Seven Battle to be Europe’s Car of the Year 2010
Strong lineup of contenders could make for a close contest
By Andy Bannister
The countdown to the unveiling of the Pan-European Car of the Year for 2010 is almost over, with seven finalists vying for the coveted title, the winner of which will be announced on Monday.
As ever, the line-up is a mixed bag, with two very mainstream products (the new VW Polo and the Opel/Vauxhall Astra), one prestige car (the Mercedes E-class), two dramatically different takes on the mid-size crossover (Peugeot’s 3008 and Skoda’s Yeti), a small MPV (the Citroën C3 Picasso) and a clever little Japanese city car (Toyota’s iQ).
What didn’t make the shortlist? There were originally 33 eligible contenders, most of which were jettisoned at an earlier voting stage. These included the new Ford Ka (basically a rebodied Fiat 500), the latest Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, Porsche’s Panamera, plus some important Korean products including the Kia Soul and Chevrolet Cruze.
In last year’s competition the Opel/Vauxhall Insignia (the soon-to-be Buick Regal) narrowly beat off the hotly-tipped Ford Fiesta by the smalllest of margins (one solitary point!) to grab the title, which is voted on by 59 judges representing motoring publications across Europe.
On this basis alone – two winners on the trot for a manufacturer is frowned upon – it seems unlikely the Astra will win this year.
The new car is a pleasing-looking little brother for the Insignia, taking cues from the bigger car inside and out. It is basically a higher quality evolution of the existing Astra (imported to America as a Saturn), nothing more, nothing less.
Production of the five-door Astra is going full steam ahead at Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port factory in England ahead of the car’s official launch to buyers, and securing the title would be the fillip GM Europe needs after months of on-off uncertainty surrounding the sale of the business to Magna, which has now been canned once and for all.
Volkswagen’s Polo, the company’s Fiesta competitor, which has been around for a number of generations, has sharpened up its act more noticeably in its new iteration and grown to the extent it is now the size of some early Golfs.
It is definitely the best-looking Polo ever (although, given some previous incarnations, that isn’t saying much). The Polo has for years been perceived as the ultimate example of the worthy-but-tedious small hatchback, so a bit of sexing-up isn’t before time.
It looks a lot like the new Golf, is as peerlessly well-built and considerably cheaper, and is pretty much in tune with the times in terms of buyers downsizing without wanting to lose perceived quality.
It also seems VW has rediscovered the art of making its cars fun-to-drive, with an agile chassis and willing little engines to back up the smart looks. Strictly speaking a lot of the package has been seen before, though, as the Polo shares its underpinnings with Seat’s latest Ibiza.
Most European Car of the Year winners have been smaller than the Mercedes E-class, even in good economic times, and the German luxury maker’s pricey mid-range staple product seems unlikely to do that well this year.
It’s a classy package, though, which appears to dispel suspicions that Mercedes products have been getting less and less special with each succeeding generation.
Even the looks move the company on just a tad, and the interior is a more special place to be, which will no doubt endear it to taxi drivers in Germany’s big cities. There’s also more of an emphasis on environmental responsibility this time around.
Car of the Year juries can sometimes be pretty partisan and the German vote in particular risks being split between the Merc, the VW and the Opel.
Another effectively Teutonic product vying for attention is the new Skoda Yeti, the Czech maker’s first-ever crossover, which is the dark horse of the competition and could do well, even though off-roaders have fallen spectacularly from favour with buyers over the last year.
The Yeti is one of the smallest and least environmentally-unfriendly vehicles of its type, has stand-out looks, a particularly versatile interior and is beautifully made to the best VW quality standards as well as being universally praised for the driving experience.
It’s a radical new departure for Skoda – generally known for well-made, deeply dull bargain cars – and deserves some support for that alone, even if underneath it is pretty conventional fare.
French makers have an excellent track record in the competition, although Renault’s Scenic missed out on the finals this time. Peugeot-Citroën has made up for it with two entries, the Peugeot 3008 and the Citroën C3 Picasso.
One of the company’s slightly confusing “double zero” models, the 3008 is a relatively daring departure for Peugeot, known as one of the more conservative European brands. It is aimed straight at the British-built Nissan Qashqai, the surprise sales success of the last couple of years.
The oddly-styled 3008 is being heavily promoted at the moment as the ideal versatile family car, and has the advantage of the crossover market being less crowded than most, so could actually win the French marque some conquest sales (providing it doesn’t tempt away too many buyers of the Peugeot’s more conventional hatchback sister, the roomy and practical 308).
Citroën’s offering, the much smaller and ostensibly more conventional C3 Picasso MPV, runs rings around the ugly Peugeot in the style stakes, despite being notably quirky in its details, in the company’s best tradition.
It is roomy, ultra-practical for its compact size and full of appealing little design touches, inside and out, and is surprisingly affordable – Citroën is the king of value (as well as depreciation, sadly).
The plaudits for the car’s showroom wow-factor, however, haven’t translated into rave reviews about its rather plodding performance, so this could count against it in the final vote. However, this is one seriously cool MPV (if that isn’t an oxymoron).
Which brings us to arguably the most interesting car in the line-up (believe it or not), Toyota’s iQ. Japanese cars haven’t been crowned European Car of the Year very often, though Toyota managed it in 2000 with the first Yaris and again in 2005 with the Prius.
The iQ’s advantage over its rivals this year is that it is one of those head-turning new cars that has undoubtedly made an impact on buyers already. It isn’t yet another evolution on a well-worn formula, it is genuinely new and different, calling for some interesting design solutions to achieve its striking miniaturisation.
Cleverly packaged, fun to drive and, with up to four seats, bridging the gap between the original Smart Fortwo and orthodox city cars, the iQ seems to tick a lot of boxes. While it is far from cheap to buy it sips fuel, parks on a sixpence and manages to be fun, stylish and appealing to a wide demographic.
It’s a difficult one to call, but personally I’d be betting on the iQ, with the C3 Picasso and Yeti also in contention for the top prize.
Previous European Car of the Year juries have made some eccentric decisions, and national preferences often come into play, so the competition can produce a surprise outcome.
Some of the rather-less-than-distinguished past winners include the Renault 9 (aka Alliance) from 1982 and two European Chryslers, the Horizon (1979) and Alpine (1976).
Whoever wins, in a year when the recent fragile recovery in new car sales is expected to accelerate, the continent-wide publicity the Car of the Year title will bring certainly isn’t to be sniffed at.
COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved