2017 CAR of the YEAR

BUMPER 88 - PAGE * SPECIAL SECTION

MIKE DUFF

B U M P E R 8 8 - P A G E * S P E C I A L S E C T I O N

OVER THREE stages, seven days and more than 10,000km, just one of 28 models assembled for the 54th running of Wheels COTY will prevail against the coveted award’s cornerstones of Function, Technology, Safety, Efficiency and Value. The year’s crowning automotive achievement will rise from ranks that represent the stunning diversity on the Australian new car market, which include sedan, wagon, hatch, SUV, crossover, convertible and coupe from Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Britain, Japan and Korea, with naturally aspirated and turbo petrol, turbo-diesel and hybrid powertrains that range from pious (Prius) to potent (NSX), and from an accessible $13,990 to a rarefied $420,000. The exhaustive search for 2017’s top model starts here.

’D BEEN WARNED TO EXPECT SOME DRONING AT CAR OF THE YEAR, BUT FROM THE JUDGES RATHER THAN GODZILLA’S IRON LUNG. FORD’S OFFER TO HOST ROUND ONE AT ITS VAST YOU YANGS PROVING GROUND MEANT WE USED THE HALL CONTAINING THE MASSIVE ACART ENVIRONMENTAL WIND TUNNEL FOR THE STATIC GOING-OVER OF EACH OF THE CONTENDERS THAT START THE PROCESS, AND IT’S SOON OBVIOUS THAT EVEN THE LOUDEST AMONG US ARE GOING TO STRUGGLE TO BE HEARD. I

mag.com.au The tunnel is an engineering marvel, the biggest of its type in the southern hemisphere and capable of blowing air at 250km/h, heating it to 55 degrees or chilling it to minus 40 (it’s possible to simulate Vmax on a cold day in the Antarctic).

But it also runs pretty much around the clock, meaning we get to meet and greet our challengers to a soundscape ranging from hair dryer to idling jet to full-on tropical storm. At least there’s a carsized refrigerated “soak chamber” we can use to keep drinks and snacks cool.

THERE’S a fine tradition of introducing new judges to COTY with the same tender care fresh recruits are introduced to life in the army, and as this year’s debutante I get the full shock and awe of realising how much we’ve got to get through in a week: inspecting and driving 29 different models at You Yangs, most of which have more than one variant. Then we take six on road before culling that to three, arguing some more and deciding on a winner, before heading home for tea and medals.

Having only arrived from the UK the evening

J O H N CAREY

Avoid blood-level spikes in his caffeine stream and keep expertly engineered cars coming, and Carey’s an affable gent. But while this is a way of life in his adopted Italy, it’s far less do-able at COTY, in rural Victoria, where ‘baristas’ favour Blend 43 and a dynamic range encompassing “total crap” is a given. As a result, JC will reduce a dud spade to an “utterly effing useless attempt at a soil-shifting device.”

A L E X I N WOOD

A comprehensive skill set has seen Inwood scale the motoring ranks with supercar pace. A graduate of the grind of weekly deadlines on Auto Action, the boy from Bathurst joined Wheels in 2013 and made his COTY debut in 2015. This year, as acting editor, Inwood steered the ship from the coveted COTY throne. The dunny, that is, where history dictates votes are tallied.

NATHAN PONCHARD

Ponch reckons his once steel-trap mind has given way for a softer wit, more like a fine French suspension or an absorbent undergarment; says it happened in early June 2008. On a Tuesday. Incisive road-test analysis delivered with turn of phrase to make Kevin Bloody Wilson blush.

Solid penchant for shirtless dancing. Recent style suggests salmon out; ripped, Bros-inspired shorts in for season ’17.

TO B Y H AGON

The hard-charging Hagon has come a long way from his roots on Fast Fours & Rotaries and early motorsport exploits in the ’90s Suzuki Swift GTi Cup series. You’d know his dad, Will, if you’ve had even a passing interest in Aussie motoring over the past several decades and, increasingly, that’s true of the clued-up, switched-on and enviably well-connected Toby, too.

BYRON MATHIOUDA K I S

Quite possibly a Westworld-style android modelled on Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man, and preferring to go by the name of Maureen Glory these days, Byron is a constant star of his own Wacky Races episode. Having snatched the infectious-enthusiasm baton from Robbo, he also brings a century of car knowledge (and the menagerie of old shitboxes he owns) to the COTY table.

M I K E D U F F

The rarest of Englishmen – one who hardly whinges and appreciates beer not served at the same temperature as tea. Knows his way around cars, thanks to stints on the UK mags that count – Autocar, Evo and Car – and, after countless laps, the way around You Yangs. On day one fellow judges took to chanting a motivational ‘Up The Duff!’ to buoy the jet-lagged Mike, and it’s stuck.

NA D I N E G I US T I

Not known for suffering fools nor beating around the bush, debutante Giusti brought one raised eyebrow to COTY, backed by broad PR and marketing experience with brands from Saab, Honda, Peugeot, Mini and BMW to Audi. Nads’ ability to cut to the core of a debate proved invaluable; recent time at the helm of mine trucks gave necessary context for her frequent verdict of ‘light’ steering.

“MEETING MY FELLOW COTY JUDGES ALSO INTRODUCES ME TO THE NO-NONSENSE WAY THAT WHEELS DOES THINGS”

but my hopes this would mean You Yangs’ 80km of tracks get turned into my personal playground are soon dashed. First by a safety briefing that makes it clear the site’s many speed limits are still very much in force, but more significantly by the need to drive each car over either long or short loops consisting of the durability, handling and dirt tracks. Even a quick spin takes at least 15 minutes; it’s going to be a late dinner.

Yet the discipline works, even if I’m feeling like Bill Murray towards the end of Groundhog Day after driving the third E-Class variant of the morning. You Yangs allows road tests to be concentrated like Campbell’s soup, and although most fun is had on the high-speed handling course and sliding around on the gravel – we have to know what cars are like with ESC both off and on, after all – it’s the mountainous durability circuit that’s most informative. With scarred tarmac and blind crests it’s a good simulation of the real world, and the cars that shine on it tend to be the ones that impress everywhere else. It also features the spectacularly evil ‘chatter bumps’, a set of ferocious corrugations spaced deliberately to put suspension out of phase when hit at speed. They threaten to throw some cars off the road – the Renault Koleos feels like it’s driven over a land mine – while others, like the supremely wafty Jaguar XF barely deign to notice them.

But the track also brings the humbling realisation that many of my on-paper favourites from the first day just don’t cut it. After giving it the twice-over I’d reckoned the spacious, handsome Skoda Superb was a shoo-in to make it to round two, but the durability circuit soon exposed its floaty ride and excessively light controls. I bring the TSI 162 back to the carpark just as Alex Inwood is returning in the Abarth Spider, his face wearing a similarly “meh” expression.

But while there are some very clear losers, there are many more potential winners and the debate over which cars we’re going to take with us soon turns heated. Toby Hagon proves himself the king of the awkward question, especially when it comes to the lowspeed refinement of our DSG-equipped challengers, but it’s Nathan Ponchard and Byron Mathioudakis who get most passionate, a double-act who seem to be able to both finish each other’s sentences and start each other’s arguments. Yet for all the heat, there’s light as well – with the CX-9, Impreza, E-Class and A4 all getting a full house of seven votes and the Astra and Tiguan scoring six; no other car got more than three.

1 STATIC MEET AND GREET

Forget driving; the entire first day is spent inspecting each model standing still. Every orifice is explored as the judges assess packaging, design, seating, luggage space and quality.

2 DURABILITY BASH

A pressure-cooker of high-speed bends, tightly compressed corners and even a jump (if you’re brave), this 3.6km track reveals a car’s handling balance, steering flaws and mid-corner composure at the limit.

3 RIDE AND HANDLING

Freshly resealed, the twisting 2.5km high-speed circuit tests a car’s chassis dynamics, steering accuracy, braking ability and ESC efficiency.

4 DOUBLE LANECHANGE

A version of the infamous ‘Moose Test’, this sharp-right/ sharp-left cone-killing movement simulates an emergency avoidance manoeuvre at 80km/h. It’s kryptonite for dodgy chassis stability calibration.

5 ROUGH-RIDE ROAD

A complex section of corrugations and vicious bumps, this is the best possible way to assess suspension absorption. Each car hits this at 110km/h.

6 WET ABS TEST

A full-force, panic stop from 100km/h on a wet skidpan.

Every brake pedal’s worst nightmare.

“WITH SCARRED TARMAC AND BLIND CRESTS IT’S A GOOD SIMULATION OF THE REAL WORLD”

“IT’S GOOD TO DISCOVER WE’VE GOT SOME PROPERLY DEMANDING AND MOSTLY QUIET TARMAC FOR OUR ROAD LOOPS”

Korumburra in South Gippsland marks the startfinish line for an hour-long road loop that’s tackled in each car at the same speed. It opens with hilly country highway posted at 100km/h, followed by a leg from Loch to Glen Alvie that adds climbs to test tractability and tranny calibration, mixed with midcorner bumps and varied cambers. The plunge from Glen Alvie to Kongwak cooks brakes. Korumburra closes with an assessment of stop-start, tip-in response and the local bakery. Verdict: beaut pies.

Moving to a town with the spectacularly Celtic name of Inverloch appeals strongly to my Scottish ancestry; fortunately for the other judges I forgot to pack my kilt. With the tourist season some way off it feels like we’re about 90 percent of the visitor population, the fact our group has more than twice as many cars as people likely causing the locals some confusion. Having only experienced the grind of Victoria’s motorways and trunk roads so far – and after being warned that being nabbed 3km/h over the limit will likely see me deported in chains – it’s good to discover we’ve got some properly demanding and mostly quiet tarmac for our road loops.

Piloting two-up gives a chance to learn more about the cars and each other’s driving styles, which range from respectful to – let’s say – flamboyant. Brake fade in the CX-9 is a timely warning there’s not much point trying to keep up with Mathioudakis in the A4 TFSI.

Nadine Giusti turns out to be the perfect driving companion, as unflappable as you’d expect somebody who regularly drives 300-tonne Komatsu mine trucks to be and with a good line in chase-cutting questions.

While the rest of us discuss the vagaries of the E-Class’s semi-autonomous Drive Pilot system, which struggles on some of the poorly marked roads, Nads is the one who wonders if anything so inconsistent can be considered more than a gimmick.

With only good cars left, small issues get magnified into apparently big ones. The Tiguan’s sometimes over-firm ride; the Impreza’s slurring CVT gearbox; the Astra’s gloomy cabin. Minor gripes are suddenly more significant when there’s so much at stake, the arguments over lunch become more heated, especially when the question of value for money gets raised.

Coffee breaks also give me the chance to put two ticks against my list of must-have Australian experiences: a lamington and a neenish tart.

Another cull brings us to the final three, with the Astra, Impreza and Tiguan falling by the wayside. Then it’s the home stretch – a morning riding three- and four-up in the Merc, Audi and Mazda followed by a final vote. Before the drive I reckoned it would feel like overkill, but it gives a useful chance to experience both life in the cheap seats and how the cars feel loaded.

Speed bumps reveal the E-Class’s poor low-speed damping as Ponch reports a second rebound from the rear and the normally zingy 1.4-litre A4 struggles when asked to cart three big blokes around. As for the CX-9, it’s arguably at its most impressive when experienced from its third row, roomier and more comfortable than anything else in its segment.

By one of those cosmically, and possibly comically, ordered coincidences, we’re just starting the final debate as the early results from the US Presidential election start to arrive. Which cues some impressively inventive swearing, especially from JC. But then phones are switched to silent as we give full consideration to a more important question, and one that doesn’t have a glaringly wrong answer: which of our challengers is going to lift the crown. Having been involved in similar tests on two other continents I can say without risk of perjury that Wheels’ is the most comprehensive and toughest going.

Votes are cast and then there’s a final Wheels tradition, this one apparently having been done for time immemorial. As officer-on-deck Inwood gets to carry our papers off to the nearest gents to be tallied, under threat that, if there’s a tie, we’re going to have to do it all again, or possibly start wrestling. He returns moments later wearing a broad grin and announces that we do indeed have a victor, and it’s only then I discover he’s not allowed to tell the rest of us what it is. With the time it takes magazines to wing their way to Europe, you’re going to find out before I am, but I already know it will be a worthy winner.