AT FIRST glance, youíd probably pick tradie Chris Rowe as a V8 man, not an EV whisperer. His lower face sports a luxuriant pelt, his mid-section has seen a few schooners and schnitties, and he favours race-team shirts with logos, rather than pens clipped into a top pocket. But Chris knows his way around electron wrangling. It was his cheerfully volunteered skills, used to build an improvised 32-amp charger straight out of our Inverloch motelís fuse box, that would be the lifeline Ė literally Ė thrown to the two Jaguar I-Pace EVs when the 2019 COTY show rolled into the Gippsland region of southern Victoria.
Following an almost farcical series of fast-charger fails during the proving-ground stage, it was only through the ingenuity of our new mate Chris that two of the 47-strong fieldís more fancied contenders would actually be able to complete the exhaustive testing process. But would it be enough for the distinctively styled, boldly British EVs to snare the award? Iím tipping you may have already snuck ahead to work that out for yourself.
But itís me whoís getting ahead of myself. This yearís test brought a couple of firsts; arguably the most significant of these being the highest number of contenders Ė seven Ė sporting battery packs. Two of these ran technology weíre all pretty familiar with: the Camry Hybrid and Corolla Hybrid, both being all-new models from a recently rejuvenated Toyota. Hyundai, meanwhile, delivered its trio of Ioniq hatchbacks intended to lasso in any customer with even an inkling toward electrons. Rounding out the seven were the two Jaguar I-Paces, both EV400 models differing only in the fitment of optional air suspension to the silver car. The white car would later reveal itself to have a less-desirable, non-delete option: the ability to drain its 90kW/h battery faster than Karl Stefanovic eyeing off the self-serve bar at the Logies.
The other first for COTY 2019 was the introduction of a new judge; a bloke who has been rattling around in the background of Wheels for more years than most can remember, penning the occasional story in between inserting sub-editing errors into clean copy, draining the office beer fridge and generally making a pest of himself. Er, that would be me.
I suspect my call-up was connected to the departure of veteran judge Nathan Ponchard, who left Wheels for browner pastures earlier in 2018. Clearly I bring little that can substitute for Ponchís car-thrashing aptitude, his vast roadtesting brain and next-level swearing skills. But I do require fewer remedial massages, and spend far less time in front of the mirror with hair product, so I guess management saw some kind of upside.
While he spends his louche-sounding life domiciled in Italy and driving new cars all over Europe, the one thing that unfailingly draws John Carey Down Under each year is his role as the most senior COTY judge. No one brings more gravitas, knowledge, or combative cussedness to the table. Itís hard to argue with someone who has decades of experience, but that doesnít stop other judges from trying.
Editing Wheels is enough of a challenge the other 51 weeks a year, but marshalling the resources for, and herding the typically creative (and thus disorganised) cats at, COTY is one of the roleís more mountainous tasks. Inwood handles it all with his trademark unflappability, of course, while just being a judge at Car of the Year was, and remains, a dream come true. So, not work at all, then.
No one, but no one, gets more excited about COTY each year than Byron, who counts down the days from the moment each one ends until the dawn of the next. Heís also been known to count the number of stitches in a steering wheel, or a seat, and then remember that information forever. Being a judge is the job this man was put on this Earth for, and no one brings more anal-retentive joy to the role.
Motoring journalism isnít just in Hagonís blood, itís what he lives and breathes. No one puts in more hours or pumps out more words each year about the car industry, and there is very little in the motoring universe that he doesnít know about, nor have a strong opinion on. Most often heard saying: ďyouíre wrong, and Iíll tell you whyĒ, Hagon is a huge presence and a key part of the team.
Itís hard to put your finger on exactly what makes Noelle slightly different to the rest of the judges, and then it comes to you Ė fashion sense. Indeed, itís something rarely seen at any COTY. Other than that, Faulkner is very much typical of a Wheels judge Ė an enthusiastic and skilful driver and equipped with strong opinions on just about everything. She also gets her own toilet everywhere we go.
Some people see life, and thus cars, from a slightly different angle, which is what makes them, and their opinions, so interesting. Enright, the prosegifted deputy editor of Wheels, brings a certain quirkiness that could only come out of the strange little island nation we used to call home. Over there he wrote for Pommy mags like Car and Top Gear, but we try not to hold that against him.
While he looks like a big, red-brick house with eyes, Westerman Ė Wheelsí resident word nerd and production engine room Ė is a man of passionate intensity and natural curiosity. Heís not just interested, heís invested. He also often drives as if thereís a deadline heís in danger of missing and writes with humble humour. This year weíve managed to drag him out of the office and into the melting pot, where heís sure to stir things up.
My COTY indoctrination begins when myself and the nonMelbourne-based crew of Toby Hagon, John Carey and Noelle Faulkner roll into Fordís You Yangs proving ground bang on the official start time of 7:30am, only to have the rest of the assembled throng of judges, media-capturing types and helpers all look at their watches in unison and make tsking sounds.
The Ford proving ground was first opened in 1965, so itís older than everyone except Carey, but the bits we are most interested in are in perfect working order. The 3.6km durability circuit, which replicates a flowing and undulating country back road, but throws in chassis-testing stutter bumps and broken bitumen, will provide our first taste of the cars. Then thereís the dirt handling circuit, which will also allow us, as per previous years, to test the loose-surface ABS performance. And while itís not strictly in the testing criteria, the dirt section will also provide a little sideways recreation for the hard-working judges, because while a highly focused testing regime is laudable, itís been medically proven that too long at a proving ground without semi-regular applications of opposite lock can be dangerous for your health.
The vast building that houses Fordís climate-test chambers will be our base for the next three days, a place that will quickly start to resemble a military-logistics installation, if Wheels was to ever carpet-bomb Baghdad with photographic and video equipment. The EV cars, meanwhile, get in everyoneís way, due to being plugged into power outlets like offspring suckling from mommaís teat.
This base is also the scene of an early disastrous incident. Everyone knows that mechanical integrity is essential for COTY success, and a ripple of unrest goes through the 21-strong crew when news breaks of the first possible breakdown. The Aldi espresso machine is making weird gurgling noises and refusing to cough up its life-sustaining brown potion, sending plenty of us Ė but mostly Carey Ė into a mess of tearful prayers and handwringing. Mercifully, itís easily diagnosed as a fouled plunger in the water reservoir, and a quick fix restores equilibrium.
The law of the You Yangs land is laid down by Ford safety officers Gordon and Shane. The main points seem to be that we should snap pics of as many secret prototypes as possible and plaster them over social media, and we must strictly adhere to the low speeds limits of the access roads around the facility (although itís possible I got at least one of these directives mixed up).
One day in and Iím feeling my adherence to the facilityís limits has been exemplary, but no sooner am I congratulating myself while ensconced in the leather-lined gin palace that is the Bentley Conti, when a curt voice crackles through the radio: ďDriver of the Bentley! SLOW DOWN NOW! I glance at the 41km/h on the speedo and instantly know he canít be talking to me. But what are the odds of another half-million-dollar British super tourer trundling through the Ford facility? Er, none, actually. He is talking to me; turns out Iím in a 30 zone and startling the locals, but I suspect itís more to do with the Bentleyís massive bluff snout shifting enough air to create a dust storm at not much more than jogging pace.
Thankfully a proper Bentley speed fix is only moments away on the fast, sweeping curves of the durability circuit. Enright claims ďthis is a car where youíre almost always going quite a bit quicker than you thinkĒ and itís about the truest thing spoken all week. Make a fast, committed entry to the left-hander that defines the lowest point of the circuit, get back hard on the throttle, and the big W12 fires you up the steep climb like the head of security throwing a peasant interloper out of Buckingham Palace. Keep it pinned over the crest that crowns at a 26-percent gradient and itís a quasi-religious experience as the big Brit lunges skyward, mainly because you really are closer to God.
Other contenders that are destined for the pointy end of the competition make lasting impressions for different reasons. The I-Paces will bring us challenges in terms of charging and accuracy of predicted range, but in most key areas they land clean scoring shots against the criteria, while also making me glad I donít own shares in Tesla.
Then thereís the delectable little Alpine, which every judge belts like a rented mule, only to make cooing, petting sounds over it when parked back at base.
SO WHATí INVOLVED, EXACTLY?
KNOW YOUR CONTENDER 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.
DURABILITY BASH A pressure-cooker of high-speed bends, tightly compressed corners and even a jump (if youíre brave), this purpose-built 3.6km track reveals a carís handling balance, steering flaws and midcorner composure at the limit.
RIDE AND HANDLING The twisting 2.5km high-speed circuit tests a carís chassis dynamics, steering accuracy, braking ability and ESC efficiency.
DOUBLE LANE-CHANGE A version of the famous ĎMoose testí, this sharp-right/sharp-left cone-killing movement simulates an emergency avoidance manoeuvre at 80km/h. Itís kryptonite for dodgy chassis stability calibration.
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.
WET ABS TEST A full-force, panic stop from 100km/h on a wet skidpan. Every brake pedalís worst nightmare.
The voting to cull the field to just five cars doesnít bring any enraged hostilities between judges, but the breadth of opinions does open my eyes to elements Iíd overlooked. Four of my nominated five make it through, so I rein in any impulse to shout and stamp, and start to get quite excited about being able to concentrate on the finalists.
Early on day four, Iím mentally pushing and pulling them through the COTY criteria as I walk outside our base in Loch, only to happen upon a heated dissention between judges Byron and Carey. This is upsetting, because Iíd always known these two to be genial companions. What could be the cause of the vitriol? It seems unlikely that Carey would have slept with Byronís husband, but it must surely be a betrayal of similar magnitude.
No, it turns out the outbreak of hostilities is over something of far greater importance: the refuelling method for testing the consumption of the cars. Byron is an up-to-the-neck man, but Careyís having none of it; heís strictly a second-click chap. Inwood intervenes with a captainís call, which has Byron fuming for as long as it takes to rebuild him with almond lattes.
What follows are two solid days of driving the yearís five best cars over a deeply demanding road loop, in conditions that run from brilliant sunshine to torrential, build-an-ark rain. Opinions between the judges wonít always align, but underpinning it all is, for me, the pleasure of being surrounded by a passionate, ultracapable crew, all bringing a level of expertise and collaboration that makes being a judge in Australiaís oldest and most respected award a real privilege.
I reckon the methodology delivered the right result, but will I be invited back next year? Letís not get ahead of ourselves.