This is what it’s like to judge the SA Car of the Year

It was a busy two days evaluating 17 COTY finalists. Pictures: Chris Wall Media.

It was a busy two days evaluating 17 COTY finalists. Pictures: Chris Wall Media.

Published Mar 17, 2024


Being a juror on the South African Car of the Year (COTY) competition is really hard work, I promise. You don’t believe me, do you?

Admittedly even I questioned that notion after continuously jumping in and out of 17 different finalists to put them through their paces on the track and road over two days, and then filling in comprehensive score sheets for each one.

Yes, you feel a bit worn out afterwards, but for someone who really digs cars of all kinds there surely can’t be a more rewarding way to spend 48 hours.

The SA COTY competition, sponsored by Old Mutual Insure, is one of the few national competitions that stage physical test days.

The physical testing consisted of numerous modules at Zwartkops Raceway.

Of course it was a huge honour to serve on a jury with 25 fellow motoring journalists selected by the South African Guild of Mobility Journalists.

But as Uncle Ben would have said to Spiderman, with great power comes the great responsibility of finding South Africa’s best car launched in the past year.

So how dare we compare such different cars?

There has been considerable debate surrounding what constitutes the South African Car of the Year. Officially, as the Guild puts it, it’s a competition that rewards excellence.

But a string of Porsches winning a few years back stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy, with many feeling the competition had lost touch with the average South African car buyer.

The cars lined up for road testing at our base north of Joburg.

Very fair point, of course. And in response to that the competition now has numerous categories, meaning separate awards are now handed out to budget and compact cars as well as family-sized SUVs and bakkies, to name a few.

But the conundrum for the overall winner still remains because, let’s face it, excellence and affordability often don’t go hand in hand.

But the ultimate definition of the COTY winner, as the organisers made clear to the jury during a special training session ahead of this year’s evaluation days, is a car that represents excellence when measured against its closest market rivals.

It should be a car that pushes or resets the boundaries in its specific segment, whether it's a budget hatch or executive SUV.

The gist of all that is jurors are instructed not to compare the finalists with each other directly, but rather with their direct rivals which they’ve presumably driven at an earlier stage given their status as full-time motoring journalists.

Automated scores, based on value-for-money data compiled by Lightstone Auto, are also thrown into the mix to determine the ultimate winners.

A day at the track

With all that in mind we descended upon Zwarktops Raceway early on a sweltering Tuesday morning to put the finalists through their paces in a number of modules.

This year’s competition had 17 finalists within eight categories - there were meant to be 18 but Lexus could not supply LX test units for the evaluation days.

The 2024 finalists.

All the cars were parked into the pits at Zwartkops and we’d meticulously work our way through each of them before the day was out.

The first module took us onto the track to measure acceleration and cornering as well as emergency lane changing ability through two slalom sections and a braking test.

From there we’d move to the skidpan for another slalom in the wet followed by a braking test on the slippery surface.

If the finalist in question was a 4x4 with low range, then it would also have to tackle the off-roading course at the facility.

A GWM Ora 03 tackles the slalom on Zwartkops Raceway.

And so it was a day of in, out and repeat, while also filling in as much of the scoring as we could while the cars were fresh in our minds.

The long scoring process begins

The following day, working from our base at the La’Wiida lodge in the scenic Hennops River Valley north of Joburg, we input our final scoring while also revisiting the cars we felt needed a revisit, on a section of road near the lodge.

We were given score books at the beginning of the event for easy jotting down on the run, but in the end we all found ourselves glued to our phone screens where each score was submitted digitally.

Judges hard at work with the final scoring.

The score book has 32 questions where we rate each car on a scale from 1 to 10. These cover everything from interior practicality to connectivity, ergonomics, performance, ride, handling, braking, economy and perceived value.

I really love the “fit for purpose” question towards the end as it helps me put an overall perspective on the vehicle.

There’s often a lot of debate among the journos, some considering themselves “low scorers” and others being more generous with the nines and tens.

I lean a bit to the low side of the spectrum, but as a rule I only score below 5 if a car is really bad at something. For me a five is below average but more or less acceptable, a six is good but relatively average in the segment, seven is impressive but not too far above average and anything above that is a certain degree of brilliant.

I handed out a lot of sixes and sevens, because most of the cars that made it into the finalist list were pretty darn good I reckon.

Over and above all the driving and scoring, the COTY testing event is also a good two days of camaraderie among motoring journalists, a good catch-up for those of us who work in an exciting but often challenging media industry.

Newcomers and visitors to the event are often taken aback by what a close-knit community really exists here.

But which car is going to win this year? That’s something that none of us will know until the overall winner and category victors are announced in May. Roll the drums... and wait a whole lot longer.

Best contenders in my opinion

The BMW X1 is one of the favourites.

But the car that stood out to me as possibly the best all-rounder was the BMW X1. With its stylish new design, brilliantly practical and ergonomic interior, impressive tech and sensible range that includes a diesel and an EV, it really just ticks a lot of boxes. It’s let down only by a somewhat steep asking price of between R788,045 to R1,090,000 for the ICE models, with the iX1 starting just north of R1.2 million. But then its premium competitors are even more ridiculous in that regard.

Suzuki Fronx turned heads with its value proposition.

I’d like to see the Suzuki Fronx get a prize too, as a category win or overall runner up, as it’s a very solid little package that really knocks it out of the park when it comes to value.

But it’s not quite innovative enough to be overall winner excellent.

Ford Ranger Raptor - a dark horse?

The Ford Ranger Raptor was pretty impressive too, for what it offers, and it could be a dark horse this year. Some questioned why it belonged in the Performance category. But within the rules of the competition, that is the only category where new derivatives of existing model ranges are permitted to enter. So it was either that or nothing.

Speaking of bakkies, I wouldn’t overlook the Volkswagen Amarok either, given it has the same genes as last year’s winner and an arguably smarter interior.

The Performance category was hotly contested this year, also featuring the Honda Civic Type R and Toyota GR Corolla. In short, my head voted for the former and my heart for the latter.

The BMW 7 Series presents something pretty dazzling on the luxury car front too and could very easily find itself with a category win.

But for now all we can do is wait and speculate. May the best car (or bakkie) win!

IOL Motoring