Behind the scenes at the What Car? COTY Awards

As with tradition, January kicks of the automotive industry calendar with arguably one of the most influential events of the year, What Car? Magazine’s New Car of the Year Awards. The COTYs, as they’re affectionately known, will this year take place at the Grosvenor House in London, when industry figureheads and motoring journalists gather to hear which car will be crowned victor.  
As the event’s lead sponsor for the fourth time, MotorEasy went behind the scenes with the Editor of What Car? To discuss this year’s prestigious event, as well as get an insider’s verdict on past winners and the ever-evolving world of cars.

Steve Huntingford, Editor, WhatCar?

How times have changed 

It used to be much simpler, cars came in a handful of shapes - hatchbacks, saloons, estates and sports. There were 20 or so different brands and model derivatives could be counted on the fingers of one hand. For the average car journalist, a containable list to review, aided by an industry that launched a small number of big-ticket new models each year.  

But how things have changed, as Steve explains, “the job carries enormous responsibility. There’s a pressure to entertain, alongside an over-riding need to help people make informed buying decisions on what can be their single biggest financial decision in an average year”.  
Or to put things in context, to make decisions that can transform the fortunes of car brands, catapulting sales and brand value. As witnessed by the roll call of past winners, following the event’s inception in 1978.  
Launched in the economic doldrum of the late 1970s, when the world was reeling from the OPEC oil crisis, the What Car? Awards were designed with the everyday car buyer in mind. It was the antidote to the alternative car awards body at the time – the European COTYs –a confederation of international motoring journalists, who at the time had just awarded Porsche as its manufacturer of the year.  
Rather than champion speed or luxury, What Car? sought out the core vitals important to most car owners – economy, comfort, practicality, driving experience. Criteria that are used to both select an overall winner, as well as identify an additional 20 category winners within a proliferating range of vehicle body shapes and fuel types.  

While the overall winner invariably claims the limelight, the extended list of category winners represents an increasingly important body of contenders. Whereas the winner has to be a new launch to the market that year, category winners simply have to be cars that are sold as new cars that year. In other words, they are often improved later variants of previously launched models, or vehicles recognised for specific category designations such as reliability or in-car technology. 

You’re probably getting the picture. It’s an awards programme that goes to immense detail, a marathon of winners that reflects the sheer diversity of today’s car buying marketplace. A bible to guide every conceivable need, from city run-around to performance sportscar, pick-up truck to caravan-towing load lugger.

The judging process is a masterstroke of both logistics and testing standards. To qualify for inclusion and to ensure absolute rigour in comparability, each vehicle has to be driven by the What Car? reviews team for at least a week. From a practical sense, that often means coordinating delivery through customs, as hot-off-the-production line vehicles arrive throughout the year, chasing the closing date at the end of the November. 
As Steve explains, “by the time we take delivery, many cars will still be under press embargo, with car manufacturer PR teams restricting our ability to share information ahead of official media launches. Embargoes that can only be broken if a car is deemed a winner.” 
Once received, each car is put through its paces on both real road and test track facilities. The reviews team then pull apart the manufacturer’s claimed data – comparing everything from boot space to cost of ownership. Partnerships with the world-renown vehicle testing body Thatcham Research, help further assess vehicle safety, while number crunchers pick through finance options to assess affordability. 
Looking back at winners over the years, we were curious to know whether the testers, with the benefit of hindsight, had ever made a duff decision. Steve was quick to explain, “given the way vehicles are launched, features and choices are invariably refined and expanded. That can mean we often don’t see the best variant in a given year. The new generation of BMW-3 series for example later launched a fantastic hybrid version that would have made it a far stronger contender. In such cases, later additions are often recognised as our category winners”. 
“It was once much easier to perform a group test on each vehicle variant in a model range. Nowadays, the sheer volume of variants makes it practically very difficult. That said I think it would be a major challenge for any other publication to go to lengths we do”. 
So, if we can’t get Steve to admit a duff decision, can he point to any personal favourite winners over the years? “The What Car? awards have become a very personal experience in which we invest huge amounts of energy, time and passion. Invariably my favourites reflect the time I’ve been with What Car? The Golf Mark V which won in 2004 particularly stands out, claiming the top spot in the year I joined the magazine. I also have fond memories of the Qashqai, which won in 2014. The winners reflect a moment in time and where you are in life at that moment”.

Renualt 20 TS

Recognising Car Technology 

Over the years the awards have played an important role in recognising automotive evolution. The very first winner – the Renualt 20 TS – stood out for innovations like power steering, electric front windows and central locking. Features that were generally only available on more expensive, luxury models at the time. 

Later winners helped pioneer advances in fuel efficiency and emissions standards, with technology like catalytic converters and diesel particulate filters becoming common themes.  
For today’s contenders, technology has become the new battleground, with a natural divide between features designed for safety and entertainment. According to Steve, it’s an area that can potentially trip-up a newly launched car, especially when manufacturers release a car early safe in the knowledge that a later software update might iron out the early creases. That in mind, it is often the established players that win the day on car-tech; companies that have had time to finesse operability post launch. 
When it comes to technology, usability and safety of use is a key consideration, as Steve explains, “it has to strike the right balance between button interactions, alongside touchscreens and intelligent voice control. We’re big believers that physical controls causes less distraction. The best tech provides a combination of options, BMW’s i-drive stands out, with easy to access turn wheel knobs that combine with screens. The Volvo E30 also stands out for its combination of touchscreen and intelligent voice control, with particularly strong speech recognition. While touchscreens can help to de-litter a dashboard, the system must be intuitive and work well.” 
So, as we enter a new age of motoring with an endless array of vehicle body types, new advances in electric and hybrid technology and petrol and diesel engines reaching a new pinnacle of efficiency and performance, what type of vehicle will reign victorious this year? 
We asked Steve whether we’ve reached an inflection point, will a new electric brand see off internal combustion engines? Steve wouldn’t confirm or deny but cryptically told us “this year, more than ever, electric vehicles didn’t have to win”.  But was his answer a diversion, designed to throw us off the scent? We’ll have to wait for Thursday night to find out! 
The market for new cars is more exciting, more varied and more confusing than ever. The role of What Car? as arbiter of decision-making navigating choice has never been more relevant.

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