At the beginning of every year, motoring enthusiasts start placing their bets on who will walk away with the annual Car of the Year – or COTY – title. This year is no different. The finalists – announced at Auto Africa last year – go through a grueling examination weekend in January, after which scores are added up and audited. Then, early in March, the winners are announced at a swanky function attended by everyone who is anyone in the local motoring industry. Mambaonline’s coverage of the contest started in 2004 and in this special edition of Mamba Motoring, we’re once again placing our bets on who will come out on top…
Those unlikely to win the title
THE HYUNDAI ACCENT 1.6 GLS HS
Hyundai is no longer a new name in our country, but the new Accent is the first of its models that have managed a COTY nod…and with good reason! Last year, the Accent’s Kia cousin – the Rio – put up a splendid fight in the competition and many believe that the Accent is an even better package. Its styling is fairly average yet attractive, it has a very willing and quite economical engine and build quality is on par as well. Parts are on the expensive side apparently, but compared to rivals like VW’s Polo and Toyota’s Yaris, the Accent’s R134 900 price tag is very competitively priced, scoring it a number of points in the value for money section of the contest. That said, I doubt the Hyundai will be able to defeat the other contenders for the crown – firstly because there are at least three finalists that really are better cars, but also because I don’t think the local motoring press (who are the ones deciding the winner) are open enough for a Korean winner: A winner from the East possibly (half the nominees are not European in origin), but definitely not from Korea. It might be a controversial statement to make, but in the 22 years that the SA COTY contest has been running, it’s the European models that have walked away with the title a staggering 17 times, with BMW, Opel and Audi taking it 11 out of 17 times. The only manufacturers from the orient that have managed to scoop the title are Toyota (who won the first ever SA COTY with the Corolla in 1986 and again in 1989) and Nissan (with the Maxima in 1992). So, a winner from Korea? Highly unlikely!
THE ALFA ROMEO 159 2.2 JTS
Fiat Auto seems to be on a roll when it comes to designing absolutely gorgeous cars, and the Alfa Romeo 159 is no exception. An evolution of the elegant 156 design, the new 159 is undoubtedly one of the most attractive cars on the road today: its clean lines create an almost moody feel that compliments its aggressive, passionate stance. The Alfa’s build quality and finish creates a quality-impression in general, while its 2.2-litre engine (that develops 136kW and 230Nm of torque) takes it to an acceptable top speed of 217km/h. What does however count against it is its price: At R299 000, the Alfa Romeo 159 is not cheap and, besides its glorious styling, doesn’t offer anything more than say an Audi A4 2.0T or Volvo S40 T5. Alfa Romeos are being premium priced, and in the local context I don’t think this makes a lot of sense. With value for money being a key priority in the finalists’ evaluation, the Alfa 159 is a worthy contender that in my opinion won’t repeat the success had by the 156 it replaced.
THE OPEL ASTRA GTC 1.9 CDTI
Historically the third most COTY awarded manufacturer, Opel certainly wouldn’t mind if its gorgeous Astra GTC scooped the title in 2007 – which would put it in second position (behind BMW) as the manufacturer who has won the most often. Opel has however not won the contest in over a decade (the Astra 160iS in 1995 was the last) and unfortunately I doubt whether the GTC has what it takes to come out victorious this year. There is nothing wrong with the car as such – it’s one of the better examples of a sporty hatchback design, and because it is diesel powered has just about no competition. Additionally, it doesn’t feel or sound like a diesel, is frugal when it comes to fuel consumption and – at R229 000 – is R10k cheaper than its nearest competitors, the Audi A3 2.0TDI. It handles well (especially on gravel, which makes up part of the evaluation process) and doesn’t have the trademark Opel rattles either, although it has been criticized for its interior design. The Opel Astra GTC 1.9 CDTi is a solid package if you’re in the market for an eye-catching hot hatch, but because of its 3-door setup, it is considered a niche model. That shouldn’t count against it in my opinion, but compared to some of its rivals in the contest, the GTC simply doesn’t offer enough to make it the best.
The dark horses
THE RENAULT CLIO 1.6 DYNAMIQUE 5-DR
Ever since Renault returned to local shores our country has been fascinated with the cute little Clio, so much so that it managed to walk away with the COTY title in 2000. However, the Clio 3 has been criticized for a number of things: it has become too big, it’s lost its quirky styling edge and, after its price increase, has become plain old expensive. It competes against everything from the Ford Fiesta and VW Polo to the Peugeot 207, and is therefore quite well spec’d in order to remain competitive. But, it is slower because of its increase in size, offering the same power outputs and top speed as the Hyundai Accent with a slower acceleration time. It has visually also become quite bland compared to the outgoing models and – for its R154 000 price tag – doesn’t really offer anything more than its competitors. In perspective, you can get a VW Polo 1.6 Comfortline or a Ford Fiesta 1.6i Ghia for R15 000 to R12 000 less respectively. But, there is something about the Clio that I like and I think it might surprise us by doing quite well in this year’s contest. Whether it has what it takes to win, remains to be seen.
THE HONDA CIVIC 1.8 VXi SEDAN
If ever there was a dark horse in the COTY finalists, the new Honda Civic sedan would be it. For the first time in half a decade, the Civic has a personality again – especially when compared to the likes of a Toyota Corolla or VW Jetta. Also, it’s a big car relative to its competition; a characteristic many South Africans like. But what also count in the Honda’s favour are its price and its undisputable lead in terms of quality. If you follow the JD Power Quality Surveys, you’ll know that there’s not much out there than can beat a Honda, and with a list price of a mere R195 900, it’s just R1000 more expensive than a 1.6-litre Jetta… Makes you think, doesn’t it? It’s an attractive and complete package that features, amongst other things, one of the most innovating and user-friendly interiors. The main question is however whether the Civic can achieve what both the Accord and the Jazz – highly acclaimed yet completely underrated cars in their respective segments – failed to do. The answer in my opinion is unfortunately no – it’s just too bland a package I think. That said, it tops my list of “watch-out-for-it” finalists.
The top three contenders