The cars I drove in 2012 were an eclectic bunch, everything from superminis to supercars, practical estates and all-weather 4x4s to the rawest of road-going sports cars. The oldest dates back more than half a century, the newest is barely on sale, and they span values from well under £10,000 to the best part of £500,000. Just a handful of them stand out as something special, though not always for the right reasons.

Three tiny petrol engines underlined that this was the year downsizing went mainstream. The Ford Ecoboost and Nissan DIG-S triples, and Renault's 1.2-litre TCe four-cylinder, proved that there was plenty of life left in the petrol engine. All three were smooth, free-revving engines with the potential to deliver excellent fuel economy, but each one had an eager character and plenty of performance. Of course you can't expect to use all that go and still deliver mpg figures to make forecourt operators wince, but at least you have the choice: opting for an economical engine no longer means giving up on motoring fun.

There were some cars in 2012 that weren't as much fun as they should have been: a quick spin in Alfa's Giulietta and Mito left me curiously unexcited, for instance, while the Mazda3 MPS was rapid but too jerky and too unruly to really be fun.

But a brief acquaintance with the new Porsche 911 left me wanting more, and it was great to be reminded by some familiar machines just how effectively some cars can deliver driving thrills for relatively little money. The Mazda MX-5 and Nissan 370Z are obvious candidates for that, but even cars with more humble aims can be grinworthy, and on that score there's little to touch a Ford Fiesta. The Ford still has breathtaking balance and poise on real-world roads, and few cars anywhere near its price can match it.

Nissan 370Z (above) and Mazda MX-5 (below): still deliver driving thrills

Other bargains included the £13k Suzuki Swift Sport, with its delicious throttle-adjustable handling, and the Skoda Yeti - a sensible, likable, car that coped admirably with the worst of the summer's torrential rain. It's a shame the new Skoda Rapid that I tried later in the year wasn't as impressive: some of the build economies were painfully obvious, and the ride quality from the pan-European suspension set-up just wasn't good enough.

It was the cars that were more than good enough that really stood out.

One was cold, wet, deafening, and totally irresistible. Richard Murphy's Austin-Healey 100S is one of only 50 made in 1955, and it is insured for £500,000. It has a competition exhaust which exits from the side of the car, right under the driver’s ear: when you punch the throttle the menacing burble at idle becomes a bellow, adding to the feeling of speed generated by the wind blast over a tiny screen and the panorama receding in the alloy bullet mirror on the scuttle. With just 132bhp it's not what you'd call fast, by modern standards, but this 50s icon was a fascinating reminder of the way sports cars used to be.

The way they are today is very different, and no car epitomised the contrast more than my motoring highlight of 2012 - the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG. That the SLS was blisteringly fast was no surprise: 6.2 litres and 563bhp, driving the rear wheels through a seven-speed twin-clutch transmission, took care of that. What was really impressive, though, was the breadth of the SLS's ability.

Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG: Extraordinary breadth of ability

Over 500 rapid miles the SLS returned 22mpg, astonishing for such a powerful machine, and it remained cossetting and urbane where most cars with similar performance would be petulant and uncompromising. And it stole every entrance with those trademark gullwing doors. It's the car of my year.