I’ve just finished judging Wheels Car Of The Year (known as COTY in-house) and what an exhilarating buzz this year’s competition was! When I started judging COTY 10 years ago there were more than a few cars that were downright scary on road and gravel in the pouring rain. The progress manufacturers have made in stability control and handling technologies is huge, and this year even the tiny $12,000 three-cylinder pup was a thrill to drive in the torrential tornado-driven downpour that hit the Holden Proving Grounds.
We drove for seven days, testing on and off-road handling, wet and dry braking, driver aids, seat comfort and general safety kit. Some cars are a joy to throw around the track for a day or two but a nightmare on bumpy public roads. Others really come good when climbing a winding country road or swerving to avoid an echidna – I counted nine roadside echidnas during testing! From a field of really competent cars, I’ve picked the five I would love to keep.
The Audi Q7 was a huge surprise to me. When this behemoth first hatched it looked and drove like a giant boulder. Now, with engine tweaks and silence in the cabin, it’s a first-class experience for the passengers, with stalwart power for the driver. From its impeccably thought-out detailing, with headlining fabric matched to speaker perforations, and controls housed within the a/c vents for function and visual economy, the Q7 was a space I didn’t want to leave. Three levels of recline and front/back movement in the second row and press-button folding for the third row are guaranteed to impress passengers but it’s the drive that was the quantum leap improvement. This is my dream family road-trip car and it has a huge towing capacity.
The true wonder of the i8 is not its drivetrain technology; it’s the fact BMW has made a fantasy concept car come to life with no compromise on its extreme lines and finishes. Sure, it’s a hybrid petrol-electric with ripper performance and crazy-good fuel economy, but that view in the side mirror back to a boot fishtailing apart in two sections, the effortless scissor doors and the fact that this beauty has four seats – those are the details we don’t normally get in an everyday extreme-bodied supercar. The Tesla Model S is faster, roomier and boasts pure electric brilliance but nothing says ‘future’ more than an i8 hurling down the highway with a kid seat in the back.
I am a huge fan of the sweet engine and designer dash lines of the Mazda2 and was intrigued to see those bits housed in a chunkier all-wheel-drive version. Of all the cars I drove around the streets of rural Victoria, the CX3 garnered the most compliments. Seriously. Those flowing sill lines from the 2 look even better when wrapping around the back of the car on the jacked-up body of the CX3, and the new roof floats on top with a joyous little kick to the rear. The manual gearbox is a beautiful thing with – for me – the perfect throw and general ergonomics. If you love the Mazda2 driving experience but want a higher seating position, a bigger boot or an all-wheel drive with signature Mazda fuel economy, the CX3 is a winner.
MERCEDES S CLASS COUPE
Where the Q7 is first class in a commercial airliner, the S Class is an exclusive private jet. In the past few years I’ve found Mercedes visually a little blingy but the S Class, in its full cream leather glory, is a design dream come true, and it has the driver credentials to match. It cossets the passengers, and provides the driver with formidable power and handling. Titans of business take note – this vehicle could be your spa between appointments and the salve to a long deal-ridden day. Then help trounce your peers on the track. It has effortless power, Hollywood comfort, stellar safety credentials and, as one of the boys commented: “It makes you look classy.” Thanks Mercedes – just what we all need!
If it’s just you, and you love an energising and involving drive with the wind in your hair, the MX-5 is the ultimate machine. Honed to perfection, there’s a little of Jessica Rabbit in the new body – the MX-5 isn’t the fastest, the loudest or the most powerful car; it’s just drawn that way. Whether you opt for the peppy 1.4-litre or the chunkier 2.0-litre engine, be sure to spec the GT option with piano interior detailing and headrest speakers. Top down, music blaring, steering this perfectly balanced toy into a curvy pass, the road is truly your friend. This is not a car I love to be a passenger in, but I’d own it in a heartbeat and never give it up.