“WHAT a lifeless, soul sucking piece of…” I’m pointing a handheld camera through the passenger window at John Carey who is delivering a withering assessment of the car he’s just returned from the ride and handling course.
A Jaguar F-Pace rolls past me with enough dirt and mud caked on the bonnet to look like it has just taken on the Dakar Rally, Byron Mathioudakis is at the wheel with a furrowed brow and a serious look in his eyes.
Alex Inwood has finished scrawling his notes for the Mercedes-Benz GLC43 Coupe, and is now snatching the keys of a Holden Spark for his next tour of Ford's You Yangs proving ground, striding with the purpose of a man staring down the barrel of 12 hours of near non-stop vehicular assessment.
If the 2017 Wheels Car of the Year contenders were people, they would leave these tests battered and bruised, inspected to within an inch of their lives, and with confidence akin to a dropped ice cream cone left to melt on the pavement. And it’s just day one!
Growing up as a young boy with an insatiable appetite for motoring content, reading COTYs of the past I was always aware this was the toughest, and biggest motoring test conducted on Australian soil, and possibly worldwide. However, on a windy November day, as a bona-fide member of the Wheels team, I was about to witness for the first time the COTY machine in action.
My arrival at the Ford proving ground was greeted with celebration as I came bearing gifts of caffeine – essential for the punishing, week-long judging schedule. I was blown away by what lay sprawled out in front of me.
What reading COTYs of past did not prepare me for was the sheer scale of the event. With 28 models to be assessed – along with their many variants – it amounts to 66 cars; a daunting task, and akin to stepping into motoring nirvana. Numbers on a page have a habit of understating the scale of it.
Before a single wheel is turned, each car is scrutinised with more vigour than some courtroom interrogations. When the ignitions are finally hit and the cars fire into life, hold on, because the seven COTY judges, with enough combined road testing kilometres under their belts to rival some Boeing 747s, will put these cars through the wringer. An attempt to film Nathan Ponchard from the passenger seat of an Audi A4 on the ride and handling loop is quickly abandoned, the camera relegated to my lap as I grip the closest handle.
Judges' assessments are crushing when deserved, and congratulatory if a contender is deemed worthy. And that is the biggest take away from my first Wheels Car of the Year experience – the single-minded purpose of it all. Everything from the location to the vast array of cars present, to the number of judges, is designed so the winner is held aloft without a single doubt that it is, indeed, the greatest car from the year that was.