The car is dead. Long live the car!
The world has changed a lot since we awarded our first Car of the Year calipers to Cadillac in 1949. Cars went from being the dominant form of transport to simply an option among SUVs, pickups, mass transit, and, yes, those annoying electric scooters that litter America’s sidewalks.
Much ink has been spilled lamenting the death of the traditional car and the rise of alternative forms of transport, but if this year’s field proves anything, it’s that if the passenger car is under siege, it’s not going down without a fight.
Battling for this year’s honor are 20 vehicles with 36 variants representing sedans, wagons, whatever a four-door coupe is, and a minivan. They come from automakers with headquarters and factories around the globe—South Korean hatchbacks from Mexico, Swedish sedans from South Carolina, even an American van from Spain—signs showing the reality of a global economy despite ever-changing nationalist trade sentiments.
These vehicles are as diverse in purpose as they are in manufacture. This year’s field is notable in how many luxury and compact vehicles are competing. Despite the segments’ waning popularity, Audi, Buick, Genesis, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo launched new premium sedans and wagons this year to make the most of the smaller share of cars being sold. On the other end of the spectrum, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, and Toyota each launched diverse takes on small cars that prove you don’t need to spend big bucks to get high fuel economy, performance, or style.
Following a week of by-the-book instrumented testing, it’s time for more anecdotal evaluations. Keeping our six criteria—Advancement in Design, Efficiency, Engineering Excellence, Performance of Intended Function, Safety, and Value—in mind, our judges spend two 14-hour days determining what isn’t Car of the Year.
Our criteria are important here. A hypothetical sport coupe that turns like the Titanic on Hyundai’s winding track isn’t successfully performing its intended function; a luxury sedan with rear seats that rattle on the molar-jarring special surfaces section doesn’t demonstrate excellence in engineering.
Following those sun-soaked desert days, we separate the pretenders from the contenders. In the end of this brutal culling, we had just six vehicles we felt most lived up to our criteria.
Although other outlets might stop there and pat themselves on the back for a job well done, we alone have the guts and methodological rigor to keep going to crown a singular champion.
We pack up at the proving ground and take what’s left of our field into the darkest of nights—west on State Route 58 to the high-desert town of Tehachapi. The weight of this awesome responsibility begins to build.
Over the following days, we drive each of our finalists over our now tried-and-true 27.6-mile (44.4-km) drive loop—the ultimate crucible. The diverse conditions and road surfaces it contains perfectly mimic all of the conditions the average North American driver can expect to face in the real world on any given day. Every stop sign is approached and departed the same way to test low-speed transmission shift shock. Every lane keeping system is activated on the same stretch of poorly marked road to see if those semi-autonomous systems are ready for prime time. And that off-angle railroad crossing that jolts the suspension must be hit at the exact same speed by each vehicle. You get the idea. Our process may be pedantic, but it’s necessary to test for the faults that would drive a vehicle owner batty after months of ownership.
After our finalist field has been properly evaluated, a healthy debate ensues. At the end of our energetic deliberations (with a secret ballot to ensure no forceful personalities could sway a show of hands), we have not only crowned our 2019 Car of the Year but also proven that, 70 years after our first Car of the Year award, the traditional passenger car is still alive and kicking.
Where we Tested
Whenever we tell people what we do, invariably their thoughts go to fast cars, smoky burnouts, and tire-shredding drifts. And yeah, we do have our fun, but the key behind any of our tests— especially when it comes to the Of the Year program—is a very basic scientific principle: reproducibility. Here’s how we ensure it at Car of the Year.
1. High-Speed Oval
With its 120-mph (193-km/h) speed limit, the oval allows us to test a contender’s highway acceleration and passing performance, wind and road noise levels, stability, and active safety measures such as radar cruise control and lane keep assist. Meanwhile, the rough road section perfectly mimics the surfaces of California’s I-5, I-105, I-110, and I-405.
2. Winding Track
More of a collection of great roads than an actual track, the winding track nevertheless allows us to test a vehicle’s dynamic performance at low- and high-limit speeds as it relates to our criteria.
3. Straight Stability/Special Surfaces
Here we primarily use the multiple special surfaces lanes, allowing us to test a contender’s ride and build quality over various low- and high-impact bumps.
4. Vehicle Dynamics Area
This asphalt lake is where we stage, evaluate exterior and interior design, test features, and put our contenders through their paces on the figure eight.
1. Tehachapi Boulevard
Low-speed stop-start driving tests transmission calibration, throttle and brake tip-in, low-speed ride, and visibility.
2. Tehachapi–Willow Springs Road
Broken pavement tests tire noise suppression and whether NVH is transmitted into the body structure.
3. Tehachapi–Willow Springs Road summit
A sustained climb tests torque and transmission response; a sustained descent tests cruise-control effectiveness.
4. Cameron Road
A canyon road with mid-corner elevation changes induces major transient loads, ideal for testing steering, chassis balance, and body control.
5. Rail Crossing 1
A sharp bump at 10 mph (16 km/h) tests suspension effectiveness.
Patched and broken concrete induces tire noise and high-frequency vibrations. Smooth asphalt tests ride quality in a commuting situation. The freeway stretch also allows for testing of cruise control, passive and active safety systems, semi-autonomous driving, and passing power.
7. Rail Crossing 2
An angled crossing induces twisting loads for a good assessment of chassis rigidity.
READ ABOUT 2019 SUV OF THE YEAR CONTENDERS:
- BMW X2
- BMW X3
- Ford EcoSport
- Ford Edge
- Hyundai Santa Fe
- Infiniti QX50
- Jaguar E-Pace
- Jeep Cherokee
- Lexus RX L
- Mercedes-Benz G-Class
- Subaru Ascent