UPDATE, March 1 2020: Today is the day, and we're proud to announce the winner of the 2021 Wheels Car of the Year award. To find out which car won, read our story here.
Australia was spared the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 compared to Europe, the UK and the USA.
While incredibly fortunate that our health systems weren’t overrun and our bouts with the deadly virus were small compared to other countries, it was still a year we sat at home, got fat and, it seems, browsed and bought used cars online.
Countless events were cancelled, from the Australian Grand Prix to the Olympics, and for a hot minute it looked as if the global pandemic would put the brakes on Wheels’ own 56-year unbroken run of Car of the Year (COTY) awards.
Thankfully, we’ve managed to ‘save’ it.
Early in 2020, when COVID-19 was just this thing going on in some city in China we’d never heard of, COTY was slated for Ford’s You Yangs proving ground west of Melbourne late in the year. But as the virus reached Aussie shores and lockdowns ensued, we had no choice but to cancel it altogether.
Along the way, Wheels got new owners and the message was simple: make it happen, no matter what.
The race was on. With locked-down Victoria seemingly off the table, at one point the mostly Victorian-based Wheels team was looking to quarantine for 14 days in Queensland and hold COTY at Mount Cotton.
Then another option: try to negotiate a quarantine ‘bubble’ at the Sutton Road driver training complex in the ACT. Then Sydney Motorsport Park was also on the table at one stage, and The Bend in South Australia also mooted.
But as the number of new infections in Victoria steadily declined, the decision was made to head to a former COTY testing venue, the Australian Automotive Resource Centre (AARC) 125km south-west of Melbourne past Geelong.
Way later in the year than COTY testing is normally undertaken (hence why it’s not in the February 2021 issue, as per usual) and with just a month or two to wrangle the cars we wanted, we managed to pull it all together, and this is what you’re in store for.
This year’s venue
The AARC is the home of Wheels Car of the Year 2021. Not far from the icy waters of Bass Strait, the AARC is a 1000 acre car tester’s paradise – and the regular haunt of engineers from Toyota, Bosch, the Australian military, and many other clients.
Owned by transport magnate Lindsay Fox the AARC features a dizzying array of dirt tracks, bitumen circuits, rough roads and a skidpan bigger than the one they have in heaven.
How we chose the contenders
To be eligible, a car must have gone on sale in the 12 months since the last Car of the Year event, and meet our newness criteria.
After that initial filter, 52 models were shortlisted for technical eligibility to Car of the Year 2021. This year, though, given the time constraints in which to organise the event, we made hard decisions and distilled the field to just 10 new models.
Our judging panel dissected the list of 52 and, based on our collective road-test knowledge, honed it down to the field that appears below.
You’ll note that no dual-cab utes feature, as none of them were deemed sufficiently strong against the criteria. We maintain that even in a year as disrupted as 2020 these were the 10 best cars that went on sale in Australia last year.
The COTY 2021 contenders
Ingolstadt’s all-new, all-electric SUV stunner has a crack with two variants, a 50 quattro and 55 quattro.
One has 230kW/540Nm and the other 300kW/664Nm, but that looks a little meeker up against kerb weights of 2445kg and 2565kg.
With as-tested prices of $140,450 and $161,900, the odds seem somewhat stacked against Audi’s high-tech battery-powered bruisers, but then again it was its rival, the exceptional Mercedes-Benz EQC, that took home the silverware only last year.
It has a controversial new nose, but can a cracking chassis and powertrain bring it home for Munich’s polished coupe?
This year we have the 420i with a 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder, its 135kW and 300Nm turning the rear treads via an eight-speed automatic. But it’s the bigger daddy, almost baby M4, M440i xDrive that has more of our attention.
Its silky smooth B58 3.0-litre turbo inline six sends 275kW and 500Nm to all four wheels and is good for 0-100km/h in a conservatively claimed 4.5sec.
The Blue Oval is trying to shift some eggs out of the Mustang and Ranger baskets in Australia, and part of that process is this car and the model below it, the Puma.
If acceleration is your thing, the Escape is not short on snot with its 2.0-litre turbo four producing 183kW and 387Nm and shifting ‘just’ 1650-odd kilograms of mid-size SUV.
The Escape fronts COTY with three variants: the base FWD, the ST-Line FWD and the bulging-with-standard-kit top-spec Vignale AWD.
With a facial expression like you just caught it scurrying around your house on the hunt for some cheese, Ford’s tiddlywink Puma small SUV has in fact won the praise of many Pommie reviewers as it goes up against its first Car of the Year.
With a tonne of clever interior design, we’ve got two variants, both with the turbo 1.0-litre triple producing 92kW and 170Nm; one with a more sporting suspension tune than the other.
It’s big, it kinda looks like a Bentley Bentayga, and it’s very new.
There’s no doubting the luxury credentials of the new Genesis GV80 large SUV, but can its beautifully appointed high-tech cabin overcome an ask somewhat higher than we would have guessed?
Three variants are represented at COTY; the rear-drive 2.5T turbo-petrol four, the turbo-diesel 3.0-litre inline six, and the 3.5-litre twin-turbo V6 279kW 3.5T AWD Luxury. Ranging from $90,600 to $120,600 as tested.
Kia’s updated all-round SUV has won high praise in early reviews for its thoughtful interior and polished dynamics.
How might that translate against the COTY criteria?
With the hybrids not quite here in time, the Sorento tackles our blue riband event with two variants: the $50,290, 148kW/440Nm S Diesel AWD; and the $62,285 GT-Line with its 3.5-litre slightly old-school non-turbo V6 driving the front wheels.
The reborn, funky new Defender has to live up to the expectations of a veritable army of diehard fans, but what about our COTY criteria?
Just one variant represents this boulder-bashing off-roading legend: the 110 P400 SE costing $116,116 (as tested) and with a 3.0-litre inline turbo-petrol six.
It produces a hearty 294kW and 550Nm, but here’s hoping the lack of a diesel variant on test won’t hobble its COTY chances. Land Rover said all the diesels are sold out!
Not quite a CX-3, not quite a CX-5, the mid-size SUV CX-30 is a different model that slots in between.
As we have come to expect from Mazda, it has an interior that looks like it was pinched from a much more expensive car, as well as dynamics that make you wanna go for a drive.
With the 2.0-litre FWD, 2.5-litre FWD and the new high-tech supercharged hybrid X20 Astina represented, Mazda is hoping the CX-30 will bring home its ninth COTY gong.
The defending champion brand is back with its boxy-cool GLB small SUV, one of the hottest new segments in the market.
With the arguably weakest 200 variant unavailable for testing, Merc plays its strongest suit with the 250 and AMG A35.
Both are powered by 2.0-litre turbo fours, the former with 165kW and the latter a very healthy 225kW. Priced at $80,560 and $96,285 respectively (as tested), both send their forced-fed grunt to all four wheels.
The new Yaris delivers a segment-pioneering powertrain and advanced safety features and puts its front foot very much forward at Wheels COTY 2021.
Variant-wise we have the Ascent Sport CVT, the smart ZR Hybrid and unquestionably one of the most exciting and hotly anticipated cars of 2020, the motorsport-inspired, utterly driver-focussed all-wheel-drive GR.
But the big question remains: can the great little Yaris overcome a pricing strategy from Toyota that seems to shift prospective buyers into other, larger models?
THE COTY CRITERIA
Wheels Car of the Year isn’t some big mixed-bag comparison test. The cars are measured against six criteria.
To summarise, they are: Function – how well does the car serve its intended purpose? Technology – does the car innovate and bring something new to the game? Efficiency – does it do more with less and move the game on in this regard?
Safety – does it have every safety feature of its rivals, and more? Or less? Does the customer have to option any safety equipment?
And finally, is it good value for money? We’ll publish the criteria in full next issue, but that’s the nutshell version.
AND THE WINNER IS...
With the testing having taken place early December, only a handful of people know the winner before it’s revealed, which will take place on March 1 (the COTY issue goes on sale March 1; subscribers will receive their slightly delayed issue) via a live video on our Facebook.
Be there or be... out of the loop.
How are you finding our new site design? Tell us in the comments below or send us your thoughts at email@example.com.
Get your monthly fix of news, reviews and stories on the greatest cars and minds in the automotive world.
Behind the scenes at Wheels Car of the Year 2021
Your glimpse behind the proverbial COTY red curtain
Mercedes-Benz GLB at Car of the Year 2021
Compact, quirky and uncommonly quick, but at what cost?
Land Rover Defender at Car of the Year 2021
The 4x4 faithful expect, and this time England delivers