Which car will come out on top?

For me, the most difficult part of judging at the South African Guild of Motoring Journalists’ Car of the Year competition is not losing sight of the fact that I’m judging the cars not so much against each other as against their direct competitors in the market place.

Getting out of the mighty Lexus LS460, for instance, and into the Fiat Bravo 1,4 T-Jet Sport, one can’t help feeling that the Fiat is cramped, noisy and unrefined. Compare the Fiat with its competitors, though, and your outlook changes.
The Bravo’s an absolute cracker.

Another tricky aspect is that there are too many blocks to tick on the score sheet for my liking. At the end of the third day of judging, when I browse through the marks I’ve made on the paper, the direction in which they point doesn’t always agree with what my heart tells me, and I think emotions should be more important in a competition like this than marks in a scorebook that are later tallied up by cold-blooded auditors.

Anyway, as usual, here are my seat-of-the-pants predictions. For the past three years or so I’ve felt that the winner stood out clearly, and if the Car of the Year didn’t match my prediction I’d have worried that something was rigged. This year the finalists are the closest I have seen in the five years I’ve been involved, and there are at least five that could walk away with the title without my suspecting dirty work.

Let’s start with the “Close, but no cigar” category. In no particular order, these are the Toyota Corolla 1,8 Executive, the Land Rover Freelander 2,2 TD4 HSE, the Nissan Qashqai 2,0 Acenta and the Honda CR-V 2,2 I-CTDI.

These are all lovely vehicles, but not outstanding to the extent that they stand head and shoulders above their competitors. I think the Nissan would have done better if a cheaper, lower-specced version was considered, and the Land Rover was at a disadvantage because there was no dirt-road or off-road testing included in the judging—that’s where the Freelander offers so much more than its rival soft-roaders.

That leaves us with five possible winners: the Lexus LS460, the Mazda5 2,0 Active, the Mazda 1,5 Individual, the Mercedes-Benz C220 CDI and the Fiat Bravo 1,4 T-Jet Sport.

Let me admit right away that the Fiat stole my heart by providing the most fun of the lot when driven hard, but the Mazda2, although much less powerful, was almost as rewarding and costs R40 000 less. The Lexus is a superb car with loads of power, great handling for such a luxury barge and enough toys to keep the biggest gadget freak engrossed for months. At more than R800 000 it’s expensive, but when you compare it with its rivals in the marketplace it seems a bargain.

The Mazda5 was a surprise package—a very practical mom’s taxi that can give Dad loads of pleasure when he wants to play boy-racer—and the only area in which it loses out is glamour. That leaves the Mercedes-Benz C220 CDI, which, I reckon, stands alongside the Fiat Bravo and the Mazda2 as leaders of the pack.

My winner? I’ll take the Mazda2, thanks.

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