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Six months in, the Car of the Year field starts to take shape... and there are still some tasty prospects.
One thing is certain about the year so far. Ford's Mustang has stolen the show.
The new-age American muscle car shows how Australia's homegrown hero Falcon might have morphed for a future that will never come.
But the Mustang still faces a battle to make this year's Car of the Year field. Already there's a wide spread of cars in the mix at the halfway mark.
Japanese makers have recovered from the global financial crisis, Europe's prestige brands have sharpened their pencils and SUVs have improved at all price points.
The real CarsGuide champions this year are those providing value, safety and quality that eclipses rivals and belies the price.
Choosing a top 10 for the COTY shootout will be tougher than ever but with more than 100 years of combined experience as motoring journalists and test drivers under their belt, the CarsGuide crew as always will deliver on the mantra: "Real cars, on real roads, for real people".
The real CarsGuide champions this year are those providing value, safety and quality that eclipses rivals and belies the price. That's why the Kia Sorento, a new-age seven-seater SUV that is both classy and excellent value, took the COTY crown in 2015.
Even the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, which led in the field in 2014, was much more than just a luxury car thanks to an accessible starting price, landmark quality and driving enjoyment for its position.
Many potential COTY contenders are already in showrooms but significant arrivals over the next few months are sure to be in the mix.
The five most likely finalists are detailed below. Still to come, however, are the Tesla Model X, which puts a new slant on electric motoring, the heavily updated Nissan GT-R — a Godzilla with more muscle and some much-needed cabin class — and, going harder on the SUV front, Holden's full-size Trailblazer.
For now, these are the standouts of 2016:
Audi A4 - from $55,500
The true starting point for Audi prestige lands in a desperately tough battle that's been dominated by the Mercedes-Benz C-Class. It's a completely new deal for the A4 and definitely more than just the dressed-up VW Passat of the past. The mechanical package is new and much more refined — the engine sits longitudinally rather than east-west and the cabin finish is lovely. It's quiet and comfortable, the lower dashboard improves the view and the "virtual cockpit" option is great. With world-leading technology, it also can get pricey, quickly, if you want more than the basics.
BMW M2 - from $89,900
A genuine "woo-hoo" car from the M division, the M2 gets back to the basics that made the original M3s so popular. The blunt little two-door has a taut chassis, big wheels, great brakes and proper sports suspension, mostly from the latest porky M4. The turbocharged inline six has all the torque you can want — add its proper top-end thrust and it's really fun to drive. Opinion is split between the six-speed manual and DSG gearboxes but that's a personal preference. There is big-time tyre roar on some surfaces, the car is not as light as we expected, and the rear can be cramped. It's also easy to break the $100,000 barrier but it's still solid value on the smiles-a-kilometre scale.
Ford Mustang - from $45,990
What's not to like, as the classic 'Stang finally gets right-hand-drive direct from the factory in America? The retro shape turns heads everywhere and the chassis shows where the Falcon might have gone with a bit more commitment by Ford in Detroit and Broadmeadows. The starter car is a turbo four, which goes well but misses the V8 thunder and theatre that lifts the price to at least $57,490. Ford made a giant mistake when underestimating demand, creating an 18-month waiting list, and it is moving prices up. The Mustang lacks a proper digital speedometer and some will find the rear seat and cabin finishing a bit disappointing.
Honda Civic - from $22,390
So, finally, Honda has a Civic that's worthy of the name. The long-time foundation car for the Japanese brand has a task ahead to recover against the Koreans that have taken its place with first-time new-car buyers. Honda's first all-out development program since the GFC shows it can make much better cars and price them better than the Accord Sport Hybrid that sank without trace in Australia. The new Civic has standout looks and a cabin that gets back to the finishing we expect. It still needs to be measured against Mazda3, Toyota Corolla and Hyundai i30 that have squeezed it out in recent years.
Kia Sportage - from $28,990
Another bullseye from a Korean company that's been spot-on-target with all of its latest models, including the Carnival people-mover and reigning COTY Sorento. The five-seater Sportage, its smaller SUV sibling, is good to drive thanks to locally tuned suspension, good value and seven-year warranty that gives doubters the essential permission to buy. It's no match for the class-leading Mazda CX-5 in some quality areas and refining touches but pushes past the Japanese standard bearer as a value package for young families.
This rampaging pocket rocket and Subaru STI rival is not cheap but already looks like another sellout at the opposite end of the scale to the mighty Mustang. Will be a winner with youngsters who like driving.
This one must fire and the early signs are good. The styling is crisp and modern and it drives well. However, the key will be hitting the value button and delivering on quality to lay the right foundations for next generation of Euro Holdens.
Mazda has cracked the SUV code and now renews its full-sized family hauler, facing great expectations on the seven-seater front but with proven credentials from the class-leading CX-3 and CX-5.
The mid-sized Benz is tipped to be the benchmark for safety and technology, complete with plug-in hybrid power, but it must still be priced right and have plenty of standard equipment to be relevant for Australia.
VW needs to sell more SUVs, which makes the all-new Tiguan a vital player. The real test is to overcome buyer reluctance after DSG gearbox dramas and "Dieselgate".
It might look good and drive well for the class but it's too expensive and is missing a rear camera and cruise control.
The sedan version of the coming i30 hatch needs a better engine and slicker tech, its cabin can't match some rivals and it's good but not great to drive.
Another Lexus snoozer, with no significant improvements from the previous model, a cartoon-style grille that can't disguise underdone styling and the price is creeping too high.
After all these years, the green champion is still flawed. It's too expensive, surprisingly noisy inside, a lacklustre drive and it short-changes Australians on genuine technology advances.
It's big and family-friendly but a little bland, while the brand is still struggling to make an impact in Australia. It's part of the VW Group, which raises questions, and the cars are built in the Czech Republic, not a familiar source.
Two-door niche variant developed from a former COTY winner is comparatively expensive to service, lacks a sporty exhaust note to match the looks and rear-vision is not great.