Driven Car of the Year 2014 contenders so far

The refinements made to the Subaru WRX have made it a favourite of our editor.
The refinements made to the Subaru WRX have made it a favourite of our editor.

Car of the Year - four words that give way to shouting, gnashing of teeth, the odd clumsily thrown punch and, eventually, a winner. Each year Driven's editorial team goes through the massive list of cars we've tested and works out the best machines across a number of categories. The process is invariably fraught, generally fought, but undoubtedly worth the effort. It boils down what we've all learned and allows us to give you, our readers, the best possible options across the new-car markets. Over the last couple of years this midway check on the contenders has proven to be an interesting exercise, allowing us to take stock of the first six months' worth of cars before the launch-heavy second half of the year. Some of the cars we're favouring at this point won't even make the final list - but one may become the overall winner.

Matt Greenop - APN motoring editor

Subaru WRX

Subaru WRX. Photo / Alastair Ritchie
Taking a rally-bred car, particularly one that's been enthusiastically embraced by the "yoof" and refining it as far as Subaru has with this year's ground-up new WRX is impressive. The much-loved "Rex" was widely adopted as the car to have for young Kiwis - largely due to our local legend Possum Bourne's success here and in Australia. This year's total revision of the car with an efficient new engine, a slick and effective automatic transmission and a huge lift in materials and quality has allowed the WRX to shed its old persona. This big change has come without compromising the car's personality - it's still fast, sure-footed and undeniably good fun - and very sharply priced.

Lexus NX

Lexus NX

Freshly launched to the world's media, the Lexus NX is a long-awaited entry into the compact SUV market for Toyota's luxury arm. It's a compact SUV in two and four-wheel-drive guises, with both a hybrid drive train and a new two-litre turbocharged engine. With three different specification levels likely to be landing in New Zealand later this year, the NX has more than enough weaponry to take on the tough marketplace and do well. Pricing and final local specification are yet to be announced - both of which will be pivotal to the NX's success in New Zealand - but if it's right, it will surely be a big player in its category come Car of the Year awards time.

LOOKING FORWARD TO: Mazda2
Mazda's little two has long punched above its meagre weight in the small car segment. It's set to launch in Japan, and we'll be driving it there next month. Using the company's full suite of SkyActiv efficiency technologies and wearing the stylish suit that comes as part of Mazda's Kodo design language, this is going to be a huge seller.

Liz Dobson - APN assistant motoring editor

Mazda3

Liz Dobson likes the high-spec safety features of the Mazda3. Picture / Ted Baghurst

The main criterion I use when judging a Car of the Year contender is "would I buy this"? That's slightly different than "would I own one" because with an unlimited budget there'd be plenty of vehicles in my (multi-storey) garage.
But in reality sitting in my double garage would be the hatchback version of the Mazda3 SP25 Limited. I was won over by the styling of the car, the fuel economy of the 2.5-litre engine but most of all the high spec of safety features in this Japanese car - especially as I'd use it to teach my teens to drive.

Mercedes-Benz GLA 250 4Matic

Mercedes-Benz GLA 250 4Matic Picture / Ted Baghurst

I reckon I'm the target market for the recently launched compact SUV from Mercedes and I can definitely see myself driving one permanently. But what I liked about the petrol version of this was the four-wheel-drive capability that made it a genuine off-roader for trips out of town and with low centre of gravity I don't need to worry about the "wallowing" of a large SUV when driving on winding roads.

LOOKING FORWARD TO: Jaguar F-Type coupe

Jaguar F-Type coupe Picture / Ted Baghurst

I don't have to wait too long for the hard top version of the F-Type convertible as I'll be driving it this weekend. It's a great-looking vehicle that oozes fun and performance. It's also a vehicle that is more aspirational but sometimes you need to dream a little with the test cars.

David Linklater - Driven motoring writer

BMW 435i Gran Coupe
I should not like the BMW 435i Gran Coupe. In practice, I disapprove of so much: there are far too many 3 Series variants around already (sedan, wagon, GT, 4 Series coupe) and the Gran Coupe is pretending to be something it's not. Because last time I checked, a medium-sized car with five doors was a hatchback or liftback, not a "coupe".
But the 435i Gran Coupe is magnificent and works surprisingly well in practice.
It's even better looking than the two-door 4 Series (or indeed any other 3 Series-based model). It has proper rear-seat access and while there's less space in the back than a 3 Series sedan, it's actually more versatile: you get the same boot space, but you also get that large hatch and the brilliant 40/20/40-split folding rear seat from the 3 Series wagon.
Naturally, the 435i is as brilliant to drive as you'd expect of a car from this family. Once we get an M4 Gran Coupe (as surely we will), I'll be set. But this'll do nicely for now.

Mazda3
Okay, so the Mazda3 is a rather predictable choice for a pre-COTY feature. But sometimes you have to be predictable to ensure justice is done.
The Three is the third (see what I did there?) of Mazda's new-generation SkyActiv models and it's by far the best, the one where it all comes together: design, engineering and especially cabin design/technology. It's a much more cohesive package than its CX-5 and Mazda6 siblings - and they are pretty impressive already.
I admire the entire Mazda3 range, although I reckon the 2.5-litre SP25 models benefit from better refinement than the 2-litre versions - not to mention that extra punch.
And thank you Mazda New Zealand for keeping the faith with a manual-transmission option. The car deserves it.

LOOKING FORWARD TO: Fiat Panda
I was diagnosed as a Fiat tragic a long time ago. I've owned Unos, Puntos and oddities like a Cinquecento Sporting and even the dreaded Multipla. I love the combination of a cheap-and-cheerful character with just enough Italian style to be interesting without crossing over into pretentiousness.
The car I am most looking forward to driving this year is the Fiat Panda. The car is here already, of course - it's just that I haven't had the pleasure yet.
You could possibly argue that a Panda Pop for $21,990 doesn't make a lot of sense when you can currently buy a Punto for $17,490. But in my strange world, a smaller, more modern Fiat easily commands a price-premium over an older, larger one.

Colin Smith - APN regional motoring editor

Ford Fiesta Sport
The very best small cars have always delivered lively performance that lets them punch above their weight. The Ford Fiesta has a sweetly sorted chassis and steering that makes it light on its feet so the baby version of the Ford EcoBoost engine family introduced in the Sport model is exactly what the Fiesta deserves. Three-cylinder enthusiasm and plenty of torque across an easily accessible rev range from the tiny 999cc EcoBoost make it responsive, efficient and full of character. The triple-treat is the most convincing case study yet for the engine down-sizing movement and the Fiesta Sport is well-suited to nipping around the city or settling into a longer journey on Kiwi highways.

Subaru WRX
A drive in a new Subaru WRX is a bit like bumping into an old friend you haven't seen for a while and immediately knowing they're getting along just fine. The key WRX ingredients of all-wheel-drive and boxer-turbo engine are as familiar as ever but the execution is more sophisticated. Direct injection moves the torque into a more accessible part of the rev range and brings improved fuel-efficiency to the equation. Other ingredients to the more refined WRX are better seats, a roomier cabin, improved finish and more equipment. It makes the WRX better value than ever before and still as accomplished as ever on the corners, bumps, camber changes and slippery sections of our more demanding roads.

LOOKING FORWARD TO: BMW 2 Series Active Tourer
BMW will launch two very interesting new cars in the next few months. There's the range-extender electric drive i3 hatchback with its carbon-intensive body construction and also on the horizon is a car that perhaps holds even more interest - the 2 Series Active Tourer. It will be BMW's first foray into front-wheel-drive cars - apart from Mini and longer-ago Rover branded products. This compact size five-seat wagon is a significant new direction for Munich.
Liz Dobson will be attending the international launch of the Active Tourer next week, so follow us on Facebook.com/drivennz for more details and first impressions.

Grant Edwards - APN Australia motoring editor

Kia Proceed GT
Supremely underrated, the Europe-sourced Kia Proceed GT is a surprise packet. Fun, athleticism and value. It punches well above its weight in terms of performance and price tag.
Those who can live with a manual and three-door configuration would struggle to find better for this coin. Powered by a 1.6-litre turbo petrol engine, the same donk we've seen in the Koup, its statistics on paper don't scream raw pace.
It takes about 7.7 seconds to reach 100km/h, but in the metal the Proceed GT feels much quicker.
On the race track it was even more fun, proving its willingness to work and embracing changes in direction with confidence and predictability. A vital component is the Michelin Pilot Sport 3 tyres, which offer great grip and are a step above what we've seen on Kias previously.
It's in the same league as the Volkswagen Golf GTI, not quite with the same polish, but it's not far off and a whole lot cheaper.
It's only available with a slick-shifting six-speed manual ... but the enthusiasts won't mind that one iota.
Those wanting an example of how Kia has turned full circle should look no further than this stout little hatchback.

Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 Sport

Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 Sport Picture / Ted Baghurst

The styling may polarise opinion, the driving experience won't. There is no doubting its AMG brethren is the top-shelf performance option, but the all-paw 250 Sport is more pleasing to the bank manager and is still an awesome steer.
Punchy, strong and linear, the 2-litre turbocharged four-cylinder is a rewarding powerplant. The key is a flat torque curve, with the 350Nm of torque seemingly always at the ready.
The front-wheel drive system is so competent that it takes plenty of work for the rear wheel power to be required. Loss of traction leads to all-wheel drive occurring in milliseconds, with up to 50 per cent of torque able to be directed down back.
Boasting a husky exhaust soundtrack and a heap of go-fast internal goodies like red-cut leather (rather than the man-made stuff), flat bottom steering wheel, racier aluminium dash finishes, red seat belts, the CLA 250 Sport is sleek, sexy and quick.

LOOKING FORWARD TO: Alfa Romeo 4C

Alfa Romeo 4C Picture / AP
Here comes the car which brings back Italian panache.
This two-seater sports car is bursting with old-school Alfa Romeo spirit. It reeks of passion and fun ... and with input from supporting automotive partners like Fiat and Chrysler, it should even hang together for the long haul.
Offerings from Alfa have been a little vanilla in recent times but the 4C is pure sports car.
It begs to be driven, and has to be one of the most stunning cars to be released this year.

Damien O'Carroll - Driven correspondent

Range Rover Sport

All models of the Sport are great, but the one I fell in love with was the Big Daddy of the range: the fire-breathing supercharged V8.
Above all else, the Range Rover Sport is luxurious and cosseting. It has all the attributes of its big brother, the Range Rover Vogue, but packs them into a sexier, more aggressive body. All models are equally impressive in this regard, but the S/C V8 also packs angry, angry performance and supercar-like throttle response. It is noisy, it is brutal, it is very anti-social and it is quite wonderful.
If you jammed a body-builder into a tuxedo and fed him steroids until the rage kicked in, then you would have an approximation of the feral anger displayed by the Sport when it accelerates. It roars and bellows in a way that offends elderly pedestrians and frightens small animals and children. It is a rolling middle-digit salute to the tree-fondling types and (probably) eats Priuses for breakfast. It is awesome, and if you don't agree with that it will happily hold you down and punch you in the throat until you do.

Skoda Citigo
While I love performance cars, there is something about tiny city cars with equally tiny engines that I also love. Maybe something is wired up wrong in my brain, but a tiny three-cylinder engine hooked up to a manual transmission stuck in something that weighs less than an empty cardboard box is just irresistible to me.
That is why I love the Skoda Citigo.
The Citigo is Skoda's version of parent company Volkswagen's Up! city car that we don't get here and features a 999cc triple with a five-speed manual transmission. There is an auto, but the manual is a large part of the Citigo's charm.
The tiny three-potter growls and snarls like all good triples should, sounding like it is propelling you to ridiculous speeds. It isn't. In fact, it is glacially slow, taking over 13 seconds to reach the open road speed limit, but the engine's bellowing enthusiasm and the Skoda's incredibly nimble chassis make it an absolute blast around town.
Even on the open road it happily keeps up with traffic and takes to a winding back road with the eagerness of a frustrated dog to an attractive leg.

LOOKING FORWARD TO:Ford Mustang

Ford Mustang. Photo / Supplied

I have loved the Mustang as long as I can remember, yet every one I have driven has been a disappointment. That is because none of them have been new, yet not old enough to be "classic" Mustangs. They were just saggy old crap-boxes with wheezy engines and bits of trim falling off. Just like any decades-old American car.
That is why I am looking forward to driving the all-new, factory-RHD model when it finally arrives. It will (hopefully) be the car that finally lives up to the dream. And just to enrage the purists, I am particularly looking forward to the 2-litre four-cylinder turbo ...

Mathieu Day - Driven motoring assistant
Mazda3
The Mazda3 has been the surprise package of the year for me. Having driven both the SP25 sedan and hatch variants, in both manual and automatic transmissions, I was pleased to find fuel economy closer to a 1.6 or 1.8 L car when cruising between the Driven office and home in southern South Auckland. But getting into the twisty corners in the back road test route showed the new Mazda3 has what it takes to be both a family car, and enable you to have a bit of fun as you cart the troops out of the big smoke. The SkyActiv engine has plenty of torque to make for overtaking if necessary, but cruising over long periods is a breeze thanks to a well appointed interior space and overall quiet cabin. The new Mazda3 is a lot of car for your money and I think will be hard to beat for overall honours for Driven Car of the Year.

Subaru WRX STI

2015 Subaru WRX STI. Photo / Ted Baghurst

I make no apologies for loving this car. I've loved blue Subarus since before I could drive. However, the WRX model line has certainly had its low points that battered my love for the World Rally blue cars. The new WRX STI however made up for the foibles of the previous model.
Subaru clearly took on the criticisms of the previous chassis and have come out with a brilliant car deserving of its heritage.
Matched with its sub $70,000 price tag and enough space inside to fit the whole family plus luggage makes it hard to beat if you're after a performer that you can also cart the family around in.

LOOKING FORWARD TO: Indian Motorcycles
While not specifically a car, the newly relaunched Indian Motorcycles (owned by the same folks Polaris who also make Victory motorcycles) are on my must ride list.
The brand has an amazing Kiwi connection with Burt Munro and the build quality for bikes that essentially had a Wirlwind development process is incredible. I would seriously park an Indian Chief in my lounge if I could get away with it.
Driven's regular bike reviewer, Jacqui Madelin, has already had a go of the whole range at the NZ launch. You can read that at nzherald.co.nz/driven

- NZ Herald

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