Andrew Frankel

Road cars
Clever money goes on iQ

Publishing deadlines being what they are, the identity of this year’s European Car of the Year will be known to you as you read this, but not to me as I write it. So as I predict that this, the most coveted award in the world’s largest car market, will go to the Toyota iQ (right), you can now regard me as a man blessed with rare visionary power. Or, statistically rather more likely, not.

However, I have narrowed the odds not only by being aware of the seven shortlisted finalists but also being on the jury, and having, I hope, at least some idea of the way it likes to think. Then again, I have never been more certain of any pending COTY decision than last year when I was entirely convinced the title would go to the Ford Fiesta and remained that way right up to the moment it was awarded to the Vauxhall Insignia.

This year marks the 45th anniversary of the European Car of the Year award. Those early years threw up some wonderful contenders, some perhaps less relevant to the European market than others. The first three winners were, in order, David Bache’s wonderful Rover P6, followed by the rather less wonderful Austin 1800 and the entirely reasonable Renault 16. So far so fairly predictable. But the second-placed cars were much more imaginative: best of the rest in 1964 was the titanic Mercedes-Benz 600, in 1965 it was the wonderfully entitled Autobianchi Primula, while in 1966 it was that great car of the people the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow that only just failed to carry off the top prize.

Other unlikely candidates that so nearly claimed the honour included the Oldsmobile Toronado and Jensen FF (third in 1966 and ’67 respectively), the Maserati-powered Citroën SM (third in 1971), the Fiat X1/9 (second in 1974) and the utterly awful Volvo 760 that somehow managed to sneak a third in 1983.

And among these perhaps curious decisions we find some that, with the benefit of hindsight, can now be revealed to be incomprehensible, none more so than the decision in 1982 to give the award to the Renault 9, as miserable and dull a tin box as I have ever had the misfortune to travel in. How the Fiat Uno managed to beat the Peugeot 205 in 1984 will remain forever a mystery to me, while I will never be convinced that back in 1975 a Citroën CX was really a better car than the then brand-new VW Golf.

But in more recent years the results have been reassuringly easier to predict. True, I failed to call the Insignia’s victory last year, but it beat the Fiesta by a single point, and given that there are 59 jurors spread around the continent each with 25 points to award, that gives an idea of just how close it was. The year before it was Fiat’s impeccably well-judged 500 that romped home 60 points clear of the next best. Previous to that it was Ford’s S-Max wearing the crown, as well it should: it remains the best MPV in the market.

This year’s winner will have been chosen from a shortlist comprising the aforementioned Toyota iQ, VW Polo, Vauxhall Astra, Peugeot 3008, Mercedes E-class, Skoda Yeti and Citroën C3 Picasso. I voted for all bar the Astra and 3008 and included the funky Kia Soul and transformed Toyota Prius on my shortlist, but I guess five out of seven’s not too bad. And if you’re wondering at the absence of anything with a more sporting bent, the jury has tended in recent years to choose between cars with the greatest relevance to the market they represent, a stance I find hard to argue against however much my heart might think the Porsche 911 GT3 should stand unopposed. Indeed in the entire history of Car of the Year, it has only once been awarded to a genuine sports car, the Porsche 928 of 1978.

So what are we to make of the current contenders? I left the Astra on the longlist because, however much it improves on the car it replaces, in my view it’s still not as good as either a Ford Focus or VW Golf. And while I liked the 3008 and am excited by what appears to be a long overdue product-led recovery from Peugeot, I think there remains some distance to go before it can claim to make the best car on sale in Europe. The new Polo is everything it should be and looks, feels and drives like a more compact Golf, though it should be said it’s actually bigger than the Golf Mk2 which was sold between 1984 and 1992. Mercedes should be congratulated even for getting its superb E-class onto the shortlist though its chances of victory must be slim: it’s been over a decade since a large executive saloon has even made it into the top three.

As for the Skoda Yeti and Citroën C3 Picasso, neither is exactly revolutionary but both are unusually well executed examples of their breeds and quite the best cars in their respective classes. But while I would be happy for either of them to win, it is Toyota’s iQ that is the only genuinely groundbreaking car on the list. Comprising the biggest advance in interior packaging since at least the original Mercedes A-class and maybe even the first Mini, it is the ultimate urban weapon, more capable around town than a Smart thanks to its tighter turning circle and its ability to carry four people, yet entirely at home on the open road. I will drive all seven shortlisted cars back to back before making my final decision, but right now I’d be surprised if I don’t put the iQ at the top of the list. Whether the majority of my fellow jurors have decided to do the same is something you will know already, but I am still to find out.