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2015 Car of the Year | how the finalists were chosen

Made up the top 11 (L - R) GLC, Ranger, Passat, Sorento, CX-3, XE, Commodore, MX-5, RS3, XC90, X1

There are few bad cars on the road these days, which made it tougher than ever to pick a field for CarsGuide's 2015 Car of the Year award.

The process started in December last year. A week after we awarded the Mercedes-Benz C-Class our gong, we were on the launch of the new Subaru Outback.

It was the first of more than 300 new cars we pored over before arriving at 11 finalists. In between there were head-to-head battles and three-way shootouts between the most impressive of the newcomers and the existing benchmarks.

Comparison tests are vital because it's easy to come away from a new car launch impressed by Brand X's latest and greatest. But it takes back-to-back testing — on the same stretch of bitumen, same potholes, same freeway — to sort the winners from the also-rans.

The X1 is the most un-BMW BMW I've driven

This year's COTY judging threw up a few surprises. The first was the CX-3. It felt good to drive on the launch and when we tested it against the best in its class, it also came out on top. Up against our other finalists, it felt underdone and overpriced. The conclusion? The mini-SUV may be the new "must-have" automotive accessory but none of the new breed — there have been six all-new arrivals this year — is as practical or fun to drive as a humble hatchback.

Next was the BMW X1, which fellow judge Joshua Dowling called "the most un-BMW BMW I've driven". An SUV from a German luxury brand for a tad over $60,000 sounds like a good deal, especially when a Toyota Kluger can cost similar money.

While much improved over its predecessors in some areas, the X1 was underdone in others. The seats, usually a BMW highlight, were flat and unsupportive, while the front suspension crashed rudely over bumps.

To a much lesser extent the same criticism could be levelled at our runner-up, the Mercedes-Benz GLC. It is still an impressive vehicle but not as well sorted as the C-Class. In their quest for new buyers, are the luxury brands losing their luxuriousness?

The surprises weren't all bad, though. The fact that the Ford Ranger made our final five is testimony to the huge advances made in one-tonne utes in recent years. The Ranger didn't feel a million miles off the rest of the field on our road loop.

A decade ago, jumping out of a Volvo into a Ford ute would have been like trading the Merc for a Massey Ferguson. Not now.

Which brings us to the last — and most pleasant — COTY surprise: the winner, Kia's Sorento. Ever since the Koreans pinched Audi's head designer, Kia cabins have looked a cut above their competitors. Local suspension tuning has made them ride better, while their diesel engines are on par with some of the best for refinement. Add an industry leading seven-year warranty and there's plenty to like.

If you're put off by the badge on the nose, it's your loss.

Were you surprised by this year's verdict? Let us know in the comments below.