A stellar year for new cars is set to make sparks fly among the judging panel.
THERE have been some lacklustre COTY fields over the years – headlined by 2000’s startlingly drab Toyota RAV4, Volvo V70, Chrysler PT Cruiser and Subaru ‘Bug Eye’ Impreza finalists – but the Class of 2016 is about as far removed from that nadir year as Trump is from a thick set of locks. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a more high-achieving automotive year than the past 12 months.
We saw completely fresh, standard-setting metal right across the board, from Holden’s transformed Spark micro-hatch to the revived Honda NSX supercar, its intriguingly complex powertrain and drive system reminding the world that “Honda is Back!”
But what do we think has the best chance of taking out the most coveted award in Australian motoring – the Wheels 2017 Car of the Year?
An early favourite, and the first in alphabetical pecking order (if you class the Abarth 124 Spider as a Fiat), is the all-new Audi B9 A4 range. Its familiar exterior design may have you doing double-takes to determine the difference, but beneath its tautly creased, aluminium-intensive skin hides a whole new car, sharing its MLB Evo platform with last year’s mega-talented Q7 SUV. There isn’t a single weak point in the line-up, from the classy 1.4 TFSI front-drive base model, via the thinking person’s SUV (the Allroad) to the involving, comparo-winning 2.0 TFSI Sport quattro. The A4 is the new class benchmark, but can it deliver Audi’s first COTY win?
Demonstrating just how broad the design and engineering excellence is at Ingolstadt these days, we’ll also have the second-generation Audi R8 on hand to fly the flag for naturally aspirated supercars. There’s been worthwhile and consistent improvement across the board with this car, most obviously in its stunning interior, but how will the R8’s blend of wild sex appeal and Germanic sense fare in the face of the tech-heavy Honda NSX, with its envelope-pushing drivetrain and intensive air-flow management?
The R8 and NSX will need to be brilliant, given the challenge of appearing genuine value for money when your sticker price is way into six figures, but that won’t be a problem for the diminutive Holden Spark. Throwing away the thorny shackles (and ridiculous multi-stacked name) of its Barina Spark predecessor, the new-gen Spark continues the charge of the game-changing and now discontinued Volkswagen Up and the plucky Suzuki Celerio, proving a tiny car can be comfortable. And refined. And desirable.
Jump ahead two classes and there’s a full suite of small-car contenders preparing for an unprecedented battle royale. From the miracles-can-happen tenth-gen Honda Civic to the crucial Holden BK Astra, the totally refreshed new-gen Subaru Impreza, the Hyundai AD Elantra (precursor to next year’s all-new i30), and the technology-laden Renault Megane IV, the small-car class has never seen so much talent hit so hard, so fast.
In the Civic’s favour is its deeply impressive chassis dynamics and occupant comfort, challenged head-on by the Astra’s sharp pricing, keen handling and unbeatable bang-for-your-buck performance. But then the Impreza’s newfound packaging excellence and engineering sophistication also mean it stands a chance, as does the Megane’s wealth of design and technology advancements. And while the entry-level Elantra may not set the world on fire with its conservatism, there’s always the IRS-equipped, Aussie-tuned Hyundai Elantra SR Turbo to keep the Civic Turbo, Megane GT-Line and Astra RS models honest.
There will be other inevitable inter-comparisons going on in this year’s 28-strong field.
In the sporting arena we’ll have the comprehensively altered Porsche 718 Boxster, bringing flat-four power back to the Stuttgart marque, and the storming BMW M2, proving that BMW’s M division still knows how to produce a pure sports coupe. The four-pot Boxster ticks many COTY boxes, being both much faster yet more efficient, more comfortable and more rewarding, better equipped and better value. But the M2 has pure adrenaline on its side, not to mention relative value for money, and there’s no doubting the efficiency or enviro credentials of its technology.
SUVs may not scream efficiency on paper, but after the stunning achievement of last year’s mega-talented, mega-sized Audi Q7, there’s little reason to doubt the chances of the class-beating Mazda CX-9 seven-seater, or the intelligently sized and hugely sophisticated second-gen Volkswagen Tiguan. The Mazda white-washed its segment with an effortless Megatest win in the October 2016 issue, while the Tiguan employs VW Group’s award-winning MQB meccano set to produce arguably the most polished and multi-talented medium SUV around. And we’ll have the second-gen Renault Koleos along to keep the Tiguan honest, certainly in the crucial areas of value, interior space and comfort.
Alongside the Korean-built Renault, we’ll have another respected nameplate from South Korea – the Kia Sportage. It may share its name with some pretty dire predecessors, but the latest generation is a comparative revelation, mixing European styling with genuine dynamic panache. But can its carryover engines cut the mustard alongside the force of its turbo-petrol compatriots?
Raising the SUV price point somewhat is the remarkably sporty Jaguar F-Pace and the incredibly handsome Mercedes-Benz GLC, the latter in both wagon and just-released Coupe forms. The F-Pace marks its territory by offering almost large-SUV cabin space for a premium-medium price (until you start adding options…), in combination with an excellent new four-pot diesel and Porsche Macan-challenging dynamics. The GLC, on the other hand, musters its award muscle through the breadth of its model range, including the superb GLC43 AMG and the surprisingly roomy GLC Coupe. But will the standard, steel-sprung suspension tune be up to the punishment of Ford’s You Yangs proving ground?
Representing the ‘quirky’ category is the marvellously left-field Citroen C4 Cactus, which we know offers a miraculous blend of seating comfort, cabin space and fuel efficiency. But will the ageing diesel – which accounts for 80 percent of sales – be crucified by its robotised-manual gearbox, countering the turbo-petrol’s velvety charm? And will completely unexpected handling talent and driver reward be enough to elevate the chances of the unusually styled Toyota Prius, given that its once-radical mechanicals and interior design are now par for the course?
You could call the Fiat Abarth 124 Spider quirky, too, given that its Italian DNA comes from its familiar drivetrain and its retro-inspired styling cues, not its provenance (which is all Mazda from Hiroshima). So the 124 Spider immediately gets a leg-up by being based on last year’s COTY winner, yet it has a stronger flavour than the exquisitely balanced MX-5 – one that may or may not appeal to judges who are still in love with the Mazda 12 months on. Indeed, the differences between the two are substantial enough to warrant examination by our judging panel.
Another COTY contender that’s emerged from a date with a turkey-baster and a rival manufacturer (in this case, Mercedes-Benz) is the Infiniti Q30 hatch, and its slightly raised QX30 all-wheel-drive sibling. Born from Benz’s MFA platform, and sharing drivetrains and some switchgear with the A-Class and GLA, the Q30 twins hail from Nissan’s UK plant. Yet there’s much goodness to be had in their quality dynamics, strong performance and individual style. Can the Q30/QX30 go one better than the A-Class by moving beyond Round One?
Also hailing from the UK, via the engineering departments of BMW in Germany, is the Mini Clubman. Gone is the unusual two-plus-one side door arrangement, replaced with four regular framed doors. But the new-gen Clubman maintains its trademark barn-door rear opening, while adding a whole lot of additional polish, making this arguably the finest modern Mini since the brand’s relaunch 15 years ago.
Similarly super-sized but competing in a completely different category is the Skoda Superb large liftback-sedan and wagon. For the same money as a VW Passat, this Czech relative underpins its buyer-appeal with bahnstorming performance from a pair of 2.0-litre turbo-petrol powerplants, not to mention Audi quattro-rivalling dynamics from the range-topping 4x4.
Keeping the value-charged Skoda on its toes around the vast You Yangs proving ground will be a trio of traditional European family machines, each with a premium-brand logo on their proud grilles. And each sizing up its rival like it’s the reputation of Sweden, Germany and the UK on the line in an Olympic final.
Yep, it’s the stunning new Volvo S90 up against the brand-defining W213 Mercedes-Benz E-Class and the impressive second-generation Jaguar XF. In the S90’s corner reside the expected suite of safety and construction excellence, fabulous seating and interior, and the unbelievable effectiveness of Volvo’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder engines in such a large car. But the E-Class is no duffer in the safety department, and matches the top-spec S90 Inscription’s terrific all-wheel-drive system with a superb ‘4matic’ system of its own (a first for right-hand-drive Australia).
Certainly the XF’s range-topping supercharged V6 petrol and twin-turbo V6 diesel will give the Benz’s drivetrains a run for their money, but the battle at the lower end will be every bit as fierce, notably when it comes to the turbo-diesels. It will be a great fight.
And if we feel like an antidote to four-pot diesel efficiency, the Ford Mustang and Mercedes-Benz C-Class Coupe/Cabriolet are guaranteed to deliver, especially in their range-topping V8 guises. Of course the C-Class is also available as a diesel, but it’s the just-launched all-wheel-drive, twin-turbo V6 C43 AMG and the incredible twin-turbo V8 C63 AMG that will flesh out the COTY-criteria capabilities of this elegant new Mercedes-Benz two-door.
As for the Mustang, it’s almost bittersweet knowing that this is the performance-halo replacement for our homegrown hi-po Falcons. But it has managed to dispel the myth that American cars are allergic to corners, while sparking a waiting list longer than its bulging bonnet appears from behind the wheel. There’s even a turbo-petrol Ecoboost four-cylinder version adding a touch of Focus RS sizzle (or Benz C300 Coupe; your choice) to the Mustang’s value-for-money mantra.
But being a great buy – or a great drive, or a great design, or having benchmark efficiency, quality or technology – isn’t going to be enough to win the
2017 Wheels Car of the Year award. In a field this strong, only the absolute cherry on the cream covering the icing of a multi-layered cake will succeed.