Car of the Year finalists: What's hot and what's not

Nine cars, three days, and just one winner. The evaluation of the nine finalists in the 2009 South African Guild of Motoring Journalists' (SAGMJ) Wesbank Car of the Year competition by the guild's panel of jurors is now over, and it's up to the auditors to confirm the tallies before the result is announced in March.

This year saw a bumper crop of nine cars get through to the finals, which involved intense testing at Gerotek allied with evaluation of performance data provided by Response Group Trendline. This means that seat-of-pants impressions are weighed alongside scientifically gathered data, and the results are not always as in tune with each other as you would expect.

I've been involved in the adjudication of this contest for the last seven or so years, and for the last three have published my opinion of what should and should not win as soon as the judging is over.
Each year my prediction has proven to be correct, although in 2008 I felt there were two other cars that wouldn't have made me question the judging process if they'd won.

This year it was even more difficult to find any car that stood out enough to be a clear-cut winner. I suspect that this was because we didn't have an opportunity to drive the cars as fast as we could around a racetrack. Although the average buyer will also never get to do that, I believe that a bit of hard driving on a decent road or track gives you a much better idea of how well balanced the car is than you can gain on a public road.

So here they come—my list of finalists, in alphabetical order, and my opinions on how likely they are to win ...

Audi A4 1.8T Ambition Multitronic
A superb car, but somehow not special enough to be the Car of the Year. There is a raft of cars in the Audi's price range, and most of them are very, very desirable. Perhaps some time on the racetrack during the judging would have elevated the Audi's chances.

Ford Fiesta 1.6 Trend five-door
Also a great car, and also, unfortunately, up against a host of worthy competitors, including the Honda Jazz 1.5.i-VTEC that also made it to the finals. The Ford comes with a four-year 120 000km warranty, compared with the Honda's three-year/1 0000km offer, but Honda's record is so good that the difference isn't that important. Still, the two cars are so close that I wouldn't call anybody who chose the Ford ahead of the Honda a fool. I give the Ford an outside chance for a win.

Honda Accord 2.4i Executive
A car that's very, very hard to fault. At just under R300 000 it's at least as well equipped as cars costing 10% more, it's great fun to drive, and it's gorgeous to look at. Its 148kW four-cylinder engine is a jewel, yet delivers excellent fuel consumption. Anybody who enjoys driving will enjoy the Honda, which is why it's my pick for Car of the Year 2009.

Honda Jazz 1.5 EX
Another Honda stunner, and I wouldn't be too surprised if it won. It's stylish, it's extremely well built, it was by far the most economical car at the testing, using a full 2,1 litres of fuel per 100km less than the Ford Fiesta, and it comes with Honda's excellent quality and customer satisfaction reputation. If the Accord were not there, the Jazz would have been in with an excellent chance, in my book.

Jaguar XF 3.0 Premium Luxury
If I could have taken any one of the cars home from Gerotek as my own it would have been the Jag. The car's interior, I think, sets new standards for classiness, luxury levels are superb and the three-litre V6 engine (based upon the Ford Duratec) sounds absolutely gorgeous.

The car feels very well screwed together, and comfort levels and ride quality are very, very good. The Jaguar is pretty high-tech as well, with a revolving dial used to shift between neutral, park, drive and so forth for the six-speed auto transmission.

On the downside, the car is expensive, at well over R500 000, and resale values are likely to be affected by the ownership of the Jaguar brand shifting from Ford to the Indian car manufacturer, Tata. That I could overlook if the car went as well as it promises to, but straight-line performance is just not good enough for a R500 000 car that looks and sounds as good as this.

A 0-100km/h time of 10,6 seconds—that's just one tenth of a second quicker than the 1,5-litre Honda Jazz—soured the deal for me. Send the 308kW supercharged version my way, and you'll see one happy driver. The Jag certainly deserves a very honourable mention.

Mazda6 2,5 Individual
At the risk of sounding boring, I have to tell you that the Mazda's also a fine car because it really is. Mazda has improved its cars in leaps and bounds over the last few years, and the Mazda6 2.5 Individual feels as if it was built by one of the big three German companies. But I just don't think that it stands out enough to be the Car of the Year for 2009, though.

At just over R300 000 it's pitted against the likes of the Honda Accord 2.4 Executive and the Audi A4 1.8T Ambition (both Car of the Year finalists for 2009) as well as a host of other fine cars.

I'd be very happy to own one, though, especially as the Mazda came out very well in the parts price comparison compiled by Malcolm Kinsey for the nine finalists at the evaluation. Its parts basket price of just under R54 000 beat the Honda Accord and the Audi A4 by R11 000 and R20 000 respectively. That's significant. Fuel consumption for these three during the testing was virtually identical—between 11,1 and 11,4 litres per 100km.

Suzuki Swift 1.5 GLS
When the Suzuki Swift was launched in June last year I predicted that the well-built Japanese offering would be a Car of the Year finalist. So far, so good, because the 1,5 GLS did indeed get through to the finals this year. The cars we drove at Gerotek impressed immensely, but I can't help feeling that the base model 1.5 GL would have stood a little taller compared to the competition because of its much better pricing.

The GL, that retails at R136 900, has dual airbags, ABS brakes and just about everything else you'd need except for a sound system, and that's easy and cheap enough to install afterwards. The GLS at R152 900 gives sounds, another four airbags, mag wheels, spotlights and a couple of other bits 'n bobs. That difference in price pits the Suzuki against some pretty serious contenders from the Hyundai Getz, Honda Jazz, Toyota Yaris, and Mazda2 ranges. Still, the Swift 1.5 GLS finalist is in with an outside chance in my book.

Suzuki SX4 2.0
Suzuki's SX4 2.0 also needs to be taken very seriously as a contender. Although not a 4x4, this SUV-type wagon is blessed with very good build quality, a full house of safety and luxury features, and a lusty two-litre engine that delivers considerably more steam than most of its competitors. The problem is, those competitors include the Ford Focus 2.0 Si five-door, the VW Golf Trendline five-door, and the excellent Nissan Qashqai 1.6 Visia. The Suzuki certainly slots in towards the top of the list of finalists this year.

VW Tiguan 1.4 Tsi Trend and Fun 4Motion
The Tiguan is, for me, a superb car spoilt by an engine that's not yet quite refined enough to attract my greenbacks. There's no doubt that the little 1,4-litre engine is a technological gem, benefiting from both turbo and supercharging.

Power and torque outputs of 110kW and 240Nm (at 1 750rpm nogal) wouldn't disgrace a 2,3-litre car. The problem is, the power delivery isn't smooth enough, leading to some jerkiness and lurching during gear changes.

Fuel consumption—at an average of 12km/litre was also high—worse than the Honda Accord, and every other car in the final except the Jaguar, that averaged 13,1 litres/100km. Interestingly, the miniscule engine gets the Tiguan to 100km/h in 10,3 seconds, which is 0,3 seconds quicker than the glorious-sounding Jaguar but almost a second slower than the Honda Accord.

For the asking price of over R300 000 I'd rather have a bigger, smoother, less complicated and more economical engine. The Tiguan is superb in just about every other way, but it's not ready to be my Car of the Year yet.

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