Car of the Year: the contenders


Every year, the Car of the Year jury gets together with all the shortlisted cars to put them through their paces.

Actually that’s not entirely true. Of the 59 jurors, 53 (representing 22 of the 23 countries that return jurors from Portugal to Russia) gather at a test track outside Paris. The remaining six, the UK contingent, go to Silverstone.

We’re not trying to be awkward or secede in Cameroonian fashion, we just want to drive the cars on roads relevant to their customers and which will test them to the very limit of their ability.

So tempting though it is, we don’t spend the day skidding around the track: the BRDC kindly open the clubhouse to us to use as base, from which we head out on a fiendish route created by the late Mike Scarlett, devised to throw every challenge at a car’s chassis that it can reasonably be expected to handle.

Every car came with a surprise of one size of another, apart from the Ford Focus which was predictably good and reminded me just how high the standard of small family cars has now become.

On the positive side the Toyota Yaris – a car I’d read about but not driven, was better than many had said. Not class leading or close, but well packaged, with strong performance from an energetic 1.3-litre engine coupled to a close ratio six-speed box. But its steering was poor and its suspension over sprung.

More good news for Land Rover who’s Evoque set about proving it has the substance to match its style. Interestingly the entry-level front-drive version was by some margin better to drive than more expensive all-wheel drive variants. My advice is to save the money unless you really need the traction and spend it instead on options that actually improve the car.

Volkswagen’s Up! surprised only because it’s the first time I’d driven it in company with a couple of at least quite close rivals. I suspected strongly it would have little trouble besting them, but the margin of superiority was less easy to predict. It’s so structurally sound Porsche could have engineered it and I had little trouble running rings around the opposition.

And Vauxhall’s Ampera showed it’s not just a one trick pony: its ability to do decent distances on electric power alone is impressive, but no more so than the deftness of its ride, the quality of its cabin or the strength of its performance. Sales in the US of its Chevy Volt sister are notably poor at present, but I suspect this is a slow burner. Its time will come.

By contrast the Fiat Panda, a car I instinctively like, was rather undone by British B-roads. Its seats are too flat, its vertical body movements too loosely controlled for comfort. It looks cute and has a charming interior, but if it is to be your only car rather than something in which to do the weekly shop, in the UK it feels not quite cooked.

Which brings us to Citroën’s C5, a luxury car unable to provide the single most important facet of luxury: comfort. This large and elegant flagship not only had a worse ride than the Evoque, Focus and Ampera, it was outshone by the Up!, Yaris and even the Panda. So badly judged are its suspension settings that its otherwise considerable appeal is all but entirely undermined.

The winner of the Car of the Year award will be announced on March 7. I’ve not voted yet but for me it’s between the Ampera and Up, with the Evoque in a strong third place. As for the views of the other 58 jurors, we will all have to wait and see.

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