The Car of the Year Evaluation Process is Incredibly Comprehensive
Every year you read about, hear on the radio, or see TV ads touting a vehicle as being on a certain magazine’s Billion Best list, or winning a website’s Northern Hemisphere Thing With Wheels of the Year award. Those kudos are cute and all, but what good is an award if every contestant gets one? Or if the judges don’t drive the cars they’re voting for? Our Car of the Year award is the only one that matters. Dating back to 1949, our program is a well-oiled machine, and the only one in which the judges meticulously drive each and every new car back-to-back and rate them against rigorous criteria. So how do we do it when others won’t or can’t? Read on to find out.
Phase 1: Testing, limit handling, and the high-speed oval
This Car of the Year marks the 10th year we’ve had the good fortune to utilize the Hyundai Motor Group California Proving Grounds. We’re lucky and thankful to have their support. The state-of-the-art facility near Mojave, California, covers 4,300 acres and has 10 test courses. Here, we run all the cars through the complete set of Motor Trend tests—acceleration, braking, figure eight—and focus on such qualities as handling, ride quality, and refinement. The closed environment enables consistent and repeatable testing at high limits. The aim of this first phase is to eliminate vehicles that do not measure up to the six COTY criteria.
Vehicle Dynamics Area
43 acres; length: 2,950 feet; width: 1,200 feet. Low elapsed time and high lateral g on our approximately 1,740-foot figure-eight course show how a chassis copes with the acceleration, braking, and turning typically experienced on a winding road. The test also provides lateral grip numbers.
Quickest figure eight: Mercedes-AMG GT S, 23.2 sec @ 0.92 g (avg)
Slowest figure eight: Toyota Mirai, 28.8 sec @ 0.57 g (avg)
Highest lateral grip: Mercedes-AMG GT S, 1.04 g (avg)
Lowest lateral grip: Toyota Mirai, 0.74 g (avg)
Four lanes, 0.75 mile. Standard 0-60-mph and quarter-mile acceleration runs are made in both directions to account for any wind and provide data for incremental acceleration times.
Brake tests measure stopping distance from 60 mph.
Quickest: Mercedes-AMG GT S, 3.2 sec
Slowest: Volkswagen Jetta SE, 9.4 sec
Three lanes, 6.4 miles. Smooth surface and long, constant-radius turns enable evaluation of engine noise and transmission shift quality under hard acceleration. High speeds test NVH suppression as well as high-speed steering and stability.
- Freeway Surfaces
One lane, 1.25 miles. Sectioned into replicas of L.A.’s notorious 710, 10, and 5 freeways. When taken at a steady 65 mph, this section allows evaluation of ride quality, tire noise, and suspension thump.
- Winding Track
Two lanes, 3.1 miles. A demanding combination of fast sweepers, decreasing-radius hairpins, a tight right-left switchback, and three man-made hills, this course tests power, braking, chassis balance, stability control, and ABS.
Phase 2: Real-world road loops
We took seven cars forward this year to tackle the real-world road loop in Tehachapi, California. This 28.5-mile mix of highway, city, and tight canyon roads starts in the parking lot of our hotel and heads east for a bit on Tehachapi Boulevard. We continue through Tehachapi before climbing the 4,000-plus-foot pass in the Tehachapi Mountains between Bakersfield and Edwards Air Force Base. The route snakes back toward State Route 58 via a tight, two-lane country road. Judges pay attention to road and wind noise, steering response, and ride quality. They test audio, climate, and infotainment systems, including things such as navigation, smartphone pairing, hands-free voice controls, active cruise control, and lane keeping technology. After all the driving, we discuss/bicker/scream and choose the 2016 Car of the Year.
- Tehachapi Boulevard
Low-speed stop-start driving tests transmission calibration and smoothness, throttle and brake tip-in, and low-speed ride. Also tests all-around visibility in traffic.
- Tehachapi-Willow Springs Road
Broken pavement tests whether tire noise is adequately suppressed and whether noise, vibration, and harshness are transmitted through the suspension into the vehicle’s body structure.
- Tehachapi-Willow Springs Road summit, about 5,000 feet
A sustained climb from 4,014 feet tests engine torque and transmission response under light throttle load, and a sustained descent to 4,147 feet tests the effectiveness of the cruise control.
- Cameron Road
A challenging canyon road with mid-corner elevation changes induces major transient loads at just 45-55 mph. Ideal for evaluating steering response, chassis balance, and body control. Plus, it’s fun.
- Rail Crossing 1
A sharp bump at 10 mph tests the effectiveness of suspension noise and impact harshness suppression.
Patched and broken concrete induces tire noise and high- frequency vibrations. Smooth asphalt tests ride quality in a typical commuting situation, as well as wind noise and effectiveness of the audio system. The freeway stretch also allows for testing of cruise control, both passive and active safety systems, semi-autonomous driving modes, and passing power.
- Rail Crossing 2
Angled crossing induces twisting loads through suspension, plus noise, vibration, and harshness, providing a good assessment of chassis rigidity.