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