CAR OF THE YEAR 2019: STAGE ONE

‘CULL’ IS SUCH

ANDY ENRIGHT

‘CULL’ IS SUCH an unkind word; essentially it means to reduce a population through ‘selective slaughter’, and that’s what Stage One is all about. The proving ground provides a superior simulacrum of the real world, where the dynamic abilities of each car can be tested up to, and even beyond, their limits. Those found wanting can be found on an early truck home. But it is also at this early culling stage that arguments between our passionate and pernickety judges over Function, Technology, Safety, Efficiency and Value get heated. Only the strongest will survive. Bring it on.

Alfa Romeo Stelvio

GREAT EXPECTATIONS GO UNFULFILLED

THE ALFA ROMEO Giulia finished in one of the podium positions at last year’s COTY which had cranked up expectations of the Stelvio. It’s fair to say that the presence of the Giulia Quadrifoglio helped sprinkle 375kW worth of fairy dust across the more prosaic models in the sedan’s range but the Stelvio arrived without that level of top cover, with the Stelvio Q flagship failing to make our shores in time for this year’s event.

Even had that all-wheel-drive rocket been present, I’m not sure it would have influenced the judging panel to any great degree. The Stelvio adds all-wheel drive and hatchback practicality, but in the demerit column are a distinctly firm ride, poor rear-seat space, and a cabin that lacks the sort of sheen and polish that distinguishes the best sports SUVs in its class. ‘Underwhelming’ was the word that popped up time and again in judges’ notes when assessing interior finish.

Of course, it’s entirely understandable that Alfa Romeo chose to build an SUV off the Giorgio platform rather than pursue the limited number of buyers who hankered after a low-slung Giulia wagon. The stated aim of the chassis team was to make the high-riding and heftier Stelvio drive just like a Giulia but, sadly, it just doesn’t. It can’t. Physics can be a pesky impediment to ambition.

It’s nevertheless a riot to pedal around the You Yangs’ gnarlier tracks and you could make a case for the Stelvio as something for singles or couples with no kids who just want to rapidly haul a bunch of sports gear with them.

That’s if they can see value in the pricing. The Stelvio Ti was a hefty $11K more than the diesel, but felt barely any quicker in the real world. Even the oil burner, with its suite of First Edition options, didn’t seem stellar value. “Doesn’t feel $75K” noted Inwood, while Faulkner thought it felt “like a Fiat 500X with some new bits”. The fact that you can buy a Mercedes-Benz C300 wagon for about this price is all the context you really need here.

The cabin has a curious propensity to ring like a bell over some surface imperfections, the ultra-rapid steering divided opinion and the touchy brakes proved similarly divisive. The petrol engines are rev-capped for emissions purposes, so neither of them can sing quite the way you’d hope.

Nevertheless, what was in no doubt was the Stelvio’s ability to cover ground at pace. Body control is excellent as long as the road surface is good, but the SUV lacks the Giulia’s subtle adjustability when you really get after it. That slightly inert edge to its on-limit handling is probably safe and wise, but when combined with its lugubrious styling, its shortcomings in four-up packaging and its comparative lack of interior polish versus key rivals, we found ourselves hankering for the sedan that so deservedly made it to the final round last year.

The Stelvio emerges as an interesting and worthy addition to the performance-SUV canon, but a COTY contender? Not by a long chalk.

ANDY ENRIGHT

SPECS

BODY

Type 5-door wagon, 5 seats

Boot capacity 525 litres

Weight 1619 – 1620kg

DRIVETRAIN

Layout

front-engine (east-west), AWD

Engines

1997cc 4cyl turbo-diesel (154kW/470Nm); 1999cc 4cyl turbo (148kW/330Nm); 1999cc 4cyl turbo (206kW/400Nm)

Transmission

8-speed automatic

OTHER

Tyres 235/55R19 – 255/45R20

ADR81 fuel consumption

4.8 – 7.0L/100km

CO2 emissions

127 – 161g/km

Crash rating 5 stars (Euro NCAP)

PRICES

$65,900 – $78,900

“INFERIOR TO A GIULIA, YET THEY’LL SELL HEAPS MORE”ALEX INWOOD

Audi A8

CHECKS INTO FIRST CLASS, BUT HITS TURBULENCE ON COTY ROUTE

THERE’S NO PLEASING some COTY judges, with Carey quickly hurling words like “charmless” and “bulky” at the latest Audi A8. Character assassinations aside, by limousine standards, the all-new car oozes COTY cred.

New model naming and a tech injection headline the rethink, with safety stepping up via active systems to avoid myriad crash scenarios and even prevent doorings. A whiff of mild-hybrid electric assistance beneath the bonnet cements its place on the grid.

Key to the fourth-gen A8’s appeal is an entry price shaved by a few grand while the high-end-gadget count has stepped up, especially in terms of digital screens.

And it’s those prominent central touchscreens – with haptic feedback – in an otherwise restrained Teutonic cabin that sparked debate. Pixels count for wow factor, but judges questioned whether the lower OLED screen controlling ventilation brought significant benefit over buttons and dials.

There was no such apprehension regarding hardware, with the 17-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio, four-zone ventilation and Valcona leather all in keeping with the $192K-plus price. Heated rear pews in the long wheelbase – which adds 130mm for serious stretchability – reaffirm the emphasis on ensuring occupants are appropriately cosseted.

Double-glazed glass adds to the hushed serenity and backseaters even get a removable OLED device, a fitting full stop for a cabin that truly delivers on luxury.

The A8 stays true to its predecessors’ template: aluminium body riding on adaptive air suspension and the choice of two wheelbases, both of which made a COTY appearance.

Steering brings meaningful weight, and sizeable rubber (ours were on 20s) hunkers nicely to deliver cornering thrills. Ramp up the pace and the A8 relishes the challenge, predictable understeer creeping in at the (high) limit.

The lengthened wheelbase was deemed a better investment than the $4500 for four-wheel steering.

Only over the PG’s vicious stutters does the suspension crash and confuse the luxury message; should the chassis tune swing further to passengers rather than driver?

The V6 drivetrains deliver, though. The 600Nm hit from the 3.0-litre in the 50TDI is beautifully matched to a longlegged eight-speed auto that glides between ratios. There’s additional zing in the petrol-powered 3.0 turbo 55TFSI, its 250kW peak compensating for the 100Nm shortfall.

Efficiency is aided by a 48v mild-hybrid system that utilises the torque of the starter motor at low speeds, while also running ancillary systems. That contributes to fuel use as low as 5.9L/100km, which is impressive.

However, the A8’s aluminium integrity was called into question. Despite claims of a sub-two-tonne kerb weight, the PG scales saw our cars weigh in at 2145 and 2186kg. Sure, they were plumped with options, but 200kg of them?

Speaking of which, value weakens with each box tick. Audi focuses on option packs, but prices quickly get frightening.

The A8’s value and comfort are also bettered by a Lexus LS, and its dynamics closely shaded by a BMW 7 Series.

The Audi A8 is a terrific limousine, but it doesn’t bring significant advances, this time, against the COTY criteria.

TOBY HAGON

“IT’S BETTER TO BE DRIVEN IN THAN TO DRIVE”NOELLE FAULKNER

SPECS

BODY

Type 4- door sedan, 4/5 seats

Boot capacity 505 liters

Weight 1920 – 2000kg

DRIVETRAIN

Layout

front-engine (north-south), AWD

Engines

2967cc V6 turbo-diesel

(210kW/600Nm)

2995cc V6 turbo

(250kW/500Nm)

Transmission

8-speed automatic

OTHER

Tyres 255/45R19 – 275/35R21

ADR81 fuel consumption

5.9 – 8.2L/100km

CO2 emissions

154 – 186g/km

Crash rating Not rated

PRICES

$192,000 – $210,000

Bentley Continental GT

A TRUE HEAVYWEIGHT BY EVERY AVAILABLE MEASURE

IF YOU WERE to contextualise the Bentley Continental GT in boxing terms, its ‘tale of the tape’ is so impressive you could almost imagine it being called out by a ring announcer: “In the blue corner, weighing in at 2244kg, punching out 467kW from 12 cylinders, and yours for $422,000, it’s the brawling bouncer from Brrrrr ... itaaaaain!”

Those latter numbers made this easily the most powerful and expensive car in the 2019 COTY field, but the dollar figure is only the undercard to the options list, which did this super coupe no favours in terms of value. The optional Naim audio system alone is the price of a basic VW Polo; all up, this particular Conti rolled in with a tag just over $539,000, not including taxes and on-roads.

It fared more strongly in terms of technological advancement. Thanks to Bentley’s place in the VW Group, the third-gen Conti is built on the MSB platform that underpins Porsche’s Panamera; its electrical architecture is a 48-volt system that supports active anti-roll bars, while its vast rear quarter panels are hydroformed from a single piece of aluminium. The revised W12 is also 18 percent more efficient.

Further, albeit predictable, praise came for the interior’s sense of occasion and attention to detail. The exquisite knurling of control knobs and the ‘organ-stop’ operation of the air vents were not missed by the judges. Although not everyone was enamoured by the taste of whomever it was that specced the test car: “I could live without the ‘Mel & Kim knicker drawer’ interior colour scheme,” commented Enright.

What was not disputed was its sublime refinement. “That cabin is so well insulated, it feels as though you’re in Maxwell Smart’s Cone of Silence,” observed Inwood. So yes, wind and road noise are brilliantly suppressed, and, at least until well past its mid-range, so is engine noise. The W12 delivers such silken, effortless shove, it almost seems to transcend the explosive principles of internal combustion. In brisk touring mode, it’s as though there’s some electromagnetic force involved, whipping the car along with barely an audible murmur. Only when really chasing the redline are you deemed worthy of enjoying the distant, distinctly different warble emitted by the W12 layout.

That whopper of an engine is now backed by an eightspeed dual-clutch transmission, a choice which had several judges questioning its appropriateness in a car which puts such an emphasis on refinement. “Not as smooth in lowspeed driving as it needs to be,” was the broad consensus.

As for high-speed driving, that demands respect, purely because of the velocity-mass equation. The judges agreed that the chassis was deeply capable, but the strength of the engine and power-down ability was such that the car was almost always travelling faster than the driver might momentarily estimate. Really vigorous pedalling would see the chassis run out of compression damping on the plunging back section of the durability circuit, putting this judge’s eyes on stalks.

Ultimately, though, it was law of diminishing returns and punch-drunk-inducing options prices that knocked out this Great British bruiser.

ASH WESTERMAN

“GREAT MID-CORNER COMPOSURE FOR A FAT BUGGER”

ANDY ENRIGHT

SPECS

BODY

Type 2-door coupe, 2+2 seats

Boot capacity 370 litres

Weight 2244kg

DRIVETRAIN

Layout

front-engine (north-south), AWD

Engine

5950cc W12 twin turbo (467kW/900Nm)

Transmission

8-speed dual-clutch

OTHER

Tyres 265/40RR21 – 305/35R22

ADR81 fuel consumption

12.2L/100km

CO2 emissions

308g/km

Crash rating 5 star (EuroNCAP)

PRICE

$422,600

Chevrolet Camaro

AUSSIE-CONVERTED YANKEE DOODLE THAT FALLS SHORT OF DANDY

THE VERY FIRST time you have a crack in the Chevrolet Camaro, it all comes flooding back. All the goodness we miss about home-grown muscle cars; the crisp throttle response from the 6.2-litre LT1 V8 and a visceral noise that crescendos into a bellow of impeccably blended exhaust and induction.

With its big cylinders and modern direct injection, the brawn-to-be-wild approach – one that’s increasingly lost in a turbo-fixated world – is at its most compelling.

Some eyes welled at the absence of a stick-shifter – just one 2SS specification is offered, and the only choice you get is paint colour – but as the proving ground highlighted, the eight-speed auto does a fine job of harnessing all 617Nm. The fact that it so easily taps into its 339kW peak affirms the engineering nous inbuilt in the Corvette-sourced small block.

Less impressive are aspects of the dynamics, hampered by occasionally sloppy, mute-feeling steering that dulls the appeal at lower speeds.

The Camaro’s senses awaken as the pace is stepped up, its 20-inch run-flat rubber helping it sweep through bends with sports-car intent. There are lashings of tail-wagging fun on offer, too, although you should avoid the inconsistent ESC interventions in Track driving mode. Yet what it lacks in finesse, Camaro makes up for in chuckable fun.

Of course, the made-in-America Camaro has little connection with Australia, at least in its fresh-from-Detroit form. The bowtie badge – the first seen in 56 years of COTY – is pure apple pie and ‘gas’ stations.

“YOU’VE GOT TO PICK IT UP BY THE SCRUFF OF THE NECK”

ANDY ENRIGHT

Yet there’s an Aussie twang courtesy of an extensive (and excellent) RHD conversion by Holden Special Vehicles. It’s a superb engineering effort, trouncing any previous local undertaking.

The core product dishes up a near-perfect blend of modern design and materials that sing of 1960s style and simplicity, delivering a character that earned it COTY favour. There’s a purposeful butchness to its exterior, with its brawny lines and slim glasshouse cementing the interplay between old and new. While the Camaro has been facelifted stateside, the consensus was that we’ve got the looker.

There’s also an endearing old-school functionality, with the exception of the 7.0-inch infotainment screen, which points at your crotch. Clever circular temperature dials surround the central vents while twin semi-hexagonal covers on the cowling shroud traditional instruments and a customisable digital screen.

While there’s an infusion of tech, the Camaro isn’t pretending to be anything but a loud and proud statement of its owner’s personality. Clawing the lovable two-door back to the COTY criteria is where clouds start to form over the muscle-car fairy tale. There’s no ignoring the $85,990 price tag, some $20K more than its sole local rival, the Ford Mustang. Active safety gear is light-on, too, and for anything but a two-person thrash it’s less than convincing.

None of which dilutes its copious emotional appeal, a trait amplified by local engineering input. The Camaro is purist simplicity, with added muscle, but it’s no COTY contender.

TOBY HAGON

SPECS

BODY

Type 2-door coupe, 2+2 seats

Boot capacity 257 litres

Weight 1710kg

DRIVETRAIN

Layout

front-engine (north-south), RWD

Engine

6162cc V8

(339kW/617Nm)

Transmission

8-speed automatic

OTHER

TYRES 245/40R20 (f);

275/35R20 (r)

ADR81 fuel consumption

11.5L/100km

CO2 emissions

260g/km

Crash rating Not rated

PRICE

$85,990

Citroen C3

NEW SUPERMINI CHIC UNDONE BY RETRO ORIGINS

IF PROOF PROPER is needed that Citroen is back, it’s the return of the C3. In less than two years, more than 400,000 units of the striking third generation have been sold worldwide, exceeding forecasts and putting the century-old brand back on the map. Internationally, at least.

It’s easy to see why. Chunky, handsome design with ever-so-subtle crossover cues make the French supermini seem a little larger than it is (while actually shedding 75kg compared with the preceding version). Inside the spacious cabin, sofa-like seating, deep glass areas for exceptional vision, a simple yet contemporary dash layout and classy details like luggage-strap door pulls add further appeal.

Backing the latter up in the sole Aussie-spec Shine variant are lofty levels of standard kit, including a 7.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, reverse camera, road-sign recognition tech, climate control, lanedeparture warning, driver-attention alert, rear parking sensors, auto lights and wipers, alloy wheels, four-wheel discs, and a five-year warranty. Plus, buyers can option an in-built dash-cam and a fixed glass roof, as well as 33 colour and trim customisation combinations, at fairy reasonable prices. “Feels boutique!” one judge quipped. Germans, take note.

Things continue to look peachy on the move, thanks to a smooth and punchy 1.2-litre three-cylinder turbo that pulls strongly and doesn’t fall into the trap of many similar downsized powertrains by sounding strained at the upper end. The C3 also happens to be commendably economical, with light yet accurate handling and soft suspension that puts many larger models to shame. Style and relaxed refinement are very much the chic C3’s calling cards.

These qualities were enough for the Citroen to give the allnew Volkswagen Polo an unexpected run for its money in a 2018 four-car comparo, despite the C3 sitting on PSA’s ageing and utterly conventional PF1 platform, which dates back to the late 1990s Peugeot 206. No fancy hydraulic suspension here, just good old trusty struts and a torsion beam out back.

However, the lack of Autonomous Emergency Braking and keyless entry/start availability helped the VW pull ahead. Those issues have been remedied in MY19 C3s, which also gain blind-spot warning and DAB+ digital radio. All for no extra dosh. Gosh!

Ultimately, though, the dated engineering underneath has caught up with the fresh-faced Citroen, as revealed by some scattered switchgear (like the Houdini-esque ‘Sport’ button), a tiny glovebox, the propensity for quite a bit of bodyroll through tighter corners, and a dim-witted auto. The harder we drove it the less convincing things seemed. Unlike the Polo…

Still, as a classy, Euro alternative to up-spec mainstream superminis, or even as a cheaper entree to posher premium fare like the Mini Cooper and Audi A1, the charming C3 represents a remarkably thorough proposition. Good enough for sales success internationally, but not enough for COTY.

BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

”BRINGS A DIFFERENT DYNAMIC FLAVOUR TO THIS CLASS”

JOHN CAREY

SPECS

BODY

Type 5-door hatch, 5 seats

Boot capacity 300 litres

Weight 1090kg

DRIVETRAIN

Layout

front-engine (east-west), FWD

Engine

1190cc 3cyl turbo

(81kW/205Nm)

Transmission

6-speed automatic

OTHER

Tyres 205/55R17

ADR81 fuel consumption

4.9L/100km

CO2 emissions

110g/km CO2

Crash rating 4 stars (ANCAP)

PRICE

$23,490

Ford Focus

SIZZLES ON THE ROAD, BUT STUMBLES IN THE SHOWROOM

LIKE DAVID HASSELHOFF’S musical career, Germany’s Ford Focus has never quite hit the big time in Australia. The bold 1998 original – with game-changing dynamic sophistication – was underpowered and over-priced when it launched here four years later; the second-gen of 2005 flirted with success but lived in the shadow of its popular Mazda 3 cousin; and the less said about this decade’s capable but Powershift problematic gen-3 the better.

Willkommen, then, to Focus gen-4. Hailing from the land of the Golf, nothing bar the badge and a few bolts carry over, in a wider, lower, roomier, quieter and stronger small car, which is also up to 88kg lighter than before.

Not everybody will be pleased that four cylinders have been superseded by three, or that the manual is no more. Beancounters be damned! Additionally, all but the ST-Line wagon versions (for now) ditch the old multi-link independent rear-end layout that helped forge the Focus’s reputation as a great steer, for a cheaper, simpler and less bulky torsion-beam arrangement – a move the Blue Oval claims is more than offset by a longer wheelbase, stronger steels, far better insulation measures, and advanced new driver-assist tech. And much of the latter is standard.

So, the big question is, has the Focus relinquished its dynamic mantle? Not if the $25,990 base Trend hatch is any guide. Muted at idle, the effervescent 1.5-litre three-pot turbo leaps into action and just keeps boldly bounding along, only betraying its diminutive capacity at proving-ground speeds well above the legal limit. The auto shuffles through its ratios with slick authority, and the whole drivetrain feels fighting fit. No qualms there, then.

Better still, the sparkling chassis is a revelation, with beautifully interactive handling. The front end’s lightness of touch is terrific, backed up by a poised and planted rear end that almost feels like it can be controlled from the seat of your pants. Factor in a hushed, cushy, yet controlled ride, and it is clear the latest Focus’s dynamic fluency is transcendental, regardless of the less-sophisticated suspension lurking out back. Mission accomplished.

Yet while the Focus soars on the move, it stumbles in the showroom. As fine as the cabin space, dashboard workings and seat comfort are, it seems dated and a little downmarket for the (Golf) money asked. The rear is especially drab with no centre armrest, never mind kneelevel air vents, even in the $31K ST-Line wagon, which offers truly useful load-carrying practicality, by the way. And the Trend misses out on keyless entry/start. There simply isn’t enough allure inside.

With Peugeot 308 alacrity and Golf refinement, but a sub-Hyundai i30 interior … and trailing key competitors for equipment, the Focus is a fabulous small car that is hamstrung by specification and pricing misfires. Just as with earlier iterations, it’s another case of defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.

BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

“DYNAMICS: BEST TODAY. PRESENTATION: WORST TODAY”

ALEX INWOOD

SPECS

BODY

Type 5-door hatch;

5-door wagon; 5 seats

Boot capacity

375 – 608 litres

Weight 1336 – 1388kg

DRIVETRAIN

Layout

front-engine (east-west), FWD

Engine

1499cc 3cyl turbo

(134kW/240Nm)

Transmission

8-speed automatic

OTHER

Tyres 205/60R16 – 235/40R18

ADR81 fuel consumption

6.4L/100km

CO2 emissions

148g/km

Crash rating 5 stars (ANCAP)

PRICES

$25,990 – $34,490

Holden Acadia

HOME-HONED HERO CAN’T HIDE AMERICAN FLAWS

HOLDEN’S HISTORY OF seven-seater SUVs is a little like that of young Goldilocks. For many Aussies, the short-lived Suburban monolith of the late 1990s was just way too big, while the mid-sized Captiva a decade later was too small. Is the intriguing new Acadia, out of America, sized just right?

At a shade under five metres long, the crossover from Tennessee is a triumph of packaging, managing to accommodate seven full-sized adults with comfort and space to spare. And it comes complete with all the air vents, cupholders, storage facilities and other thoughtful detailing a septet of travellers could wish for. The Acadia also offers an impressively long and boxy cargo area, for effortless loading capability. And all this within a similar footprint to the Toyota Kluger that Detroit’s designers used as a template.

Much like its imposing, mini-Cadillac Escalade styling, the Acadia’s pricing stands out, opening below most rivals, yet still buying you goodies such as AEB (with cyclist and pedestrian recognition), lane-keep assist, blind-spot and rear cross-traffic alerts, reverse camera, auto high beams, trafficsign recognition, keyless entry/start, three-zone climate control, sat-nav, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, five USB ports and 18-inch alloys on the base LT, with five years’ warranty. The Holden’s showroom appeal is palpable.

Additionally, buyers can expect sound real-world economy from the same 3.6-litre V6 found in the related ZB Commodore (they share many platform elements), partly due to local calibration of the standard nine-speed auto, driving either the front or – for $4K extra – all four wheels. Growly and grunty right from the get-go, this powertrain combo’s acceleration is pleasingly rapid, providing the sort of off-theline torque response old Holden owners would recognise.

“THE FIRST MODERN-ERA HOLDEN TO NAIL PRICE, EQUIPMENT AND SAFETY”

TOBY HAGON

GMH’s engineers also managed to make worthwhile chassis improvements over the US equivalent, particularly on the range-topping LTZ-V, which comes with locally tuned adaptive dampers on the standard-fit 20-inch wheel and tyre package. The results are well modulated (if a tad too light for some tastes) steering, reasonable handling control, and an unexpectedly composed ride, particularly over gravel.

However, in FWD models that V6 muscle all too often overwhelms front-wheel traction (particularly in the LT and LTZ on 18s), resulting in unsettling tyre scrabble and torque steer. Consider stretching to the calmer AWD versions instead.

The centre row, meanwhile, has not been altered for our right-hand-drive needs, so the heavier, two-person portion of the seat must be folded and slid forward for kerb-side thirdrow access. Some ergonomic issues also prevail (such as the auto’s awkward tip shifter and laggy engagement); and the baggy and ill-fitting carpet on some examples were eyesores.

Acknowledging that a proving ground is hardly the natural habitat for large seven-seaters, it nonetheless spotlights inconsistencies within model ranges, with the scrappy front-drivers holding the Yank back from progressing through to the next COTY stage.

Invariably, the LTZ-V AWD, with that extra Holden input, turns out to be the only Acadia that’s just right.

BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

SPECS

BODY

Type 5-door SUV, 7 seats

Boot capacity

292 – 2102 litres (non-VDA)

Weight 1874 – 2032kg

DRIVETRAIN

Layout

front-engine (east-west),

FWD/AWD

Engine

3649cc V6

(231kW/367Nm)

Transmission

9-speed automatic

OTHER

Tyres 235/65R18 – 235/55R20

ADR81 fuel consumption

8.9 – 9.3L/100km

CO2 emissions

209 – 219g/km

Crash rating 5 stars (ANCAP)

PRICES

$43,490 – $67,490

Holden Commodore

FORMER COTY HEAVYWEIGHT FALLS AT FIRST HURDLE

HOLDEN’S ZB CAME to Car of the Year hauling heavy historical baggage. Commodore, after all, is the winningest name in COTY history; five times it’s been etched on our trophy. But the new one isn’t the same kind of car as the VB, VN, VR, VT or VE. Big six-cylinder and V8 engines, rear-drive and Australian-made are no longer the defining Commodore characteristics.

Designed, engineered and manufactured by Opel in Germany, the new Commodore is front- or all-wheel drive, with the most affordable and popular models powered by turbocharged four-cylinder engines, including diesels. But the ZB was judged on merit, not the back-story of the badge it wears. Or, for that matter, its slumping sales, shrinking niche and uncertain future.

Though smaller than the VF II Commodore, key ZB features are space-efficient transverse-mounted engines and, in the sedan, liftback versatility.

The range runs from base LT level, through RS and Calais to range-topping VXR. All except the V6-only VXR are offered in liftback and Sportwagon versions. While the LT comes only with turbocharged petrol and diesel 2.0-litre fours, the same 3.6-litre V6 used in the VXR is available in RS and Calais grades. In the latter spec, there’s also the choice of a high-riding Tourer wagon variant with V6 power.

Prices cover a broad range, from around $34,000 to $56,000, and there’s a massive seven-year warranty. But as a whole, the ZB Commodore isn’t compelling value.

The Commodore also delivers mainstream meat-and-twoveg technology. Innovation? Look elsewhere. Fuel efficiency across the range is no better than mediocre, although it scores solidly for safety.

While the interior package in both liftback sedan and wagon is role-appropriate, cabin fit-out in the base LT is dreary. Its front seats came in for criticism from some of the bigger-bodied judges, too.

Despite this, the least costly Commodore is among the best in the range. Its agile handling, the zesty performance of its turbo-petrol engine and nine-speed auto drivetrain, and excellent ESC and ABS calibrations are evidence of Holden’s influence during the ZB’s development. “Rental drivers never had it so good,” was Byron Mathioudakis’s verdict.

The Calais Tourer also has a strong Australian flavour and is especially capable on dirt, but in other models it’s less evident. The turbo-diesel, teamed with an eight-speed auto, does a good job, but the VXR, with its too-light steering and no more power than the regular V6 models, is a limp-wristed range-topper.

Although the ZB brings welcome tech like standard autonomous emergency braking, some of the additional driver aids lack polish. The active lane-keeping assistance system, for example, is jerky.

Good in places, not so great in others, the ZB range simply lacks the creativity and consistency COTY aims to reward.

JOHN CAREY

“HAS MERIT, BUT BRILLIANCE IS MISSING”

ALEX INWOOD

SPECS

BODY

Type 5-door liftback or wagon,

5 seats

Boot capacity 490 litres

(liftback); 560 litres

(Sportwagon and Tourer)

Weight 1515 – 1772kg

DRIVETRAIN

Layout

front engine (east-west),

FWD or AWD

Engines

1998cc 4cyl turbo

(191kW/350Nm);

1956cc 4cyl turbo-diesel

(125kW/400Nm);

3649cc V6

(235kW/381Nm)

Transmissions

8-speed automatic;

9-speed automatic

OTHER

Tyres 205/55R16 – 225/40R18

ADR81 fuel consumption

5.6 – 9.3L/100km

CO2 emissions

148 – 215g/km

Crash rating 5 stars (ANCAP)

PRICES

$33,690 – $55,990

Not pictured: Sword of Damocles swinging above the slow-selling ZB Commodore

Hyundai loniq

THREE-PRONGED ASSAULT WITH BATTERY DOESN’T QUITE ELECTRIFY

TALK ABOUT COVERING all bases. Rather than dipping a toe into the electrified segment, Hyundai has gone all out with a three-pronged attack designed to simultaneously take on the Toyota Prius and Nissan Leaf in one, low-CO2 strike.

In its most basic form, the $32,990 Hybrid easily undercuts Prius on price, while pairing a 77kW 1.6-litre engine with a 32kW motor for modest performance and an official economy rating of 3.4L/100km.

Step up to the Plug-in Hybrid and it’s the same 1.6 combo, but with more electrons, courtesy of a larger 8.9kWh lithiumion battery and 45kW motor. Up to 50km of all-electric range is on offer before unleaded is burned. However accelerating with any gusto sees the Plug-in rely on its petrol engine, which detracts from its tree-hugging appeal.

For those wanting the full clean-and-green flavour, the Ioniq Electric fits the bill, teaming a 28kWh battery with an 88kW electric motor to provide a near-instant 295Nm wallop. The claimed 280km range is acceptable, and functionality, such as the ability to adjust the level of regenerative braking via the paddle shifters, is well thought out.

Venture beyond the drivetrains and the Ioniq’s spark begins to fizzle. Dynamics are acceptable rather than engaging. Accurate steering allows a degree of adjustability, but mediocrity prevails over all. The 16-inch tyres on the Plug-in and Electric give up relatively early and road roar is a black mark in an otherwise quiet cabin.

Judges were impressed with the Ioniq’s normality and the space and practicality offered by its swoopy (yet already dated) body. The fact that aluminium is used in its suspension components shows an effort to keep kilos to a minimum, all in a quest to further reduce your environmental footprint. The lack of an ICE makes the Electric Ioniq the lightest despite its generous equipment list, which includes AEB.

Delve deeper, though, and the first-round knockout bell rings, especially inside, where it’s more 1999 than 2019.

The plastics are drab, all but the Electric have a footoperated park brake, and the leather in Premium-spec cars (which are priced $4000-$5000 over the entry-level Elites) has an air of vinyl about it.

None of which detracts from the Ioniq’s CO2-reducing game. Had it arrived at the COTY party in 2016, when it was released in Korea, its round-two prospects would have been brighter. As it is, the many positives don’t make it COTY gold material in 2019, especially now the EV train is off and running.

TOBY HAGON

“ITS NORMALITY IS THE IONIQ’S GREATEST ASSET”

BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

SPECS

BODY

Type 5-door hatch, 5 seats

Boot capacity 350

– 456 litres

Weight 1375 – 1420kg

DRIVETRAIN

Layout

front engine (east-west) + motor,

FWD (Hybrid, Plug-in); front

motor, FWD (Electric)

Engines

1580cc 4cyl 77kW/147Nm

(Hybrid, Plug-in)

Electric motor

32kW/170Nm (Hybrid)

45kW/170Nm (Plug-in)

88kW/295Nm (Electric)

Transmissions

6-speed dual-clutch; single-speed reduction

OTHER

Tyres 195/65R15 – 225/45R17

ADR81 fuel consumption

0.0 – 3.4L/100km

CO2 emissions

0 – 79g/km

Crash rating 5 stars (ANCAP)

PRICES

$32,990 – $48,990

Hyundai Santa Fe

SOLID SEVEN-SEATER UNDONE BY UNDERCOOKED PETROL ENGINE

CAST YOUR MIND back to August of this year and you may well recall a seven-seat SUV test that included some illustrious nameplates. It was won by a Hyundai Santa Fe. Given that it got the nod over the Skoda Kodiaq – which was a podium finisher in last year’s COTY – hopes were high that the Hyundai would progress to the pointy end of this year’s proceedings. Sadly it wasn’t to be.

The car that aced that group test was the range-topping Highlander diesel version, and it offered a convincing blend of all the good stuff that family buyers look for, albeit at a price. Start lowering your gaze in the Santa Fe range to a price tag that, in all likelihood, will be more attuned to those coping with school fees, food bills, and family holidays for six and the sheen rubs off a little.

Hyundai had supplied the all-conquering Highlander diesel for review but alongside it came the base Active petrol. The $17K gulf between the two makes a real difference. It’s 440Nm of torque at your elbow in the diesel versus 241Nm in the petrol version. It’s an eight-speed auto versus a six-speed unit. It’s 25 percent poorer fuel economy from a weak-sauce 2.4-litre petrol engine, which rows along raucously where the diesel just purrs.

Of course the sweet spot in the range might well be the entry-level Active diesel, which tacks just $3000 onto the price of the petrol at $46K, but it wasn’t here for review. As such, the budget end of the Santa Fe range left most judges distinctly underwhelmed and some clearly felt that $60K+ for the Highlander was edging beyond the limits of Hyundai’s badge equity, in this class at least.

Here’s the thing, though. If you have a big brood of kids, being able to seat them easily, comfortably and safely represents a higher priority than impressing your mates with a premium badge. You’ve probably grown out of that. There’s nothing more cringeworthy than the guy trying to be the cool dad, and the Santa Fe plugs into that kicked-back vibe.

It doesn’t try too hard, instead preferring to major on what’s important. Things like being able to adjust the front passenger seat from the driver’s side, supplying a humungous centre storage bin, a low window line for excellent all-seat visibility, elegant body control, and a modest 185mm ride height so that small kids can get in without looking as if they’re scaling the Eiger. “Hyundai is nailing design and presentation” said an impressed John Carey, but Byron Mathioudakis was withering in his assessment of the 2.4 Active model. “Doesn’t feel as if it deserves to be at COTY. Merely plays catch up with the Mazda CX-9,” he sniffed.

The Santa Fe gets so much right but the petrol version is a nail. We don’t say that about too many cars, especially ones that made the invite list to COTY. Without that anvil around its neck, the Santa Fe might well have progressed further. Nevertheless, this quality SUV fell by the wayside in the first round. Harsh? Maybe. Perhaps Hyundai can rest easy in the knowledge that no seven-seat SUV fared any better.

ANDY ENRIGHT

“KUDOS TO HYUNDAI FOR DELIVERING TEXTURE AND VISUAL INTEREST

ALEX INWOOD

SPECS

BODY

Type 5-door wagon, 7 seats

Boot capacity 547 litres

Weight 1745 – 1995kg

DRIVETRAIN

Layout

front-engine (east-west), AWD

Engines

2359cc 4cyl

(138kW/241Nm)

2199cc 4cyl turbo-diesel

(147kW/440Nm)

Transmissions

6-speed automatic;

8-speed automatic

OTHER

Tyres 235/65R17 – 235/55R19

ADR81 fuel consumption

7.5 – 9.3L/100km

CO2 emissions

198 – 217g/km

Crash rating 5 stars (ANCAP)

PRICES

$43,000 – $60,500

Lexus LS

JAPAN ONCE AGAIN SMASHES THE SMUG GERMAN LUXO-BARGE AXIS

THE LEGACY OF late-’80s Japanese heroes, such as the COTYconquering Mazda MX-5, Honda NSX and Lexus LS400, continues. But three decades on, is this fifth-generation LS sufficiently bold, progressive and luxurious to make the perception-changing original proud?

Longer and wider, yet lower and sleeker than ever before, the Lexus limo flagship returns in single-wheelbase guise, joining its LC coupe cousin in adopting the ‘GAL’ global longitudinal-drive ‘luxury’ version of the Toyota New Global Architecture. That means a switch to an all-new, far more rigid yet lighter aluminium/steel structure, offering a lower centre of gravity, better front/rear weight distribution and improved packaging.

With no V8s in sight, the 310kW LS500 introduces a fresh twin-turbo V6 and 10-speed auto to boost performance (0-100km/h in 5.0sec) yet slash consumption, while the 264kW LS500h pairs an atmo V6 and four-speed auto/CVT combo (true!) with an electric motor. Though 0.4s tardier to 100, it averages 6.6L/100km. In a 2.2-tonne limo.

“DOES SO MANY THINGS SO WELL. NAILS BEING A LUXURY LIMOUSINE”

TOBY HAGON

The better-selling LS500 continues with the peerless refinement the series is renowned for, but lacks the gnarly exhaust growl of old. Such serenity might be an issue, as the twin-turbo V6 leaps off the line and into triple-digits almost imperceptibly; your chauffeur better have a clean licence handy. Sadly, Lexus couldn’t lend us the hybrid for scrutiny.

With multi-links at each corner and standard air suspension running on 20s, the Lexus’s ride also meets expectations, providing a cushy, rolly softness in Comfort, and planted, poised control in Sport+, revealing an unexpected bandwidth.

Unfortunately, the first corner brings a letdown. While measured and responsive, with pleasingly accurate handling and imperturbable roadholding, there’s zero steering feel, eroding the LS’s dynamic appeal. Even with our base F-Sport’s variable-gear-ratio helm, well-calibrated four-wheel steering and active anti-roll bars, feedback is limited.

Oh well. There’s always the gorgeous, distinctive interior – arguably Lexus’s best yet – with daring, flowing shapes, extensive, exquisite detailing, bank-vault build, and gadgets galore. It's spacious too, even with that lower roofline.

Needless to say, the cabin is a micro-climate of opulence and solitude from the outside world. And the $5K optional Sport Luxury ushers in a Shiatsu massage function and spot heaters, as part of the 22-way airliner-style rear recliners with ottomans. Rock-star spec!

Conversely, the multimedia graphics look dated, and some of the latest semi-autonomous tech isn’t available (yet). But the LS500h is $50K cheaper than the previous hybrid, as well as costing appreciably less than most rivals, spec-for-spec.

While 2019’s LS can’t boast the E-Class-eclipsing obsessive quality, cabin hush or kit of the silken V8-powered original, European manufacturers of full-sized luxury sedans need to sleep with their eyes wide open once more.

BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

SPECS

BODY

Type 4-door sedan; 5 seats

Boot capacity 370 litres

Weight 2240kg – 2295kg

DRIVETRAIN

Layout

front-engine (north-south), RWD

Engines

3444cc V6 twin-turbo

(310kW/600Nm)

3456cc V6

(220kW/350Nm) + electric motor

(132kW/300Nm)

Transmissions

10-speed automatic;

4-speed auto + CVT

OTHER

Tyres 245/45R20 – 275/40R20

ADR81 fuel consumption

6.6 – 9.5L/100km

CO2 emmissions

150 – 217g/km

Crash rating Not rated

PRICES

$190,500 – $195,500

Mazda CX-8

CAN’T QUITE STEP OUT OF THE SHADOW OF ITS COTY-WINNING SIBLING

TO SAY HOPES sat in the mid-highs for the CX-8 in this year’s COTY would be playing it down. Mazda has more COTY trophies in its pool room than most other manufacturers to date, having most recently taken out the gong with the MX-5 in 2016 and CX-9 in 2017, as well as landing a spot in the final five last year with the CX-5.

So, being an amalgamation of the latter two CXs by blood as well as proxy, the CX-8 should have a legitimate claim for the throne, right? Alas, if we’ve learned anything, it’s that COTY is not so predictable.

Think of the CX-8 as the offspring of the flagship CX-9 and the CX-5 mid-sizer, sharing the wheelbase of the former and the somewhat narrower platform of the latter, while borrowing design cues from both. From the A-pillar forwards and also in width, it’s pure CX-5. In the rear? The burlier CX-9 shines through. Cleverly, this makes for some well-hidden size, multi-purpose functionality and a stamp that fills a gap that wouldn’t have existed just a few years ago: the “three-row crossover”. However, as our leggier judges found out, the rear seats are best thought of as an occasional, or kids-only, two-plus-two. One man’s three-row crossover is another’s in-case-of-a-party option.

Adding to the CX-8’s appeal, all three variants have a 2.2-litre four-cylinder twin-turbo diesel that pumps out 140kW and 450Nm – just like a CX-5. Unsurprisingly, this darling of a diesel thrilled the judges, earning praise for its saccharine-like refinement. More than once “this is a diesel?” was muttered. When it came to the stars of the line-up, the AWD models earned points for a nimbleness synonymous with a much smaller car. “You can drive this like a sedan, it’s so confident,” said Byron Mathioudakis. Overall, as the finessed ride, clever ESC, minor bodyroll and low road noise ticked our panel’s boxes, the resounding “Mazda has done it again” was not so much a surprise as a relief.

Plus, on paper, with the Japanese brand’s proficient safety features as-standard, like AEB, blind-spot monitoring, driverattention alert, lane-keep assist and traffic-sign recognition, the CX-8 puts up quite a fight.

Sadly, in a field with plenty of crossovers crossing swords, the CX-8 feels a little flat. Like a well-performed pub band cover of your favourite tune, for all its satisfaction, that COTY-winning wow factor is just … missing. Sure, the CX-8 is capable, refined and a strong contender, but the panel found it less cohesive than a CX-9, and not as honed as a CX-5. Somehow, the CX-8 just didn’t shine brightly enough to step out of the shadows of its superior siblings. As Alex Inwood said, it’s like an attempt at a ‘Greatest Hits’ mash-up of the CX-5 and CX-9, but it doesn’t quite succeed.

Ultimately, the question was, does this seven-seater move the genre on the way the CX-9 did so effortlessly two years ago? If there’s any doubt, you know what the answer is…

NOELLE FAULKNER

“REFINEMENT SO GOOD YOU HAVE TO CHECK IT’S A DIESEL”

ANDY ENRIGHT

SPECS

BODY

Type 5-door wagon, 7 seats

Boot capacity 209 litres

Weight 1840 – 1957kg

DRIVETRAIN

Layout

front-engine (east-west),

FWD; AWD

Engine

2191cc 4cyl twin-turbo diesel

(140kW/450Nm)

Transmission

6-speed automatic

OTHER

Tyres 225/65R17 – 225/55R19

ADR81 fuel consumption

5.7 – 6.0L/100km

CO2 emissions

150 – 158g/km

Crash rating 5 stars (ANCAP)

PRICES

$42,490 – $61,490

Mercedes-Benz A-Class

BREATHTAKING AND FRUSTRATING IN EQUAL MEASURE

WHEN ONE OF the hottest cars at COTY is also next of kin to one of the most ho-hum, there’s a worrying disconnect going on. Let’s shine the spotlight, then, on the fourth-generation Mercedes-Benz A-Class, and the fact that polar opposites seem to be a recurring theme in the series’ 21-year history.

Visually similar to its ultra-successful predecessor, the pretty and ultra-aero (if a tad anodyne) W177 hatch smooths out the old rough edges and stretches the completely revamped ‘MFA 2’ modular transverse architecture to liberate much-needed rear-seat and boot space. Entry and egress improve. Vision is better. Packaging is no longer woefully tight beyond the front row. That’s progress.

Better still, the cheapo, pokey plastics of yore have been banished for classier finishes, underscoring a cabin overhaul that ushers in what may be 2018’s greatest leap in dashboard design. The beautiful and functional ‘MBUX’ widescreen multimedia system contributes to the cabin looking and feeling a million euros inside.

“A250 4MATIC IS A PREMIUM POCKET ROCKET”

ALEX INWOOD

Digging in deeper, almost nothing carries over underneath, with the substantially safer, stronger, lighter and better-insulated MFA 2’s need to be future-proofed for electrification helping prompt the switch to a more compact (and cheaper) torsion-beam rear end in the lower-line petrol front-drivers, in place of the independent multi-link found on higher-grade and AWD versions.

Add a fresh array of four-cylinder turbo-petrol engines co-devised with Renault and, frustratingly, that’s where the A-Class’s schizophrenia becomes all too apparent.

Representing the latter is the A200. Well-specified it undeniably is – with AEB, MBUX, DAB+ digital radio, wireless smartphone charging, CarPlay/Android Auto compatibility, and other cutting-edge tech – but the 120kW/250Nm 1.3 turbo/seven-speed dual-clutch combo is disappointingly coarse and laggy at lower revs. It’s the antithesis of the sweet 1.6-litre turbo it usurps.

Even worse is the always fidgety ride and noise intrusion assaulting the base A200’s occupants. We appreciate the fuel efficiency, quick steering, and impressive chassis poise, but Ford’s Focus Trend comprehensively outshines the Mercedes for performance, refinement, ride comfort and handling prowess. The A200 seems overpriced and undercooked.

Let’s end on a high note, though, because the firecracker A250 4Matic is surely, already, one of the all-time hatch greats. With a 165kW/350Nm 2.0 turbo driving all four wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch, it is possessed of a lion’s heart and a mountain goat’s grip, backed up by the levels of refinement and comfort (via the standard IRS with adaptive dampers) synonymous with the marque’s traditional virtues.

Such rousing fun and all for under $50K, or just $2300 more than the A200. This thing is an absolute no-brainer for variant of the year.

But consistency across the range is a COTY pillar, and that’s where the A-Class is dragged down. Would you want the underwhelming A200 or the hugely overachieving A250 4Matic? It’s no contest. The latter would have catapulted the baby Benz straight into the next round. Sadly the former means it’s going home early.

BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

SPECS

BODY

Type 5-door hatch, 5 seats

Boot capacity 370 litres

Weight 1375 – 1505kg

DRIVETRAIN

Layout

front-engine (east-west), FWD/AWD

Engines

1332cc 4cyl turbo

(120kW/250Nm)

1991cc 4cyl turbo

(165kW/350Nm)

Transmission

7-speed dual-clutch

OTHER

Tyres 245/45R18 – 225/40R18

ADR81 fuel consumption

5.7 – 6.6L/100km

CO2 emissions

130 – 150g/km

Crash rating 5 stars (ANCAP)

PRICES

$47,200 – $49,500

Mercedes- Benz CLS

PHENOMENAL ENGINE’ GOOD WORK UNDONE BY MEDIOCRE RIDE

WE ALL LOVE a COTY dark horse. You know, those cars that you don’t expect much from yet shine like diamonds during the event. The Mercedes-Benz CLS is not one of them. Perhaps our expectations had been ratcheted up by an almost unbroken string of successes from the Stuttgarters, but the CLS got short shrift from the judging panel.

Perplexing, ride quality was the Benz’s bugbear. While it delivers plenty of variance, finding the sweet spot in the Air Body Control suspension settings proved elusive. In its softest mode, it was agreeably boaty and sybaritic, and that could well be the only mode much of the target market ever uses. Progressing in COTY subjects a vehicle to more searching scrutiny, though, and in its sportier modes it was, by common consent, the harshest vehicle in the entire field over the rumble strips on the You Yangs durability circuit.

Yep, more molar-mauling than the Alpine A110 or the Chevy Camaro. To come back from that, the CLS would have needed to redefine our handling expectations for this class. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t.

John Carey noticed a “weirdly wayward rear-end shimmy when pushed” while Ash Westerman described the ride as “agitated and crashy in Sport”. In short, it could do the easy things well but seemed to run out of answers when prodded from its admittedly delightful comfort zone.

There were no such complaints when it came to the M256 straight-six powerplant, backed up by an integrated starteralternator, in effect making it a mild hybrid with 500Nm on hand from only 1600rpm. This engine was developed for its cost-effective modularity with inline fours, but it’s a delightful powerplant with guts, character and a glorious aria of a top end.

Each successive generation of CLS has become less brash in its styling, this latest car staying on the right side of soapbar bland, despite the surgical removal of almost anything resembling a feature line or swage.

This studied elegance isn’t reflected inside the car, where its techno steampunk design direction affords plenty for the eye to alight upon. The integration between the two large LCD screens could have been a bit slicker, but aside from that it’s a visual treat. Noelle Faulkner noted that the seats weren’t designed for small people, with the bulky side bolsters impeding her ability to saw at the wheel. Byron Mathioudakis was no fan of the “silly, old-school gear shifter on the column,” claiming it betrayed the CLS’s demographic.

At $155,529, it’s reasonable to expect a lot from the CLS 450, but it’s not the all-rounder we’d hoped for. It’s still a better buy than the four-pot CLS 350, but were we spending our own money, an additional 15 percent outlay would land us in the CLS 53 AMG. This flagship model justifies itself on the basis of its extra equipment, even before its many dynamic advantages are considered.

Mercedes-Benz Australia will doubtless shift every CLS it can get its hands on, and view it as a success. It’s a tougher crowd at COTY, but it pays to respect the audience that really matters: the one that delivers the dollars.