Wheels (Australia)

By any means



SEE IF YOU answer “yes” to any of the following: You can recall a little bloke with large eyebrows called John Howard running the country. You saw Independen­ce Day on DVD. You got your bounce on to ‘California Love’ by Tupac when it first hit the FM airwaves.

If there were at least a couple of nods in there, it’s probable you were around when the February 1996 issue of Wheels hit the stands. It was, of course, the magazine’s COTY issue, and to save you true loyalists from rifling through your back issues, I’ll remind you that the Mitsubishi TE Magna won.

The relevance of this? Well, 1996 was the last time Wheels’ COTY was held at the vast Australian Automotive Research Centre (AARC) facility near Anglesea on Victoria’s Surf Coast. In the years that followed, Ford’s You Yangs and Holden’s Lang Lang proving grounds would alternate as home to what we like to modestly refer to as the world’s oldest continuous­ly run automotive award. But as we outlined last issue, a global pandemic can really get in the way of pulling together the multi-headed beast that is COTY, and access to the PGs of our once-great local manufactur­ers was suddenly off the table.

The AARC, though, as Jimmy Barnes would scream if he wrote a song about it, ain’t no second prize. The place is massive; 1000 hectares, so even bigger than the bald spot Donald Trump tries to hide with that comb-over. It’s been further developed since Wheels was last here some 24 years ago, and these days is a veritable wonderland of fast, plunging B-roads, challengin­g dirt loops, punishing ride/handling courses, and a skid pan that can probably be seen from space. As a venue at which to push a group of cars to their limits with safety and repeatabil­ity, it’s as good as anything used by the world’s largest and richest OEMs. It’s a place where outwardly capable, competent cars can enter, only to leave with their exhaust outlets tucked between their legs. Not that there were many of those this year, given our starting field was more tightly trimmed than Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Consider, that in February 2020, back when Corona was merely a watery Mexican beer drunk by Instagramm­ers, our field compromise­d 17 models which were represente­d by a total of 31 variants.

This year, the unavoidabl­e reality of the pandemic meant our field would have to be made up of 10 models bringing a combined total of 23 cars. The preselecti­on process had to be ramped up to be even more uncompromi­sing than previously, but as you’ll see in the line-up preview, it still delivered a pleasingly diverse mix, with nine brands delivering a spread that ranges from premium and electric SUVs, affordable SUVs in varying sizes, to German sports coupes, a reborn off-road icon, right through to an AWD rally homologati­on special.

The judging panel, too, came in for a significan­t reshuffle this year (see right), yet for all the impact COVID-19 inflicted on COTY 2021, there were plenty of fundamenta­ls that didn’t change. The days were dawn to dusk, the robustness of the testing was as thorough as ever; the debate (mostly) intelligen­t and impassione­d. And, as you’ll read on p112, COTY 2021 brought just enough comedic relief, contained chaos and all-out weirdness to qualify as ‘normal’.

So sanitise your hands, give yourself several square metres of personal space, and read on as we get this show on the road.

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