FI­NALS SEA­SON

Meet the 10 stand-out can­di­dates for our an­nual award. Next week, the win­ner

Mercury (Hobart) - Motoring - - MOTORING - RICHARD BLACK­BURN

It’s enough to make your head spin. There are more than 50 car brands on sale in Aus­tralia and ev­ery week a new model — of­ten two — lands on our shores.

The good news is that there are very few or­di­nary cars on sale; the bad news is it’s harder than ever to make a choice.

That’s where our an­nual Car of the Year awards come into their own. Over the past months, we’ve fo­cused on sort­ing the stand­outs from the also-rans and next week we will crown the win­ner.

Un­til then, we’ve whit­tled the field down to two sedans, a city run­about, a hot hatch and no fewer than six SUVs. A sign of the times.

KIA CERATO

Kia is on a roll at the mo­ment and the Cerato is the driv­ing force be­hind its sales suc­cess. Sharp looks, even sharper pric­ing and an un­ri­valled seven-year war­ranty make a com­pelling ar­gu­ment at the bud­get end of the mar­ket. The fact that the Cerato doesn’t feel any­thing like a bud­get car only adds to the ap­peal. At $21,490, the stan­dard fare in­cludes au­tonomous emer­gency brak­ing (AEB), lane-keep­ing as­sis­tance, Ap­ple CarPlay/An­droid Auto, dig­i­tal ra­dio and dig­i­tal speedo. The Cerato has also ben­e­fit­ted from lo­cal sus­pen­sion and steer­ing tun­ing, which means a good bal­ance be­tween cor­ner­ing prow­ess and com­fort over bumps. Its weak­ness is an engine that isn’t the perki­est but still uses more fuel than ri­vals.

MAZDA6

Aus­tralia’s sec­ond favourite brand is mak­ing a con­certed push up­mar­ket and the new Mazda6 is the stan­dard bearer. New sheet­metal, more tech­nol­ogy and a new turbo engine were the high­lights of the lat­est in­car­na­tion of the brand’s stel­lar sedan. Maz­das are renowned for their cor­ner-carv­ing abil­ity but some crit­ics have ar­gued they could han­dle more mumbo un­der the bon­net. That comes in the form of a 2.5-litre four-cylin­der turbo that pumps out 170kW and 420Nm of torque. The in­te­rior is sim­ple but im­mac­u­lately fin­ished in qual­ity ma­te­ri­als, while the safety gear ri­vals pre­mium badges. It’s not cheap, though.

SKODA KAROQ

The Czech brand is look­ing at go­ing back to back af­ter the clever seven-seat Ko­diaq won last year’s gong. The Karoq is the next size down and un­like the Ko­diaq it doesn’t have off-road pre­ten­sions — it’s front-drive only for now. At roughly $35,000 drive-away for the seven-speed twin­clutch auto, the Karoq isn’t cheap but it comes fully loaded. Stan­dard gear in­cludes radar cruise con­trol, AEB, smart­phone mir­ror­ing, push­but­ton start and dual-zone air­con. The rear seats get tablet hold­ers, there’s an um­brella un­der the pas­sen­ger’s seat and a rub­bish bin in the driver’s door pocket. A sur­pris­ingly punchy 1.5-litre turbo four de­liv­ers more driv­ing en­joy­ment than many in the seg­ment.

HYUNDAI SANTA FE

The High­lander ver­sion in our shootout ap­pears ex­pen­sive at first glance, at more than $65,000 on the road, but com­pared to its ri­vals it rep­re­sents solid value. There’s barely a bell or whis­tle miss­ing and it throws in a diesel engine for less than some ri­vals charge for petrol ver­sions — it’s usu­ally the other way around. The new model has been stretched to pro­vide more room, while the sec­ond row folds

au­to­mat­i­cally to pro­vide ac­cess to the rear­most pews. Its AEB de­tects pedes­tri­ans and cy­clists and works in for­ward and re­verse, while a wind­screen-mounted cam­era checks for driver fa­tigue and rec­om­mends a nap. The engine car­ries over from the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion and the airbags don’t stretch to the third row.

VOLVO XC40

Volvo ap­pears to be rev­el­ling in Chi­nese own­er­ship. The mid-size XC60 has been widely lauded for its de­sign and driv­ing abil­ity and the smaller XC40 like­wise im­pressed our judges. The lit­tle SUV comes with a big pric­etag — north of $50,000 — but com­pen­sates with ex­cel­lent ride com­fort and sharp road man­ners. Volvo has al­ways been a safety pi­o­neer but raised some eye­brows by charg­ing ex­tra for blind zone alert, rear cross traf­fic alert with auto brak­ing and radar cruise con­trol. The 2.0-litre turbo four, matched to an eight-speed auto, is al­most hot-hatch quick off the mark and the in­te­rior is typ­i­cal Scan­di­na­vian chic. A class act.

PEU­GEOT 5008

French mak­ers were slow to em­brace the SUV rev­o­lu­tion and Peu­geot stum­bled with its first at­tempts, which were sim­ply re­badged Mit­subishis. The new 5008 is a dif­fer­ent prospect en­tirely. Sleek and stylish on the out­side, the Pug peo­ple-mover is re­fresh­ingly dif­fer­ent in­side, with in­no­va­tive ap­proaches to sur­face treat­ments and clever use of tech­nol­ogy. The di­als on the in­stru­ment panel give way to a dig­i­tal screen that can be con­fig­ured to dis­play as much or as lit­tle in­for­ma­tion as the driver de­sires. The 1.6-litre turbo four is no rocket but is smooth and will­ing and the sus­pen­sion copes well with our im­per­fect road sur­faces.

HYUNDAI i30N

This is the car Hyundai could only have dreamt of a decade ago — a rip-snort­ing, snarling hot hatch that can mix it with the best from main­stream Europe. Hyundai engi­neers, led by for­mer BMW ex­ec­u­tive Al­bert Bier­mann and given ad­mirable rein by head of­fice, threw ev­ery­thing bar the kitchen sink at the hum­ble i30. Adap­tive sus­pen­sion, a turbo with the wick turned up to 10 and a me­chan­i­cal lim­ited-slip diff com­bine to put a smile on your dial. The in­te­rior could do with a bit more piz­zazz but the things that are im­por­tant to an en­thu­si­ast are all there. It sounds like a hothatch should, too.

HOLDEN ACA­DIA

Ex­pec­ta­tions weren’t high when we climbed into the Aca­dia. Amer­i­can-de­signed and built ve­hi­cles don’t have a stel­lar rep­u­ta­tion but the Aca­dia con­founded the crit­ics with a mod­ern, well-thought out in­te­rior de­sign. It also de­liv­ered on the typ­i­cal US strengths, with acres of space for peo­ple and their be­long­ings. The third-row seats are al­most as com­fort­able as in pur­pose-built peo­ple-movers and there are USB and 12-volt out­lets aplenty to keep the kids amused. A long war­ranty and cheap ser­vic­ing add to the ap­peal and the lusty V6 shifts the big SUV smartly.

SUBARU FORESTER

The Forester was a pi­o­neer of the SUV craze and the lat­est in­car­na­tion shows that Subaru knows its tar­get mar­ket bet­ter than most. If you’re look­ing for driv­ing thrills, buy a WRX. If you’re look­ing for top-notch fam­ily mo­tor­ing, look no fur­ther. It might not be the sleek­est, sporti­est look­ing SUV on the road but that boxy ex­te­rior lib­er­ates the kind of in­te­rior room that would com­fort­ably ac­com­mo­date the start­ing five of a school bas­ket­ball team. There is no other sim­i­larly priced SUV with the ac­tive safety gear to match the Forester and the qual­ity of ma­te­ri­als in the cabin is ex­cel­lent. The engine and trans­mis­sion com­bi­na­tion is a bit dozy but over­all re­fine­ment is im­pres­sive.

VOLK­SWA­GEN POLO

The Polo was a shoo-in to join the COTY field the mo­ment it eas­ily dis­patched two of the best city run­abouts in a com­par­i­son test ear­lier in the year. Put sim­ply, the Polo feels like a Golf did not so long ago. It’s still small, well priced and easy to ma­noeu­vre and park in the city but on the open road it feels like a grown-up. The tiny 1.0-litre three-cylin­der turbo is a rip­per, us­ing a claimed 4.8L/100km while pro­vid­ing plenty of urge for over­tak­ing and dart­ing into gaps in the traf­fic. The cabin is a step up from the op­po­si­tion as well. The only grum­ble is a trans­mis­sion that doesn’t like the stop and go of peak-hour traf­fic.

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