Sat before me in the shadowy gloom at Ford’s You Yang’s proving grounds, the seven COTY judges have just finished tallying the votes for the first round of judging, which has decimated the field.
Of the 21 models eligible for the gong, only five have survived the past three days, which has seen every car tested pitilessly at You Yang’s purpose built facility; a sprawling, 2300-acre torture chamber of high-speed circuits, pockmarked roads and skidpans.
Every variant has been driven relentlessly over the same pieces of tarmac before being critiqued and rated, not against each other, but the five enshrined COTY criteria: function, technology, efficiency, safety and value.
It’s a simple, if clinical, process, and this year, it’s thrown up a top five that’s as interesting as it is diverse. Headlining the group are the BMW i3 and Tesla Model S, which thanks to their intoxicating blend of technology, efficiency and performance are gunning to become the first ever electric cars to win Wheels COTY. Mazda’s overhauled 2, Merc’s C Class and Peugeot’s 308 also earned nods of approval, but where they triumphed during Round One, things could change during Round Two: the real world.
Leaving You Yangs behind for the picturesque hills of Victoria’s Gippsland region, ahead of us lies three days of real world testing where the judges will become even more intimate with the finalists on public roads. That means speed humps, traffic lights, parallel parks, school zones and open country roads.
Flaws will be exposed and strengths lauded before another round of judging, this time in barren, wood-panelled board room at the Leongatha Motel, will cull the field again to reveal the top three finalists.
This is when things get really serious. The judges cram into the cars for a day of four-up testing, with the whole process overshadowed by the pressure of expectation. Remember, Wheels COTY awards just one winner – there are no encouragement awards here – with every judge desperate to know the victor. Cruelly, though, this is the one piece of information denied to them. After seven gruelling days of testing, and a final round of voting, Wheels tradition dictates that only one person tallies the votes and knows the result: the editor.
It’s a hollow and anticlimactic way to end such an intense week, but it means every judge is just as eager to discover what wins as you are.