I’M STANDING in the early morning mist, a shiny but lifeless BMW i3 behind me, its charging plug limp in my hand. I can only imagine the hushed discussion going on inside the remote weatherboard house in front of me.
Truth be told, I’m not holding out much hope. Unshaven, dressed in a hoody and wearing a flat-brim cap, I hardly look the trustworthy type. And I’m desperate.
En route to meet the judges for Round Two of Wheels Car of the Year testing, taking the pure-electric i3 had seemed an excellent idea the night before. After all, the journey from the You Yangs proving ground to our new base at Leongatha, where we’ll spend the next four days testing the five finalists, was only 136km and the i3’s range computer boasted 140km. But with 20km left to run on hilly Gippsland roads the batteries ran flat and I was stranded.
It took five long minutes between an inquisitive face peering through the curtains and the door finally opening. An extension cord was offered, hands shook and the inevitable question asked: “How much is this going to cost me?”
When I sheepishly join the judges three hours later, crushing laughter greets me.
But behind the mirth lurks a very serious matter for the i3 and its fiendishly fast electric cousin, the Tesla.
“Can a car that can’t complete COTY testing actually win?” asks editor Butler.
Brows are furrowed and opinions split before the law is laid down. It’s agreed the COTY framework, as it’s done in the past, will be flexible to account for the rapidly changing motoring landscape. After all, if electric cars are to be the future, it would be wrong to judge them solely with eyes that look to the past.
Of course, the three petrol-powered finalists – the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Mazda 2 and Peugeot 308 – have no such issues. What is a problem, though, is the realisation that awarding a winner is going to be the hardest decision in years.
Two days of hard testing, during which the judges are paired up to pound each
car around a 60km urban and rural road loop, does little to create a clear hierarchy.
Even the round of voting that follows can’t decide the top three.
“Right. We need a tie-breaker,” declares Butler after tallying the votes in secret.
The news is met with groans, then the judges knuckle down, re-reading notes, re-tallying individual scores against the COTY criteria, before casting one extra, crucial, vote. The tie-breaker works, the three finalists for the 2014 Wheels Car of the Year have emerged: The BMW i3, Mazda 2 and Peugeot 308.
If he was looking for smiles, high-fives or any reaction at all, the editor is left disappointed. The announcement leaves the room flat, each judge stunned into silence. Eventually they wander off, some numbed by the loss of the bookies’ favourite, the Mercedes-Benz, and their personal favourite, the Tesla, others preparing watertight arguments for the most important round of all: Round 3.
It begins with a day of four-up testing on an urban-biased road loop and ends, somewhat predictably, with an argument.
During this longest and toughest roundtable discussion, every car has its merits tested against each of the COTY criteria: function, safety, efficiency, value and technology. Every weakness is exposed and every strength extolled. During this discussion no question is left unasked, no concern unexpressed.
If the judging for Round 2 was hard, Round 3 proves almost impossible. Even Peter Robinson, a man with 42 COTYs under his belt, a man who relishes making tough decisions, is visibly torn. Sitting alone in the corner of the wood-panelled voting room, Robbo takes the longest to cast his final vote. His head shakes, his hands twist in worry and his pen twitches before he eventually flings the precious piece of paper Butler’s way.
Since the final ballot is secret, we’ll never know how Robbo voted. The way I see it, each judge had three options: be brave (the BMW), be safe (the Mazda) or take a left-field punt (the Peugeot).
Regardless of how the votes tally, in the end, the winner is Wheels Car of the Year.