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Ten contenders, two exhaustive days of testing by six judges... and in the end, the Car of the Year was a unanimous choice with Ford's final Falcon narrowly missing out on going out with a bang.
The born-again XR8, the headline act for the FG X update that will drive the Falcon to the end of local production, has trumped all but one of the contenders in the 18th running of the CarsGuide Car of the Year contest.
The Falcon finished as runner-up to the Mercedes-Benz C200, a unanimous winner in a quality field. The XR8 has had more than a mild tweak, picking up a new visual identity and all the go-faster parts from the GT formerly built by Ford Performance Vehicles, at a bargain price just over $52,000.
The third-placed car was also a surprise, as the new Honda Jazz showed it is more than just a $14,990 price fighter to push out a group of highly rated compact cars including the classy Mazda3, updated Volkswagen Polo and Toyota Corolla sedan.
But the victory by the C-Class was anything but a shock. It was a clear COTY contender from the first CarsGuide preview drive in Europe and breezed through the two-day judging process.
This year's judging was run later than usual so a number of late arrivals in showrooms could be assessed for the contest. They included the BMW i3 electric car, the luxury Hyundai Genesis, the BMW 2-Series Active Tourer and the updated FG X Falcon.
RELATED: 2014 CarsGuide Car Of The Year announced
But the format was the same as always, as the six-member judging panel - with more than 130 years of combined experience on the motoring beat - judged each of the cars back-to-back over the same testing roads in the NSW southern highlands. The COTY cast was viewed via the mantra of 'real cars, real roads, real people", which means everything from price and safety to comfort and quality was assessed before the driving began.
As they do on the road, city runabouts dominated the line-up, with half the field made up of small cars. From the tiddlers, there was the new Mazda2, the revised VW Polo and Honda's versatile Jazz. Stepping up a class were the Toyota Corolla and Mazda3.
The most expensive car was the C200 at $60,900. Too pricey for the average motorist? Maybe, but consider the fact that since its launch it has been Australia's second best selling medium-sized sedan.
Driving the contenders began in heavy rain, which enabled the judges to assess everything from wipers and aircon performance to cornering grip and braking performance. Everyone got wet and the cars got a tougher test.
Day one ended with a cull of half the field, some predictable decisions and a few surprises.
The Pathfinder was a great idea, but flawed in its execution. A seven-seat hybrid, with an electric motor matched to a supercharged four-cylinder, it's a unique combination is this market. But it's a mild hybrid, with a small electric motor that is more show than go. And it lacks the fuel-saving stop-start system that is standard on the tiny Mazda2.
Another flaw was discovered during testing. The automatic transmission setup means that if you're on a hill it will roll until you hit the brake.
The Odyssey lost votes for straying from its original brief as a stylish family wagon to become a more sensible and functional people-mover. Some judges also weren't impressed by the dated velour upholstery and fake woodgrain.
But it won points for ample boot space, versatile seating and sliding doors that make it easier to unload the kids from tight parking spaces.
The Polo was composed and confident on the open road, with engine performance that belied its size. It made the cut ahead of the new Mazda2, which looks cute, but can't match the hushed quality of the Volkswagen rival, nor the strong value and cavernous interior of the Jazz.
The bigger, more substantial Mazda3 survived the chop by outclassing the roomy but old-school Corolla.
The WRX is now easier to live with, the ride comfier and the cheap cabin plastics gone. But it needs bigger brakes.
So the final field was set with the C200, XR8, Jazz, Mazda3 and Polo moving through to the decider. And the assessment gets even tougher, on dry roads and with so much at stake.
A noise in the engine bay of the Polo set off a discussion about past VW reliability problems, while some judges thought the cabin was a bit plain and tight for space. It finished fifth.
Noise suppression has improved in the Mazda3 but it still lags the best in class. And in base form, it misses out on a rear camera, parking sensors and a centre screen, which can be had on cheaper cars. This cost it a podium finish.
Next to go was the Jazz, which was the pick of the city cars based on unbeatable value and cabin space. But not quite a Car of the Year. So it came down to Falcon and C200; heart against head, performance against luxury, past against future.
The XR8 fulfils its intended purpose - and is awesome value. But it's more an excellent execution of a dated formula, than a bold leap into the future.
No such complaints about the C-Class, even though it's out of reach for a lot of buyers. It does everything well and shows what we can expect from other brands in coming years. It's compelling value, with nine airbags and a standard equipment list that shames its rivals. But it's also fun to drive, will hold its value and sets a new benchmark in its class. In the end, the vote was unanimous.
THE JUDGING CRITERIA
PERFORMANCE How the car accelerates, stops, shifts gears, fuel efficiency, engine noise suppression.
VALUE FOR MONEY Standard equipment, pricing, resale, running costs, build quality.
ON THE ROAD The balance between secure roadholding and comfort; quietness, steering accuracy and feel.
CABIN ENVIRONMENT Legroom, headroom, luggage space, versatility, seat comfort, material quality and durability, ergonomics, vision, user-friendliness of information screens and menus.
SAFETY Crash rating, standard and optional safety features.
2013 Volkswagen Golf
2012 Subaru BRZ/Toyota 86
2011 Kia Rio
2010 Volkswagen Polo
2009 Volkswagen Golf
2008 Ford Falcon
2007 Hyundai i30
2006 Holden Calais
2005 Suzuki Swift
2004 Ford Territory
2003 Honda Accord Euro
2002 Ford Falcon
2001 Holden Monaro
2000 Mercedes-Benz C-Class
1999 Toyota Echo
1998 Holden Astra
1997 Holden Commodore
HOW THEY VOTED
|RICHARD BLACKBURN||Mercedes-Benz C200||Ford Falcon XR8||Mazda3|
|PETER BARNWELL||Mercedes-Benz C200||Mazda3||Ford Falcon XR8|
|JOSHUA DOWLING||Mercedes-Benz C200||Ford Falcon XR8||Honda Jazz|
|PAUL GOVER||Mercedes-Benz C200||Ford Falcon XR8||Honda Jazz|
|JAMES STANFORD||Mercedes-Benz C200||Ford Falcon XR8||Honda Jazz|
|TIM VAUGHAN||Mercedes-Benz C200||Ford Falcon XR8||Volkswagen Polo|