the same motor show, and with plans to put the lot into production by 2015, I’d have told you to wash your mouth out with some 98 RON super-unleaded. But this is indeed what the Hethel-based manufacturer placed before our eyes at the Paris motor show in September. Yep, there’s a multitude of new Lotus metal apparently on the way: in addition to a new Elise, there are also spiritual successors to the Elan and Esprit, as well as some other new cars called Elite, Eterne, Eclair and Eggnog. Or something like that.

Photo: Lotus Esprit - we hope this new Esprit sees the light of day, despite the lofty ambitions at Group Lotus.

Overall consensus is that Lotus is biting off more than it can chew here, a sentiment summed up by Gavin Green’s excellent article on CAR Online. We hope that these ambitious plans don’t put them in the same sort of bother that it did last time they tried something similar, but I for one can’t help but be more than skeptical. It remains to be seen.

F1 2010 – Bernie’s masterpiece

And then we come to the Formula One. My word, what a season. Motorsport’s crown jewel kept us guessing right up until the very end with its marathon of more twists and turns than your average theme park rollercoaster. Red Bull or Ferrari? Vettel or Alonso? Jordan’s trousers or Coulthard’s?

It was an incredible journey, and one made all the more intriguing by the sheer number of different factors inolved. A certain Michael Schumacher, fed up with sitting on a pit wall for three years, returned to the racing seat in a sport he had comprehensively dominated for years beforehand. There were three fresh teams on the grid, each fighting it out for the title of best newcomer (congratulations Team, er, Lotus Racing or whatever it is they finally become known as).

Photo: Sebastian Vettel 2010 F1 World Champion - the wunderkid comes of age. (source: Getty Images)

And of course, the five-way contest for the championship. Personally, I would have loved to see Aussie mountain-biking enthusiast Mark Webber take the win – it could, after all, turn out to be his last chance of full honours – but with all said and done, who can honestly say that Mr. Vettel didn’t deserve his victory? One thing’s for sure: we haven’t seen the last of that chap at the top of the leaderboard.

It’s hard to believe that the new season is already on the horizon, whence, after the usual flurry of rule-changes to enable more overtaking, battle will commence once more.

2011 gets frantic from next week

That was 2010, then. Can 2011 hope to match it for excitement?

Well, we already have a few tasty morsels to cast our eyes over. Caterham plans to introduce an all-new model to our world at the Autosport International Show on 13th January. Yes, you read that right. A new car from the handling specialists of Surrey, something that hasn’t happened since 1994 when they introduced the 21. According to Caterham, the new car will ‘mark the beginning of a new dawn for the Company, but one that remains true to the lightweight, minimalist DNA of the legendary Seven.’

We’ve got a couple of enticingly-vaunted supercars on the cusp of launch this year, too. There’s Lamborghini’s LP700-4 of course, which will replace the now-defunct Murciélago when it bows in at the Geneva motor show in March. Plus the arrival of the Zonda-succeeding Pagani C9, thought likely to be called the Hyuara.

Also don’t forget the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) which kicks off in Detroit, next week (Monday 10th January). There’s a certain rumour doing the rounds that Porsche will be launching a race version of its achingly gorgeous 918 Spyder, powered by a V8 version of the hybrid powerplant from the 911 GT3 R Hybrid.

2011 promises to be another great journey through the motoring jungle. I for one can’t wait – I hope it’s the same with you. Happy New Year.