How the SA Car Of The Year competition is judged

Choosing the South African Car of the Year (COTY) is a long and intricate, but often misunderstood, process.

Indeed, there are many local organisations, websites and publications that run their own Car of the Year competitions, rewarding anything from affordability to popularity. In addition, these competitions are split up in so many categories that there is a winner in almost every market segment, including entry-level vehicles, sedans, SUVs, bakkies and luxury cars.

What makes the WesBank/South African Guild of Motoring Journalists’ Car of the Year competition – run annually since 1986 – different from all of these is that there are no categories and only one winner. The car that walks away with the silverware does so because it represents automotive excellence in every respect.

But how, exactly, is the winner chosen and by whom?

The jury

The Car Of The Year jury consists of members of the SAGMJ (the official representative body of local motoring journalists) and is elected by the full members of the organisation. Jury members are considered to be the cream of motoring crop in this country, so it is quite an honour to be chosen.

Before you become eligible to be a jury member you must have completed a minimum of two years of jury training, while being active in the motor industry for a minimum of five years. You must be an industry-recognised journalist who actively participates in the industry by attending manufacturer launch events and by driving test vehicles during the eligibility period.

This year there were 26 jurors – of which 6 were female – representing a good mix of industry veterans and young blood

Vehicle eligibility

The competition is open to all new vehicles that are primarily used for the transportation of passengers and that are available in South Africa, including multi-purpose vehicles, double cab bakkies, sport utility vehicles, crossover vehicles and two- and four-wheel-drive leisure vehicles.

In recent years the title has been awarded to a vehicle range rather than a specific model. This means that whereas the Hyundai Elantra 1.8 GLS Executive took the crown in 2012, it was the Opel Astra (range) that walked off with the silverware in 2017.

To be considered as new, a vehicle range must have a unique and easily defined body style and be mechanically significantly different from any model launched by the manufacturer or importer during an earlier eligibility period. It must also have been introduced publicly during the eligibility period (which usually runs from the beginning of September of a specific year until the end of August of the next) and at least three-quarters of the SAGMJ’s Car Of The Year jury must have had a reasonable opportunity to drive the vehicle.

Importantly, the vehicle range must sell in sufficient numbers. According to the rules this means that it must sell at least 50% of the volume of at least one of its recognised market competitors during any three months of the eligibility period.

Of importance to consumers, after-sales service and back-up structure must be available on a national level.

Choosing the finalists

Once a list of eligible vehicles has been compiled based on the criteria mentioned, the full membership of the SAGMJ votes for vehicles they believe to be worthy contenders. The ranges with the twenty highest scores will be announced to the membership and to the public as the semi-finalists.

After this process of identifying the semi-finalists has been completed, it is up to the jury to whittle down these favourites and come up with a list of finalists.

The latter might sound like a simple process, but it takes hours of scrutiny and discussion at an officially convened jury meeting before the final choice is made. Each jury member has ten votes to cast and the vehicles with the highest number of votes become the finalists. A minimum of eight and maximum of ten vehicle ranges may be selected as finalists

In the case of the 2018 competition, 10 finalists were chosen from an original list of 35 eligible vehicle ranges.

Evaluating the finalists

The next step in choosing the Car Of The Year is the evaluation of the finalists.

At these evaluation days – the most critical of which are the scheduled procedures held at a dedicated testing facility – the jury assess the finalists independently, with routes and modules designed to test the vehicles in a similar way in which the average consumer would use them.

It is important to remember that finalists are not judged against one another. After all, how can an entry-level runabout compete with a top-of-the-range cruise ship on wheels? In this year’s competition, for instance, the Porsche Panamera was measured against vehicles such as the Mercedes-Benz S-class and the BMW 7 Series, while the Kia Picanto was compared to a vehicle such as the Hyundai i10, as they compete in the same segment.

To this end, the jury members have access to performance test data, comparative pricing and specification data, as well as comparative parts pricing data, which allows them to measure how the finalists stack up against their peers. Comparing apples with apples, so to speak.

Interestingly, the South African competition is the only competition of its kind in the world that uses a purpose-designed digital scoring system.

Choosing the winner

The Car Of The Year is selected by the collective assessment of the jury as reflected in the combined number of points scored by each juror during the evaluation process.

There are 12 key judging categories:

  • Exterior Design
  • Interior Environment
  • Interior Practicality
  • Technology
  • Engine
  • Gearbox / Transmission
  • Engineering Integrity & Build Quality
  • Ride Quality
  • Steering and Handling
  • Affordability
  • Value for Money
  • Overall Excellence

Each jury member scores each finalist against each category on a scale of one to ten and submits this list electronically at the end of the final evaluation day.

In addition, a statistical weighting applies per category. At the evaluation days, jurors rank five of the eight evaluation categories in order of importance in a secret ballot. The weighting is then calculated and applied by an independent firm of auditors, before any penalty applications are applied to finalists equipped with optional performance, or dynamic enhancements. The vehicle with the highest number of points and the end of the evaluation days is deemed the winner.

In recent years, the competition has had many historic moments, as in 2012 when Hyundai Automotive SA won the title for the first time in its history and became the first Korean vehicle brand to win the title. In 2011, the competition caused an even bigger stir when, for the first time in history, the BMW 530d and Volkswagen Polo 1.6 TDI shared the crown. In 2015, the Porsche Macan became the first SUV to win.

What it means for consumers

Because the competition awards excellence, finalists – and even semi-finalists to an extent – can already be considered to be exceptional vehicles in their market segments. They have been found to be prime examples of automotive engineering and measured against their segment competitors, these cars were considered to be superior.

And let’s be honest, who wouldn’t relish the bragging rights of owning the South African Car Of The Year?

Interesting Facts:

  • BMW has won the SA Car Of The Year title a record six times (1988, 1990, 1993, 1997, 2001 and 2011).
  • Opel is the only manufacturer to have won the SA Car Of The Year title for two consecutive
  • years, and has ultimately won the competition four times.
  • Audi, Volkswagen and Porsche have all won the SA Car Of The Year title three times, with
  • Honda, Renault, Toyota and Volvo taking the crown twice.
  • Alfa Romeo, Ford, Hyundai, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, and Nissan have won the title once each.
  • Porsche is the only manufacturer in the history of the SA Car Of The Year competition to win the title for three consecutive years.

Previous winners of the WesBank/SAGMJ Car Of The Year competition:

1986   Toyota Corolla Twin Cam

1987   Mercedes-Benz 260E

1988   BMW 735i

1989   Toyota Corolla GLi Executive

1990   BMW 525i

1991   Opel Monza 160 GSi

1992   Nissan Maxima 300 SE

1993   BMW 316i

1994   Opel Kadett 140

1995   Opel Astra 160iS

1996   Audi A4 1.8

1997   BMW 528i

1998   Ford Fiesta Fun

1999   Alfa Romeo 156 T-Spark

2000   Renault Clio 1.4 RT

2001   BMW 320d

2002   Audi A4 1.9 TDI

2003   Volkswagen Polo TDI

2004   Renault Mégane 1.9 dCi

2005   Volvo S40 2.4i

2006   Audi A3 Sportback 2.0T

2007   Honda Civic 1.8 VXi Sedan

2008   Mazda2 1.5 Individual

2009   Honda Accord 2.4 Executive

2010   Volkswagen Golf 6 1.4 TSI

2011   BMW 530d and Volkswagen Polo 1.6 TDI

2012   Hyundai Elantra 1.8 GLS Executive

2013   Porsche Boxster

2014   Porsche Cayman S

2015   Porsche Macan Diesel S

2016   Volvo XC90

2017   Opel Astra