“YOU LOOK like a divorcee trying to win favour with his ex by pretending he’s responsible.” Ouch.
Wheels Car of the Year judges have a way of cutting you down to size and this was just the first of many withering assessments that I came to realise are the lifeblood of COTY judging. You need a thick skin and an arsenal of ammo to back up your opinions.
As a newbie to the Wheels judging panel, this event was an exercise in getting up to speed fast. Performing a stand-up presentation on four of the cars to the judging panel was tougher than expected. I was treated to grizzled veteran John Carey’s full gamut of grunts and growls when I didn’t have the ride height difference between the Alfa Giulia Veloce and Super instantly to hand. Even automotive savant Byron Mathioudakis just gazed at me blankly as if he’d experienced a temporary blue screen of death. “I can get back to you on that one,” I temporised to a raised eyebrow and some terse jotting.
Even to somebody who’s been a motoring writer for nearly twenty years, the scale, pace, thoroughness and sheer weight of tradition of Car of the Year is an eye-opener. This year’s event saw 55 individual cars across 22 makes and models exercised on the dirt roads and unforgiving bitumen of Holden’s Lang Lang proving ground. From there, the field is whittled down to six models for the road section, with a second sift leaving just three standing. From those three finalists, and after another round of testing, the judges write a single name on a piece of paper and, for some while, editor Inwood’s the only person who knows what’s won.
You also learn that the cars stand or fall by the long-standing judging criteria of function, efficiency, safety, technology and value. Hugely popular and enjoyable cars only need to drop one of these balls and they’re doomed. Lang Lang’s the perfect place to expose shortcomings in a car’s dynamics.
The schedule is brutal. Every car is driven by every judge on every surface. A quick back of the hand calculation of 20 minutes per vehicle assessment puts the second day’s workload at 600 minutes. Ten hours testing would have to be squared away before dusk, when the snappers needed all of the contenders together for the group photo. No pressure then.
Another lesson picked up here is that it’s next to useless coming into the event with preconceptions as to what will do well. The process is such that it finds things out that a carefully-curated manufacturer press launch sometimes does its best to conceal.
For an ex-Pom, the notion of driving a $400K sports car on dirt is still brain-bendingly alien, but it makes a strange sort of sense in assessing suspension tune, ESC calibration, loose-surface braking capabilities and noise suppression. It’s also pretty good fun to pretend you’re Didier Auriol even if you are at the wheel of a front-wheel drive Holden Equinox.
Several things keep you on your toes. I remain to be convinced that there’s a spot on the earth’s surface with a greater density of echidnas than Lang Lang, or that any other creature has such a blithely suicidal tendency. Fortunately we left the populace intact but only after getting a few radio heads-ups that one had ambled onto an apex. Then there are the rough ride sections, double lane changes and both wet bitumen and dirt braking tests.
The lane change is an eye-opener and the bellwether here is the photography and video corps. When they assemble at the cones, you can be sure something borderline inept is barrelling its way down.
The road routes, I soon discover, are not only a great way to assess the everyday utility of each car, but also a priceless one-on-one opportunity to discuss with your fellow judges why a car should or shouldn’t progress. As Byron demonstrates, you can never be too detail oriented. He’s able to pick up buzzes and rattles that I’m struggling to register. Later he admits he has tinnitus. There’s nobody better for putting a car’s history in context though, and his ability to dismantle a car’s lack of design originality is amazing.
It’s best to approach the curmudgeonly Carey only when he’s up to his caffeine quota. Asked by a videographer (who couldn’t have been more cardboard cut-out millennial) to look as if he was having fun, Carey fixed him with a deathless stare before cutting him dead with, “It’s Monday morning, it’s raining, I’m driving an SUV and I’m at work. This is not fun.” It entertained me though.
We whittle the contenders down to a final three, then perform Wheels’ traditional four-ups around the drive route to further assess rear-seat ride and comfort. The arguments have been lengthy and I’ve seen allegiances shift as the testing becomes more intense and the dissection of each contender ever more forensic. It’s been both exhilarating and exhausting, but finally we arrive at that moment where we get to write one car’s name on a piece of paper and hand it to editor Inwood, who then slopes off to the khazi and emerges with the announcement that we have a winner.
Apparently, it’s not the done thing to try to cajole the winner out of him and Inwood’s a bit too sharp to be bamboozled into betraying the victor. I think I know, but I’m only 60 percent sure. It’s deeply frustrating to leave COTY without knowing the result, but the wait only renders the anticipation more piquant. Both of us will only scratch that itch by waiting until January when all will be revealed.