Chinese takeaway took on a new meaning in 2009 – at least for anyone looking to buy a new car. While Australians may have finally got their tongues around Hyundai and Kia, they're now being asked to digest a new breed of brands from the world's most populous nation. Think Geely, Chery and Great Wall Motors, with the latter choosing the year of the ox to try its hand in a market in love with Toyotas, Mazdas, BMWs and Holdens.

In a market that felt the chill of the GFC (the car industry hardly needed another acronym, especially one as unfriendly as this) that saw sales slide 20 per cent from record levels of 1 million cars-plus, the arrival of Chinese brands was about as significant as Malcolm Turnbull's last supper.

Only a handful of the bargain-priced GWMs found Australian homes, but the automotive industry is bracing for a wave of competition from a country that learns quickly and has big aspirations.

But while the Chinese are thinking big, the automotive industry used 2009 to turn its attention to small. It's all about being green. As the environmental message gathers pace, in 2009 Australians learnt all about carbon dioxide emissions and how using less fuel can help slow global warming.

Now car makers not only spout their vehicles' kilowatts and boot space but also its fuel consumption and grams of CO2 emitted each kilometre. The great Aussie love affair with large cars continued to wane, with the once dominant segment accounting for just over one in 10 new vehicle sales, while small cars are on target to account for 36 per cent of the 900,000-odd sales.

And it's not just the size of the cars going down but what's powering them. Volkswagen's Golf broke all the small car rules, trading engine capacity – its 1.4-litre is 25 per cent smaller than the competition – for the improved efficiency of turbocharging.

It worked: The Golf is the most economical in its class and comfortably won Drive's annual Car of the Year award, the automotive equivalent of Best Restaurant in the Good Food Guide.

Holden, too, was thinking small for its large car that's on target to be the biggest seller for the 14th consecutive year. The Commodore's six-cylinder engine turned the clock back to the 1980s with a 3.0-litre V6 designed to reduce fuel use of the great Aussie large car.

A multi-million dollar ad campaign spruiked the economy benefits of the Commodore, claiming it's up to 10 per cent more economical than the rival Ford Falcon.

But when Drive pitted the two cars against each other in a 1000km fuel economy battle around Mount Panorama, Holden's much-hyped Commodore came out second best. In the ultimate statement that the classic Aussie six-cylinder may go the way of the dinosaurs, though, Ford announced it would soon fit a four-cylinder engine for its Falcon large car.

But it was Toyota that delivered the knockout punch for green motoring in 2009. While the world's most popular hybrid car, the Prius, was being wheeled out in third generation guise, Toyota began producing a hybrid version of the Camry, to go on sale early in 2010. Already fleets are snapping up the petrol-electric fuel miser that could be as much about publicity as the environment.

Electric cars also made their mark on 2009, at least in principal. Mitsubishi promised to start selling its tiny i-MiEV while brands from Audi to Volvo used motor shows to show off some high voltage fare.

BMW, one of many brands against the idea of hybrids, showed off its radical Vision Efficient Dynamics concept, with a diesel-electric drivetrain that the maker claims delivers Porsche-rivaling performance while using less fuel than even Australia's most economical newcomer, Ford's Fiesta ECOnetic (using a miserly 3.7 litres per 100km).

Not even politics stayed out of the 2009 car market. Having incensed car makers with a confusing luxury car tax (many are still questioning why helicopters or yachts don't have a luxury tax yet the humble Toyota LandCruiser is slugged thousands) our esteemed PM through a lifeline to car makers with the 50 per cent investment allowance. The move to allow small businesses to pull forward their tax deduction breathed life in to the market, even leaving some dealers short of stock.

Still, despite the focus on the affordable and the small-is-big mindset, there's still clearly room for some fun in car land. Just ask Ferrari, which revealed its sexiest car ever in the 458 Italia. Screaming V8 engine, two seats and a $500,000 price tag. What economic crisis?

Hey, at least it's more economical than any Ferrari before it. Strangely, though, that wasn't the biggest news surrounding the world's best known supercar brand.

Few could forget Top Gear Live's attempt to deceive showgoers with Toyotas dressed up as Ferraris. All a harmless stunt? Those paying hundreds of dollars for tickets didn't think so. Yes, there's never a dull moment in car land.