Behind the scenes at Wheels Car of the Year 2020

There is no event like Car of the Year. Here’s how the 2020 running went down

Wheels 2020 Car of the Year Behind the scenes

“It’s going to be between the BMW 3 Series and the Porsche 911,” I said, with all the breezy confidence of a man who knows how these things work. Two weeks before Car of the Year, I’d just been asked what was going to win.

Two weeks later, things are looking a good deal less cut and dried. In fact, so Byzantine is the voting process in the first round that it comes down to eliminating one car from our lists and, when that doesn’t create a clear top five, we have to choose between the Toyota RAV4 and the Peugeot 508. These are Byron Mathioudakis’s two closet favourites at the event and, judging by the look on his face, it’s like telling someone there’s only room for one of their two kids in a lifeboat.

Behind the scenes of Wheels 2020 Car of the Year

Despite my pre-event bluster, this year looked a close-run thing. We’d deliberately culled the number of models back a little from last year in order to concentrate the quality of the field and to make the first round of judging less frenzied. We were also back at Lang Lang, 90km south-east of Melbourne, doing the static poke and prod while staving off hypothermia in a gazebo that was acting like a wind tunnel. Since the last time we were here, GM had introduced stricter safety rules regarding high-centre-of-gravity vehicles at its proving grounds. In other words, there’d be no flat-out stuff with the SUVs.

The alternative is a coned lane-change test. Our host isn’t keen on seeing airborne wheels as the family trucksters jink through the chicane of witch’s hats, so instigates an initial 60km/h speed limit on the exercise for SUVs. Unfortunately, Byron has something of a (genuine) hearing impediment and initially launches a Toyota RAV4 at the fearsomely tight right/left/right maze at 90km/h. Amid manic ESC braking interventions, it emerges with barely a cone left standing.

Behind the scenes of Wheels 2020 Car of the Year

And we thought he’d turn over a new Leaf…

One of the major subtexts of this year’s COTY was whether Volvo’s S60/V60 twins could stage an unprecedented three wins on the bounce following the victories of the XC60 and XC40. Sporting tradition usually dictates that you retire the trophy at that point and design a new one, but given the knitted brows of the judging team emerging from the Volvos, it doesn’t look likely.

Deciphering Noelle Faulkner’s serial killer handwriting shows where Volvo’s three-peat looks to be foundering. There among the randomly slanted scribbles and manic strikeouts was the comment, “No X-factor or any lingering desire to drive it again.” Sorry. Should I have issued a spoiler alert there? Oh well. It’ll be a fresh face up on the podium this year to collect the big gong.

Behind the scenes of Wheels 2020 Car of the Year

Since you’re here, I’ll clue you in that five cars progress to the second round. Byron – and a few others – hoof the Peugeot 508 overboard, which leaves the Toyota RAV4, the Mercedes-Benz EQC, the Tesla Model 3, the Porsche 911 and the Mazda 3. These are the five that perform best against the tried and tested COTY  criteria of Function, Efficiency, Safety, Technology and Value.

The more observant among you will have probably already twigged that 40 percent of the second-round contenders are electric cars, which make up 0.6 percent of Australian new-car sales. Is that an issue? Not really. Car of the Year isn’t a forum to consciously lead or follow; it’s an exercise to assess how well the cars stack up against the criteria. Call it drivetrain agnostic, if you will.

Behind the scenes of Wheels 2020 Car of the Year

Only one EV has won COTY before and the pitchfork brigade still hasn’t fully recovered from the BMW i3’s victory back in 2014. When 66 percent of the final three were cars that drew their power from a plug rather than a pump, it looked likely that we were heading for another controversial one.

For the road routes we have an observer along. An observer from WhichCar TV sponsor Continental has dropped in to see how the Wheels team tests the cars. He gets out at the end of one drive loop looking a little ashen. “You really test the cars,” he says. “I wasn’t quite expecting this use-case.”

Behind the scenes of Wheels 2020 Car of the Year

Charging the two electric cars proves a sparky challenge for the logistics brains trust but neither the Mercedes-Benz nor the Tesla run out of electrons, unlike the i3 six years ago or the Jaguar I-Pace last year. Game on.

Every night the team retires to Inverloch, conspires to miss last food orders at the local eateries and then becomes embroiled in massive but generally good-humoured arguments. Byron objects to Inwood referring to the RAV4 Edge 2.5 as ‘The Noisy Nail’ and, to be fair, the car redeems itself over time. Every year there’s one car that impresses the entire COTY team with its sheer unfussed utility, and this year the RAV4 is it. I’m feeling wholly justified in my sage choice of long termer.

Behind the scenes of Wheels 2020 Car of the Year

Carey and I have a disagreement over his assertion that the 911 couldn’t be deemed good value because Porsche made excess profit on it. Byron then gets into it with Hagon over his claim that the Nissan Juke was one of the most influential cars of the 2010s. Never accuse Wheels judges of a lack of passion.

As the competition progresses, it’s clear that one car would have to trip firmly on its face in order to lose, and it isn’t a candidate that any of us really saw coming. Every day we try to find the chink in its armour, but every evening we all just look at each other, nod in agreement and argue about something else before realising it’s the ungodly hour of 9pm and Inverloch has put up the shutters for the night. Westerman acts as peacekeeper, supplying our unexpectedly palatial Airbnb with enough KFC that we become disappointed if any food during the event doesn’t arrive in a bucket.

So that’s the backstory to COTY 2020. A steady and remorseless grind to winnow the field until one car remains. Trust the process and it will deliver. Just not always in a bucket.

Behind the scenes of Wheels 2020 Car of the Year

A special thanks to Holden and VBOX

Car of the Year requires an army, and this year was made easier with thanks to Holden and VBOX Australia.

Holden’s Lang Lang proving ground offers a range of tough tests for the COTY field, all overseen by Henry Weinlich – a man who never strops smiling.

The facility received an upgrade in 2018 – including resurfacing the 4.7km circular track at a cost of $7.2m – proving that the company is still investing money in Australia.

We also couldn’t have collected the performance testing data without VBOX Australia kindly lending us one of its VBOX Touch units.

It’s easy to use via the 4.3-inch colour touchscreen and the 10Hz GPS receiver provided accurate data logging. A big thanks to all.


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