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Wheels Car of the Year 2020: the judging process

By Cameron Kirby, 09 Jan 2020 COTY

Wheels Car of the Year 2020: the judging process

It takes eight gruelling days to cut the field down to just a single winner

YOU could be mistaken for believing that choosing the best car from each year would be a simple and straightforward affair, but you would be wrong.

Choosing the winner of Wheels Car of the Year is much more than casting a lazy eye over the contenders and picking a favourite, instead utilising a tried and trusted testing regime that lasts an entire week.

The COTY judging process has been refined and honed over several decades to ensure that the winner is truly worth of the most prestigious motoring award in the country.

Wheels Car of the Year 2019: the judging criteria

Here’s how the COTY week pans out:

Day 1 & 2: Pre-testing

New for this year's COTY is the introduction of pre-testing.

Conducted across two days, each car taking part has its 0-100km/h acceleration performance independently tested, along with 100-0km/h braking on wet and dry surfaces, and interior decibel reading at 80km/h on course and smooth chip roads.

The full results of this testing will be revealed as we approach the COTY 2020 announcement on January 30.

Day 3: Presentations

Before a single ignition is prodded and engine fired into life, each contender for COTY 2019 is introduced to the judges.

Every judge is responsible for a selection of the models, and presents each to their fellow assessors, running over why the car is present at COTY, key mechanical items of interest, how the car compares to its competitors, and other core information.

It’s at this point that judges then pore over the car, poking and prodding, and going through the finer points of ergonomics and packaging with a fine-toothed comb.

Read more about Wheels' Car of the Year

Day 4-5: Proving ground assessment

For the first two days of driving, COTY HQ is smack bang in the middle of Holden's Lang Lang proving ground.

Utilising Holden's expansive facility allows the COTY judges to test vehicles in a range of different conditions with relative ease.

We say relative, as in order for every judge to drive every car, time is at a premium, and testing is conducted non-stop during this first two days for 12 hours a day. Food is grabbed on the fly because the schedule doesn’t let up. 

And that time window has to encompass a sealed road ride and handling course, a gravel ride and handling course, a dirt ABS test from 80km/h, a rough road course, a 120-metre double lane change at 80km/h, and a wet ABS test from 80km/h. And note taking. Judges have to be experienced enough to drill down to the essence of the vehicle and contextualise it against class benchmarks rapidly, over and over.

Read next: Meet the judges of Wheels Car of the Year

Day 6-7: Round of 5

At the end of the proving ground testing, the judges cull the field to five finalists – a process which can take several hours of heated discussion.

These five finalists then move onto round two, where they undergo road assessments.

Over two days each car is driven on Wheels’ 57km road loop, with a pair of judges sharing driving duty for each vehicle.

Round two puts a vehicle’s real-world ability into perspective, with a carefully curated drive route highlighting shortcomings of the contenders.

Day 7-8: Round of 3

Another round of voting follows, leaving just three finalists for the third round.

This time an alternate drive loop is selected that includes a mixture of surfaces, and for this exercise there are four judges riding in the car at all times.

By assessing the cars four-up, the judges get a better understanding of how the vehicle performs with a heavy load, and can understand how the car performs from the point of view of each passenger – not just the driver.

Volvo XC60: one year on from its COTY victory

Day 8: Final voting

By the eighth day the driving is done, the support crew are packing up, and the judges are locked in a room for a final deliberation.

Each judge is given a chance to put forward their opinion on the three finalists, before casting their votes.

Even after eight days of gruelling assessment, opinions can still remain divided, resulting in fierce debate.

The deeply furrowed brows of John Carey and Byron Mathioudakis over breakfast on day eight are testament to the internal consternation and deliberation each judge goes through before they decide on which of the final three cars will receive their support.

Editor Inwood is tasked with tallying the votes – usually in the nearest restroom – before dismissing the team.

Until the winner is announced on January 30, Inwood is tasked with keeping the winner secret from the rest of the Wheels team, and the industry at large. The only other mortal trusted with the secret is our hard-working designer and the author of the final magazine piece.

Find out who came away victorious when the Wheels Car of the Year 2020 is announced at the Australian Motoring Awards on January 30.