The shortest-priced favourite in the 17-year history of the COTY contest romps home ahead of a surprise runner-up, the Mazda6 diesel station wagon. The family-focused Kia Rondo seven-seater completes the podium. The landmark Mercedes-Benz A200 is fourth but the sentimental star, Holden’s Commodore, manages only sixth place in the 10-car line-up of new models released since December 2012.
The seventh-generation Golf was clearly on top through the intensive COTY judging, rating first in the field with seven of the 10 members of the voting panel. It won us over with a combination of class and refinement, relaxed driving and the value of the $27,940 90 TSI Comfortline with DSG auto.
Never has a “small” car (the cabin space is equal to a big car of the 1990s) so seamlessly combined the verities of a suburban family vehicle and a long-distance tourer. Its 1.4-litre turbo petrol engine is as amiable and economical - or as spirited and responsive - as you could want.
Not that we have no misgivings after the massive recall of the previous-model Golf earlier this year because of DSG transmission problems and the ongoing questions about the Volkswagen support network. “I love the Golf, but I would never own one beyond the warranty period,” says James Stanford, summing up the feelings of most. Likewise Joshua Dowling, News Corp’s national motoring editor, who says that the cost optional extended warranty is a must for longer term ownership.
There are no doubts about the back-up for the Mazda6, which emerges quickly from the ruck as the contenders are driven back-to-back over a testing loop on public roads around Mount Victoria and Lithgow west of Sydney.
The luxuriously appointed diesel Touring Wagon ($41,650) is nearly as big as an old-school Aussie family six but brings BMW-bettering finish and refinement - and arguably the world’s best four-cylinder turbo diesel.
“This is the reason people don’t buy Commodores and Falcons any more,” says Joshua Dowling. “It’s European prestige styling and performance at a Japanese price,” says Craig Duff. Lisa Power asserts: “The Mazda6 had me at hello. It is classy, comfortable, safe and polished.”
Kia’s Rondo SLi diesel ($36,490) is another surprise packet, scoring because of its 5+2 cabin flexibility, strong 1.7-litre turbo diesel and the Australianisation work that goes into all Kias. It has limited boot space with seven seats in place but that’s the only flaw. Otherwise its almost infinitely variable load and seating configurations make it a best friend for the suburban family prepared to look beyond the inevitable, but vastly less efficient, SUV.
“It’s a cross between a wagon and an SUV, which is a good thing. It’s a great advertisement for the flexibility of a people-mover,” says Neil Dowling. “Not a true seven-seater,” says Chris Gable.
The fourth-placed Mercedes-Benz A200 (from $40,900) is a fully fledged Benz and a properly sporting hatch that undercuts the equivalent Audi and BMW for value and desirability. Yet its alert road manners, intended to bring younger buyers to the brand, are felt by some judges to be too great a departure from the longstanding Benz remit, with excessive tyre noise on some surfaces and a choppy ride.
It’s followed in the voting by the chic little Renault Clio Expression TCE 120, $19,790) which this month spawns a pocket rocket from Renault Sport. An effervescent 1.2-litre turbo petrol and twin-clutch auto are a happy modern marriage. The styling of Laurens van den Acker makes for the most visually appealing city car to date.
“I’m a fan. It’s 20 grand, it’s a lot of fun and you get what you pay for,” deputy editor Tim Vaughan says. Lisa Power, however, feels some of the novel touches are detrimental: “The reflections of this piano black trim are very distracting in the sunlight
Everyone wants to like the Commodore Evoke ($34,990) but the VF is just not good enough. The 3.0-litre V6 is coarse and underpowered. Yes, its ride is superbly adept and its size is second to none but, as Duff says, “It’s an old car, out of its time.” Gable adds: “It just feels like a much-improved VE.” Neil Dowling: “The world has moved on.”
Compact SUVs might be as unavoidable as death and taxes but the world awaits the first outstanding example. Subaru’s Forester 2.5i with CVT auto ($32,990) is a “fine Subaru,” say several judges, “but no COTY”. The near entry variant will surely satisfy with equipment levels and reliability but its engine has to work too hard and there are better cabins at this price.
Having agreed to make available a V40 T4 Luxury petrol, Volvo first gives us an XC60 SUV. A diesel version is found. At great length an example of the T4, in Luxury spec ($45,990), arrives. In a year when Benz can do the A200 at $40K and the Golf variant so transcends its price bracket, the V40 is not only too late but offers too little.
Volvo’s case is further undermined by its imminent engine replacement. The T4’s five-cylinder turbo petrol is chucked early next year for a new four. If this well-equipped and pleasant car existed in isolation it would be a great deal more impressive than it is.
Kia’s Cerato, essentially a twin of last year’s place-getting Hyundai i30, disappoints. The year of the Golf cannot fail to diminish this good-value but competitively basic small car. It is by no means as complete as the Rondo, It suffers, says Duff, from “muddy electronic steering”.
Holden’s Trax ($25,690) trailed the field from the outset. It is a good idea done badly, particularly with impressive new mini SUVs - including the Ford EcoSport and Renault Captur - about to flood showrooms. It’s cheap within, obsolete under the bonnet, wobbly on the road and no more impressive than the Barina on which it’s based.
HOW THEY FINISHED
1. Volkswagen Golf
3. Kia Rondo
4. Mercedes-Benz A200
5. Renault Clio
6. Holden Commodore
7. Subaru Forester
8. Volvo V40
9. Kia Cerato
10. Holden Trax