The testing is done. The scores are being audited. The winner will be announced on April 4. So, now is the time to reflect on the contenders for the 2019 AutoTrader SA Guild of Motoring Journalists (SAGMJ) Car of the Year, the premier contest for automotive excellence.
In all, 12 vehicles made it through the voting phases to be nominated as Finalists and each one had a thorough testing over two days at Kyalami, followed by scoring 51 individual questions on each car.
To make it as clear as daylight. This competition is about automotive excellence. It is not a ‘people’s choice’ award. It is not about the cheapest, biggest volume seller, most popular or any of those – it is purely about automotive excellence.
Cars from different categories, classes and price ranges come together on the test days – not to be judged one against the other, but against their peers. In other words, each vehicle is judged against the opposition in its own specific class and price category.
The judges look at how much each contender raises the bar of automotive excellence in its category against its peers. The winner is the car that raises that bar more notches than anyone else does. Simple.
Let’s deal with the elephant in the room. Yes, the Porsche Cayenne S is a contender and the German marque has enjoyed spectacular success in this competition in recent years making Facebook and Twitter erupt as commentators, incandescent with rage, castigated the competition, the SAGMJ and its members for making a car that is not the people’s choice the overall winner.
I repeat. This is about automotive excellence, not bulk sales.
Just for information, the Cayenne significantly outsells its German rival in its category, has far lower replacement parts prices and a much lower overall total cost of ownership than its rivals have. Think about that!
Going through each of the contenders in no particular order:
Porsche Cayenne S
The previous Cayenne was not nominated as a finalist for the competition – this iteration presents a much smoother and greatly improved car. We have already outlined a couple of its major point that are vital elements in the judging process. Suffice it to say, the Porsche does represent automotive excellence. Does it do enough this year to win? Personally, I do not think so.
Alfa Romeo Stelvio
If ever there was a dark horse it is this car. Alfa has produced a gem that handles, rides, feels and sound absolutely perfect. The 2,0-litre turbo engine works willingly all the time, is not fuel heavy and the SUV format is both comfortable and spacious. It’s biggest problem comes from a very sparse sales record and this will count against it.
Honda Civic Type R
The absolute petrolhead’s dream. The Honda is simply wonderful to grab by the neck and hurl around a circuit such as Kyalami. It is quick, responsive, willing and oh, so very able to put the adrenalin glands into major overtime. While it can also be driven in granny mode to deal with the daily traffic and more mundane parts of motoring life, it is a niche-market car with a very focused audience. Only votes will tell.
When it comes to raising the bar, the Kona does an excellent job and could well be a contender for that coveted award. It is stylish, comfortable and the little 1,0-litre engine gets the job done without sounding like an over-revved cake mixer. It handles very well, rides the bumps excellently and offers high levels of interior space and standard equipment along with a great warranty.
Sadly, for me, a disappointing experience. Lexus generally produces such fine cars, the lacklustre ride and handling of ES along with a 2,5-litre engine that is a ‘greybeard’ by modern standards simply did not inspire me.
Mercedes-Benz A Class
In so many ways, this epitomises automotive excellence, but its biggest challenge is the fact to make it absolutely desirable means including all the optional add-ons and the hefty additional price tag. Stripping out all of those, it is a clear advance on the previous generation and it captures the essence of Mercedes-Benz but that is not enough. With the options in place, it becomes a whole new – very desirable – car at a price.
Mitsubishi Pajero Sport
Despite the solid dependability and in-built off-road history of Pajero, it came to the competition a bit like a fish out of water. The body-on-frame SUV is eminently capable, very comfortable and quite economical to run but it simply does not bring enough innovation and edge to be seriously considered.
Stylish, trendy, well specced and comfortable to be inside, the Micra should have been higher up on my scoresheet – let down by a gutless engine that made the ride experience less satisfying than it should have been.
Since its first launch the Duster has been a remarkable vehicle and the latest version builds on that – space, comfort, ride, handling and being generally cool with a huge value for money factor. Now built in Europe as opposed to India the overall package is much improved and feels more solid. It is a contender but may just be pipped at the post because this version is more evolution than revolution.
With two vehicles in the competition in the form of the Swift and Jimny, the company faces having votes lost as jurors split their opinions between the two cars. The Swift is a big step up from the previous model and does give lessons to some of the other cars in its class but maybe not enough to sway the jury.
The Jimny presents another judging dilemma as it is really in its own class in terms of compact 4×4’s and by default becomes the yardstick. It is a quirky little car that is huge fun to drive and handles much better than its small size would suggest. On the off-road course, it handled everything with aplomb and it ‘buy me’ desirability may boost it up the leader board.
Volvo XC 40
This is it. This is my pick for the podium for 2019. The Volvo just ticks so many boxes when it comes to design, styling, luxury, innovation, ride quality, handling and desirability. There is no escaping it is a class act and the only thing that will really count against it is the affordability factor and its rather niche positioning as well as the host of ‘extras’ needed to make it the ideal purchase.