With the testing in this year’s (deep breath) WesBank and the South African Guild of Motoring Journalists Car of the Year Competition concluded this week (4-5 March), it’s a good time to assess how the eleven finalists stack up.

The contest, sponsored by WesBank for the past 30 years, is unique in the world in that the winner is not determined by popular vote, but by actual testing of the finalists. The cars are put through a series of dynamic and static assessments by Guild evaluators at the Gerotek testing facility near Pretoria.

So, taking into account all the aspects the jurors will be looking for, including aesthetics, dynamics, technology and innovation, safety and value for money, which of the finalists are the hot favourites?

Audi A3 sedan 1.4T SE S-Tronic

An attractive clean design, torquey 1.4-litre turbo-petrol engine (good for 90kW and 200Nm), good build quality and a well-sorted chassis makes this A3 derivative a worthy COTY contender. It displays supremely good handling characteristics and its virtually seamless S-Tronic gearbox makes it effortless and fun to drive. Still, it is cramped in the rear, with limited visibility and when one starts adding extras to the R386 500 base price, it gets expensive. It can also be argued that it’s way too similar to the A3 1.4 TFSI Sportback (manual) that was a finalist last year.

BMW M4 Coupe auto

The M4 marks a shift to turbocharged BMW M-cars. Its new twin-turbo inline six powerhouse delivers a barking 317kW and 550Nm of torque – gifting the coupe supercar performance. It’s low and wide, and has the looks and dynamics to match the go. With DCT and selectable drive modes, even allowing different engine sounds, it’s probably the ultimate driver’s car. At R1,1m it is the most expensive finalist, though. Still, it is a well-engineered, advanced piece of kit, one well worthy of the title. A hot favourite, then.

Citroën C4 Picasso e-HDI 115 Intensive

The C4 Picasso sets new standards as far as MPVs are concerned. Its EMP2 platform makes it lighter and more nimble, while its potent 1.6-litre HDi turbo-diesel (85kW and 270Nm) is frugal, flexible and delivers good low-down torque. Add to this the Frenchman’s well-appointed and spacious interior, with style and quality to rival an S-Class Benz, and it is surely worthy of consideration. However, MPVs traditionally don’t fare well in the COTY competition so, sadly, nothing different can be expected this year.

Honda Accord 3.5 V6 Exclusive

It was the previous generation Accord that gave Honda its only victory in the local COTY competition. However, the new Accord represents a shift in direction for the Japanese automaker. While its predecessor was sportier and dynamically focused, the latest model is a more mature and spacious luxury sedan. Now endowed with a smooth V6 the new flagship is a comfortable cruiser, and a plethora of advanced systems makes it a very safe one as well. Although it’s as solidly built as a German army tank, it doesn’t quite advance the art of the car.  So, will it have enough appeal to again garner the title?

Lexus ES250 EX

The Lexus ES250 is what one could term a Camry for well-heeled, luxury minded car buyers. While the front-wheel drive sedan makes do with older-generation engine technology (it is powered by a 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine that develops a modest 135kW and 235Nm) its biggest draw cards are its spacious, high-quality cabin, extensive list of standard features and humungous boot space and attractive exterior design. It is also comfortable, relaxed and refined on the road. Priced at R471 800 it represents excellent value for money when compared to large luxury German sedans. It will delight its owner, but the judges will probably be looking to crown something a bit more radical.

Mercedes-Benz C-Class C 200 auto

Since launch the new Mercedes-Benz C-Class has won a string of awards worldwide. In terms of motoring excellence the compact executive sedan satisfies all requirements. The C200 model with two-litre petrol-turbo engine (rated for 135kW and 300Nm torque) and 7G-Tronic Plus gearbox is a good model choice, but perhaps the C220 Bluetec diesel should have been considered. Still, at R455 729 for the base C200 it will be a strong contender, but it has to convince the panel that it’s a substantially better car than its arch-nemesis, the BMW 320i. We’re confident that it will finish in the top three and it has a good chance of claiming the trophy.

Nissan Qashqai 1.6DCI Acenta auto

The second generation Qashqai has elevated the popular crossover concept to the next level, especially in terms of styling and interior quality. While bigger than its predecessor, it is powered by a smaller and more frugal 1.6-litre turbo-diesel delivering 96kW and 320Nm – after considerable turbo-lag. It’s reasonably well-priced (R382 500) and therefore warrants serious consideration. However, no SUV, MPV or crossover has won the competition yet. So, the question is: Will it be deemed special enough?

Porsche Macan S diesel

Having won COTY two years running – first with the Boxster, then with the Cayman S – Porsche understandably have high expectations of its latest contender. It also presents the jurors with a dilemma, as the fast, sporty SUV is probably more representative than the two previous winners. If a Porsche wins again, the competition will be seen as elitist by many and its relevance will be questioned even more than during the past two years. However, in terms of COTY requirements the Macan S diesel ticks every box, except affordability, as at R862 000 (for base spec) it is pricey. The Macan is unquestionably a hot contender. It might just be the first SUV finalist to come out on top.

Renault Duster 1.5DCI Dynamique 4WD

The Duster is an interesting – yet very necessary – addition to the COTY finalists for this year. In contrast to most of the other contenders it is quite basic and sparsely kitted, but with a spacious and flexible interior it represents an interesting shift in the crossover genre. Mechanically it is quite advanced, with a reliable 1.5-litre turbo-diesel mill mated to a six-speed manual gearbox and a capable, proven 4WD system. At R268 000 it offers exceptional value for money, while pushing the traditional segmentation boundaries. Although new to South Africa, the Duster was launched in other markets in 2010/2011 and this could count against it.

Subaru WRX Premium

It is by far the most user-friendly WRX from Subaru. Traditionally viewed as a rally car for the road, the latest 179kW/350kW WRX, with its surprisingly fuel-efficient 2.0-litre boxer engine, is a refined, well-finished and much classier sedan than before – and being chosen as a finalist for COTY attests to this. It hasn’t lost too much of its hooligan-like performance in the process, though, but it might still be considered too quirky and niched to be a serious contender for the COTY top spot. It’s worth every cent of its R473 700 price tag, though.

Toyota Corolla 1.4 D-4D Prestige

The latest Corolla is the best one ever. Period. Contemporary styling and a well-appointed interior has elevated the best-selling sedan from its white goods comfort zone to almost being a small exec sedan contender. And to crown it all its new 1.4-litre turbo-diesel (66kW/205Nm) is quite willing, yet frugal. It is well-specced and well-priced (R266 400), but in present COTY company its staid image might count against it in the final tally. It’s also let down by the finish of some of the interior plastics and we spotted a panel gap between body and boot. 


The important, boring stuff

Now that we’ve introduced the finalists, herewith a recap of how the competition works. Please read it before making ignorant statements on social media or trolling the Guild.

The process started last year with the full working membership of the SA Guild of Motoring Journalists (SAGMJ) being supplied with a list of eligible models provided by the Validation Committee.

Each full member of the Guild was then given a specific number of “votes” with which they then indicated which models should go forward for consideration for nomination by the Jury.

The members of the Validation Committee (selected for their expert knowledge of the local passenger car market and road testing) then convened to produce a list for final consideration by the Jury members.

The 29-member Jury, presented with the full list of the 40 semi-finalists and the votes these vehicles received, then decided on how many would be included for the final tests, purely based on the number of votes received during this process. 

The only discussion and debate were around the cut-off for the entry into the final rounds. For this year’s competition eleven finalists were chosen.

This evaluation, with the sole aim of rewarding automotive excellence, takes place within a controlled test environment and is geared towards testing all facets of the driving experience relevant to the vehicle and the competition.

The evaluators are provided with comparative information charts and a basket of parts comparative prices list is also made available. Each Jury member is allocated 25 points and may not allocate more than 10 points to any one vehicle.

The member may also not vote for less than three vehicles, and no more than a maximum of five vehicles.

The collective assessment of the evaluators, as reflected in the combined number of points scored during this process, then determines the Car of the Year winner.

The winner of this year’s WesBank/SAGMJ Car the Year will be revealed at a gala banquet on 18 March 2015, hosted by WesBank, Motul and Hollard Insurance.

We’ve come a long way

The previous winners were:

1986 Toyota Corolla Twin Cam

1987 Mercedes 260E

1988 BMW 735i

1989 Toyota Corolla GLi Executive

1990 BMW 525i

1991 Opel Monza 160 GSi

1992 Nissan Maxima 300 SE

1993 BMW 316i

1994 Opel Kadett 140

1995 Opel Astra 160iS

1996 Audi A4 1.8

1997 BMW 528i

1998 Ford Fiesta Fun

1999 Alfa Romeo 156 T-Spark

2000 Renault Clio 1.4 RT

2001 BMW 320d

2002 Audi A4 1.9 TDI

2003 VW Polo 1.4 TDi

2004 Renault Megane 1.9 dCi

2005 Volvo S40 2.4i

2006 Audi A3 Sportback 2.0T

2007 Honda Civic 1.8VXi Sedan

2008 Mazda2 1.5 Individual

2009 Honda Accord 2.4 Executive

2010 VW Golf 1.4 TSI

2011 VW Polo 1.6 TDI/ BMW 530d

2012 Hyundai Elantra 1.8 GLS 

2013 Porsche Boxster

2014 Porsche Cayman S

2015 ?

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