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Judging Wheels Car Of The Year

By Sally Dominguez, 11 Jun 2015 Car Opinions

Judging Wheels Car Of The Year

TBH, I had NFI what COTY was! It was just another acronym, like WTF, HBY and LOL. Wait, what? I’m no expert in net-slang, but COTY is one acronym I now know well.

Need to Know:

  • Car designers make great sneaker designers because they are essentially dealing with the same all-weather comfort and handling characteristics

  • Henry Ford made cars from hemp-fibre panels in the 1930s. They were 10 times stronger than steel but DuPont, which was pioneering plastics, lobbied successfully to have hemp outlawed and it's only now being rediscovered as a lighter alternative to steel

  • Your car is probably way more eco-friendly than your house

  • Airbag technology was used to create the Wii. While other manufacturers focused on power, Shigeru Miyamoto was inspired by the motions of sport and used airbag sensors to communicate them from player to console

If you love design, take a good hard look at your car. Your vehicle is probably the most complex consumer product you will ever buy. It’s a cunning, compact mix of fabrics and form, ergonomics, touchscreens and gadgets, all wrapped in a shiny, weatherproof metal safety capsule.

Okay, confession time: I wasn’t always that keen on cars. I’m not a gear-head and at least 50 percent of cars on the road bore me more than daytime TV. But in 2005 Wheels magazine invited me to guest-judge its annual Car Of The Year award – yep, COTY. I wasn’t exactly champing at the bit. Why would anyone want to drive more than 50 cars non-stop over a week? GTFOOH. Then my car-crazy brother threatened to disown me unless I accepted. Now, several Wheels COTYs later, I’m first in line for more. You see, via Wheels COTY, I came to realise the synergy between cars, interiors and products, and I was hooked. Styling, sustainability, space-age concepts, technology, new materials, people-centric design – what’s not to love?

Wheels COTY is a gruelling week-long marathon of testing, arguing, limit-pushing, car-wrangling goodness. It’s an exhausting critical process, at the end of which the expert judges squeeze out a winning car. There’s more tension and drama than a hospital delivery room! Wheels COTY picks apart the ads and the hype, discrepancies in quoted and actual fuel figures, drivetrains, airbag options and technical jargon, and it funnels it into a set of finalists.

As the world’s oldest continuously running new car award, the Wheels COTY accolade carries huge clout for manufacturers, so to ensure a level playing field during testing, Wheels judges all cars against five criteria (function, efficiency, value, technology and safety) to identify a single winner.

A key ingredient for an effective Wheels COTY is a diverse range of experts. Ideally the judging panel includes a trainspotter, a techno-geek, a technophobe, designers, parents and a range of body types and genders, all of whom are counted among the most experienced, well-informed and most critical automotive journalists in Australia.

undefinedSally looks like she's enjoying every minute at the Wheels Car of the Year 2014.

Years of professional judging on ABC TV’s New Inventors had equipped me to assess a vehicle based on its materials, technologies, user interface and fit and finish. But no amount of product experience could have prepared me for the first time a skeptical bloke handed me the keys to a Porsche Boxster and told me to hit a dirt track “without driving like a nanna”. Talk about performance anxiety!

I’ve come to realise that my background in design and sustainability, my physique, and yes, my gender, gives me a unique insight into cars. Where the boys saw “interesting dashboard plastics” I saw “lazy-arse use of toxic off-gassing phthalates”. Where they saw “fits three in the back”, I saw “kill me if I ever have to sit in a middle seat that hard and narrow”. I questioned a two-seater car with five cup holders, a ski-port that wouldn’t fit wide skis and a ‘family’ car with no vanity mirrors or reversing sensors (please, these are like five-dollar items, people. Just make them standard).

Wheels COTY: think of it as the car Olympics, and I’m the skeptical but artistic Russian gymnast judge.

Click here to read details of the contenders that battled it out in the latest Wheels Car of the Year


Sally Dominguez is a multi-award winning Australian product designer and architect now living in the USA. Her products include the Nest highchair and HOG tank. She is currently running her own Adventurous Thinking tools and strategies program.