Car of the Year 2021. A Bleak Reflection

Another year, another car of the year contest. Try to care. 

(c) Haymarket Publishing

Who would be be a European Car of the Year Juror? This time round there was not even the customary Danish beach jamboree last October to reward their earnest efforts. There will however be the usual accusations of national partisanism, bias towards those manufacturers who take the contest seriously, and the favouring of worthy mediocrity over inspired design and true innovation.

Following the jury’s deliberations, a long list of 29 has been distilled down to the customary seven. The 2021 hopefuls are a curious collection, diverse but somehow dispiriting if taken as a a mirror of what the industry is thinking.

The announcement of the winner will be made on 1 March, somewhere in virtual Europe.

The shortlist, let us remind ourselves, comprises:

    1.  Citroën C4
    2.  Cupra Formentor
    3.  Fiat New 500
    4.  Land Rover Defender
    5.  Škoda Octavia
    6. Toyota Yaris
    7.  Volkswagen ID.3

The Golf Mk 8 doesn’t make the shortlist. Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz had the A3, 2 Series Gran’s Coupe. 4 Series, GLA, GLB, GLS and S Class, but none feature in the final reckoning. The Honda e misses out, likewise the Toyota Mirai, Polestar 2 and the Dacia Sandero.

Image: Citroën media

Citroën C4

A generously-sized C segment coupé suv, although Citroën would prefer us to believe that they have reinvented the compact hatch. The new C4 is based on the EMP1 platform, so a proper battery EV is in the line-up, and test reports suggest it’s the pick of the range. Petrol engines are all from the ubiquitous family of 1.2 litre PureTech triples, with four outputs in a range from 100bhp to 155bhp. The dreaded diesel is still offered, a 1.5 litre BlueHDi with either 110 bhp or 130 bhp.

After the C4’s grimly bland 2010–2018 [1] predecessor, the new Citroën’s bold styling statement has to be welcomed. It’s no GS or BX de nos jours, but it stands out as a Citroën should, and the front end design’s masterly hommage to Flaminio Bertoni’s 1964 Belphégor deserves particular praise.

[1] So bad they just gave up producing it two years before the successor was ready.

Image: Cupra Media

Cupra Formentor

Billboard adverts have been appearing all over my neighbourhood for the Cupra Formentor. No mention of SEAT, nor even VAG. Those with no interest in the automotive world probably imagined it was a piece of marketeers’ surrealism, a European Canyonero, an imaginary pumped-up cartoonish suv with a name like a recondite anagram or a piece of brewing apparatus, which will eventually be revealed as part of a campaign for something not car-related at all.

For those in the know, the Formentor makes a fair case for itself. It’s very close to the C4 in size, but around 25mm less tall. Visual presentation, particularly lighting trickery, is far more beguiling than the generality of generic VAG crossovers.

The Formentor’s platform is the 2019-on MQB Evo, with the diverse suspension and driveline options exercised according to the level of motive force they are called upon to manage. The most heavily promoted engines come from the hotter end of VAG’s 2.0 four cylinder range, but a 1.5 litre TSi is also offered at around £26K in the UK, to keep prices from being too daunting. The top-end 4WD 310PS Formentors are uncomfortably close to Macan territory.

There’s a dichotomy here, a vehicle presented as a niche product which turns out to have broad appeal and costs no more than far less alluring mainstream competitors.

(c) topgear

Fiat New 500

What can I say? If FCA had brought their 2019 Concept Centoventi to production last year, it would have wiped the floor at CotY 2021. The electric-only New 500 is only a reminder of the contraction of Brand Fiat in the Marchionne era.

Image: Land Rover Media

Land Rover Defender

Perhaps the surprise is that the Defender made it to the shortlist at all. At odds with the Zeitgeist, surely? Could it be down to the jury demographic? Were they among those won over at the launch in Namibia which coincided with the Geneva Salon which never happened last March?

Super-mobility may be the Defender’s saving grace. Just how good is it as a rescue/ exploration/ security/ aid vehicle?

A divisive entrant to the shortlist; let’s see how the jury decide.

Image: Skoda Media

Škoda Octavia

In its fourth VAG-era iteration, with no dramatic changes to the winning formula. A plug-in hybrid option features, to the surprise of absolutely nobody. It could do well with the jury as a sound and competent consumer recommendation.

Image: Media Toyota

Toyota Yaris

This could be the dark horse of the bunch, repeating the success of the first of its line in 2000. British observers might underestimate the French-built Yaris’s significance. Coverage has majored on the GR Yaris homologation special, and the only UK drivetrain option is the 1.5 litre hybrid, a rather slow car with a £20K starting price.

Elsewhere in Europe, even in RHD Ireland, there’s a broader range, starting with the 1KR-FE 1.0 litre triple first seen in 2004. Best avoided, but the non-hybrid 122bhp M15A-FKS sounds an interesting proposition – a triple based on the 2.0 litre Dynamic Force four. Very undersquare and naturally aspirated, so no turbocharger to swallow.

Visually the car is more inspired and playful than its dreary predecessor, and thankfully the saltire facia is consigned to the past.

(c) Autocar

Volkswagen ID.3

First presented at the September 2016 Paris Motor Show, the ID.3 was to be shamed VAG’s act of atonement for the world, a €20,000 Golf-sized EV with world beating range and performance figures.

Move on four years – a full Japanese or Korean model cycle – and it looks dated and dreary, a baggy and slab-sided car which tries – and fails – to disguise its height rather than dramatising it.

The ID.3’s price has risen considerably – in the UK about £30K after a government grant. Many others have achieved better headline performance figures for the same sort of money. More tellingly, just about everybody – including the ID.3’s MEB platform-sharing VAG stablemates – has presented the results with far more flair,

33 thoughts on “Car of the Year 2021. A Bleak Reflection”

  1. Oh the new Citroën C4, what a change from the painfully boring previous version, but I think they overcompensated! The other day I briefly saw a new C4 on the motorway and it confirmed my feelings from seeing the launch and road test photos. To me it’s a busy, almost disjointed design, with an excessive amount of “surfacing”. I blame the current 3D design tools that apparently make it extremely easy to add features, creases, bulges, etc. to every available body panel on the car. Still, I applaud the C4’s new boldness and, who knows, maybe once I see it up close and in detail I’ll get used to its loudness and perhaps even appreciate its details, I might even like it, but pretty I don’t think it will ever be to me.

    As for the Golf Mk. 8, I think the ID.3 made it irrelevant. Compare the amount of internet presence the Golf had at launch with that of the ID.3. It used to be until now that VW pivoted around the Golf, that is, the Golf was in spirit as well as in design, the reference for the rest of the brand. Every VW model was in essence a smaller Golf, a larger Golf, a sleeker Golf, and a taller, SUV-ish Golf. I have a feeling all that will shift towards the ID.3.

    As for the New 500, I agree about the Centoventi. As much as I love the 500, both current and new, the Centoventi is a much needed breath of fresh air. Still, I can’t wait to go to my local Fiat place (Covid restrictions permitting) and check out the New 500 up close.

    1. Having reminded myself of the outgoing and new C4, I have to say, neither work and for the same reason. They lack clarity. Evidently, busy-ness is the new design fashion, an echo of the late 1950s.

  2. The comparison with the late 1950s is an interesting one. As now, there was one dominant market, and a shared – but not necessary correct – expectation of what would sell well therein.

  3. The ID3 will win the prize of course. It’s not a bad effort, although it sounds rather insipid to drive. But VW’s third era is upon us, and the signs are that they will make a success of it.

  4. I think I’ll stab myself if the C4 is declared ECotY. Or become a monk.

    I suspect the ID3 will win, with the 500e and Yaris taking the other podium places. Not that any of them are really worthy.

    The best choice in terms of all round car for money is probably the Octavia, even though I prefer the previous car for it’s more honest styling and proper HVAC controls.

    Lord knows how the Defender made the short-list, and it’s amusing that there is no S-class (or any other MB car), and that the Golf 8 is absent when the Octavia made it.

    Overall, an odd and poor bunch.

  5. Considering the hours of analysis and deliberation which must have gone into the creation of this shortlist, passing personal comment on it seems shallow to the point of flippancy. Not that it stops me – so:

    C4 – ugly
    Cupra Formentor (ridiculous name) – ugly
    New 500 – new? At least it isn’t ugly.
    Land Rover Defender – I actually like this, much to my surprise. My neighbour has one in a fetching shade of smoked olive.
    Skoda Octavia – at least this is recognisably a car as I understand one.
    Toyota Yaris – not quite as ugly as the first two but still leaves me cold.
    ID.3 – not ugly. In fact rather good looking. But unaffordable.

    Thank goodness I won’t be looking for a new car this year.

  6. Good morning Robertas. A good summary of the COTY finalists and they are, as you say, a bit dispiriting. There’s nothing awful on the shortlist, but equally little to inspire.

    The ID.3 is by far the most commercially significant, so may well win on that basis. The C4 may be a bit overstyled, but it’s still better than the awful DS4 and makes it look look even more superfluous. The Octavia is just more of the same, if a bit better, ditto the Yaris. The Defender is an expensive parody of the original that will never see service on a Yorkshire hill farm, the Australian outback or in deepest Africa.

    A new S-Class that doesn’t make the shortlist? That would have been unthinkable in the 20th Century. It’s far less of an event these days, given the unruly proliferation of alphabet soup models from Mercedes-Benz.

    I for one won’t be holding my breath for the result.

  7. I think the ID.3 will win. I’ve seen a couple on the road by now. Tall, slab-sided and utilitarian to my eyes. .Harry’s Garage did a good review of one on YouTube. The software for the entire centre screen systems locked up whilst he was driving and he couldn’t reboot it until he got home again. I presume that meant he couldn’t even operate the HVAC controls. Unforgivable in my book. No thanks.

  8. I would bet on the Cupra Formentor als last position, ID.3 will be the winner, C4 second place, New 500 3rd.
    It is a really boring pool of candidates.

  9. Pretty sure the ID.3 will win, dull as it is.
    And the software is even worse then you’d think – here i Norway, VW sent out a message to all owners, warning them not to use the automatic climate control below -10 degreees, as it would occasionally go haywire, completely fogging up and freezing the windscreen in seconds!

  10. A strange group – boringly diverse.

    I guess the ID.3 will win. They say it’s the third people’s car, but it’s twice as expensive as any mainstream Beetle or Golf model in their day. I don’t get it.

    The Defender is very, very capable, dynamically. Whether I’d trust it not to break down hundreds of miles from anywhere, is another matter. Actually, no it’s not – I wouldn’t.

    Here’s an advert showing its capabilities, narrated by a man with an excessively chunky watch.

    1. The Fast Lane Youtube channel is on their third. The first one had a CEL on its’ first off-road run, a dirt road in the
      Rockies that most cars could handle, and was replaced by Land Rover with under 200 miles on it; the second they never got to drive because the dealer cut into the wiring harness during the winch install. #3 has been OK except for the occasional CEL or other error code that clears with switching off and then on again.

  11. Try to care? I’m trying not to cry.

    I’m genuinely surprised that the most appealing (to me) design here is the ID.3; a car that, at best, is visually innocuous. This says a lot about the current market.

  12. I’d vote for the Octavia.

    Somebody (Carscoops, I suppose) said the Octavia was the poor man’s Audi A4 but I’d say it is the simply clever man’s Audi A4.

    Cleanly designed, sober and practical as a boxy Volvo, and I like its Scout version a lot, too.

    Aside from the climate controls being moved to the multimedia screen, I can’t see a single flaw in it. Other than this detail, Skoda is just a pair of really comfortable front seats away from making the perfect family car.

    1. Agreed – some of the Škodas now seem to have better interiors – better design and materials – than Volkswagens.

      Also, ‘…the [C4’s] front end design’s masterly hommage to Flaminio Bertoni’s 1964 Belphégor deserves particular praise.’ Only at DTW.

      Looking again at the nominees list, surely there are some worthy / preferable candidates there? The BMW 4 Series is meant to be great to drive, whatever one thinks of its looks. Surely the Honda e offers something new and different, although I admit it’s expensive. What about the Jazz? The Hyundai Tucson looks interesting, at least.

    2. Hi Charles, Jazz would have been a perfect winner, in my opinion it is definetely more interesting than the Yaris.

  13. Let’s see:

    The Citroën C4: aesthetically challenged.
    The Cupra: It’s already fermented. Not good for a car.
    Fiat New 500: More of the same. Looks quite nice.
    Land Rover Defender: Mostly a good effort. Front and back could be more coherently designed though.
    Škoda Octavia: It’s a car. Probably a very sensible choice.
    Toyota Yaris: Like so many contemporary vehicles it’s over-styled, but not the worst offender.
    Volkswagen ID.3: To my eyes the Golf VIII is better looking and a lot cheaper.

    My guess is the ID.3 will win. It’s a very important car for Volkswagen and if recent sales numbers are an indication of its succes for the COTY award (1 out of 7 cars sold in the Netherlands in december 2020 was an ID.3) the award is in the bag. Almost all of these will be company cars, as electric vehicles are very favorably taxed for the user.

  14. If DTW had a COTY, it wouldn’t necessarily be bound by the same rules as ECOTY.

    I’d nominate the Gordon Murray T.50. All the other hypercars leave me cold, even the Koenigseggs and Rimacs that are technically fascinating.

  15. It’s not too late to remind everyone of what we could have had. There are some better offerings in the Salon des Refusés:

    1. Audi A3
    2. BMW 2 Series Gran Coupé
    3. BMW 4-series
    6. Dacia Sandero
    8. Ford Explorer
    9. Ford Kuga
    10. Honda e
    11. Honda Jazz
    12. Hyundai i10
    13. Hyundai i20
    14. Hyundai Tucson
    15. Kia Sorento
    17. Mazda MX-30
    18. Mercedes-Benz GLA
    19. Mercedes-Benz GLB
    20. Mercedes-Benz GLS
    21. Mercedes-Benz S-Class
    22. Peugeot 2008
    23. Polestar 2
    24. Seat Leon
    28. Volkswagen Golf

    The Honda e could have brought some surprise and delight in a dreadful year.

    I haven’t been let loose on the latest Sandero yet, but early reports suggest it’s a major advance on the outgoing model for a very modest price increase. The safety features list is particularly impressive, for a car half the price of an entry-level supermini from the market-leading brands. Unless he’s pathologically averse to the tawdry contest, Luca de Meo will be asking hard questions as to why Groupe Renault have noting on the shortlist.

  16. The comments on the ID.3 perplex me. Plenty of you think it will win, nobody seems to find it particularly admirable or desirable.

    The software / user interface problems have been widely reported and are not trivial matters. They should not happen in the case of a make or break product from one of the world’s largest and most prolific carmakers.

    The Nissan Leaf didn’t have such embarrassments when it arrived a decade ago, and I’d like to think the likes of Aiways, BYD, Nio or Xpeng don’t either. It’s a sign that established carmakers who speak of reinventing themselves as technology companies and mobility providers will continue to be weighed down by traditional mindsets.

  17. Another non-event . Automotive Eurovision.

    Richard, I agree with the busy-ness thing.

    Style over substance, motivated by different mindsets.

    The immediate post war period in America was a time of great optimism. Axis powers vanquished, check. Booming economy, check. Colours were Ektachrome friendly, Dagmars were as prominent on cars as the projectiles on their namesake, rock & roll was rocking and cars were designed for the Jet Age. The Cadillac Cyclone and the Pontiac Firebird dream cars were big hits on the Parade of Progress and Styling was King. GM arguably ruled the roost, although Ford’s T-Bird was hinting at a seismic change to come. A distant clatter of hooves..

    Cars for heroes.

    Cut to 2021. Hurricane Greta has fanned the embers of understanding that the way we move must evolve, COVID has seen enthusiasts forced to regulate the use of their objects of desire. More than ever, since the Red Flag Act, driving is a political act.

    The COTY shortlist is depressing. It is almost as if the industry wants to alienate potential clients by producing vehicles that stigmatise the driver.

    The Cupra Formentor sounds almost Tolkien-esque, a creature from Nether Earth.

    The C4 is currently being hawked on French tv with an ad that opens with shots of a GS working its magic. Back to the present, and being « different » has replaced being better..

    I want to like the Defender, but for all its worthiness it’s price puts me in mind of gold-plated screwdrivers. They do the job, but why pay the extra? Green-laning is as popular as hunting foxes in the New Countryside. (the same as the old one, but no one can afford the houses..)

    The others are beige goods, so much background noise.

    The exception is the Fiat, still cute, despite being everything but innovative. That the latest variation comes with batteries will guarantee its presence on our streets for some time to come.

    Perhaps we deserve them. We continue to consume, so the product must be right. Cars reflect the times, and most of current crop are as angry looking as Samurai masks. Cars that threaten, that intimidate are the polar opposite of what is needed if cars are to remain acceptable.

    The Centoventi should be the future for Fiat, and it would be a good thing, That à pollution problem robbed us of the Jimny is truly sad, it was the best 4×4 for a long time. One to electrify? Honda teased us with the Sports EV Concept. A non-aggressive sports car at last? Alas, it was not to be.

    The survival of individual mobility depends on intelligent product. COTY would be worth winning.

  18. I like the Centoventi too, assuming they remove the floor mats from the fenders. 😉

    But in terms of teasing with concepts, Mazda really ought to stop ripping our hearts out.

    (No, this is not the new Jaguar XJ!)

  19. A jury member explained once that the eCOTY usually boils down to a battle of North and South – Germans, Scandinavians and the British prefer technologically advanced cars (Nissan Leaf, Peugeot 3008, Jaguar I-Pace), while those in the Mediterranean tend to vote for more affordable products (Renault Clio, VW Polo, Peugeot 208). The obvious choice for the North is definitely the ID.3, while the French, Spanish and Italian jury members will likely choose the Yaris. The Škoda Octavia may appear as some sort of common ground on many voting lists, but it’d be surprising (although positively) if it could surpass the other two.

  20. Have to agree with most of the comments here – the Yaris and the Skoda are the only cars on the list that really matter, and the Hyundai Tuscon should be on the list because they are going to be everywhere in a few months ( best selling ‘car’ in Ireland – after the Corolla ). And I love the Defender being compared to a gold-plated screwdriver !

  21. The 500 might just win over enough jurors, as a more affordable battery-electric than many. Shame that the jolly colours of the Tychy-500 appear to have been dropped for the new car (UK at least)- it’s a similar range to that currently offered on the Ypsilon.

    On the long-list, the Ford Explorer was a surprise; it had passed me by that it is heading to Europe (not UK). It’s actually restrained by the standards of many of its rivals; I prefer it over the Kuga, at least by appearance. Also in the long-list, but missed by Robertas, was the hydrogen-cell Toyota Mirai.

    For those interested in how each country and juror voted, the grid will be available on https://www.caroftheyear.org/index.php at some point once the winner is announced.

    1. Robin – you might be right about Cupra. I only know it as a type of Seat. That said, as years go by I wonder about whether one can justifiably ask if a car is pointless or not but this applies only to car journalists and not ordinary citizens such as you or I. Assuming a car goes from a to b safely like any other car, it´s not pointless. Car magazine (which is the only magazine I read) liked to tag cars as pointless which struck me as just a way of making the fact they didn´t need one into a general criticism. I don´t think they were in a position to judge something knowable only to the market in advance. If one is disallow pointless cars, is this absolute or a sliding scale? To some extent all cars have a bit of pointlessness built into them, from some viewpoint. This makes me sound like a lawless relativist. I´m not -it´s that I want some statements of fact (about economy, handling, comfort etc) and perhaps some analysis of aesthethics. What I don´t want is a journalist second guessing the market. I am still bitter about all those nice V6 saloons of the 90s that Car summed up as pointless (while on the same pages lauding V6s in similar-sized cars from prestigier brands). And the Ford Fusion. They called that pointless too. If company X wants to launch a car that is not markedly different but not markedly worse than any other, that´s up to them and customers to decide upon.

  22. A collection of banalities intended for banalities.

    Who would actually spend their own money on one of these (let alone be seen in one)?

  23. Richard

    Re “pointless”
    Applied when unsatisfied with the magnitude of advertising revenue streams (and other income, perks etc.) obtained from automobile manufacturers (whose products then have label “pointless” applied).

    Re Car Magazine
    A rag which has not been worth the cost of purchase for a very, very long time. It isn’t worth the bother to lift a copy from the coffee table in a dentist’s waiting room these days, let alone read it. Mostly puerile drivel, shallow and often wrong. Save your money (and your time).

  24. Well, the results are in and, thank goodness, I shall not be in need of a knife or other sharp-pointy thing to stab myself as the C4 was miles off – even the French did not vote it as their favourite! The winner was the Yaris, which strikes me as making it a bit of a default winner, but then the Cupra did very well too. The UK contingent went big on the Defender, giving it 35 points – could that be a case of ‘Rule post-Brexit Britannia!’?

    1. Look forward to it – I watched it live, if one can call it that.

  25. Here is a link to the ceremony, for those who think they can stand the excitement.

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