Dream team

It’s fi­nals fever as we line up the Car of the Year con­tenders

Herald Sun - Motoring - - FRONT PAGE - RICHARD BLACK­BURN CARS­GUIDE ED­I­TOR richard.black­burn@news.com.au

FI­NALS fever has ar­rived at Cars­guide. Over the past 12 months, we’ve sam­pled hun­dreds of new cars and whit­tled them down to 11 con­tenders for our an­nual Car of the Year ti­tle.

Why the odd num­ber? To tie in with cricket sea­son? Not quite.

At the last minute, we got the chance to in­clude a wor­thy con­tender that won’t fea­ture in any of our com­peti­tors’ end of year awards.

So, af­ter a hastily or­gan­ised drive, we gave a start to the Mercedes-Benz GLC, an SUV that shares its un­der­pin­nings with the 2014 Car of the Year, the C-Class.

The GLC is un­likely to get the rails run the C-Class did last year — to be frank, 2014 wasn’t a stel­lar year for new ar­rivals.

Com­pe­ti­tion this year has been much tougher, with some cars that looked like con­tenders at the half­way mark not making the fi­nal cut.

The Subaru Lib­erty was just shaded by Volk­swa­gen’s new Pas­sat, Audi’s TT coupe and BMW’s 2 Se­ries Ac­tive Tourer missed out, as did other big ar­rivals such as the Hyundai Tuc­son, Ford Mon­deo, Chrysler 300C and Toy­ota HiLux.

This year’s field ranges from the all-con­quer­ing Mazda CX-3 small SUV to Volvo’s ground­break­ing lux­ury XC90 seven-seater. In be­tween there’s the mag­i­cal Mazda MX-5 — a sen­ti­men­tal favourite — and Kia’s ac­com­plished fam­ily all­rounder, the Sorento. There’s mus­cle in the form of Audi’s RS3 and Holden’s brutish SS-V Com­modore Red­line and, with the Pas­sat, mid-size class.

AUDI RS3 $78,900

Pocket rocket doesn’t do this lit­tle fire­cracker jus­tice. Audi has shoe­horned half a Lam­borgh­ini V10 into the en­gine bay of a small hatch­back. The five-cylin­der en­gine puts out more power than some V8 Com­modores and matches that out­put with a bark as big as its bite. It dis­patches the 0-100km/h dash in 4.3 sec­onds, match­ing cars twice its price. It puts that power to the ground with all­wheel-drive through a slick­shift­ing seven-speed du­al­clutch auto.

BMW X1 XDRIVE20D

$56,500

The orig­i­nal X1 was one of the best han­dling SUVs on the mar­ket, with cor­ner­ing abil­ity that matched lower-rid­ing hatch­backs. Un­for­tu­nately the boot-space matched that of some small hatches too. The new X1 is a much bet­ter all­rounder, with enough space be­hind the rear seats for a de­cent amount of fam­ily gear. It loses lit­tle of its driv­ing edge in the switch from rear-drive to front-drive — there is on­de­mand all-wheel drive on some mod­els. We’ve picked the xDrive20d AWD version, which has one of the sweet­est diesel en­gines avail­able.

FORD RANGER XLT

$57,620

Ford’s pop­u­lar work­horse saw off a big field of chal­lengers,

in­clud­ing the leg­endary Toy­ota HiLux, as its re­ward for in­tro­duc­ing cut­ting edge tech­nol­ogy to a seg­ment that has gen­er­ally been a poor cousin for safety and com­fort. It helps that the big Ford also has plenty of power, can tow 3500kg and drives bet­ter than one-ton­ner ri­vals.

HOLDEN COM­MODORE SS-V RED­LINE $52,490

It’s old-tech, it’s des­tined for obliv­ion, so why is it here? In the same way as the Ford Fal­con XR8 sur­prised last year’s COTY judges, this hairychested Holden makes the cut be­cause it nails its brief bril­liantly. The V8 puts out 304kW and can sling­shot the car to 100km/h in about five sec­onds. That per­for­mance is backed up by ex­cel­lent brakes and sus­pen­sion. It can also seat five in com­fort if needed and costs half what you’d pay for a sim­i­larly pow­ered Euro­pean sedan.

JAGUAR XE PRES­TIGE 20T $60,400

This is not the Jaguar your rich un­cle drove. It’s much cheaper, bet­ter built and a whole lot more fun to drive. Go­ing for the Ger­man heart­land, the VE is a sporty sedan that ri­vals BMW’s 3 Se­ries for poise and pre­ci­sion through cor­ners and chal­lenges Mercedes-Benz’s C-Class for com­fort and cabin am­bi­ence. We’ve cho­sen the cheap­est vari­ant, the Pres­tige 20t, which gets a punchy four-cylin­der turbo.

KIA SORENTO SLI

$44,990

Seven seats, seven airbags, seven-year war­ranty ... the Sorento is sev­enth heaven for fam­ily buy­ers. The cabin is a stand­out in its class, com­bin­ing prac­ti­cal­ity with qual­ity fin­ishes and soft-touch ma­te­ri­als. The seat­ing lay­out is flex­i­ble, it’s well equipped for the money and its road man­ners are more than up to the task of haul­ing the loved ones. The quiet and fru­gal diesel en­gine is the pick.

MAZDA CX-3 MAXX

$24,390

Mazda rarely puts a foot wrong th­ese days and the CX-3 is no ex­cep­tion. With the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of the Ranger, it has come through the sternest test to make this year’s fi­nal, out­gun­ning half a dozen all­new ri­vals. In­side and out, the CX-3 is the best-look­ing of the bunch and it comes well equipped with stan­dard sat­nav and re­vers­ing cam­era. It’s also good to drive and easy on the wal­let at the pump.

MAZDA MX-5 $31,990

An early favourite with most judges, the MX-5 is the cheap­est ticket to open-top fun. The lat­est model goes back to ba­sics, for­go­ing cabin lux­u­ries and a fold­ing metal roof to give en­thu­si­asts a gen­uine light­weight road­ster ex­pe­ri­ence. Our judges chose the less pow­er­ful 1.5-litre en­gine be­cause they thought its freerevving na­ture best suited the over­all pack­age.

VW PAS­SAT 132 TSI

$34,990

There’s a lot to like about this year’s Euro­pean Car of the Year. The cabin is im­mac­u­lately fin­ished and spa­cious, with loads of leg room in the back and a big boot. But the Pas­sat’s trump card is the way it drives. The 1.8-litre turbo four-cylin­der is a pearler of an en­gine, revving freely and re­turn­ing im­pres­sive consumption for the punch it packs. Comes with an ar­ray of op­tional driver aids.

VOLVO XC90 $89,950

Volvo has al­ways cre­ated sim­ple, el­e­gant cab­ins but the XC90 takes things up a notch. The look is min­i­mal­ist, with no un­nec­es­sary but­tons or di­als. The iPad-style cen­tre screen is sim­ple and easy to nav­i­gate, while the cabin is full of thought­ful touches in­clud­ing easy to ac­cess third-row seats and the trade­mark in­te­grated booster seat in the sec­ond row. It’s a lot dearer but it adds much more driver as­sis­tance tech to jus­tify the price.

The con­tenders: Mazda MX-5, main; (clock­wise from left) Ford Ranger, Volvo XC90, Audi RS3, Kia Sorento, BMW X1, VW Pas­sat, Jaguar XE and Holden Com­modore

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