TWENTY 16 CAR OF THE YEAR

wheels 8 9 - P A G E B U M P E R S E C T I O N

WORDS ALEX INWOOD

EIGHT JUDGES FACE A LINE-UP OF 25 OF THE YEAR’S BEST CARS. OVER SEVEN DAYS, THEY’LL SHAKE OUT FLAWS AND WEAKNESSES WHILE AIMING TO UNCOVER BRILLIANCE. THE SEARCH FOR 2016’s AUTOMOTIVE SUPERSTAR STARTS HERE…

T W E N T Y C A R O F T H E Y E A R S I X T E E N

THE Start

J JOHN CAREY, THE RENOWNED MOTORING WRITER AND WEARER OF ORANGE SHIRTS WITH MATCHING SHOELACES, IS TALKING. I KNOW THIS BECAUSE HIS MOUTH IS MOVING, BUT HIS WORDS ARE BEING DROWNED OUT BY THE RAIN HAMMERING THE WINDSCREEN.

J To fill the gap, I replace them with ones of my own creation, summoned from the part of my brain where fear lives: “Why did it have to rain?!”

We’re cocooned in the cabin of an Audi Q7 and Carey is showing us ‘newbie’ judges around our COTY home for three days: Holden’s Lang Lang proving ground.

It’s a sweeping ribbon of tarmac that now resembles a toddler’s swimming pool, thanks to a hard-hitting storm. The knowledge that today will be spent hurling everything from a $12,990 Suzuki Celerio to a $300,000 AMG GT S around these sopping bends sucks my adrenalin gland dry.

I’m one of three rookie judges; a 27-year-old staffer that suddenly feels a little out of his depth. The other two are more experienced. Damion Smy, who’s a jammy bastard, smugly reminds me he’s judged on Car magazine’s COTY in the UK. And Toby Hagon has been a motoring journo for so long he COTY virgins. We popped our cherries yesterday in a suspiciously clean tent pitched on Lang Lang’s skidpan. Avid COTY readers will know this is part of the process, as Day One is spent inspecting each contender in a static environment. Eager to impress my more experienced colleagues, I contribute with clever observations like, “Look at how straight this stitching is!” and “This rear seat packaging is brilliant!”.

Other judges aren’t so serious. Byron Mathioudakis, whose personality is as flowery as his car knowledge is vast, reveals a unique technique for testing boot size. It involves him climbing inside, shutting the lid and then clambering out with no further explanation. The fourth time this happens, Hagon and I lock him inside.

Another game, dubbed “find the ciggie lighter”, is slightly more instructional. Seems cigarette lighters have gone the way of CDs and been replaced by USB ports, six of which are in the Land Rover J resembles a piece of furniture.

Technically, though, we’re no longer Discovery Sport. Lighters are much rarer and a full day’s searching locates only a handful,

TESTING TIMES

1 STATIC POKE AND PROD

After a short presentation on the model’s genesis, the judges inspect its every orifice. Exterior and interior design, packaging efficiency, seating, cargo space, versatility.

2 RIDE AND HANDLING: SEALED ROAD (4.0KM)

Used for on-limit handling, bitumen ESC effectiveness, braking stability and steering characteristics.

3 RIDE AND HANDLING: GRAVEL ROAD (1.4KM)

Slippery sand over hard-packed clay, and a slight crown.

Used to assess handling and ESC effectiveness.

4 DIRT ABS TEST

Full-force panic stop at 80km/h on a silty surface that can become muddy in wet conditions.

5 ROUGH RIDE ROAD (1.0KM)

Potholes, patches, lumps and bumps driven at a steady 100km/h reveal plenty about a car’s stability and rigidity.

6 DOUBLE LANECHANGE (120M)

Simulates emergency avoidance manoeuvre at 80km/h. Primarily assesses ESC system on bitumen.

7 WET ABS TEST

Another 80km/h brake test, this time on wetted concrete. Reveals not just stopping ability, but also stability.

one of which is in the BMW 740i. To light your fat-cat cigars from rolled $100 bills, I’m guessing.

It’s not the only area BMW’s luxo barge impresses.

Its cabin and soothing ride are so serene that the 7 Series glides over Lang Lang’s nasty mix of tram tracks and brutal bumps. And you can forget fears that such a cosseting ride might cause it to capsize during frenzied changes of direction. Through the lane-change exercise, the two-tonne Bimmer nails the tricky right-left manoeuvre with ease.

Not every car is as composed. The drenched track, which ranges from ‘ice-rink’ on tarmac to ‘butt-puckering’ on the long dirt component, is like kryptonite to a poorly calibrated ESP system. Turn One in particular is a bitch and by mid-morning deep, criss-crossing gouges in the grass at corner exit shows someone has gone off. Editor Butler demands the culprit own up, but no one steps forward to cop the stinging embarrassment. Everyone quietly blames Byron.

Day Three dawns to a dry track and the thunderous roar of V8 engines as testing resumes in the hardcore Lexus RC F and AMG GT S. The brutal Benz leaves the loudest impression and is so ferociously fast that I discover it’s possible to complete two laps of Lang Lang in the time it takes other cars to finish one. The AMG’s new 4.0-litre twin-turbo eight is so powerful that burying the right pedal delivers the same kind of thrust fighter pilots must experience when they ignite the afterburners.

The downside is that this also drains half the world’s fuel supplies, so it’s with a greener conscience that I jump out of the Benz and into the BMW i8, which uses a hybrid drivetrain to cuddle the ozone layer. It’s a riot to drive too, and as I clamber out of its cockpit I declare that of the two $300K supercars, I prefer the i8. I recognise the silence this generates as the first warning sign. The second is the look on Hagon’s face, which is the type of expression I reserve for people eating their own vomit.

“You cannot be serious,” he cries. “If I’m spending that much on a car I want people to hear me coming, not silently pull up in my driveway in something that looks like a spaceship.”

The resulting verbal brawl quickly ropes in the rest of the judges, most of who side with Hagon. I retaliate by calling them showboating philistines. When Carey (who I speedily rebrand as a forward-thinking visionary) switches sides, the argument hits another gear.

It’s not the only stoush of the afternoon. With the driving complete, the judges squash into a room to vote on which cars deserve to progress to Round 2 – the real world. Every car is rated against the five COTY criteria (function, value, safety, efficiency and technology) and after three hours of intense argument, eight cars are deemed worthy. Last year, only five made the cut.

Both the i8 and AMG make it through and, although this argument continues to rage with increasing savagery, it’s quickly rendered moot. Not by us, but by a small sportscar from Japan. Mazda’s fourth-generation MX-5 is such a hoot that it delivers Hagon and I with our single greatest driving moment of COTY testing. Hagon is driving, I’m in the passenger seat and as we barrel

DAY THREE DAWNS TO A DRY TRACK AND THE THUNDEROUS ROAR OF V8 ENGINES

“THERE IS AN ACCUSED CHEAT WITHIN THE RANKS”

into a sharp left-hander, the rear steps out. It’s a small slide that Hagon catches easily, before dropping back a cog and hooking up the drive so perfectly that we rocket out of the corner faster than we managed in either the i8 or the AMG. This, we decide, is what COTY is about. What we don’t realise is that controversy is about to rain on our parade.

With two days of Round 2 testing completed, the judges meet to whittle the field down to a top three. But before a single vote is cast, editor Butler drops a bombshell: “There is an accused cheat within the ranks.” News had broken overnight that the VW Group’s 3.0-litre TDI turbo-diesel had been dragged into the ‘Dieselgate’ scandal. And while the Q7 hasn’t actually been named, Butler is concerned we could potentially name a ‘cheating’ COTY winner. It’s a legitimate worry; until now the Q7’s superb dynamics and lush, high-tech interior have given it a real shot at becoming only the second SUV (after Ford’s Territory in 2004) to win Wheels COTY.

In the end Butler decides not to disqualify the Audi solely on the strength of an accusation, and we vote on the top three. This signals the beginning of the final round, where the finalists are driven four-up to further assess rear-seat ride and comfort. I’m plonked in the left-rear seat of each contender and spend the day contemplating the fact that the best week of the year is almost over. For car lovers like you and I, COTY is like being let loose in a fuel-infused candy store. So knowing the doors are about to be slammed shut is depressing.

Still, the process demands a result, and the judges congregate to make the most important decision of all. COTY diehards will know the final vote is a secret ballot, where each judge writes a single name on a stark white card before the editor tallies the result in the nearest brasco. Only he will know the winner.

The process takes an age, as some judges agonise over the final decision. For others it’s easy.

Butler soon returns to announce we have a clear winner. He continues to speak, but strangely, just like with Carey in the Q7, his words don’t reach my ears.

Instead, my brain is grappling with the whirlwind of emotions delivered by this anticlimax. After such an intense and invested week, it seems bitterly unfair that I don’t know which car is the winner. Even as I write these words I still don’t know who took out the gong, so the following pages hold just as many secrets for me as they do for you. Time for us both to turn the pages…

REAL WORLD

Rinse and repeat: The on-road component sees the same bitumen pounded at the same speeds in each car. That means each variant selected to go through to Stage Two tackles the road loop, typically taking an hour to complete, that starts in Korumburra on smooth, urban roads before heading north over a coarse-chip before heading north over a coarse-chip surface through undulating hills. Then, through picturesque Loch, it’s a quick left up a steep, spaghetti shoelace that tests gearing, torque and serves up the occasional poorly repaired pothole. This opens up into 100km/h zones through Glen Alvie and some stunning winding, undulating roads before heading back into Korumburra. By now, engine, ride, chassis talent and noise supression have had a chance to shine, all while real-world fuel consumption has been recorded. There’s not a more thorough, repeatable way to test cars in the real world.

COT Y B Y C O U N T RY O F O R I G I N

GERMANY (8)

Audi TT BMW i8 BMW X1 BMW 2 Series AT BMW 7 Series Merecedes S-Class Coupe Mercedes-AMG GT S Volkswagen Passat

JAPAN (3)

Lexus RC Mazda CX-3 Mazda MX-5

THAILAND (3)

Ford Everest Honda HR-V Suzuki Celerio

CZECH REPUBLIC (2)

Hyundai Tucson Skoda Fabia

SOUTH KOREA (2)

Kia Sorento Kia Optima

UNITED KINGDOM (2)

Jaguar XE Land Rover Discovery Sport

SPAIN (1)

Ford Mondeo

SLOVAKIA (1)

Audi Q7

SWEDEN (1)

Volvo XC90

HUNGARY (1)

Suzuki Vitara

ITALY (1)

Jeep Renegade

AUSTRALIA (0)