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Wheels COTY 2007: Stage 1 - Proving Ground

46 variants of 20 all-new models converge on Holden's Lang Lang Proving Ground for three days of intense scrutiny under the COTY microscope

wheelsmag.com.au

Wheels COTY 2007: Stage 1

Wheels Magazine
February, 2008

The Devil's Playground

Stage One of Wheels Car of the Year 2007 used only a fraction of the facilities available at Holden's excellent Lang Lang Proving Ground. But the parts that we do use, all of them located inside the large circular track, make it possible to perform a telling series of tests in a relatively short time...

1. Noise Road 1.8km
80km/h each way on two-lane straight. One side smooth, the other paved with coarse chip. Smooth helps assess mechanical refinement; the rough reveals tyre noise and body resonance issues.

2. Ride and Handling Sealed Road 4.0km
Public road simulation with bumps, off-camber corners and a railway line crossing. Used for on-limit handling, bitumen ESP effectiveness, braking stability, and steering characteristics.

3. Ride and Handling Gravel Road 1.4km
Slippery sand over hard-packed clay, and a slight crown. Used to assess ESP effectiveness and handling. In cars without ESP, we're looking for stabiltiy and safe, predictable handling.

4. Dirt ABS Test
Approached at 80km/h, the driver brakes at the first in a line of equally spaced cones. When the car stops, a quick countback from the last cone to the stopped position gives an indication of ABS effectiveness.

5. Rough Ride Road 1.0km
Straight with potholes, patches, lumps and bumps driven at a steady 100km/h. A very tough test of ride comfort. Also great for detecting rattles, squeaks and other indicators of design or assembly quality faults.

6. Double lane-change 120m
Simulates emergency avoidance manoeuvre at 80km/h without hitting cones marking course. Primarily assesses ESP system on bitumen. Judges also test ESP-equipped cars with the system switched off, to assess core dynamic ability. Controllability and stability assessed in non-ESP models.

7. Circular Track 4.7km
One standing start lap. Judges choose how fast to drive, but must use lane designated for their speed and not exceed strict 180km/h limit. Objectives are to assess performance, high speed stability and noise levels.

8. Wet ABS Test
Another 80km/h brake test, this time on wetted concrete. Equally spaced cones give judges an indication of ABS effectiveness on such a surface.

9. Static evaluation marquee
After short presentation on the model's genesis, the panel inspects its every orifice. Exterior and interior design, packaging efficiency, seating versatility, cargo space and quality are all under the spotlight.




AUDI A5

A study in design and execution, but with little sympathy for Australian roads.

The A5 came to Wheels COTY as a slightly unusual contender in that it basically previews the architecture of the next A4 sedan, although in coupe guise. It isn't often that a two-door precedes a four-door variant, but for Audi the A5 (and its V8-powered S5 sibling) represents a promising step forward, mainly because its designers have repackaged the drivetrain by moving the engine farther back, relative to the front axle line, in a quest for better weight distribution and handling balance.

As a coupe, then, the A5 has a conservative yet pleasant shape (with "a generic coupe glass-house," according to Robbo), although the way it's packaged drew mixed responses. There was praise for the huge boot, with its 455 litre capacity, but entry to the rear seat isn't easy, and head room is quite limited for its two occupants.

The panel didn't have to look much farther than the BMW M3 to find a rival that treats its passengers properly. Stahl probably summed up the A5 best by describing it as "a two-plus-luggage more than a two-plus-two."

On the other hand the big Audi coupe drew unanimous praise for the quality of interior fittings and materials used, and its overall design and execution, with the word "beautiful" popping up regularly. Even if Robbo questioned the plethora of buttons and controls across the dashboard surface - odd given the MMI central control replicates most minor functions. The A5's safety credentials were also hard to fault, with a full complement of passive and active hardware on board.

The road exercises brought out a mixture of good and bad. The A5 - a front-drive 3.2-litre V6 with multitronic (CVT) gearbox - has a particularly sweet drivetrain package with power aplenty and a faultless transmission, let down by overly light steering and excessive torque steer. The S5 quattro with 260kW of V8 grunt and a six-speed manual 'box added another dimension in performance, together with a NASCAR soundtrack, all-wheel-drive grip - with torque-delivery biased towards the rear wheels - and greater steering precision. "The V8 is a gem," Bulmer said. "A lovely engine note, broad rev band matched to a very sweet gearbox."

But the S5's ride is firm to the point of being harsh, while the A5's softer suspension doesn't have the level of control required to conquer Lang Lang's rougher sections that mimic typical Australian country roads all too well. "The ride lets it down," said Samantha Stevens. "A GT car should not shake your back teeth out."

"The ride is very disappointing in a GT," Stahly echoed.

It all led to a fair amount of head scratching as to what Audi was aiming at with a car that was uncomfortable in the ride department, yet didn't steer like a sports car and couldn't really carry four adults in comfort. It seemed to fall somewhere between being a GT and a two-door muscle car without hitting the target head on. "A German Thunderbird," Robbo sniffed.

This is obviously an expensive car at $91,900 for the A5 3.2 and $131,900 for the S5 manual, and although it stacks up reasonably well against competitors such as the BMW 3 Series coupe or Mercedes CLK, the panel questioned whether obvious dynamic and packaging faults meant it was still good value for money.

If you hadn't guessed it already, every single judge had difficulty scoring the Audi coupe highly and it failed to progress to the next round of COTY.

- Jonathan Hawley




HONDA CR-V

Capable, but flawed, soft-roader faces the COTY chopping block.

Genuine revulsion was the reaction of most Wheels COTY judges to the face of Honda's compact SUV contender.

"Hideous nose! What were they thinking?" noted Bruce Newton. "Needs braces to fix its underbite," scribbled Samantha Stevens. Once safely inside, however, the judges were able to appreciate the third-generation CR-V's strengths.

It's wider than the model it replaces and has more hip room. While height and length are both reduced, it has better rear-seat head room and a slightly larger cargo compartment. Access to the luggage area is through a top-hinged tailgate, a change made possible by relocating the spare wheel from the rear door to under the floor. The versatility of the cargo compartment is enhanced by a stiff, folding cover that can be installed at two different heights. And the fold-and-tumble 40/20/40-split rear seat makes doubling cargo capacity easy.

Up front, the well-designed dash and centre console deliver a multitude of useful storage spaces, including a double glovebox. The judges also found touches that showed Honda had thought hard about features to make the CR-V especially user friendly. For example, the convex mirror built into the sunglasses holder of the Sport and Luxury models. This very simple idea isn't unique to Honda, but it makes it easy for the driver to keep an eye on everyone in the rear seat without turning their head away from the straight ahead.

The quality and comfort of the CR-V's interior was almost universally admired. "Good quality perception inside," from Stahl, was typical. Only the tallest judge (Robinson) complained that the driver's seat wouldn't move rearward far enough for a perfect position and that the seat itself had a too-flat cushion.

Yes, through the initial static evaluation phase of the Wheels COTY test program, the CR-V did pretty well.

The Honda also amassed a reasonable score for safety. Its standard passive safety equipment list includes four airbags (a pair of dual-stage frontal bags and a pair of front-seat side airbags), but the basic model misses out on the curtain airbags of the more expensive Sport and Luxury specifications. There's no class structure with active safety stuff, with all models receiving the same standard endowment of ESP - labelled VSA by Honda - and ABS, along with electronic brake-force distribution and a brake assist system.

Driving the Honda revealed both strengths and weaknesses. On the positive side, the performance of the 2.4-litre engine, carried over from the previous model and updated, was deemed acceptable, and also meets the strict Euro 4 emissions standard. Both the five-speed auto, chosen by the majority of CR-V buyers, and the six-speed manual were fine. But noise levels on coarse-chip bitumen were deemed too high by some. There was also concern about the Honda's ride comfort.

Better handling was a high priority for the engineering team which worked on the new CR-V, as they wanted more car-like dynamics. To do it, front and rear axle tracks were widened, and the heavy spare wheel moved to a lower location. The ultimate objective was a lower centre of gravity.

The CR-V is certainly among the better handling compact SUVs around. "Feels lively and composed," noted Hawley. But the Honda has some serious dynamic issues. While its ABS calibration delivers only mediocre stopping power on dirt, its ESP is much worse. "ESP late-acting on dirt, and just gets it through lane change," noted Bulmer succinctly. Most of the judging panel recorded similar comments.

Well priced, thanks to being made in Thailand, the new CR-V is one of the better buys in the compact SUV category. But the Honda doesn't change the fact that this is a vehicle class without a truly outstanding contender. The new CR-V's weird exterior design, the ride comfort and noise issues, and the poor performance of its active safety systems all meant that Stage One was as far as it flew in COTY 2007.

- John Carey




HYUNDAI i30

A hatch high-point for Hyundai, but COTY distinction proves elusive.

Two years ago it was the Sonata, this year the i30. What do two cars of such wildly disparate size and shape have in common, apart from the badge? High praise from all judges, with comments along the lines of "the best Hyundai we've ever driven" dripping from their collective pens. Unfortunately for the Korean manufacturer, both also suffered an early exit from Wheels Car of the Year. More about that in a jiffy.

It was clear from the first viewing that while the i30 is no radical departure from the normal hatchback mould, it's definitely a step forward from Hyundai's usual blousy attempts at mainstream styling. This car, in fact, was penned in the company's German design studios and manages nice proportions without garish embellishment. The Euro/Korean treatment didn't work on every judge, though. Stahl declared the i30 to be "like a BMW 1 Series done badly. Only the 1 Series is already done badly." Harsh words, perhaps...

Two i30s graced our field. The SLX with 2.0-litre petrol power and a four-speed automatic transmission was perhaps the glamour version (yet at $25,490 still wasn't particularly expensive) and the panel generally preferred its interior, with a few more bling highlights on the dashboard to lift it above dull greyness. But the big story was the SX CRDi, which, with its 1.6-litre turbo-diesel, is Australia's cheapest diesel car at $21,490. Although our SX came with the optional $1790 'Protectz Pack' (ESP plus front-side and curtain airbags) that helped it in the safety stakes and the SLX also had ESP - a $990 option.

The i30 also turned out to be a competent drive on Lang Lang's harsher challenges, going some way towards vindicating Hyundai's claims that suspension and steering had been tuned for Australian conditions. For instance, the ABS worked particularly well on both gravel and wet tarmac and through the lane change manoeuvre the i30 remained stable - or at least pointing the right way - with its ESP turned on or off. That's an important point, because neither the Corolla, Impreza nor Lancer managed to do as well.

The drivetrains were also up to the job. The diesel was torquey enough to handle the quite tall gearing, and although the note was gruff, it had a very useable rev range. The petrol 2.0-litre is a variant of the now elderly Beta motor, but managed decent performance and acceptable transmission refinement.

That's not to say everything was sweetness and delight. While the i30's packaging was quite good, with decent levels of room in the back seat and boot, and supportive front seats, details such as the dullness of the SX's interior, the ordinary materials used and a lack of storage in the rear were less impressive.

And the level of dynamic ability didn't go the full 100 percent, either. The ESP was all at sea on loose surfaces with late and violent actuation, which didn't sit well with a lack of grip on the dirt. The steering was generally adjudged to be uncommunicative and slow to turn in, and grip levels on the bitumen were entirely dependant on the rubber fitted. The SX, on 15in Hankook tyres, felt skatey and succumbed to early understeer. Conversely, the SLX rolled on 16in Kumho rubber and made a much better fist of Lang Lang's handling loop.

When it came to the crunch, the i30 basked in the slightly uncomfortable sobriquet of being very good - for a Hyundai. Its strengths lay in refinement, value, the availability of a strong safety package and the diesel's potential for good fuel economy. But it failed to be outstanding in any particular criteria.

- Jonathan Hawley




LAND ROVER FREELANDER 2

The all-rounder that tamed the bush, but what about the school run?

The first thing you need to do on approaching the Freelander 2 is forget the old one. Cramped spaces have been solved by bigger proportions, weedy engines replaced by more up-to-date powertrains and, we're promised, quality concerns are now a thing of the past. The technology on display is also impressive: a truncated form of Land Rover's dial-operated Terrain Response is standard equipment, there's an anti-rollover sensing and correction system and the two engine options and six-speed auto are state-of-the-art.

Considered along with the impressive amount of interior space, it all had the judging panel well impressed during the static inspection, even if the pricing - much more than most compact soft-roaders, but less than something like a BMW X3 - had a few of us wondering how it fitted in. Not Carey: "Rather rich on price - value?" he scrawled against the criteria. On the quality front, one of our Freelander's had a sticking glovebox lid, but otherwise nothing fell off.

The Freelander line-up is fairly straightforward, with either a 3.2-litre Si6 petrol or 2.2-litre Td4 diesel available, both with only automatic 'boxes, and in two trim levels. Both drivetrains were found to be excellent: the inline petrol six, for its refinement and power (needed to shift almost 1800kg of 4WD), and the diesel for its added bottom-end punch. "A great drivetrain, the engine is perfect for this application," was Robbo's call on the oil burner. Newton's lore stated that it was "quiet for a diesel, but still audible - it's a 4WD after all."

The interesting thing was, despite being an entirely different monocoque platform from other Land Rovers (the Freelander shares more with a Volvo S80 or Ford S-Max) it still reminded most judges of an older Range Rover or Discovery.

It exhibited plenty of bodyroll and a tendency to lean heavily on its outside front wheel in more demanding cornering manoeuvres, and also a reliance on an overly sensitive ESP, especially on loose surfaces. In the lane change that front tyre was all but locking as the electronics tried to sort out the wallowing mess the Freelander found itself in. "Flabby handling and only average ESP," Carey sniffed.

But the trade-off came in the form of a compliant and comfortable ride, and in the refinement from its excellent road-noise isolation. Together with the seamless operation of the Aisin six-speed and (in particular) the smoothness of the inline six, the result is a surprisingly high level of refinement. All the safety hardware you could need, including a knee bag in the front, were also there on both the SE and HSE variants.

However, anyone expecting Range Rover interior design quality was set to be disappointed. "A bit of an '80s feel; fairly underwhelming, with too much black," said interiors specialist Sally Dominguez. Others bemoaned the unsupportive seats, the high loading level of the big boot, and even the position of the window switches as likely to fill with dust and dirt.

Questions were also raised about the Freelander's efficient use of materials, given its weight, and relatively high fuel consumption for its size. While not uncommon in 4WD wagons, the Freelander is meant to be a compact.

It says something that the only SUV to get through to the second round had far better on-road ability than the Freelander, whose manoeuvrability was disappointing, even if it is comfortable to drive and works off road. On road, its merits were just too questionable.

- Jonathan Hawley




LEXUS LS

Guilt-free luxury in the back seat, but not much fun up front.

I 'got' the Lexus LS on the very first morning. Having been pointed towards the ‘Ottoman' seat in the hybrid-powered LS600hL for the 30-minute commute to Lang Lang, I reclined almost fully into the seat's magic, massaging fingers. Ahead, the front seat had courteously ab-scrunched out of my way; to my sides, blinds had slid up silently; overhead, a speaker the size of a small wash basin drizzled a sunshower of soft music upon me.

Underlying our swan-like progress, world-leading automotive technology was pedalling assertively. Variable air-spring, multi-link suspension delivered what might just be the world's best luxury-car ride; an electronic CVT transmission and all-wheel drive made progress smooth and sure-footed. And the most sophisticated 5.0-litre V8/electric hybrid drivetrain in the business sipped fuel at the same rate as a four-cylinder Camry auto.

Even without that latter point, I was trying hard to imagine which, if any, spec of S-Class or 7 Series could match the big Lexus' package of suppleness, silence, performance and $240,000 price. Various short-wheelbase rivals are thereabouts; but the Lexus delivers all this, plus the environmental health of a hybrid. That was it: luxury, without the guilt.

Lexus' flagship LS range doesn't only include the long-wheelbase, option-less 600hL hybrid ($240,000); there's also the more conventional, 4.6-litre V8 short-wheelbase LS460, at $186,200. Other than lacking the hybrid drivetrain, all-wheel drive and the Pullman rear seat - and supplanting the CVT tranny with the world's first eight-speed auto - the LS460 matches its 120mm-longer brother feature-for-feature.

The Lexus pair, on the face of it, look like clear winners against the broad headings of the COTY criteria. The eight-speed auto is a world-first, with technology that allows 350 millisecond shift times. Both V8s boast dual-camshafts per bank, double VVT-i variable valvetrains and direct injection. The standard, 10-airbag safety package includes the world's first dual-chamber passenger bag, while the four seat 600hL adds a world-first seat cushion airbag (Ottoman seat only) to restrain passengers from submarining in a frontal impact.

Ah, the world looks and smells a sweet place from the 600hL's rear seat, breathing and - to a commendable extent - leaving clean air, stretched out as much as the semi-lotus leg position allows, invisible Japanese ladies pummelling the flab of one's back. Among the full-leather interior's few jarring elements are the shit-hued, fake walnut details and the oversized, screen-printed switchgear labelling. Those aside, it's beautifully put together. But then it fell apart.

The styling - derivative, at last, of something other than a Mercedes ("it's a bigger Camry," reckoned one judge) - houses surprisingly poor interior packaging. One is almost ready to forgive the hybrid's stupidly small boot (330 litres) until one discovers that the LS460's is little better. The 460's supposed three-seater rear bench is limited (by headroom) to two, and lacking in under-thigh support and foot room and the front seats offer little support in cornering, too bad for Jeeves.

Two of the sweetest drivetrains in the business are hamstrung by driving dynamics that simply aren't good enough. The electric-assisted steering, wired into the sophisticated Vehicle Dynamics integrated Management (VDiM) system, feels utterly artificial throughout. Anything beyond seven-tenths cornering has the front end reluctant to turn in, then pattering across the road; the rear end, in both cars, slewed out suddenly on more than one driver. "You'd want a chauffeur so you don't have to drive the thing," opined Samantha Stevens.

But what about the ESP, you ask? Its calibration was tardy on the tar and, in one judge's estimation, "criminal" on the dirt. The ABS was also too easily flustered by surface undulations.

Perhaps the 600hL's self-parking system says plenty about the LS. All judges agreed that, at the very point where European rivals hitch up their skirts and truly deliver to the driver, the Lexus LS can only take a back seat.

So I had "got" the Lexus on the first morning. And it was gone by the third.

- Michael Stahl




MITSUBISHI LANCER

Good looks, spacious interior and strong engine but poor dynamics and refinement.

If you ever wondered whether Wheels COTY truly is a tougher trial than a regular road test, the new Lancer is the car with the answer. The Mitsubishi was warmly welcomed in these pages when it launched in October 2007 (more here), for its exterior design, standard equipment, above-average drivetrain technology, sharp prices, and dynamics. In short, it was rated a pretty damned fine not-so-small car. But under the COTY spotlight, the Lancer wilted. It's Mitsubishi's brightest star of the moment, for sure, but not a blindingly brilliant category champ.

Blame the demotion on two factors: the diligence of the judges, and Holden's Lang Lang Proving Ground. It should be no surprise that an hour of driving in a facility purpose-designed for testing cars can be more revealing than days of public-road testing. With the eight members of the Wheels COTY 2007 panel working through the prescribed set of exercises at the proving ground, any shortcomings were certain to be flushed into the open. And that's what happened...

The Lancer began well. Its exterior styling was universally admired. "A taut, interesting body," noted Bulmer. There was recognition, too, of the spaciousness of the interior package, if not the derivative design and quality of materials.

Mitsubishi's decision to equip every Lancer with standard ESP - labelled ASC - and standard driver's knee airbag earned it good points for Safety. With these credentials, and a $21,000 starting price, the car was also rated above average for value.

For efficiency and environment it scored average to above average. Lancer's fuel consumption and attendant CO2 emissions are near the pointy end of the very competitive 2.0-litre small car class. And, although the new CJ Lancer is a larger car than the CH, its weight increases are not outrageous.

Mitsubishi's brand-new, all-aluminium 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine, the only powerplant presently offered in the Lancer, was admired. "Strong engine, excellent performance," wrote Peter Robinson. While some judges found Lancer's CVT auto a little distracting, all were impressed by the five-speed manual's shift.

Ride comfort, at least on the 16-inch wheel-and-tyre package of the base ES and mid-range VR models, was admired. "Ride quality and bump isolation very good," from Bulmer was a typical comment. "VRX ride is notably firmer," he added.

The wide tyres of the VRX also brought an increase in already quite high noise levels. This lack of refinement throughout the range surprised some judges. "More noise than (Mazda) 2," scribbled Bruce Newton. This was just the first of the Lancer's problems to be highlighted at the proving ground.

The steering was next for criticism. Complaints about slowness and poor on-centre feel were recorded by several judges, but the entire panel experienced severe changes in steering weight through the double lane-change avoidance manoeuvre. The sudden heaviness wasn't only disconcerting, it also made precise control of the car rather difficult.

Judges who tried the Lancer with its ESP turned off were concerned by the Mitsubishi's handling. And, when switched on, the system wasn't very polished on bitumen or dirt. The ABS system also struggles on dirt.

Several judges believed the Lancer needs ESP to cover for inherent shortcomings. Lancer's 'GS' architecture is also used in the Outlander. The compact SUV is vividly remembered for the great toll it took on lane-change witches hats in COTY 2006. Some judges wondered aloud whether the GS platform is incapable of delivering decent dynamics. But no-one wondered why the Lancer was left-behind at the end of Stage One.

- John Carey




NISSAN DUALIS

A crack at a new niche between SUV and hatch fails to gain a foothold.

Some Wheels COTY judges understood the Dualis, some didn't. But whatever the response, there was never any sign it would get the love it needed to survive Stage One.

Too expensive for some, too heavy for others, not flexible enough inside, distinctly different outside. There was no common and overwhelming theme, just a series of concerns and contradictions that added up to rejection.

Dualis is touted by Nissan as that modern automotive holy grail; a niche creator. But that didn't earn it credits with the judges: "A silly idea, but not badly done," noted John Carey.

"It's a crossover, but does it offer more than a hatch (other than ride height)?" mused Samantha Stevens.

It may not look like it, but the Dualis sits on fundamentally the same C-Alliance architecture and wheelbase as the new X-Trail. It gets a smaller body and engine (2.0 versus 2.5 four-cylinder), a less sophisticated All-Mode all-wheel-drive system and a $28,990 starting price - $3000 below the X-Trail.

The idea is to give more modern and funky buyers a Nissan choice in the upper end of the small-car segment. VW's Golf V was the target car when Dualis (Qashqai in Europe) was being developed at Nissan's London design studio.

Dualis supplements interest in the X-Trail, which is pitched as a more outdoorsy model, its boxy styling aimed at families who like to get out and about beyond the 'burbs. Dualis also sits above the Tiida at the entry point of the small-car category, competing with the Koreans for rental car deals.

The Dualis is unlikely to ever be mistaken for fleet fodder, such is its flowing distinctiveness. Inside, its relationship with the X-Trail is obvious around the instrument panel and dash.

Compared to X-Trail, the Dualis lets itself down the farther you move from the driver's seat. There simply isn't the same level of smarts and utility. Seats don't fold away and there is no sign of those clever storage drawers in the rear.

The safety highlight is undoubtedly a record-high Euro NCAP adult occupant score. Five stars there, four stars for children and two for pedestrian safety certainly bodes well.

But in the search for cost savings, Nissan Australia has compromised the safety story by offering side and curtain airbags and stability control only as an option on the base ST. They are standard in the upper-spec Ti, albeit for a $5000 price hike. The Euro crash test result was obtained with all six 'bags.

Not that the Dualis is a dynamic disaster sans stability control. While the COTY lane-change test exposed the softer, rollier X-Trail, the Dualis definitely had more composure.

Tighter suspension and quality damping combined to deliver a controlled ride and drama-free handling. Perhaps the most consistent dynamic negative was the steering, which was weighted too heavily for some judges.

There was fairly unanimous support for the drivetrain though, which in the test Ti combined the aluminium MR20 2.0-litre with a Jatco CVT (adding $2000 to the price over the standard six-speed manual). Okay, it took a little while to wind up, but some of that was surely attributable to the Dualis's somewhat porky 1477kg kerb weight.

The CVT helps keep fuel consumption to a manageable level, at 8.5L/100km (ADR81). That's slightly over the odds for a small car, but not a bad result for a compact crossover.

And there lies the conundrum. Whatever the Dualis is, it isn't too bad. But it isn't that great either.

- Bruce Newton




NISSAN X-TRAIL

Everything old is new again in updated soft-roader.

The old style-versus-substance debate got a healthy work-out from the moment the X-Trail hove into view at Wheels COTY.

In the end there was general agreement that the unarguably improved interior and technical structure did not compensate enough for the glacial evolution of the X-Trail's look.

"It's bloody ugly," grumbled editor Ged Bulmer. "It's just like the old one, only uglier."

Nissan says it changed the exterior look of the X-Trail so little - despite every panel being new - because current buyers told them it was already close to perfect. And while the Dualis (built on the same C-Alliance architecture as the X-Trail) looks like it belongs on driveways, the X-Trail looks like it belongs in the forest. Deep in the forest.

The fact that the X-Trail has a more capable all-wheel drive system, larger engine and a more flexible outdoorsy interior simply reinforces our case. It's all about maximum differentiation for maximum sales.

The problem for the X-Trail - apart from looking like a block of concrete - is that COTY is a lot more interested in testing its bitumen and gravel road behaviour than its off-road manners.

Stability control is standard and a vital part of the handling package, as the 80km/h lane change test reveals. ESP barely keeps the X-Trail heading in the right direction. Switch it off and no cone is safe, with more than one judge sliding into a pirouette. So, X-Trail definitely needs ESP, but the trouble is the system actually isn't very well tuned, tending to intervene somewhat randomly.

"Dodgy" said Sally Dominguez.

"Shite!" declared Michael Stahl.

Nor were many impressed with the soggy, feel-free steering and the soft, long-travel ride that encouraged plenty of bodyroll. Having said that, anyone who has driven the original X-Trail will recognise a significant dynamic improvement.

On paper, little development was expected from the drivetrain because the 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine carries over. However, the old five-speed manual has been traded in for a six-speed, and the four-speed boned for a CVT.

The improvement is substantial. While the new X-Trail is noticeably heavier, the CVT does a good job of keeping things moving without chewing through buckets of fuel (9.3L/100km is the official figure for the CVT, 9.5L/100km for the manual).

Also, work by Nissan on the vehicle's NVH now means ear plugs can be ignored when you're cruising along gravel roads. But while the interior is quieter, its quality was questioned - particularly when the inevitable comparisons were made with Honda's excellent CR-V. But again, there was no doubting the upgrade from the original X-Trail.

The Nissan is undoubtedly clever inside. Its boot is huge, particularly when the false floor and security drawer are removed. The rear seat split-folds 40:20:40 and disappears virtually flat to accommodate large loads with ease.

The X-Trail is also good value. Pricing kicks off at $31,990 for the base model ST and that includes six airbags, ABS and ESP. Less impressive is Euro NCAP's four-star safety rating, something Nissan would not have expected.

Being bounced out of COTY at the initial cut is also not what Nissan would have expected for X-Trail. It's certainly not a case of back to the drawing board, but the designers should dust off their crayons next time round.

- Bruce Newton




SUBARU IMPREZA

Strong safety story undermined by conservative styling and soft dynamics.

As a winner in 2000 the Impreza has solid Wheels COTY credentials, and Subaru's engineering and design philosophy has guaranteed a unique position, setting it apart from the rest of the Japanese pack. The individual thinking worked in Australia, but the formula hasn't been as popular abroad.

To achieve its aim of selling more Imprezas, the latest model has been visually homogenised, blanded down and softened off in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience. Mechanically the Impreza stays close to the long-established formula, but the character-defining sedan and sportwagon have been replaced by a bigger (the wheelbase is stretched 90mm for a longer cabin), conventional hatch, with sedan to follow mid-2008.

Boring, clumsy - did someone say ugly? - front-end styling doesn't help the cause. Especially of the once iconic WRX - now distinguished only by a deep, integrated hood scoop. And how could its designers let the skinny 205/50R17 rubber sit so far inboard of the regular wheel arches?

You could argue that the styling reflects the pointed shift in WRX character from performance legend to mainstream hot hatch. It's a view that gains further credence from the more progressive behaviour and improved mid-range performance of the energetic 169kW turbo engine. That personality change has a downside: more bodyroll and, by WRX standards, sloppy handling. Refinement is improved, and it remains fun to drive, but body control is now below the class average; unforgivable from a WRX. And to be competitive, shouldn't the $40K sports model feature a six-speed manual 'box?

Subaru's marketing deliberately moves the emphasis to the base R and RS models. But this puts more pressure on a premium-price policy that isn't reflected in the weedy performance of the 2.0-litre, 110kW normally-aspirated engine, especially when tied to a struggling, wide-ratio four-speed automatic that is all too easily confused. We'd question any car maker who launches an all-new model in 2007 with an old fashioned four-speed as its only automatic transmission option.

In the words of one judge, the R chassis feels like a "dunked biscuit". Poor seats accentuate the roly-poly handling, the steering feels slower, more vague on-centre, with kick-back intruding over corrugations and drive-train snatch remaining an issue. The RS, on the same rubber as the WRX, is better balanced but held back by the dull performance.

The four-wheel-drive system is generally unobtrusive on dry roads. In slippery conditions, however, the driver can feel the torque shifting between the axles, and the excellent VDC stability system working to find the best available grip. Yes, as driving conditions deteriorate, the Impreza comes into its own.

Subaru has worked hard to upgrade the interior, only to see the competition move the game forward. Space is improved, however, seat comfort is compromised by poor design. The grey plastic cabin, with too many hard surfaces and cheap-feeling materials, can't compare with rivals like the Golf.

The Impreza's five-star safety rating earned plaudits, but the comparatively thirsty engines, delivering somewhat lacklustre performance, also require premium fuel.

The transformation of the WRX's character also upset a number of judges. By tampering with the Impreza's greatest asset, Subaru has reduced the influence, sales appeal and COTY potential of the entire range.

- Peter Robinson




TOYOTA COROLLA

Neat handling and good refinement can't mask equipment shortfalls.

Any misgivings regarding Corolla's worthiness for Wheels COTY 2007 nomination were quickly banished in Stage One of the program. While seen-it-before exterior designs - the hatch resembling an over-inflated Yaris, the sedan looking like a Camry with a slow leak - failed to excite, the judges found much to admire once inside.

With the 10th generation Corolla growing significantly (it's a bigger, heavier, more powerful and faster car - would you believe - than the second-gen Camry from 1987) interior space is quite impressive. The cabin is also well furnished and decorated. The judges found the front seats large and comfortable, and the rear generously roomy. "Excellent seats," said Peter Robinson, adding, "Better interior materials than rivals. Feels quality." It was an opinion firmly backed by editor Ged Bulmer.

Only the hatchback's centre console divided opinion. Some judges - Hawley, Robinson and Sally Dominguez - were not won over by the high placement of the shift lever on the novel ‘flying buttress' console. "Hatchback's 'phallus and chalice' centre console almost rude," wrote Samantha Stevens.

Once the driving began there were further pleasant surprises, such as the Corolla's refinement. "NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) impressive. More refined than Lancer, Impreza," was Robinson's terse - and accurate - summary. Despite having suspension that appears to be primitive on the specification sheet, the Corolla also drove better than it read. "Um, I really like the dynamics," noted Michael Stahl after sampling the base model Ascent-spec hatch. "A bit roly in corners, but very responsive front end holds on really well."

While the base Corolla made a reasonable case for itself, the more expensive models were much less persuasive. In the supposedly sporty Levin especially, the steering's lack of life, and the stiffer suspension's effect on comfort were turn-offs.

The Corolla did demonstrate the benefit of a well-tuned ABS, recording strong stops from 80km/h on dirt. Performance from the 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine was adequate, but the lack of torque and consequent necessity for high revs was duly noted.

While the Toyota dealt capably with the double lane-change manoeuvre, it wasn't so composed on the proving ground's dirt handling track. "Both sedan and hatch are very composed through lane change, despite lack of ESP, but both step out quite violently on dirt," noted Bulmer. Dominguez was another to find the Corolla less than satisfactory. "Lost it on the gravel! Needs ESP," she wrote.

The failure of the world's biggest, wealthiest car maker to include ESP in the Australian-market Corolla certainly counted against it in COTY 2007. "Lack of ESP is scandalous," from Stevens, was a typical comment. But this omission alone wasn't enough to do for the Corolla this year.

The Toyota recorded the highest score among this year's COTY nominees for its environmental impact (just ahead of the Hyundai i30) thanks to impressive official fuel-consumption test results. Technology upgrades like a switch to fuel-saving electric steering assistance help make Corolla one of the least thirsty small cars on the market. But big weight increases over the previous model had eyebrows raised when the time came to allocate scores for efficient material usage.

Value, too, seemed debatable in a year when other similar-priced cars are delivering comparable space, superior performance and significantly better standard equipment lists at the bottom of the range, where it really counts.

If it had ESP, either as standard or an option, sharper pricing or better exterior design, the Corolla might have made it to the next round. But it doesn't ... and it didn't.

- John Carey




TOYOTA KLUGER

Impressive drivetrain hampered by fundamentally flawed dynamics.

A Toyota Kluger Grande lying forlornly on its side will remain one of the enduring images of Wheels COTY 2007. However, it would be a mistake to assume that this one incident sealed Kluger's fate as a round one ejectee. By the time Bulmer went for his wild ride, Toyota's new mid-size soft-roader was already on the nose with all of the judging panel.

Opinions began forming positively at the static inspection of the all-wheel-drive Grande, and the front-wheel-drive KX-R also presented for the COTY process. The front driver stacked up pretty well in terms of price, while both cars drew plaudits for their equipment level and space. Even the third-row seat (standard on Grande and mid-spec KX-S; optional for KX-R) was thought adult-friendly for short journeys.

The middle row was seen as pretty spacious too, seating three blokes (almost) in comfort. For a more luxurious feel, the centre section can be removed, converting it into a two-seater.

Up front there are a bevy of controls, although not all that well corralled. The centre stack and console look to be running amok with stuff. Fitting the base car with a rear-view camera is great, but its screen is tiny and impractical.

The premium for all-wheel drive ($5000) lines up exactly against the popular Ford Territory, while the Grande's $64,490 ask is $1000 less than the Territory Turbo Ghia.

Mind you, the Kluger's drivetrain is another of its winning points - something expected after past experience with the locally built Aurion. The 3.5-litre V6 is smooth, quiet, strong and relatively frugal. Combined with a five-speed auto it motivates the now larger and heavier Kluger exceedingly well.

Unfortunately, the rest of the driving experience quickly paled. Steering was dismissed by seven of the eight judges as inoffensive and grip levels mediocre. The ride quality was disputed; some thought it okay, some thought it sub par and some even worse: "What a waste of a lovely engine and transmission," noted Carey.

There were variances in level of offence across the two cars, but the overall theme was clearly emerging that the Kluger was dynamically less than it could be.

It was the ESP tune that solidified the negatives, the universal agreement around which all the other issues circled. The problem was not that the system is overly intrusive or too passive. It is actually both. The level and urgency of response varied from car to car and from driver to driver and was most obvious on the dirt handling loop. While one driver complained that the KX-R refused to provide assistance when grip was lost, the next found it would intervene at the first hint of slip, spin and yaw, all the while beeping hyperactively. "ESP is almost dangerous on dirt," wrote Carey, presciently.

On bitumen, it was more consistently aggressive, shutting down action at the hint of yaw. But switch stability off and the 80km/h swerve-and-recover test became a tail-happy lottery.

Strangely, the tune of the anti-lock braking system emerged as one of the best in the field. Mysterious.

All this was apparent before Bulmer's small slide turned into a big moment. To be frank it wasn't a total surprise that someone came to grief.

And no surprise that Kluger had little support to progress beyond the opening stages of COTY. The fact that this vehicle is pitched as a family car simply emphasises its primary safety flaws all the more. We cannot recommend it.

- Bruce Newton




TOYOTA LANDCRUISER

Bigger and tougher than ever, but raises questions about value and dynamics.

The 200 Series Landcruiser brought to Wheels COTY a formidable heritage as the country's favourite off-roader, but also an element of the unknown as it was launched just before our testing process began. That earned it automatic inclusion in this year's award; also, all models have the independent front end that makes the 'Cruiser eligible.

There is still plenty that's old-tech about the big Toyota, such as the separate body-on-chassis construction and live rear axle. But the new 200 Series brings with it two V8 engines (one of them a diesel), suspension with anti-roll bars that partially disconnect to increase off-road ability without sacrificing on-road performance, an intelligent ABS system and 'crawl control' for low-speed off-roading. So while it might be big, there's evidence of brains to match its undeniable brawn.

That doesn't necessarily carry over to interior packaging, though. Yes, there's plenty of room as you'd expect for the size, but the third row of seats have a pitiful amount of leg room (less than the Kluger, for instance) and the advertised three-person carrying capacity is hindered by a lack of width. Tester Sally Dominguez wasn't impressed, especially with the Sahara's "truly awful" fake wood veneer and "pub carpet" on the floors. There's also a big question mark over value for money in the case of the diesel engine, which costs an extra $10,000 over the petrol V8. "They've got the cockies by the balls," was how Stahl succinctly put the mark-up.

Still, the 4.5-litre oil-burning V8 fitted to our GXL worked well enough on the road with its ocean of torque feeding all four wheels via a six-speed auto. Yet despite outputs of 195kW and 650Nm, it has at least 2.6 tonnes of Nagoya steel to motivate, so performance is good only in a relative sense. That also applies for the slightly more powerful 4.7-litre petrol V8 in the Sahara, but with the added drawback of greater fuel consumption.

Dynamically, the Landcruiser is a big improvement on its predecessor, but the combination of weight, height and off-road tyres naturally limit its athleticism. The 'Cruiser steers well, sits relatively flat once it settles on its suspension and the ride across rippled road (simulating the kind of corrugations you'd expect off-road) was remarkably supple.

However, it was clear that the ESP didn't like loose surfaces, being late to react, and couldn't be switched off. "Very dull-witted ESP, much like the Kluger and Lexus LS," Carey remarked, although Bulmer reckoned it felt "more composed and in control than the Kluger" through the lane change. Thankfully, considering the Landcruiser's size and weight, it has excellent brakes and ABS with remarkably short stopping distances either on gravel or wet bitumen.

The GXL does not get a reversing camera or rear parking-sensors, which would be handy given the height of the rear section. The airbag count includes curtain 'bags in the B- and C-pillars, and there are side 'bags for rear-seat occupants and even pre-tensioners in the outboard third row. However, those systems are only standard in the VX and the Sahara, so the overall safety picture is a bit confusing.

While we have no doubt the Landcruiser works very well off-road, it's an average road car. The packaging is ordinary for the vehicle's size, the dynamics are only adequate, the ESP does not work well on gravel - where presumably it would be useful, and it is difficult to find value, especially in the diesel. It didn't score well with the judges, and failed to progress.

- Jonathan Hawley

 

Read more on the Wheels 2007 Car of the Year here:

COTY Judges: Who are they to judge?
Intro: COTY 2007 Introduction
Stage 2: Public road
Stage 3: Finally ...
plus...
Wheels 2007 Car of the Year WINNER



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Powered By Motoring.com.au Published : Monday, 31 March 2008


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