Editor’s letter

AS CAR OF THE YEAR ROUND-TABLE DISCUSSIONS GO, THIS ONE WAS WITHOUT PRECEDENT. WHAT SHOULD WE DO WITH CONTENDERS ACCUSED OF CHEATING? EIGHT PASSIONATE JUDGES SHARED THEIR THOUGHTS IN SOMBRE TONES LACED WITH MISTRUST FOR EVERYTHING VW.

GLENN BUTLER

As you’ll read on page 70, four VW, Audi and Skoda vehicles were among this year’s nominees.

Never before have judges known that the cars gathered for COTY testing included potential cheats. I’m sure about this, because at one point during the debate, I asked Robbo – new retired, but with four decades of COTY under his belt – whether history could offer some guidance.

Peter Robinson, spectating from the back of the conference room, had come down to COTY to catch up with old mates. His wry smile and slow headshake told me two things: Robbo clearly didn’t envy the situation Wheels found itself in; and he had never experienced anything like this in his 44 years on the job.

The arguments around the table fell into two main camps. The first advocated for immediate disqualification. The second took a more pragmatic view: Innocent until proven guilty.

No cars with the EA189 diesel engine were among our 55-car COTY test fleet. But news had broken the night before that VW Group’s 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel was now the subject of intense scrutiny by the US EPA.

The 2016 Audi Q7 has a 3.0-litre V6 turbo-diesel, and we had two on our COTY fleet, but this model was not among those named on the EPA’s latest Notice of Violation. We immediately sought clarification from Audi Australia on whether the clarification from Audi Australia on whether the Q7’s engine was under investigation. They said no, but that didn’t answer the real question: Can we trust VW Group? Can Wheels trust its cars with our COTY?

Wheels has invested 53 years building COTY into one of the world’s most prized automotive awards. Wheels COTY has a credibility borne of its tireless search for excellence, not just in the cars we test, but in how we test and how we judge. And now Volkswagen Group was putting that reputation at risk. Imagine for a moment that the COTY winner is later found to be an emissions cheat…

The real question is: can we trust VW Group? Can Wheels trust its cars with our COTY?

Like our 2009 winner, the Mk6 VW Golf. One of the five engine variants tested that year was the EA189 2.0-litre turbo-diesel at the centre of the Dieselgate scandal. We are not withdrawing the 2009 award from VW, because COTY is not subject to retrospective findings. It’s judged on information available at the time of testing.

This year’s problem is more pointed. We were in the midst of testing, and information from a credible third party had come to light, accusing a COTY contender of cheating US regulations.

Accused, but not guilty. Not yet. Maybe next month. Maybe never. Remember, too, these are US regulations. We do not know if any Australian regulations have been broken.

Wheels passes verdicts on cars every week, but we are no substitute for a court of law when it comes to legal matters. And Wheels does not implement knee-jerk policy, nor play judge, jury and executioner as another car award has done eliminating all VW Group vehicles from judging.

As the heated arguments around the table wound down, I decided to heed the words of previous editors – the COTY process delivers the winner – and advised each judge to keep their own counsel. Wheels’ judging panel is without peer. And as for the process… it’s robust enough to handle the world’s biggest automotive scandal.

Feeding the lions

Imagine if we could get the designers and engineers who shaped the Holden Commodore – from the 1976 VB right through to today’s brilliant VF Series II – in a room together, ply them with alcohol and get them to tell war stories...

Robbo’s report of what these seven great Holden men had to say starts on page 80. Plenty of pride was on display for what Australians had achieved.

Passion, too: Watching engineer Tony Hyde (above) and designer Mike Simcoe reignite what was clearly an old VN argument after a couple of reds was fantastic.