An insider’s guide to the World Car of the Year award

One of the World Car of the Year awards judges explains what’s involved in deciding which car will be named the best globally as another year of testing and nominating begins.

Three 2015 World Car of the Year awards winners: top, Mercedes S-Class (World Luxury Car); centre right, Citroen C4 Cactus (World Car Design); centre left and above, Mercedes C-Class (overall winner). Courtesy Daimler AG; Citroen; World Car of the Year
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What do the Mercedes C-Class, Audi A3 saloon, Volkswagen Golf, Volkswagen Up! and Nissan Leaf have in common? They're all winners of the World Car of the Year award, which is about to rev up and get into gear for 2016.

Automotive awards are almost as plentiful as car manufacturers, many of them long-­established, too. The ­European Car of the Year awards, for instance, began in 1964, and the North American Car and Truck of the Year in 1994. The World Car of the Year awards, by contrast, have been running for just a decade. But since then they have gathered considerable momentum, becoming the most-mentioned automotive awards on the planet. According to Prime Research, an independent ­market-research agency commissioned by the World Car of the Year organisation, the awards won 12 per cent of the mentions the media made of car awards during 2013/14. That meant they reached more than 156 million people worldwide, to give them the biggest share of automotive awards “voice” on the planet. They achieved the same accolade in the previous year, too.

Which should perhaps be no surprise given the World Car of the Year awards’ global reach, with 75 jurors resident in no fewer than 22 countries, including Australia, China, Brazil, India, Germany, the United Kingdom, United States and South Africa. But more important than the awards’ growing stature, is the fact that they have a growing relevance for those at whom they are ultimately aimed – new-car buyers. A regional award endorsement is one thing, but an endorsement from a global panel of ­highly-experienced jurors is quite another. Especially as the cars sold around the world are generally becoming less regional and more global.

Ford, for example, has been deploying what it calls its “One Ford” strategy for some years now, the idea being to sell fundamentally the same models in every continent of the world, rather than creating regional variations. Which is why you can now buy a Ford Fiesta hatchback in Europe, the market this model was originally designed for in 1976, as well as in North America, Brazil and Russia. Most Volkswagens are also sold around the world, as are the cars of premium makers Audi, BMW and Mercedes, plus many Japanese models.

The world’s road network is also developing towards a more consistent standard, even if the approach of those using it can vary quite spectacularly. It means that motorways, urban and country roads are becoming more similar, although there are still plenty of countries where a car’s ability to shrug off regular use on washboard-rippled dirt roads remains vital. Which is why all manufacturers develop their cars for severe road surfaces, and extremes of climate – a Toyota is just as likely to be operating inside the Arctic Circle as it is at the equator. The fact that World Car of the Year winners attract votes from jurors in such different territories underlines these cars’ suitability in very different countries.

So how does it work? Eligible cars are all those that have been launched and gone on sale in the past year, and must be available in at least two continents. Over the course of the year, this list will typically grow to about 20 to 30 models, which every juror aims to drive before the voting process begins. Their driving of the car may take place on the model’s launch, which typically involves two days and the chance to drive several versions over 500 kilometres or more, or as a result of the juror borrowing the car in question.

Every manufacturer holds a fleet of test cars specifically for the media to borrow. Loans typically last a week, providing the juror plenty of time to use the car in real-world situations and on roads with which they are ­familiar. Testing in these circumstances is often more illuminating than the launch, and the jurors will generally test-drive the finalist models both at home and on a launch in the interests of thoroughness.

Who are these jurors? They’re all professional motoring journalists, selected for their experience and a good track record of reviewing cars in their home country.

You may also wonder how such a wide-ranging selection of models that happen to appear in a given year might fairly be compared. Among the 2015 finalists, for example, were the powerful Ford Mustang sports coupé and convertible at one end of the scale and the quirky Citroen C4 Cactus at the other. The answer is to judge each car on its fitness for purpose, across the same set of criteria. The Mustang is clearly meant to be fast, fun, affordable and stylish, this being its primary purpose, and it will be assessed with an emphasis on these qualities. But it will also be judged on real-world practicalities such as running costs, interior space and comfort, because without a decent slice of each of these qualities and more, the car will not be easy to live with.

For the Citroen, by contrast, the emphasis will be on space, practicality, comfort, convenience and low running costs. And because it’s unusually styled, careful attention will be paid to the issue of whether its design has compromised its usefulness.

The fitness for purpose principle enables a Ferrari to be scored using the same criteria as a Fiat 500.

The process of assessing will involve driving on a variety of roads, and where it’s safe, driving the car hard to test its acceleration, handling, roadholding, ride comfort and noise levels. At least as important is driving the car in urban conditions, on motorways and simply using it as you would your own car. There’s plenty of static assessment, too. Is the boot usefully shaped and easy to load? If it has them, how easy is it to fold the rear seats? What’s the fit, finish, visual and tactile quality of the interior like? How easy – and accurate – is the satnav system? These aspects and dozens more are judged in great detail, a scoring system applied to the 10 finalists for extra rigour. Jurors will quite often discuss a car if they come across fellow jurors, but for the most part, ­voting is a solitary process.

For the 2015 awards, the eligible cars numbered 23. Once they’re determined, the jurors aim to drive any cars they haven’t already. There are increasing opportunities to drive cars that are not sold in every one of the jurors’ 22 countries, a number of journalists sampling US-market models organised for them by World Car of the Year after the Los Angeles auto show last year, for example.

In early February, the jurors rate the cars deemed eligible by World Car of the Year, reducing the original list of 23 to 10 models.

For 2015, the 10 ­semi-finalists were: BMW 2 Series Active Tourer, Citroën C4 Cactus, Ford Mustang, Hyundai Genesis, Jeep Renegade, Mazda2, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Mini 5-Door, Nissan Qashqai and Volkswagen ­Passat.

Following this, the jurors rank the 10 remaining models, providing assessments across the previously mentioned criteria. Innovation is another important aspect, part of the point of the awards being to encourage the advance of car design and ­engineering.

The jurors’ detailed analysis reduces the list of 10 to three finalists, which are announced on the Bridgestone stand at the Geneva motor show in April. The tyre company is one of the awards’ presenting partners; another is Autoneum, suppliers of acoustic and thermal technologies to the car industry.

The aforementioned Prime Research is the World Car of the Year’s major partner. The administration of the awards is provided by auditors KPMG, scrupulous impartiality lying at the ­company’s heart. This element is more important than it might first appear, a major awards contest in Europe having recently been exposed for less than impartial administering of its judging process, a discovery that saw winning manufacturers return their prizes.

This year’s Geneva show announcement revealed the Ford Mustang, Mercedes C-Class and Volkswagen Passat as the final trio, a selection interesting for the fact that while the VW and Mercedes compete in the same mainstream family car market, the Mustang is more specialised. But this famous sports coupé and convertible will have an effect because they sell in relatively large numbers for their type. The Mustang has also become a globally-available model under the One Ford strategy, having previously been mainly aimed at North America.

However, it was not 2015’s World Car of the Year winner. The announcement at this year’s New York auto show crowned the Mercedes C-Class. The compact premium saloon was described by the jury as “taking its design and technological cues from the S-Class, the C-Class employs an all-new aluminium/steel hybrid platform and updated rear-drive power-trains that delivers levels of refinement, luxury, safety, ride and handling that challenge the best-in-class”.

The C-Class was not the only WCoTY winner revealed in New York. The awards also presented prizes for the best luxury, performance and green cars of the year, as well as the best design. The 2015 winners were respectively the Mercedes S-Class Coupé, the Mercedes AMG GT, BMW i8 and the Citroen C4 Cactus. These results meant Mercedes took an unprecedented hat-trick. And the C4 Cactus’s award demonstrated that a car doesn’t have to be available on every continent to be a winner – the French company is absent from North America.

As they grow in stature, the World Car of the Year awards are not only gaining awareness among car buyers but also more relevance, as jurors from around the world continue to join.

That the winning cars usually carry a rear-window sticker testifying to their success further increases awareness. For this reason and many others, these awards look increasingly likely to become the red carpet moment that carmakers covet most, and that should be good news for motorists keen to buy quality.