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Kia's family seven-seater stands out, setting a precedent in a singular field.
The car star of 2015 is the Kia Sorento. It's the 19th winner of the CarsGuide Car of the Year contest, topping an 11-car shootout involving the best newcomers in every category from baby SUVs to the utes that are now selling so well.
There are plenty of firsts in 2015, including the first unanimous win since the original COTY judging in 1997 gave the prize to the VT Holden Commodore, the first appearance by a ute, the first 11-car field — thanks to the last-minute arrival of the Mercedes-Benz GLC — and the first win by a seven-seater SUV.
The Sorento's win is the second for the Korean maker, following the Rio small hatch in 2011. It was an easy decision after a two-day shootout with more than 25 hours of driving by the seven COTY judges.
"It's everything you need for a family," CarsGuide editor Richard Blackburn says.
Judging was centered around real cars on real roads for real people
"It's the best Kia yet and they haven't cut corners anywhere," Joshua Dowling says. "There's auto-up for all four windows, aircon in the third-row seats, full-size spare and the seven-year warranty is a bonus."
The Sorento takes top spot ahead of the GLC and the Mazda MX-5, the Mercedes hurt by its prestige position and price and the MX-5 marked down ( a little) because it's still "just" an MX-5 and not a major breakthrough.
Judging, as always for the CarsGuide award, follows the mantra of real cars on real roads for real people. So there are no exotics, despite the impressive claims of the likes of the Mercedes-Benz S Class and Lamborghini Huracan.
So the price spread for the 11 contenders is from $24,390 for the Mazda CX-3 Maxx to $89,950 for the Volvo XC90, although the $67,900 bottom line of the GLC is blown out by more than $8000 by prestige paint and option packs that add a bigger infotainment screen, sunroof and head-up display.
As the 11 contenders are assembled in Sydney for two tough days of driving on roads that will expose any flaws, Blackburn sets the rules.
"This is not comparison of cars in the same class," he says, "so we're looking at why it should be a Car of the Year and why it should not be. So we're looking at what the car is good at and what it's not so good at."
That is bad news for the Holden Commodore SS-V Redline, which everyone arrives wanting to drive. The car feels old and underdone and the performance is not nearly as good as we expect with the promise of 304kW.
"It's the best Commodore ever made," Dowling says, "but it's not Car of the Year. It's the first car to go up in fuel consumption in a long while."
"It's like painting over the wallpaper," Blackburn says.
The first cull comes after all the drivers have tried all the cars in all conditions, up to 110km/h in freeway running down to 60km/h over nasty bumps on a relic road from the original Hume Highway.
The Mazda is best in its bunch but not good enough in a COTY field. The X1 is underdone in the driving dynamics that were once a given on a BMW. The Volvo is too costly, the RS3 is too focused on fun and the Jaguar has a useless rear seat.
The final five are a curious mix that reflects the changing tastes in Australian motoring
Chris Riley says of the CX-3: "It might be best in class but that doesn't say much for compact SUVs."
"If that's the future of BMW, they're in a bit of trouble," Dowling says of the X1.
Craig Duff on the Volvo: "You should not have to pay extra for safety for a brand that made its name on safety. You need to spend another $1250 on the D5 we have to get the IntelliSafe Surround pack with blind spot monitoring."
"It looks good and sounds amazing," Peter Barnwell says of the RS3, "but $80,000 plus on-roads ... really?"
Blackburn says of the Jaguar: "For me, the rear seat kills it. It's just not big enough and it's not just legroom but the headroom."
The final five are a curious mix that reflects the changing tastes in Australian motoring.
The Volkswagen Passat represents old-school four-door sedans but there are two SUVs, the MX-5 to prove that sports cars are still alive in the 21st century and the Ford Ranger to represent the new breed of four-door family ute.
Day two of COTY judging starts early as the final five are reassessed and re-evaluated before the final vote.
It's clear there are only two serious contenders. The Passat is rated as too bland, the Ranger is marked down on price and its lack of standard reverse camera. The judges decide the MX-5 is not advanced enough from the previous models while a question mark lingers over its four-star ANCAP safety rating.
"I mark it down on having four stars, no reversing camera and no reach adjustment for the steering column," Riley says of the MX-5.
Blackburn says: "(Every family ute) is too expensive. And the (Ranger) reversing camera is a gross oversight."
"But the fact that Ranger made the final group shows how far those utes have come," Riley replies.
Dowling on the Passat: "It's a German Camry. Volkswagen is supposed to be a stepping stone to a prestige brand."
The two left standing are SUVs — but they could hardly be more different.
Kia's diesel Sorento puts the family first and starts at $44,490 with everything you need. Benz's GLC starts at $67,900 — and can easily go a lot higher — and more likely to be seen on the (private) school run.
The relative merits of the two contenders fuel discussions and arguments for nearly an hour. Canvassing covers the GLC's three Isofix child-seat mounts and absent spare, then the Sorento's flexible cabin and strong diesel.
Eventually there is a clear winner. It's the Kia.
The Sorento ticks all of the boxes
Barnwell says of the Benz: "I expected a lot from the GLC. It looks amazing but it hasn't delivered in the suspension,"
"It's got all the best of the C-Class," Tim Vaughan says, "but there is little extra ride height and the infotainment screen looks like an afterthought."
What makes the Sorento such a convincing winner?
It ticks all of the boxes on the Carsguide judging criteria, from the starting price to the engine, seating flexibility, the third-row air vents and the way it rides — even trumping the GLC — over our favourite strip of gnarly bitumen.
"It's an awesome car. It has an auto tailgate and a full-size alloy spare," Barnwell says.
Duff adds: "It shades the Volvo in almost every area, for around $40,000."
"It is very good. And for the price it's very, very good," Blackburn says. "It's a winner."
The final order
1 Kia Sorento
2 Mercedes-Benz GLC
3 Mazda MX-5
4 Volkswagen Passat
5 Ford Ranger
6 Jaguar XE
7 Audi RS3
8 Volvo XC90
9 BMW X1
10 Mazda CX-3
11 Holden Commodore
2014 Mercedes-Benz C-Class
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
The judging criteria
Performance: How the car accelerates, stops, shifts gears, fuel efficiency, engine noise suppression
Value for money: Pricing, standard equipment, resale, running costs, build quality
Cabin environment: Leg and 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