Weighed in the Balance – ECOTY prospects

Of course there can only be one winner…

tannistest
Lined up at Tannis Bay, Denmark. Source: ECOTY

In three weeks’ time (6 March) the cream of the world’s automotive media, and some rather anxious captains of the motor industry will crowd into a stuffy hall in Geneva to hear the results of European Car of the Year 2017. It’s much like the Eurovision Song Contest, but far more camp and partisan.

That last sentence was only put in for facetious effect.  ECOTY is a serious, rather sombre business. British readers might see the output of their motoring media as a form of light entertainment, or pornography for onanistic followers of the puerile cult of the supercar.  In mainland Europe and Scandinavia, the automotive media see their first duty as informing and advising the consumer, faced with a diverse and bewildering breadth of choices. They are no longer beguiled by inchoate technologies. Winners tend to be from the C and D sectors, because that’s where most consumers buy. To choose an unreliable, unsafe or otherwise unsatisfactory winner would be a dereliction of duty.  This earnestness is borne out by their choices of the last four years’ winners:  Astra, Passat, 308, Golf.

This year’s contest is notable for the most impressive Salon des Refusés for many years. Several new energy exponents, three Audis and three new SUVs from elsewhere in the VAG Reich went by the board, along with the new Porsche Panamera and Jaguar’s first SUV.

My selection of the more surprising non-nominations:

Audi Q2, A5, and Q5
Honda NSX
Hyundai Ioniq
Jaguar F-Pace
Kia Niro
Porsche Panamera
Tesla Model X
Toyota Mirai and Prius

And so to the nominees. Looking at those which didn’t make it to the final seven you would expect an outstanding line-up, but it isn’t. Refer to my previous comments on the earnestness of the juries; worthy, mainstream products will usually win over technological advancement, egregious luxury, or high performance.

Here’s the list; should I mention any as possible victors, take note on the road to the bookmakers that I’ve not picked a winner in many years.

giulia
Source: ECOTY

Alfa Romeo Giulia

The mid-size Alfa is back, after a shameful six year absence. FCA’s huge investment, and the media attention it has been given, suggest it will be this year’s favourite to win. However the ECOTY conclave are well capable of springing surprises. The judgement and conscience of these cardinals of the automotive media should be an interesting indication of just how good the Giulia really is.

citroen-c3
Source: ECOTY

Citroën C3

A lightly re-worked 208 with Airbumps. PSA say it’s built on the ‘A Platform’ but that’s just a new name for the ancient PF1 which originated with the 1998 Peugeot 206. I’m put in mind of the 2003 Rover Streetwise, an appealing but desperate attempt by MG Rover to step just clear of the shadow of death by widening the ageing 25’s appeal.  Linda Jackson will remember it too – she worked at MG Rover until 2004 before her irresistible rise through the Citroën ranks.

m-b-e-class
Source: ECOTY

Mercedes-Benz E Class

The W213 is massively safe and capable, and a tech and comms fan’s delight. However the engine range is carried over from preceding series while the new straight sixes are being readied, and customers will lament the lack of visual differentiation from the smaller C Class.

A Mercedes-Benz hasn’t won ECOTY since 1974, but in this field anything could happen.

datsun-micra
Source: ECOTY

Nissan Micra

Like the Citroën C3, a worthy effort, but no Car of the Year.  A Clio in a rather odd set of clothes, built beside its Renault twin in Flins, north of Paris. Quite why Nissan chose to tie the Micra’s external appearance in with the US-built Maxima and upcoming Altima, rather than their cars on sale in Europe, remains a mystery. It deserves to be far more successful than its Madras-built predecessor, but that’s hardly setting a high bar.

pew-joe-3008
Source: ECOTY

Peugeot 3008

The recent flowering of 3008 love at DTW has led me to re-think the prospects of the new CUV on the EMP2 platform. Its dreary, baggy predecessor was a different sort of vehicle, this one fulfils a Qashqai brief with some style. Despite SUV pretensions, there’s no AWD system on offer, nor a hybrid, and the present diesel-heavy engine range is no match for the 308’s impressive selection.

toyota-ch-r
Source: ECOTY

Toyota C-HR

A bold, off-the-wall, Toyota is a rare thing, and something to be applauded and admired. The Coupe-High Rider’s insect-like styling is not the only shock to the system. Toyota, by luck or judgement, have embraced the Zeitgeist by banishing diesel from the engine range, which is as idiosyncratic as the cars it powers. 4WD is only available with a 1.2 litre non-hybrid four and CVT, the 1.8 litre Prius drivetrain takes the place of the disgraced diesel – Toyota expect this one to account for 75% of European sales.

volvo-s90
Source: ECOTY

Volvo S90/V90

There’s a lot of love for Volvo among the COTY jury, going by the storming performance of the XC90 last year when it missed the top place by only 18 points, when the Opel Astra put on a late stage surge. The big Volvo is back, there’s an estate once more, the technology impresses without being overwhelming, and the styling is spot-on. Traditionalists might deplore the lack of any engine configuration other than a 1969cc in line four with forced induction, but that seems a minor grouse when Volvo under Zhejiang Geely have got so much right.

21 thoughts on “Weighed in the Balance – ECOTY prospects”

  1. The ECOTY website is a bit short of info on the voting process but this is what they say about the selection criteria:

    “What makes a Car of the Year?

    The object of Car of the Year is to find a single, decisive winner. The voting process is designed for that purpose, and not to provide a scale of merit of all competing cars. There are no categories, sub-divisions or class winners.

    Obviously this requires the Jury to assess cars of very different types and price, which means assessing them against their market rivals. The 58 members of the Car of the Year Jury all test cars as part of their journalistic work. In selecting the car of the year they use the following criteria: design, comfort, safety, economy, handling, performance, functionality, environmental requirements, driver satisfaction, and price. Technical innovation and value for money are particularly important factors.

    In the last quarter of the year, the Jury Committee draws up a list of eligible cars from all the newcomers presented over the previous 12 months. Eligible cars must be essentially new models, not simply changed cosmetically or by the installation of new engine or a transmission. They are considered irrespective of their country of origin but must be production cars available in at least five European countries at the time of voting.

    The Jury then elects a short list of seven cars in a simple vote. For the second stage, each Jury member has 25 points to apportion to at least five cars, with a maximum of 10 points for any one of them, and produces a statement of justification for the vote.”

  2. I can’t see a 3008, a Micra, a C3 or a C-HR still preserved in, say, 2032. talking about today, I also can’t see what’s new about all of them – except for design creases (the C-HR), plastic cladding (the C3). even the crossover trend (C-HR, 3008). is yesterday’s papers as of 2017.

    the S90/V90 are competent cars, but not much of a step forward from the XC90. the Giulia is a nice comeback to Alfa’s core values, it brings RWD back, the QV version seems to be great fun. but I’d cast my vote on the Mercedes, in spite of the new sixes still on the works. in my book, the new E-Class is light years ahead of the 5 series and other rivals, not to mention that you’ll likely see a W213 on the road in 2050, as a Portuguese taxi.

    1. To use the criteria that Robertas points out the less fanciful (ie less British) jury members would use, I’d certainly agree with Eduardo that the Mercedes is a strong contender. Maybe it will get one of those Oscar type votes that unfairly neglected directors and actors get at the end of their careers. But then why not the Volvo that seems to offer many of the E Class virtues but more room for less money? I saw an H-CR for the first time the other day and, like the Juke I’m glad it exists, but it’s a bit too silly to deserve an award. The 3008 marries style with usefulness though, as mentioned, those diesels are getting so passé. But, unlike the Mercedes, the Alfa is better than one might have hoped, so maybe that will swing it.

  3. Not the Alfa, because it is not the big Alfa that fulfills my expectations (especially inside) and for having cancelled the Giulia Sportwagon. Not the Mercedes because it too close to the C-Class, not the mediocre Micra, not the Kodiaq, the biggest lorry of the Tiguan-transporters. Not the 3008 because the 308 award is too fresh.
    My favourites are the Volvo, the Toyota and the Citroen, but I would choose the C3 because of the design, the focussing on comfort, the colour range and because it is the most frugal car of its class.

    1. Markus: that’s a robust argument. It’s heartening that you cite the Citroen’s colour choices and the Volvo’s essential rightness. The Toyota has a face like a troll though. I’ll investigate the C3 a bit more.
      I saw a 2011 Insignia today with red metallic paint and a beige interior. It made me think: did Ford or Mazda, Citroen or Renault offer a light warm interior that year?

    2. The abandonment of the Giulia wagon is indeed a shocker. It was supposed to have been launched at Geneva three weeks from today. Even allowing for the customary 6-9 months from premiere to production, it suggests a significant abortive cost, not just in design and development, but also in tooling.

      Is the grand Alfa project running out of money, or have Sergio and Big Reidland just lost control?

    3. Serge & Big Reid in a classic piece of fag-packet management appear to have belatedly – (very belatedly by the sounds of things) arrived at a similar conclusion to that of Speth & Co at JLR when it comes to the viability of compact estates.

      I would imagine though there will be repercussions for the supplier base as well. One can only feel sympathy for the likes of them and indeed anyone else that had been embroiled. That’s rather late in the process to have the tap switched off.

    4. I’d overlooked the Citroen (probably due to stubborn prejudice) but it’s a reasonable point Markus. It’s certainly by far the most improved new model of the lot.

    1. Seems they don’t want to sell the Giulia in Switzerland and Germany. I doubt that Alfa fans will go for the Stelvio instead if they are looking for a sporty, yet practical car.

      I’d have immense trouble to choose one of the cars presented here as a “COTY”. There’s nothing that shows any fresh ideas. I tend to end with the same selection as Markus, but probably favour the Volvo. I’m not fully bought on the C3 yet (maybe I’ll have to drive one, I wonder if this would make it better or worse in my perception). And the Toyota… it’s a very strange thing. I haven’t made up my mind yet if I should rather find it disgusting or likeable. Much better than a Nissan Juke, anyway.

    2. That story is typical Marchionne-era Fiat, but for a slightly different reason than it initially appears.

      The Giulia Sportwagon was effectively axed quite some time ago – certainly in advance of Bigland’s interview with Autocar. Sometimes, I wonder where the likes of Kellyanne Conway learnt her trade and then I figure that in a previous life she must have been a spin merchant for Marchionne. His investor PowerPoints are the original manifestation of absolutely brazen ‘alternative facts’. The real problem is when these guys start believing their own bollocks. I am tempted to say that is why Bigland said what he did, even if the real explanation is doubtless far more prosaic and FCA-typical. That explanation is that they maintain the lies with a straight face, until they can be plausibly buried with a look-over-there distraction (iin this case, the Stelvio launch and supposed Sprint coupe for Geneva).

  4. It’s a dreadful shame they’ve knocked the wagon on the head. Just about every Alfa ever offered in that form looked all the better for it. I suppose they’re banking on Stelvio to absorb at least some of those customers. Nice to see that the lower-spec Giulia still looks very sharp indeed, as it’ll be the only one I can afford. In seven years. Used.

  5. Simon: that’s another shocket, that the Giulia (do I understand correctly?) won’t be sold in Germany or Switzerland? Have I misunderstood something? Germany is a not insignificant market and ditto the Helvetian region: they like their Italian cars, so I supposed.

    1. No, the Giulia is actually sold here and in Germany. But looking at how many 159 estates we see here (the same also goes for BMW 3-series or Audi A4, nearly unknown as a saloon), it seems like a big mistake not to offer this option on the Giulia.

  6. I recently read Fiat Alfa Romeo wanted (or still wants) to sell 100000 Giulias every year. What a wonderful and utopian plan !
    My forecast : 30000 with a lot of luck in the first complete year (because the italian market is stable) and than it will soon become a number with four digits… The Giulia will never reach the sales of the Alfa 159 (which was not offered in the US).

    I suggest, Milano sees its sales (especially in the US) too and did not want to built another version of this bad selling car. Understandable, but it is sad not to have a more beautiful car from italy in this class. And probably they are right, the Stelvio will be much more attraktive for the Yankees.
    http://carsalesbase.com/us-car-sales-data/alfa-romeo/alfa-romeo-giulia/

    I just saw only one Giulia – in red. Looks like a modern Maserati Biturbo to my eyes.

  7. Does anyone here think the XE and Giulia will be eclipsed by their CUV relatives? Regrettable as it may seem to be, the CUVs will probably take the sales the estates might have achieved.

    1. I think those are two different issues. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the SUVs outsell the sedans, no. Probably, a significant proportion will be customers who might otherwise have bought the estate. But the thing is, history shows that such a penny-wise-pound-foolish approach is a shortcut to irrelevance in the contemporary mass-scale auto biz. The story of every major player today is one of market saturation in the interests of customer retention, rather than an almost entirely ad-hoc model strategy based on gaming margins. Marchionne does this because, I suppose, he feels he has no choice, since Fiat is fundamentally weak and has sod-all money for capital investment compared to pretty much every rival. But in some ways, carmaking is actually less like other consumer good industries than it is like television. The secret to success for a mainstream network was traditionally not to focus exclusively on high-rating (in this analogy, high-margin) shows, but to make sure that you covered as many niches as you could, from high-brow to low – the idea being that truly successful mass-market penetration was contingent on success in appealing to many small niches as much as it was on popular hits. Let’s say that between the Giulia and Stelvio, you hoover up around 80% of the demand that would have otherwise gone to a Giulia SW. Perhaps the raw numbers show that not spending the extra development cost is wise, purely in terms of short-run ROI. But what they don’t show is the cost of not accumulating that extra 20% of market share, of potentially gaining customers over the long-run, and of taking share away from your competitors – all of which FCA could do with. Not to mention that cutting and running from any segment as soon as the margins drop off makes them incredibly cyclically vulnerable and is really stupid from any perspective that ranks customer retention amongst its top 50 priorities.

  8. Stradale: the VAG appproach is a model that fits your theory. They have covered the market with oaktrees like the Golf and Passat and mulch, the remarkable plethora of marginal models and badge-engineered variants. They exist to destroy the margins of the smaller firms with smaller model ranges and smaller options lists.
    I’ve long said the path to success involves the biggest engine range, the biggest range of bodystyles and the biggest spread of trim levels.
    Jaguar, look out. They need to borrow money and make a two-door, an estate and and an all-road and put five engines in on the options list of each one.
    Ditto Alfa.

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