JAN 22nd 2016

Axon's Automotive Anorak: Car of the Year – Influential or Insignificant?

With such a wide and bewildering variety of new cars to choose from these days, settling on which model to spend your hard-earned cash on can be a confusing and frustrating experience.

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When our parents and grandparents decided on their latest steed – back when many of the cars that now race at the Revival were brand new – their choice was limited to which marque (brands didn’t exist then) to opt for, followed by body style (usually just saloon or estate), colour (solid paint only) and trim levels (limited to standard or deluxe).

Today, we can choose a crossover, hatchback, saloon, coupe, cabriolet, SUV, and so on, with a mesmerising array of engines, trim levels, transmissions, options and so on. However, to most new car buyers now, the badge on the bonnet, plus the infotainment system, CO2­ emissions and EuroNCAP ratings seem to be the most important purchase considerations today.

In just over one month’s time, the official 2016 European Car of the Year (COTY) will be named at the opening of the Geneva Motor Show. Winning any award, especially the prestigious COTY, used to figure highly in the purchase consideration of a new car. But is COTY victory still relevant and influential with today’s new car buyers?


Selected and voted for by a respected group of 58 European motoring journalists, the final seven nominees for the 2016 COTY from an extensive initial list of possible candidates has recently been revealed. These final seven consist of the latest versions of the Audi A4, BMW 7-Series, Jaguar XE, Mazda MX-5, Skoda Superb, Vauxhall/Opel Astra and Volvo XC90. Good cars all, undoubtedly, and a tough choice to select the overall winner. But will the overall 2016 COTY victor be commercially more successful because of its award? Past history suggests that this isn’t always guaranteed.

The European Car of the Year was conceived more than 50 years ago to select and honour the very best of the previous year’s crop of brand new passenger cars, selected by a variety of European-based motoring writers, with each eligible car having to have already been launched for sale in at least five European markets, with expected sales of at least 5,000 units. The aim of COTY is that there are no categories or class winners – the stated objective is to find a ‘single, decisive winner’ among all the competing cars.

Many previous COTY winners have enjoyed strong commercial success, with cars such as the Fiat Uno, Renault Clio and Peugeot 405 selling in their millions. A few past COTY victors though have proved to be duds, including the Renault 9, Chrysler Horizon, Chevrolet Volt and Porsche 928, with the cars that came second going on to enjoy a far healthier career, such as the original Mark I VW Golf, the BMW 1600/02-Series, and so on.

Rover P6 Car of the Year 2016

Rover’s advanced 2000 (P6) model was the very first and worthy winner of the initial COTY, awarded in 1964 and beating the second-placed Mercedes-Benz 600 by just nine points. Another British car, the Austin 1800 ‘landcrab’ was awarded the COTY for 1965, beating the technically more-significant Autobianchi Primula, this long-forgotten Italian front-drive pioneer arguably being the originator of the modern mid-size family hatchback format.

For 1966, a real innovative five-door hatch won – the pioneering Renault 16 – with the world’s second best-selling body shape taking the 1967 title, the Fiat 124, proving that the COTY award can sometimes help gain new car sales. The Fiat Group has subsequently proved to be the most successful COTY winner, with 12 title wins overall; nine wearing Fiat badges (128, 127, Uno, Panda II, etc.).

After the 1967 Fiat 124 COTY winner, capable cars such as the NSU Ro80, Peugeot 504, Fiat 128 Citroen GS, Audi 80, Mercedes-Benz S-Class (450 SE) took the title in subsequent years, with the 1975 COTY Citroen CX taking a considerable 65-point lead over the second placed VW Golf Mk I.

Chrysler Alpine Car of the Year 2016

The first in a series of questionable COTY winners took the 1976 title, with the Chrysler Alpine (Simca 1307-1308 on the continent) beating the far more fondly remembered first-generation BMW 3-Series.

The Rover SD1 gave the failed Solihull marque its second COTY title in 1977, with love it/loath it Porsche 928 – the first and only high-performance sportscar to win the award to date – controversially taking the 1978 title.

A series of front-wheel-drive mid-range hatchbacks – the Chrysler Horizon, Lancia Delta and Ford Escort III – scoped the award from 1979-81, with the lame Renault 9 beating the first front-drive Vauxhall Cavalier/Opel Ascona for the 1982 gong.

Audi 100 Car of the Year 2016

From 1983 onwards a parade of reasonable but slightly forgettable European saloons and hatches (Audi 100, Vauxhall Omega, Fiat Tipo, etc.), were awarded the COTY prize, with the first Japanese winner (the second-generation Nissan Micra) taking the 1993 title, followed by other Japanese (but European-built) winners in 2000 (Toyota Yaris), 2005 (Prius) and 2011 (Nissan Leaf).

The Fiat Punto, Brava/Bravo, Renault Scenic, Ford Focus, Alfa Romeo 156, Ford S-Max, Fiat Panda II, 500, VW Polo, and so on, have all been subsequent winners, proving that the mainstream still stands a good chance of winning the COTY title, even if it no longer contributes to sales success in the way it used to.

Images courtesy of Car of the Year 2016, Rudolf Stricker  and Charles01 licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, and ‘Riley’ licensed under CC BY 2.0

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