A (not so) brief history of Car Of The Year | Axon’s Automotive Anorak

11th March 2022
Gary Axon

Given the severity, savagery and sheer selfish stupidity of a certain Russian individual, recent events in Eastern Europe have rightly and understandably dominated the news headlines of late.

Lost last week amongst all of the noise and confusion over these recent and tragic ongoing news atrocities was the announcement of the winner of this year’s annual European Car of the Year (COTY) award: the Kia EV6. The all-electric EV6, taking the COTY title is both a first for Kia and any South Korean car.


In the great scheme of things, celebrating the latest COTY victor might seem somewhat irrelevant and unimportant, thus begging the question in these increasingly information-savvy times of better-informed consumers whether the once prestigious and influential COTY is still relevant and needed, and does it help to convince undecided new car buyer choices, leading to increased sales?

For almost 60 years now, since the very first European COTY was announced in 1964 (with the accomplished the Rover 2000 [P6] taking the prize), COTY has turned up some decidedly worthy winners, plus quite a few surprises, with some significant cars not scooping the top prize. These include the influential 1964 Autobianchi Primula, 1967 Simca 1100, 1968 Jaguar XJ6, 1970 Range Rover, 1971 Alfasud, 1974 Volkswagen Golf, plus many other important machines.

To-date the once highly-prestigious COTY prize has been awarded to 59 different cars overall, from 22 separate manufacturers, with some of these – such as Rover, Austin, NSU, Chrysler/Simca, etc. – no longer with us. So far Fiat has taken the greatest number of victories, its first of nine separate models winning for 1967 with its competent 124 (ultimately becoming the world’s second best-selling car ever to use one basic body style, after the Volkswagen Beetle), this lead stretching to 13 wins overall if Alfa Romeo and Lancia’s awards within the Fiat Group are included as well.

Read about judging Car Of The Year from Andrew Frankel: The highs and lows of COTY


After Fiat, Ford, Peugeot and Renault all tie on five COTY title victories, with Vauxhall-Opel and VW placed third with four wins apiece. Surprisingly, occasional technically innovative brands such as Mercedes-Benz and Volvo have only taken the COTY title once, with major players such as BMW, Honda and Hyundai yet to be awarded the top prize!

So, for each of the 59 COTY victors so far, as listed below, I have given with my own personal rating (up to a maximum of five stars, with five being the top rating), assessing the importance, significance and influence of each model, both from a contemporary viewpoint when compared to its immediate rivals and car market relevance. There’s also a post-COTY award for historical perspective, such as the longer-term influence of the car on the wider new car market.

For some years the overall COTY winner, as selected by the appointed expert panel of pan-European judges, was the most obvious, natural and sensible choice, but where and when appropriate, for the more contentious and surprising years, when there was some seriously stiff competition and other possibly more worthy winners, I have remarked on these as well.


Ahead of this though, here is what the COTY has to say about itself and its role, taken from the official COTY website. “COTY is an expert, independent judgement of all new cars on the European market. It is an international award, judged by a panel of senior motoring journalists across Europe. Its object is to acclaim the most outstanding new car to go on sale in the 12 months preceding the date of the title.”

What is today recognised worldwide as the COTYY award came about to avoid confusion among 'top car' comparisons run by magazines and newspapers in various countries. In 1963, Fred van der Vlugt, then editor of the Dutch motoring magazine Auto Visie, reasoned that combining resources would produce a more credible result that would attract wider publicity. Van der Vlugt approached 26 professional car testers, from nine different countries, to form an expert Car of the Year jury.

The formula remains the same today, almost 60 years on, but now involves 61 Jury members representing 23 countries. The COTY is a non-profit institution, running totally independent of the motor industry. COTY members receive no payment for serving on the Jury, and the expenses of organising the contest are met by seven publications which promote the award and organise the voting by rotation. Each year the winning COTY manufacturer is entitled to use the title and the distinctive Car of the Year logo for the year of the award.

The COTY objective is to find a single, decisive winner. The voting process is designed for that purpose, and not to provide a scale of merit of all competing cars. There are no categories, sub-divisions or class winners. This objective requires the COTY Jury to assess cars of very different types and price, which means assessing them against their market rivals. The 61 members of the COTY Jury all test cars as part of their journalistic work, and in making their COTY selection, they use the following criteria: design, comfort, safety, economy, handling, performance, functionality, environmental requirements, driver satisfaction and price. Technical innovation and value for money are particularly important factors.


At the end of the year, the COTY Jury Committee draws up a list of eligible cars from all the newcomers presented in the calendar year. Eligible cars must essentially be new models, not simply changed cosmetically or by the installation of a new engine or transmission. Each car is considered irrespective of its country of origin but must be a production car available in at least five European countries at the time of voting. The Jury then elects a short list of seven cars in a simple vote. For the second stage, each Jury member has 25 points to apportion to at least five cars, with a maximum of 10 points for any one of them, and must produce a statement of justification for the vote.

For 2022, the COTY jury consisted of 61 members, representing 23 European countries. National representation on the Jury is related to the size of the country's car market and its importance in car manufacturing. The UK, plus France, Germany, Italy and Spain each have six members; other countries, proportionally fewer. Members of the Jury are elected for their personal competence, and not because of the importance of the publications they may represent.

New members join the Jury at the invitation of the Jury Committee, following recommendations from regional groups. The Jury Committee consists of the members that represent the organising publications, in addition to three officers elected annually. The COTY Jury is completely independent of the Organising Committee in matters pertaining to the award itself, plus the selection of eligible cars and the voting. The nine COTY organisers are: Auto (Italy), Automobil Revue/Revue Automobile (Switzerland), Autocar (UK), Autopista (Spain), Auto Trends (Belgium), Autovisie (The Netherlands), Firmenauto (Germany), L’Automobile Magazine (France) and Vi Bilägare (Sweden).


So, that’s the background to the annual COTY out of the way. What about the roll call of cars that have been awarded the coveted COTY title over the years. Here goes, with supporting brief comments where appropriate, plus my rating out of a potential maximum of five stars (five being the best)…

  • 1964: Rover 2000 (P6): **** (4): Very advanced and individual for its era and re-invented Rover’s previously staid image
  • 1965: Austin 1800: *** (3): Spacious and clever Issigonis front-drive concept, but bland design, despite it being the work of Italian master Pininfarina
  • 1966: Renault 16: ***** (5): Defined a new segment for front-drive, mid-size, versatile five-door hatchbacks
  • 1967: Fiat 124: **** (4): Through various licence-built copies around the world, such as the Lada 1200, this became the world’s best-selling post-war single body type car!
  • 1968: NSU RO80: ***** (5): Let down by innovative but flawed rotary Wankel engine, but made all other executive saloons of the era (excluding the Citroën DS, which largely inspired the NSU) look and drive archaically. A staggering achievement for such a small car producer
  • 1969: Peugeot 504: *** (3): Stylish and sturdy in the best old-fashioned Peugeot tradition. A huge and long-lived success for the marque
  • 1970: Fiat 128: **** (4): Despite poor rust proofing, the 128 set the benchmark for front-drive smaller family cars for the 1970s
  • 1971: Citroën GS: ***** (5): Even better than the impressive Fiat 128, with sublime ride and handling characteristics, and an advanced aerodynamic design that still looks fresh today. Only downsides were thirst and the short-sighted lack of a hatchback in early examples
  • 1972: Fiat 127: **** (4): Established the modern small city hatchback format ahead of the Renault 5, Ford Fiesta et al
  • 1973: Audi 80 II: *** (3): A satisfactory and costlier version of its VW Passat sibling with clean Ital Design styling and top build quality, although ultimately a bit too bland in all respects
  • 1974: Mercedes-Benz S-Class (W116): *** (3): Big, safe and secure, but uneconomical for the Fuel Crisis era
  • 1975: Citroën CX: ***** (5): A very worthy successor to the irreplaceable Citroën DS. Made its contemporaries seem aged
  • 1976: Simca 1307 (GB = Chrysler Alpine): ** (2): A pleasant take on the Renault 16 formula, but with grotty push-rod engines and questionable build quality
  • 1977: Rover 3500 (SD1): **** (4): A bold and inspired modern executive entry, but shoddy build and reliability ultimately let the SD1 down
  • 1978: Porsche 928: *** (3): The first and only sportscar to-date to be awarded COTY. An excellent V8 engine, but otherwise a disappointment that failed to replace the 911 that it was conceived to supersede
  • 1979: Chrysler/Simca Horizon: *** (3): An interesting take on the influential VW Golf format, though inferior to a Fiat 128 or Alfasud to drive and seemed old fashioned vs. a Citroën GS
  • 1980: Lancia Delta: **** (4): A compelling and complete package, let down by Lancia’s rust reputation, despite later Integrale rally successes and sexiness
  • 1981: Ford Escort III: *** (3): At last a competitive front-drive Ford to tackle the Golf et al head on
  • 1982: Renault 9: * (1): 1982 must have been a particularly poor year for new car launches as the Renault 9 saloon (plus its later 11 hatchback sibling) had few redeeming features, save for ‘innovative’ Monotrace seats, which did away with conventional runners, conceived due to a dimensional engineering error during its development phase, these tending to break away from their single mounting point in accidents! Possibly the worst car ever to win the COTY top prize!
  • 1983: Audi 100 III: *** (3): A clean but dull aerodynamic executive saloon that can claim pioneering flush side glazing for cars as its chief party piece
  • 1984: Fiat Uno: ***** (5): A controversial winner up against its arch rival and ‘car of the decade’; the loveable Peugeot 205. Ultimately the Giugairo-styled Uno was a more complete and innovative package though, as proven by in excess of 8 million sales worldwide, in contrast to ‘just’ 5m for the little Peugeot
  • 1985: Opel Kadett E (GB = Vauxhall Astra II): *** (3): Competent but not outstanding in any areas
  • 1986: Ford Scorpio (GB = +Granada III): ** (2): Spacious, but hardly game-changing
  • 1987: Opel Omega (GB = Vauxhall Carlton II): **** (4): A more compelling executive car that its chief Ford Scorpio/Granada rival
  • 1988: Peugeot 405: **** (4): Handsome Pininfarina styling, plus class-leading diesel engines and involving chassis, made the 405 a desirable alternative to its bland and predictable Sierra and Cavalier company hack rivals
  • 1989: Fiat Tipo: **** (4): Clever packaging and fully galvanised construction helped to make the Tipo a near-class winner, but the car never quite achieved the success its really deserved
  • 1990: Citroën XM: *** (3): A typically quirky but slightly unresolved successor to the wonderful Citroën CX, which never quite found its niche
  • 1991: Renault Clio I: *** (3): A podgy but worthy replacement to the popular and long-lived Renault 5. Ultimately spawned some exceptional sporting derivatives with class-setting dynamics
  • 1992: VW Golf III: *** (3): Wow, finally, a Golf actually wins the COTY title almost 20 years after the launch of the original! A better car than the corpulent second-generation Golf, but no real improvement over the 1974 original
  • 1993: Nissan Micra II: *** (3): The very first none-European car to be awarded COTY. Likeable and good to drive, unlike most other Japanese city cars of the era
  • 1994: Ford Mondeo I: **** (4): After the brave but out-dated Sierra, Ford finally set the standard for the mid-size family car class, this model defining its era
  • 1995: Fiat Punto I: **** (4): Not as pleasing or clever as the Uno that superseded it, but the Punto was still a highly capable and spacious machine for its class
  • 1996: Fiat Brava/Bravo: **** (4): The Brava and Bravo twins were sadly often overlooked and far superior to most class rivals in terms of dynamics, accommodation and style
  • 1997: Renault Megan Scenic: **** (4): Like its large pioneering Espace forerunner, the Scenic ‘invented’ the mid-size one-box MPV, influencing many subsequent competitors, few of which bettered the Renault original
  • 1998: Alfa Romeo 156: **** (4): At last, an Alfa Romeo to be proud of that challenged and beat its German rivals. Well built, robust with fine engines and looks to die for, the 156 revived Alfa’s fortunes, albeit all too briefly
  • 1999: Ford Focus I: **** (4): After the shock and shame of the abysmal final-generation Escort, the new Focus was a breath fresh air and a major return to form for Ford, immediately putting the model at the top of its class
  • 2000: Toyota Yaris I: **** (4): An important and influential model for Toyota in a segment that it had never really taken seriously or excelled previously. Set the path for an impressive family of Yaris models
  • 2001: Alfa Romeo 147: **** (4): A winner on style for this usually boring segment of smaller family cars
  • 2002: Peugeot 307: *** (3): Okay, though inferior in most key areas to the previous 306
  • 2003: Renault Megan II: *** (3): As with its Peugeot 307 rival, okay-is, but no great standout
  • 2004: Fiat Panda II: **** (4): After a 23-year production run, the clever original Fiat Panda took some replacing, but this charming Bertone-designed ‘box’ hatch was more than up to this tough task, soon becoming Europe’s best-selling entry sector car
  • 2005: Toyota Prius II: *** (3): A brave though weak stab at establishing hybrids power, soon beloved by minicab drivers, but why did it have to look so ugly?!
  • 2006: Renault Clio III: *** (3): The third-generation Clio was the first model to be awarded the COTY twice. A pleasant, if not remarkable, car
  • 2007: Ford S-Max: *** (3): Taking a major leaf out of the Renault Scenic book, the S-Max advance the mid-MPV formula with clever versatility and fine road dynamics
  • 2008: Fiat 500: **** (4): A cute and loveable rip-roaring success for Fiat, proving that a modern retro style can be made to work well, unlike VW’s New Beetle and other such horrors
  • 2009: Opel-Vauxhall Insignia: ** (2): Considerably better that the outgoing Cavalier, but COTY? Really!
  • 2010: VW Polo VI: ** (2): As above, sturdy but dull
  • 2011: Nissan Leaf I: *** (3): A political (or cynical) choice, as COTY’s first eco-green all-electric winner, even if its range and real-world usability was limited, and its questionable odd styling reinforcing the then-myth that to drive green, you had to drive ugly
  • 2012: Chevrolet Volt/Opel-Vauxhall Ampera: ** (2): More of the same, as per the Nissan Leak, though even less usable, though at least easier on the eye. The Volt and Ampera were essentially the same car under their differing skins; a first shared double victory in COTY history
  • 2013: VW Golf VII: *** (3): Nicely built…
  • 2014: Peugeot 308 II: *** (3): Not much to get excited about here…
  • 2015: VW Passat: ** (2): Yawn. The other COTY finalists that year must have been really quite unremarkable!
  • 2016: Opel-Vauxhall Astra: *** (3): The age of dull, forgettable COTY winners continued…
  • 2017: Peugeot 3008 I: ** (2): No S-Max or Scenic, with little to commend it
  • 2018: Volvo XC40: *** (3): Well-built and safe; the usual Volvo qualities, the XC40 was the Swedish brand’s first COTY victor
  • 2019: Jaguar I-Pace: **** (4): For the very first time in COTY history, the clever electric Jaguar tied for first place with the appealing Alpine A110; both cars being awarded the exact same number of points. The Jaguar won ultimately, however, as it had topped more COTY judges lists than the Alpine
  • 2020: Peugeot 208 II: *** (3): No 205, but still a capable and likeable small Peugeot and a promising return to form for the brand
  • 2021: Toyota Yaris III: *** (3): Good at most things
  • 2022: Kia EV6: **** (4): The first South Korean car to take the COTY crown, and a worthy winner overall
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