As Drive’s Car of the Year award, presented by BP, accumulates a baker’s dozen worth of annual accolades, this year’s field proves that depth and diversity defined 2018.

With 49 vehicles spanning 14 categories – and just one outright winner – it was a strong year right across the board, with some real surprises and a handful of genuine stand-outs, sometimes all in the one class!

Drive’s rigorous Car of the Year testing centres around Wakefield Park raceway, on the outskirts of Goulburn in NSW.

Using the track to test a series of safety disciplines – emergency swerve-and-brake, a cornering slalom, and full-bore straight-line braking – as well as handling, steering response and stability-control (ESC) effectiveness, Drive’s COTY testing also extends to the challenging 100km/h-posted rural roads in the vicinity of the track.

The judging panel includes a wealth of road-testing talent with over 150 years worth of collective experience.

Each judge performs a ‘walk-through’ of every car, sliding and tumbling seats, analysing cabin functionality, lifting boot floors and giving everything a hearty prod. Testing side-by-side in specific categories, it’s a rinse-and-repeat process intended to separate the mighty from the merely worthy.

All 14 categories feature a carry-over winner (where possible!) from last year lined up against a fresh crop from 2018. The fresh stuff doesn’t need to be an all-new design – simply altered enough in terms of mechanical hardware to be considered ‘changed’.

Beginning at the most affordable end of the market, our Best City Car gong pits a multi-year champion – the Mazda 2 Maxx – against two extremely strong contenders. The third-generation of Suzuki’s born-again Swift (in GLX guise) brings turbocharged torque, terrific handling and unusually large interior space to the table – one that also seats the all-new Volkswagen Polo at 85TSI Comfortline level. The previous-gen Polo was good enough to take out the overall Drive Car of the Year prize in 2010. Will this latest version move the game on enough to repeat that performance?

Even more highly contested is the Best Small Car category currently held by the brilliant-value Hyundai i30 SR. This warm hatch wears its red seatbelts like a brash ’80s power suit, yet its persuasive blend of style and talent ensures the i30 SR doesn’t need to shout its credentials. It’ll be a hard car for the excellent new-generation Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport, the vastly improved Kia Cerato Sport+ and the intriguing Hyundai Ioniq hybrid to knock down.

Best Family Car may well prove to be an even fiercer fight. Carry-over champ, the capacious Skoda Superb 162TSI wagon, is up against yet another perception-altering new Toyota, the super-smooth Camry Ascent Sport Hybrid, alongside the German-built, Aussie-branded Holden Commodore RS Sportwagon and the substantially reworked Mazda 6 GT wagon. Three roomy turbo-petrol carry-alls against a classy new-generation sedan owing almost nothing to its dreary predecessors.

Sharing oily bits with the City Car group is the Best City SUV category. Two of the contenders – Suzuki’s former winner, the Vitara Turbo, and Mazda’s substantially revised CX-3 – are very close relations of the Suzuki Swift and Mazda 2, meaning there’s good breeding in them there loins. But there’s a wildcard in the mix, in the form of Ford’s Brazilian-developed, Euro-tuned EcoSport, now with less stinky styling and a six-speed automatic hitched to the back of its tuneful turbo-triple.

Best Small SUV spans the five-seaters bridging the traditional upper-small and medium SUV classes, currently held by the finely engineered Volkswagen Tiguan 110TSI Comfortline. However, that drivetrain is on the bench until next year, so the MY19 Tiguan defending its title is a 132TSI 4Motion Comfortline, with a 2.0-litre turbo-petrol and all-wheel drive. It’ll be up against its slightly smaller cousin, the Audi Q2-derived Skoda Karoq (in 110TSI form), as well as the quirky-looking, front-drive Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross Exceed and the new-from-the-ground-up fifth-generation Subaru Forester in equipment-laden 2.5i-S form.

Extending the seat count to seven brings us to Best Family SUV. It’s a category dominated by the superb Mazda CX-9, though there’s competition afoot, even from inside Mazda’s own stable. While the CX-8 Sport is more closely aligned to the CX-5 than the CX-9 Touring it’s up against, the CX-8’s turbo-diesel powertrain, less girthy body and seven-seat flexibility provide an intriguing point of difference.

So too does Hyundai’s impressive new-gen Santa Fe – featured in Elite AWD diesel form – with style, quality, equipment and agility to challenge SUVs costing tens of thousands more. That category-busting talent is also evident in the handsome Peugeot 5008 Allure. Its Euro-chic interior and Euro-trim exterior carry the showroom glamour of much more revered brands. But what about the Volkswagen Tiguan Allspace 132TSI 4Motion? Same drivetrain as the Small SUV winner, and virtually the same everywhere else besides a wheelbase stretch and another pair of seats. Third row’s a charm?

Opening the price ceiling and upping the performance factor brings us to Best Performance SUV. A new category for 2018, its challengers consist of a massively powered mainstream SUV (Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk) and two similarly expensive and exotic super-SUVs in the new-gen Porsche Cayenne Turbo and ballistic Range Rover Sport SVR. With 522kW and 0-100km/h in 3.7sec, the Jeep is from the ‘you can never have too much power’ school of thinking, whereas the spritely new Cayenne brings layer upon layer of sophistication and stonk in an attempt to out-brute the muscular Brit.

Closer to earth, and an every-person budget, is the Best Luxury Car under $80,000. Reigning champ, the Alfa Romeo Giulia Super, was unavailable so we grabbed an updated Mercedes-Benz C200, which has undergone a comprehensive rework for 2018 (new drivetrain, revised suspension, new multimedia, and loads of under-the-skin tweaking), making it an even tougher force to be reckoned with. Facing off the C200 is its smaller, front-drive hatchback sibling, the new-gen A-Class in A200 guise, while also on the grid will be Lexus’s enormously improved, strikingly styled ES300h. No longer a cynical snooze-mobile, this new front-drive Camry relative finally has the up-spec ability to support its premium badge.

Flip-flopping to the upper side of $80K sees a four-strong field in Best Luxury Car over $80,000. BMW’s intriguing, hybrid-engined 530e sedan will have its mettle challenged this year by three all-new cars – the ultra-slick, if conservatively styled, new-generation Audi A8; the performance-flavoured Lexus LS500h F-Sport; and the new-gen Mercedes-Benz CLS450 4Matic with its all-new straight-six engine. Too much luxury and exclusivity for the techy BMW to handle?

Fitting the same bracket, you may be more interested in the Best Luxury SUV over $80,000. That’s Audi Q7 turf, back to defend its crown for the third time in 3.0TDI quattro guise against the third-generation Porsche Cayenne S featuring the same 2.9-litre twin-turbo petrol V6 as the high-performance Audi RS5 (and full-size Porsche Panamera). But not every big luxo barge should be bred for chasing chequered flags. The seven-seat Lexus RX-L 450h Sports Luxury adds an extra row of chairs to the shorter RX wagon, and an extra chunk of driveway presence to this beautifully built quiet achiever.

Stepping underneath that price point (to Best Luxury SUV under $80,000) brings us to Volvo’s excellent XC60 D5 R-Design. A challenger for outright victory in 2017, it’ll be back to defend its well-deserved title against its smaller sibling, the super-cool XC40 T5 R-Design, in an inter-brand war for the finest premium SUV for your dollar. Yet there are two other European SUVs wearing revered badges to also keep the XC60 honest – the BMW X3 xDrive 20d and the Alfa Romeo Stelvio First Edition turbo-petrol. The BMW has a lot of ground to make up after two below-par X3 generations, while the Stelvio expands on the Giulia’s ‘Giorgio’ platform by adding all-wheel drive to its sedan relative’s evocative dynamic repertoire.

Demonstrating the breadth of some of the models in certain categories, and the need to judge every car against the criteria, is the Best Convertible group. Last year’s winner – the Mercedes-Benz C200 Cabriolet – wasn’t yet available in its facelifted MY19 form, forcing us to go with three completely fresh convertibles. And all of them are winners.

The Audi A5 2.0TFSI quattro cabriolet is one of the finest A4/A5 variants on sale, full stop. It’s elegant blend of style, performance, handling, comfort, practicality and quality will make it an immensely hard drop-top to beat. But same goes for the updated Mazda MX-5 roadster – now with a far-superior, rev-hungry 135kW 2.0-litre engine to bolster its admirable engineering and addictive driver appeal – and the stunningly quick Porsche 718 Boxster GTS. You pay handsomely for the Porsche’s performance and pedigree, but is that delivered in proportionate amounts?

Speaking of excitement, 2018’s most hardly fought category could well be Best Performance Under $60,000. Guarded by the brilliant Honda Civic Type-R and challenged by the game-changing Hyundai i30 N and muscle-bull Renaultsport Megane 280 (in pearlescent orange!), it’s an everyone’s-a-winner situation thanks to each hot-hatch’s personality and agility. But if the Type-R is the equivalent of a front-drive Porsche GT3, then how does the similarly seductive i30 N fare for 23 per cent less cost? And what about the revered Renault’s enviable reputation and class-first four-wheel steering? Can’t wait to spend time ‘working’ that one out.

Likewise the upper echelon of supercar-rivalling performance. In Best Performance over $60,000, the stunningly rapid Mercedes-AMG E63 S 4Matic returns to shirt-front the incoming, new-generation BMW M5 Competition and the smaller, cheaper V6-engined Audi RS5 Coupe. The bent-eight sedans have power and bravado, as well as tonnes of handling talent, but the raspy RS5 has liveability and (relative) affordability on its side. Again, separating this incredible trio will require close investigation of their dynamics and their redlines, as well as their bang-for-buck factor. We’ll announce the deserving winner on Thursday November 22.

The rest of the award-winning Drive field will be revealed each day throughout November, starting with Best City Car on Monday November 5 and culminating in the overall Drive Car of the Year winner on Friday November 23.

We’ll also crown the Best Concept Car, Best Green Innovation and Best Safety Innovation for 2018.

Best Ute and Best 4WD were pared off into new categories as part of Drive’s dedicated Commercial Car of the Year awards, announced in July.

Click here to see the full field of finalists for 2018 Drive Car of the Year, presented by BP.

DRIVE Car of the Year winners

2006 - Audi TT

2007 - BMW M3

2008 - Honda Accord V6

2009 - Volkswagen Golf 118TSI

2010 - Volkswagen Polo 77TSI

2011 - Mercedes-Benz C250 CDI

2012 - Toyota 86 GT

2013 - Mazda6 Sport

2014 - Mercedes-Benz C200

2015 - Ford Everest Trend

2016 - Volkswagen Tiguan 110TSI Comfortline

2017 – Hyundai i30 SR

2018 – Revealed Friday 23 November, 2018

Source: Drive

October 28, 2018