Driven Car of the Year: And the winners are...

By Alistair Sloane


The natural disasters in Japan and Thailand this year certainly disrupted the automotive world's production line - but the quality of the cars that trickled into New Zealand remained unaffected.

Driven's Car of the Year awards reflect that. Build standards today are better than ever as carmakers work to cut fuel use and meet ever-tightening rules on safety and exhaust emissions.

Developments in technology go from one innovation to another. The new 1 Series BMW hatch, our 2011 Car of the Year, is a case in point.

It is the only car in its segment to carry an eight-speed transmission allied to a stop/start function; a mild hybrid component that is part of BMW's EfficientDynamics technology.

Gearbox ratios can be a numbers game, but the eight-speeder in the 1 Series works in uncommon harmony with the four-cylinder engine offerings, especially the 2-litre diesel unit.

The 1 Series range and its starting price of $46,600 will lure more would-be prestige buyers into the German marque. Its blend of driving dynamics and technology makes it our winner.

Driven's judging team of myself, Liz Dobson, Matt Greenop, Phil Hanson and David Linklater tested a variety of models across the range of new vehicles launched in New Zealand this year, with the 1 Series the clear winner.

"Winning Car of the Year awards like this reaffirms BMW's position as the world's number one manufacturer of premium automobiles," says BMW New Zealand's managing director, Mark Gilbert (pictured).

"New BMW 1 Series owners should also feel particularly proud of this award, as it acknowledges their decision to purchase a rear-wheel-drive sports-hatch model which contains core DNA of the ultimate driving machine - the primary reason to get behind the wheel of a BMW.

"The luxury appointments, leading-edge technology and drivability of the all-new 1 Series, as well as a suite of EfficientDynamic technologies which contribute to outstanding fuel efficiency, stand the new model apart from its competitors."

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COMPACT CAR OF THE YEAR

Winner: BMW 1 Series

Contenders: BMW 1 Series, VW Eos, Holden Barina, Ford Fiesta LX diesel, Mazda3 SkyActiv, Holden Cruze iTi turbo.

Judge's comment

The range builds on the success of the first generation's driving dynamics, combining the rewards of rear-wheel-drive handling with improved comfort. Interior room has improved, too. In a nutshell, the new 1 Series ticks most boxes.

MEDIUM-SIZED CAR OF THE YEAR

Winner: Kia Optima

Contenders: Kia Optima, Ford Focus, Ford Mondeo Titanium, VW Passat.

Judge's comment

As a brand that is becoming stronger in New Zealand and creating wide appeal, Kia's launch of its stylish Optima model early this year came as no surprise. With its "tiger nose" front grille and distinctive alloys, this four-door liftback made an immediate impact. From a cross-country trip on gravel roads at the Martinborough media launch to a week spent driving around Auckland, the Optima covered many criteria for this sector: performance in all driving conditions, creature comforts, competitive price, abundant interior space, plus - not surprisingly - plenty of head-turning when I stopped it at my local supermarket carpark.

EXECUTIVE CAR OF THE YEAR

Winner: Mercedes-Benz C-Class

Contenders: Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Peugeot 508, Audi A6, Lexus IS350, Volvo S60/V60.

Judge's comment

It's not an all-new model, but the term "facelift" hardly seems appropriate to describe the latest Mercedes-Benz C-Class. More than 2000 changes have ensured the model remains one of the finest large cars around: with a range of high-tech petrol and diesel engines, superb engineering and outstanding refinement, the C-Class covers every base from elegance to excitement. That's not surprising: Mercedes-Benz has been making cars for quite some time. It celebrated its 125th year in 2011.

GREEN CAR OF THE YEAR

Winner: Honda CR-Z

Contenders: Honda CR-Z, Kia Picanto ISG, BMW 118d, Mini Cooper D facelift.

Judge's comment

Inspired by the Lotus Elise, Honda's new CR-Z coupe pushes the hybrid segment by providing a winning vehicle that is both stylish and delivers sports performance. The CR-Z lends itself to spirited driving due to Honda's Integrated Motor Assist technology: stay in Normal or Econ on the motorway but switch to Sport mode through the windy stuff for an impressive ride.

SUV/CROSSOVER OF THE YEAR

Winner: Jeep Grand Cherokee

Contenders: Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota FJ Cruiser, VW Tiguan, Mercedes G-Class, Renault Koleos, Ford Territory diesel, Mazda CX-9, Skoda Yeti TDI 4x4, VW Tiguan facelift, VW Touareg

Judge's comment

After years as an also-ran, top versions of Jeep's Grand Cherokee have emerged as serious rivals to off-roading's royalty, the Range Rover Vogue, but at tens of thousands of dollars less. Just check out the piped leather seating and other appointments of the Overland version.

On the other hand, you can get a Laredo for $65,000 that's so nicely fitted-out that hardly anyone will realise it's the humble base version. The Grand Cherokee's our winner because it's a vastly improved SUV catering to a wide market, with a choice of V8 Hemi, V6 diesel and V6 petrol engines.

UTE OF THE YEAR

Winner: Ford Ranger

Contenders: Ford Ranger, VW Amarok, Mazda BT-50, Mitsubishi Triton Upgrade, Toyota Hilux upgrade.

Judge's comment

Being "car-like" has become a  cliche in the world of double-cab  utes, but it's really true of the Ranger. Ford's one-tonne truck has all the electronics, safety features and interior appointments of a modern car - and drives and handles like one, too.

But the lineup extends far beyond the suburbs, with farm- and tradesman-ready models that retain most or all of the car-like features. Four-wheel-drive versions offer top off-road ability. Couple all that with a cracking good five-cylinder turbo-diesel and excellent manual and automatic transmissions, and Ranger leaps to the top of the ute market.

PERFORMANCE CAR OF THE YEAR

Winner: BMW 1M

Contenders: BMW 1M, Porsche Boxster S, Renault Megane 250RS, Porsche 911 Carrera.

Judge's comment

We're used to BMW's M-cars packing in the grin factor, but its little 1M coupe takes it to a whole new level. A twin-turbo straight-six powers the short and staunch performance coupe, with a 250kW wallop that propels its 1500kg to the legal limit in just 4.9 seconds.

Not the fastest car on the planet, but with a tight six-speed box and a superb suspension set-up, it's entertaining to drive and offers extraordinarily well-balanced fanging in a package that puts its pricier, heavier stablemates to shame. Wide, wild and aggressive, and only available in manual, it's refreshing to see a no-holds-barred car that's built purely for precise rear-wheel-drive fun.

LUXURY CAR OF THE YEAR

Winner: Bentley Continental GT

Contenders: Bentley Continental GT; Aston Martin Virage; Maserati Gran Cabrio Sport, Ferrari 458, Audi A7, Porsche Panamera diesel.

Judge's comment

The Bentley design team worked on a long-held styling standard for the second-generation Continental GT - when there's nothing more to take away, the look of the car is complete. In other words, less is more. Senior designer Robin Page said stylists wanted more defined styling cues, like those from the 1952 R-Type Continental.

Back then, Bentley craftsmen made panels by hand, hand-beating creases and curves that defined elegance. Such handiwork was later lost. But modern technology and its ultra-fine tolerances has enabled Bentley to recreate the old-time fine lines.

- The Aucklander

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