2017 Wheels Car of the Year: The early contenders

Ford Mustang

Your form guide to some of the early standouts for the 2017 Wheels Car of the Year award.

ACCOUNTANTS everywhere are starting to scratch a line under the 2015-16 financial year, the days are growing longer and spring will soon be upon us. But it’s also another very important time of the year for a different reason: Testing season for the 2017 Wheels Car of the Year is almost upon us.

Okay, so six months in, we have a bit of an idea of the metal set to duke it out for the longest continually running motoring award in the world, won this year by the fourth-generation Mazda MX-5. Next year marks the 54th running of Wheels COTY.

Here’s the shiny new metal that has caught our attention so far, and some that are yet to arrive

Audi A4/S4

Audi -A4-driving -frontThe ninth generation A4 arrived with a long list of boxes to tick, and we’ve just about run out of ink checking them. Audi is traditionally known for quality, design and driving ease, and this all comes to the fore.

It’s easy to dismiss the latest Audi A4 as a lightly reworked version of the previous generation sedan. But beneath what is a disappointingly familiar skin lies a lighter and stronger car, with a knockout cabin, much improved dynamics, and a level of safety and security to worry the Swedes. The formula may be much the same as what’s come previously, but the real advances are obvious the moment you step inside and push the start button. A less forgiving ride is one of the few downsides in what is a very real threat to the BMW 3 Series and something good enough to rattle the Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

PLUS: Stunning cabin design, improved dynamics, punchy powertrains, refinement, safety
MINUS: Samey exterior design, firm ride without adaptive dampers, some trim rattles


BMW-M2-front -sideSuperlatives have been sprayed at this car from all around the world, and with good reason. It’s a return to everything we used to love about M cars, before they got a bit bloated and overly technical, and the price is not too absurd to be tempting. The BMW M2 is a seriously fun car.

PLUS: Looks tough, but not absurd; performance; engine sound; handling and balance; the perfect size for a sporty coupe; still got six cylinders; a proper M car. It also hits a dynamic sweet-spot the current M4 couldn’t quite find.
MINUS: Road noise; back seats not great for adults; interior not quite special enough.

Ford Mustang

Ford -Mustang -front -sideYou’ll struggle to buy one at the moment because this iconic bit of US muscle car is proving so popular; we’ve already wiped out our allocation of cars for the next year. Ford Australia has had to play around with Mustang’s prices just to convince Detroit that we were deserving of more. That the Ford Mustang coupe and convertible helped push Ford above Holden in the monthly sales race for the first time since new Wheels staffer Cameron Kirby first put on long pants is telling.

We’re liking Mustang: This is a genuine sports coupe with a good mix of retro-cool design and modern amenity. The 2.3-litre four-pot may have half the cylinder count of the brawling 5.0-litre V8, but in visual terms you don’t miss much.

PLUS: Knockout styling; generous grip; fine dynamics; sane pricing
MINUS: Very firm ride, convertible not ultra-rigid, both engines need to be louder

Honda Civic

Honda -Civic -front -sideIt’s the chassis that really shows Honda’s head – and heart – is back in the right place. The Civic’s ride, which has a strut front end and a five-link rear, is class-leading. It’s compliant, yet never crashy and maintains suppleness even on rough roads, over brutal surface changes and allows the Civic to track straight and true. It’s teamed with body control with almost no acceleration squat, little nose dive when using the brilliant, firm brake pedal, and well-managed roll on longer corners and super-tight turns. That’s in part due to more extensive use of high-tensile steel, with the Civic’s body 25 percent more rigid than its predecessor. With excellent, fluid electric steering, the Civic is truly fun to drive at speed, yet also refined and well-mannered around town.

Honda appears to have turned out a seriously accomplished, convincing sedan. Dare we say it may have rediscovered its missing mojo?

PLUS: Composed ride and handling; spacious; good comfort behind the wheel
MINUS: Price a bit high compared with rivals; engine can get a bit vocal high in the range

Jaguar XF

Jaguar -XF-front -sideJaguar set out to ruffle the feathers of its more popular German rivals with the new XF, and it's nailed it. Handsome, roomy and luxurious, the XF ticks all the big luxury sedan boxes, but its killer blows are a well-balanced chassis, overarching dynamic prowess and well-controlled ride. Who said you can't have your cake and eat it too?​

The XF’s cabin is a much more convincing place to sit than the smaller XE’s thanks to a cleaner design and more logical layout. It’s roomy too – especially in the rear seat – with the XF’s lightweight undies allowing Jag’s boffins to provide 15mm more legroom and 27mm more headroom than before.

What’s lacking is the same level of tech wizardry and autonomous systems featured on rivals. Jaguar admits it’s a step behind here.

PLUS: Balanced, engaging handling; ride quality; oodles of rear space; sweet 2.0-litre diesel
MINUS: Lacks class-leading tech; interior good rather than great; expensive options

Mercedes-Benz C-Class Coupe

Mercedes -Benz -C-Class -CoupeThe Mercedes-Benz C-Class Coupe’s front seats sit 14mm lower than those in the sedan, and it makes a noticeable difference, combined with higher window sills to create a more cocooned feel. Other Coupe changes include standard AMG-spec suspension and a quicker steering rack. Visually, apart from the coupe roofline, it’s all about the “diamond grille”.

As with the C-Class sedan, the C-Class Coupe is a polished performer and one that brings added driving nous thanks to AMG suspension. Still, it’s more about cruising in style with the C200 and C250d, although the C300 livens things up thanks to its rortier engine.

And then there’s the Mercedes-AMG C63 Coupe...

PLUS: Sharp pricing and decent equipment; rorty 2.0 turbo for C300; ride on Airmatic suspension; sleek design
MINUS: Steering not as sharp as other dynamic aspects; C200 and C250d drivetrains aren’t particularly sporty; it’s a decent step up to C300.

Mercedes-Benz C-Class Cabriolet

Mercedes -Benz -C-Class -CabrioletThere’s no denying the Cabriolet mounts a fairly convincing case. The body structure is strong, the styling attractive and no variant feels like an overly compromised or spoiled version of the Coupe. This is the first time Merc has offered a cabriolet version of its venerable C-Class. The CLK plugged the gap for a while, but no ragtop before this has worn a dedicated C badge.

Like the Coupe on which it’s based, Mercedes is positioning the Cabriolet as a sportier option for younger buyers, with all versions offered with the AMG line as standard in Australia, which brings bigger wheels and a more aggressive body kit.  We also score a thicker ‘acoustic’ version of the cloth roof, which can be opened or closed in 20 seconds at up to 50km/h.

Four variants are coming to Australia, two tweaked by the boffins at AMG.

The rag-top Mercedes-Benz C-Class manages to avoid most of the usual convertible pitfalls. Its handling is composed, engines are strong and in the beauty stakes, it easily outshines its German competition.

PLUS: styling; performance and sound of AMGs; body strength
MINUS: Extra weight dulls handling; price premium over coupe; boot space

Mini Clubman

Mini -Clubman -top -sideThe new Clubman is a vast improvement that now has the space, packaging and driver appeal to steal a swag of sales.  It feels more grown up; like the Mini family's older, more mature sibling.

All the usual Mini character traits are there. The steering is sharp and the front axle quick to turn in. And while the Clubman isn't quite as frenetic or responsive as the Mini five and three-door hatches, its longer wheelbase gives it a more planted feel when pushed hard.

Bigger, better packaged and more practical than before, the new Mini Clubman is a much more convincing ownership proposition. And importantly, one that still handles like a go-kart.

PLUS: Quirky styling; improved packaging; spacious interior; zingy engines; still handles like a go-kart
MINUS: Firm ride; artificial steering; interior lacks the polish of German rivals

Skoda Superb

Skoda -Superb -front -sideIf punters aren’t won over by the new-gen Skoda Superb’s palatial interior space and reasonably trim sticker price, then maybe its exceedingly handsome styling will do the trick.

Given the visual awkwardness of the old Superb sedan, Skoda has performed a miraculous turnaround in making the new sedan the looker of the range, complete with a neat liftback tailgate, a ginormous 625 litres of boot space and an Octavia RS engine, all for 40 grand. More dynamic panache would be appreciated but at least the grippy 4x4 variant gives the Skoda Superb a genuine point of difference over its relatively conservative rivals.

PLUS: Beautifully proportioned styling; unbeatable space; excellent quality; sweet turbo-petrols; refinement; ride; solidity
MINUS: Not as dynamically poised as a Passat; adaptive dampers only available as part of a pricey options pack; 206kW turbo-petrol deserves a fruitier exhaust note

And what’s yet to come?

Ford Focus RS

Ford -Focus -RS-front -sideThe brilliant new Focus RS is a delight to drive, combining a truly terrific chassis with a fiercely effective drivetrain. It’s a bargain-priced challenger that’s worthy of comparison with notionally superior and much more expensive cars. Launches in mid-July.

PLUS: Engine; steering; brakes; grip; handling; price
MINUS: Interior; thirst when performance exploited; turning circle

Jaguar F-Pace

Jaguar -F-PaceInteresting enough to stand out from the crowd and roomy enough to genuinely succeed as a family truckster, the F-Pace is an impressive all-rounder with the polish you’d expect from an SUV as crucial as this is for Jaguar. A Porsche Macan might be sportier, but the F-Pace is far from short-changed in that department. And thanks to the strength of its drivetrains and the breadth of its dynamic finesse – garnished with plenty of F-Type in its styling – there’s a strong chance the F-Pace will become Jaguar’s best-seller.

PLUS: Individual styling; fluid handling and steering; comfortable and roomy; Jaguar’s most accomplished interior design in recent times; performance and exhaust rasp of supercharged V6 S; refinement
MINUS: Front headrests block view from rear seat; form-over-function transmission dial; Portfolio’s dated alloys; some erroneous cabin trims; Macan remains the SUV handling king

Mazda CX-9

Mazda -CX-9We get to drive this in Australia next week. We’ve driven it in prototype form, where it impressed by being more refined, much more fuel efficient and more convincing, with strong detailing, fit and finish. It’s a more opulent, accomplished seven-seater than before.

PLUS: Smarter look, vastly improved efficiency yet superior drivability; more safety gear and rear passenger space, excellent cabin refinement
MINUS: Sorry kids, no third-row air-con vents; boot packaging compromise by lower roof; no diesel engine option will limit appeal

Mercedes-Benz E-Class

Mercedes -E-ClassMove over S-Class, Mercedes-Benz has a new technology flagship. This 10th-generation E-Class is not only more comfortable, better looking and better to drive, but sets new benchmarks for semi-autonomous tech. Due late this year.

PLUS:  Raises the bar with cutting-edge tech; luxurious interior; oodles of standard equipment; pleasing road manners
MINUS: Oz not getting some tech; wind noise; more expensive

Renault Megane

Renault -Megane -frontRenault has delivered a more fully-formed Megane package with remarkable composure and stability. It may prove a real challenger when it arrives in local spec in September.

PLUS: road holding, chassis, engine performance
MINUS: cabin lacks premium finishes, synthetic engine noises

Volvo S90

Volvo -S90-sideWe’ve not experienced the new S90 yet, but the BMW 5-Series rival will become the flagship sedan from Sweden when it arrives; potentially late this year and in time to make the Wheels COTY cut-off.

Sign up here to receive the latest round-up of Wheels news, reviews and video highlights straight to your inbox each week.

Want free access to 5 years of Wheels archive content? Sign up now!