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2016 Car of the Year preview

We've whittled down the list of contenders for Australia's big motoring prize to this top 10.

Ten cars, one winner. That's the simple formula with the field set for the 2016 running of the CarsGuide Car of the Year award.

The 20th contest for the big prize in Australia motoring mixes family cars, SUVs and driving favourites but, sadly, nothing homegrown.

The closest thing to an old-school Ford or Holden, the Mustang from America, failed to make the grade in a year when the contenders push the boundaries on design, quality, tech, value and — thankfully — driving enjoyment.

The bottom end of the pack is led out by the Honda Civic and Holden Astra and the line-up is topped by the Mercedes-Benz E300.

Fiat's Abarth 124 and Ford Focus RS represent the performance world and four SUVs — Kia Sportage, Jaguar F-Pace, Mazda CX-9 and Volkswagen Tiguan — seek to repeat last year's family wagon success for the Kia Sorento.

As always, we select a single model to represent each of the COTY contenders, going for the car that best fits the COTY criteria. So, here are the contenders for 2016:

Audi A4 1.4 TFSI $55,500

The classy A4 is completely new, with impressive technology and a well-finished cabin. It drives well and is competitively priced in a class where the Mercedes C-Class rewrote the rules and took a COTY crown. But is the missing “wow factor” going to hurt it in this field?

Abarth 124 $41,990

Some people say the Italian clone of the Mazda MX-5 is a great car made good. But not us, as the Fiat package combines retro styling that works with a torquey 1.4-litre turbo and a chassis package — Bilstein shocks, bigger wheels, Brembo brakes — that sharpens the car and is available as a Sport kit on the MX-5 in America. Even so, can Fiat claim credit for the Mazda work?

Ford Focus RS $50,990

The RS hit the headlines for its controversial Drift mode but that's only for the track and the pocket rocket is fun on almost any road. It's a good looking hot hatch and ticks the boxes for wings, Recaro buckets and add-ons but it's not as quick as Ford says and it's also heavy and a bit dull at times. The manual gearbox is old school in a world of slick shifting double-clutch gearboxes but that is not hurting demand, which far exceeds supply.

Holden Astra R 1.4 auto $24,190

Finally, an all-new Holden that's not just a price-fighter. The Astra is back as a European small-car contender with a Red Lion badge, looking to erase the failure of the Opel Astra and lure back people who remember the nameplate at its best. The Astra drives well and the technology is good. But the pricing is controversial, even more than a VW Golf, and the technology only comes bundled in expensive option packs.

Honda Civic VTi-L auto $27,790

After a series of misses, the new Civic is a return to form for Honda thanks to a space-age dash, roomy passenger space and big boot, and styling that stands out in a crowd. It's also back to Honda quality standards. Still, the price hurts in the super-competitive small-car class, and you need to upgrade to the VTi-L to get the better safety package and the essential turbo — the standard engine is underdone.

Jaguar F-Pace 20d $74,340

There is original thinking in the body design, the cabin has great space, it's an excellent drive and you only need to get the basic diesel engine to get the best return. The starting price is good, too, but options are extensive and costly and you must pay more for safety that's standard on opponents. Inside the cabin, the F-Pace is short on the essential “Jaguar-ness”.

Kia Sportage SLi 2WD $33,990

The Sorento stablemate won COTY last year and the all-new Sportage is another impressive newcomer from South Korea. It looks good, value is great and the warranty is super-long. The sweet spot is filled by the SLi front-driver that does the job for families. Local suspension tuning really works, giving Kia an edge against the Japanese. The engine is a little lacklustre and some of the class's expected active safety gear isn't available.

Mazda CX-9 Sport FWD $42,490

The best thing about the new seven-seater is the refinement and all-round quality. It has a quiet and relaxing cabin for up to seven and makes a solid case for any family. It has an impressive turbo engine, exemplary road manners and good safety gear. It also shows what Mazda will produce across the range in coming years. The specification sheet is a bit light compared with its rivals and on the cheapest model the steering tugs under acceleration.

Mercedes-Benz E300 $107,900

Once again, a winner from the world's oldest car maker. It has reinvented the E-Class as it had already done with the C-Class, with an awesome interior including the biggest display in the business, loads of technology pointing to autonomous driving and Benz-style quality. The E300 was the final inclusion in the line-up after proving its credentials with a great engine and air suspension, removing reservations about the base E. It will struggle on value, though, as it attracts the ridiculous luxury car tax, adding thousands to the price.

VW Tiguan Trendline 110TSi auto $31,990

This is the SUV that VW has needed for far too long and is part of the rebuilding process after Dieselgate. The basic styling is a bit bland but it does the job and there is clever packaging, loads of space, standard auto safety braking and lane departure warnings. It is quiet to drive, has a great engine and solid road manners. Even so, VW cannot escape — yet — the questions about long-term ownership costs.

The Criteria

The mantra for the COTY judges seems simple — real cars on real roads for real people. Everything needs to be assessed against the COTY criteria, then balanced against the needs of buyers.

That means different weighting for different cars. Safety and value are the top priorities for a family SUV but performance and enjoyment are key for a sports car. And a prestige or luxury car must look good and make the driver feel a bit special.

At their heart, the COTY criteria break down this way:

Design: Leg and headroom, ergonomics, comfort, vision, ease of navigating menu screens and using new technology.

Value for money: Price, equipment, running costs, resale, material quality, warranty and dealer support.

Performance: Acceleration, braking, gearshifts, steering, cornering and suspension control, fuel efficiency and quietness.

Safety: The vital ANCAP crash rating, active safety equipment and driver-assist technology.

Good ones give way

As always, some notable nameplates are missing from this year's contest.

The Ford Mustang tops the list. An 18-month waiting list proves the popularity of the first factory right-hand drive Mustang, and it also looks tough, but the cabin is cheap and it's not good enough as a drive.

Holden fails with the Colorado and Trailblazer, which are well equipped but hamstrung by cheap plastics in the cabin. The Spark, a top little car, is too expensive.

The Skoda Superb is a great car but we are concerned about resale value and ownership costs.

Hyundai's Elantra is good but not as good as a Mazda3.

The Toyota Prius is not nearly good enough when the hybrid Corolla stablemate does the same job for a lot less money. The BMW M2 is fantastic to drive but too pricey and not as user-friendly as an Audi RS3.

The new Renaults for 2016, the Megane and Koleos, are significantly better than previous iterations but can't trouble the class leaders.

Good though it is, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class Coupe is not great, or great looking. Volvo's S90, a good effort, won't trouble the Germans' best.

Which car would you like to see take out the 2016 CarsGuide Car of the Year? Let us know in the comments below.

CarsGuide team
The CarsGuide team of car experts is made up of a diverse array of journalists, with combined experience that well and truly exceeds a century.  We live with the cars we test, weaving them into our family lives to highlight any strenghts and weaknesses to help you make the right choice when buying a new or used car.  We also specialise in adventure to help you get off the beaten track and into the great outdoors, along with utes and commercial vehicles, performance cars and motorsport to cover all ends of the automotive spectrum.  Tune in for our weekly podcast to get to know the personalities behind the team, or click on a byline to learn more about any of our authors. 
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