It faced a tough bunch of rivals after a punishing year — but VW's Tiguan SUV helped to raise the brand's image.
After the complaints, controversies and a $20 billion penalty in the US for emissions cheating, VW's Tiguan SUV easily trumped one of the best fields in the 20-year history of CarsGuide's Car of the Year .
The Tiguan scored on all counts — safety, comfort, quality and driving enjoyment — to take a unanimous first-place sweep with the seven hard-nosed COTY judges.
"This is a well-deserved win by a very impressive car," says CarsGuide editor Richard Blackburn.
"I changed my vote on the final drive of the Civic. It impressed me so much when I went back to it," says Peter Barnwell.
The A4 also sailed through to the final vote, although some felt it missed the X-factor needed for a COTY win.
"It's clinically perfect but it just doesn't feel enough like luxury to me," says Joshua Dowling.
The battle for this year's crown covered most segments of the new-car market, from family seven-seaters to roadsters.
The Abarth 124 roadster — a controversial inclusion because it's a clone of the Mazda MX-5 — brings an Italian turbo engine, sports suspension, bigger brakes and distinctive front and rear styling. It also comes with an optional $2800 Monza sports exhaust.
"It's heaps better value than the MX-5 and a better drive," says Blackburn.
"You don't have to drive it fast to have fun," says Tim Vaughan.
Then there is the technology, with driver-assistance on almost every car.
But neither one made many friends with the COTY crew.
"It is too much money. Simple as that," Craig Duff says of the E300.
The test car cost about $118,000 and most judges felt it wasn't twice as good as the circa-$55,000 Audi.
The Astra made a good initial impression, with a comfortable, composed ride and a strong turbo engine. Its cheap-looking rubber steering wheel and a price tag that was substantially higher than the best-selling Mazda3 counted against it.
Including the Astra's, there were four 1.4-litre turbos in the field. The Civic's is a 1.5-litre turbo and even the E300 has a 2.0-litre turbo four and not a V6.
Then there is the technology, with driver-assistance on almost every car and an incredible battery of lifesaving technology on the E300.
First out were the Kia Sportage and the E300, with the Korean SUV not living up to the promise of last year's COTY winner, the stablemate Sorento.
Most judges found it underwhelming. It looks good on paper with a seven-year warranty and standard leather but its old-school engine and a lack of standard safety tech counted against it.
Everyone loved the luxury and the huge digital dash display in the Mercedes but its unsettled ride and a less than silky-smooth engine brought it undone.
"It oozes luxury but it's not the breakthrough of the C-Class," says Dowling.
Next out was the Focus RS. Everybody loved having a sprint in it but no one wanted to own it.
"I really don't think it rates here. It's missing two airbags and there is no driver-assist technology," says Dowling.
The focus on "real cars on real roads for real people" was sharper.
"It's a fun car, but no. It's too noisy, too jiggly in the suspension and there's not enough tech. You couldn't live with it day-to-day," says Duff.
After this exits, it's the turn of the Jaguar F-Pace and, despite all of Holden's promises, the Astra.
"I think the car is let down by the interior. It doesn't feel like luxury to me," Chris Riley says of the Jaguar.
"The steering and chassis are as good as, if not better than, a Porsche Cayenne," says Dowling.
Some judges felt the Astra was built to a price, despite the premium being asked. Many felt it didn't have the necessary wow factor in the cabin.
The final five
On the second day, judges assessed the Abarth 124, Audi A4, Honda Civic, Mazda CX-9 and Tiguan.
The course was the same but the focus on "real cars on real roads for real people" was sharper.
"The Fiat is the best adaptation of a donor vehicle we've seen. It's a better Mazda MX-5," says Blackburn.
"I really like it to drive but is it a Car of the Year?" asks Duff. Most judges felt Fiat could have done more to differentiate the interior from the Mazda.
Judges felt Mazda's CX-9 was missing equipment and pizzazz in the cabin.
"The CX-9 is let down by some poor planning decisions. It needs front parking sensors, a power tailgate should be standard and there are no third-row air vents," says Dowling.
The petrol engine was also a query.
(The Tiguan) is not the usual Spartan Volkswagen. It's a very impressive car
"A diesel is a better way of moving seven people than a petrol engine. And the steering wheel tugs in your hand when you accelerate," says Blackburn.
The A4 won marks for its sharp price and class-leading technology, including a coasting function to save fuel and an exit warning system to detect cyclists and motorcyclists.
"The Civic is nearly as big as the original Accord. It has a massive cabin and a big boot," says Duff.
"It's not cheap but it has a much classier cabin than the Astra and any other car in the class," says Dowling.
Judges were also impressed by the performance of the 1.5-litre turbo.
But the final vote was unanimous in favour of the Tiguan. An impressive list of standard safety equipment — including steering the car back into its lane if it begins to wander — was backed up by convenience features such as automatic parking.
Ample storage, a big load area and clever touches in the well-finished cabin also helped seal the deal, while the driving experience was top-notch.
"It's got cylinder-on demand technology, dual-clutch auto, stop-start and a superb chassis," says Dowling.
"It's not the usual Spartan Volkswagen. It's a very impressive car," says Blackburn.
Top ten - how they finished
1 - Volkswagen Tiguan
2 - Honda Civic
3 - Audi A4
4 - Mazda CX-9
5 - Abarth 124
6 - Holden Astra
7 - Jaguar F-Pace
8 - Ford Focus RS
9 - Kia Sportage
10 - Mercedes-Benz E300
Honour roll - previous winners
2015 - Kia Sorento
2014 - Mercedes-Benz C200
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