Selecting a car of the year (COTY) is an annual tradition we relish. From our six arbitrary vehicle categories (small, compact, medium/large, executive/luxury, performance, and SUV) the six participating judges select the finalists using a points scoring system, assessing aspects like design, performance, safety, practicality, specification and value.
Then we stage a drive-off using a selection of our favourite North Island roads to pick the overall winner, the 2012 AMI Insurance NZ Autocar Car of the Year. We swap from one car to another, after an hour at the wheel in each. At each stop, the judges complete a score sheet, weighted so that cars of each category can be reasonably compared with those from another.
This year, we embarked on a there-and-back-again road trip from Auckland to Taupo, in a roughly elliptical route. That means a chance to drive and evaluate each vehicle a couple of times, on a variety of roads. We can't reveal which particular models from the various categories were involved in the drive-off now - an announcement will be made on the category winners and the best overall vehicle on December 11 - but some interesting trends were evident among the category winners.
Of note, half were turbodiesels. This reflects, as much as anything, the fact that diesels are more popular than petrol-powered vehicles in Europe, because they're less expensive to run overall, provided they're doing decent mileage annually. Moreover, technology has evolved in the past couple of decades to the point that diesels are now producing roughly as much power as a petrol engine of similar displacement, and significantly more torque. As they beaver away at lower revs, generally, they use about one-third less fuel, though the gap is narrowing as use of smaller displacement turbocharged petrol engines becomes more widespread, efficiency enhanced by direct fuel injection and variable valve timing.
The other notable trend is that all six finalists had electric power steering. There is enormous pressure among the motor manufacturers to adopt all of the fuel-saving technologies on offer - like idle-stop, present on all three diesels, but on none of the petrols - mainly to meet increasingly stringent emissions targets (and therefore be eligible for better tax breaks in Europe). Opting for electrical power steering assistance is one of many engineering ploys that can be implemented to reduce fuel use, saving between 0.1 and 0.3L/100km, and cumulatively these minor changes can produce a significant reduction in fuel use.
And what a reduction; in two vehicles I drove, both diesels, fuel use on the flat at 100kmh was consistently under 5.0L/100km and in one of the finalists it was sometimes in the 3s.
Impressive stuff, sure, but the upshot is that steering was stellar in none of the finalists. Admittedly, electric power assistance allows for steering options, like variable heft, and self-parking programmes. But only one of the six cars we drove offered any real semblance of road feel and that, appropriately, was the performance car.
There are still a few niche players, mainly makers of supercars, who refuse to move from hydraulic to electric steering, or compromise with electrohydraulic steering, but we lament the fact that most car makers have sacrificed a critical element of driving enjoyment for fuel and emissions numbers. It's a sign of the times; no doubt car makers believe they are being responsible, putting the environment first, which is laudable because many governments, ours included, don't seem to be, bowing out of or watering down Kyoto and Doha agreements.