Get the full story on what it's like to test at Car of the Year
The 2018 Motor Trend Car of the Year program started out as so many of them have for the past seven years: with me stopping off to grab three bottles of good whiskey—to be consumed in the evenings once our cast and crew were safely ensconced at our hotel, naturally. As James Joyce wrote in Ulysses, “The bards must drink and junket.” To put it in the parlance of our times, we had 46 cars to test and evaluate in two weeks of intense Mojave Desert heat and wind. Do you know how much bickering that could entail? A good stiff drink or two is essential for inspired debate.
Before the editors arrived to judge the field subjectively, our hard-bitten advance team of testing director Kim Reynolds, road test editor Chris Walton, and associate road test editor Erick Ayapana spent a week at the Hyundai Kia Proving Grounds. These guys ran our field through endless 0–60 dashes, 60–0 halts, quarter-mile blasts, dizzying figure eights, and anything else that could place a quantifiable number to the relative performance of our field. To say this trio (along with number cruncher Alan Lau) looked spent is an understatement. Now it was the judges’ turn to take the wheel. Kim and Chris joined the panel to be sure the empirical data was fairly included in our deliberations.
After a small delay due to air travel, the 11 judges were assembled at the vast blackness of the proving grounds’ vehicle dynamics area, better known as the VDA. At this point we do our walkarounds based on comprehensive notes explaining why each particular new car is at Car of the Year, what’s new if it’s a refresh, and what it competes against. Unlike what comes later on (the fighting!), our walkarounds are lighthearted and, frankly, fun. You can usually find international bureau chief Angus MacKenzie huddled up with our legendary guest judges Tom Gale and Chris Theodore guffawing about some mangled attempt at an A-pillar, me talking over everyone else, and editor-in-chief Ed Loh screaming at us to stay on target because we’re running out of daylight.
Walkarounds are a little bit of shoptalk, a little bit of design critique, and whole lot of tire kicking. This year’s greatest moment occurred when features editor Christian Seabaugh decided to remove the hood from one of the Smart Fortwo EDs. The hood, which I think would be better referred to as a “quote hood,” is not hinged or even permanently attached to the Smart. It’s cabled to it, like a leash on a surfboard. I guess if it flies off in a crash, you won’t have to walk far to find it. I mention this because it took us about five minutes to figure out how to reattach the “hood.” The best part was that it baffled Chris Theodore, the former head of engineering for both Chrysler and Ford. There we were, standing around, trying to figure out a way to get it reconnected. Hot tip: do not remove.
With walkarounds complete and our collective brains stuffed chock-full of new knowledge, it was time to make the 35-mile (56-km) schlepp to our hotel in the high-desert hamlet of Tehachapi. Christian and I volunteered to take the Tesla Model 3—even though that meant getting up 30 minutes before everyone else the next day so we could hook it up to the Supercharger in Mojave. Like all Teslas, the newest one is loaded with Easter eggs. Click down four times on the cruise control lever, and you enter Rainbow Road, which shows a moving rainbow on the instrument cluster and plays the audio from the “More Cowbell” skit from Saturday Night Live. There are a few other options to play around with, as well. There’s Mars Rover mode, which turns the nav screen into the Martian surface and the directional arrow into what I guess is Tesla’s Mars rover. Because, you know, Elon Musk wants to go to Mars. There’s also an egg that changes the central screen to a doodle pad. I’m not going to tell you what NSFW things Christian and I drew on the Tesla’s screen, but we laughed for 20 minutes straight.
Heading to the Supercharger in the morning, we happened to pass a massive gas station under construction on Tehachapi’s main drag. Driving past it in the Model 3 left me with an incongruous feeling. Who’s out of touch? Tesla or the coming-soon petrol palace? Heading down Highway 58 and seeing what must be thousands and thousands of electricity-generating windmills, you get the feeling that Tesla knows something others don’t. That said, after more than an hour of charging, the Model 3’s battery still wasn’t full, and we were forced to call in the cavalry (visual assets czar and COTY whisperer Brian Vance) because we couldn’t be late to the morning briefing. It seemed to us that the baby Tesla doesn’t supercharge nearly as quickly as the Model S and X.
After some procedural words from the fine folks at Hyundai Kia and a warning from executive editor Mark Rechtin to keep the notes regarding our 46 cars short and pithy (we tend to overwrite), it was time to begin the monumental task of hacking our massive field of contenders down to a more reasonable, manageable group of finalists. Motor Trend’s Car of the Year is the hardest two weeks of work within the auto industry. I’m going to put in a plug for our process. Unlike our main competitor, which quits when it gets to the point we reach after two initial days (they hand out some sort of participation trophy/everyone’s-a-winner award), after we’ve identified the top candidates, we keep on going before declaring an actual Car of the Year. It sure ain’t easy. But the reward for our due diligence, at least on the first day, was tacos.
As is often the case, there’s a contest within a contest, a race within a race. At Car of the Year, the secret competition is who can eat the most of Wantacos’ delicious creations. First thing that needs to be said is that Ed cheats every year. See, real tacos have two soft corn tortilla shells (if you’re not from California, I’m sorry to break this news to you). But every year, Ed asks for his tacos with only one shell. Blasphemous gringo? Absolutely, but he’s also into being thin. Weirdo. Whatever his motivation, the result is just straight-up cheating. Who actually wins isn’t a matter for public record, but the industry as a whole might be shocked to learn that the photo and video crew routinely out-eats the editors. That’s because while the editors are driving in air-conditioned splendor, the visual assets crew is running around in the desert scrub, seeking out the just-right vantage point to shoot their art while hot-footing it past some of nature’s nastier creatures. Tacos ingested, we head back out for more of the same. The first day concludes with all 11 judges having driven somewhere between 20 and 25 cars. The photographers are cashed out. Useless zombies, we eat some pizza and pass out. The whiskey stays sealed.
Morning brings the highlight of the entire event: Tom’s design showcase. We could charge money for this. We should. Tom is the former head of design for Chrysler during a golden era and the person behind the first-generation Dodge Viper. What more do you need to know? Every year Tom lines up all the contenders in a specific nonrepeating order then analyzes them one by one, explaining what it is we’re actually looking at. Tom—and to a large, though secondary, degree, Chris Theodore—hits us with all the industry speak we can handle. Gesture, grain and gloss, surfacing, horizon lines—they don’t talk down to us, but those two are way over all our heads. Anyhow, Tom is very careful not to tell us what to think but rather to explain how a design works. Why we like what we like or dislike what we dislike. “Whoever designed this should be arrested,” barked Tom as we walked up to the new Honda Odyssey. In Tom’s defense, he’s right.
After a day spent sprinting to track-test the rest of the field, it’s 4 p.m. and time to start cutting down the field. All 11 judges pack into a room, guzzle enough La Croix and Gatorade to fill a hot tub, and start eliminating the cars we don’t think have a snowball’s chance in the Mojave of being Car of the Year. This isn’t a pretty process even when we’re in agreement. When the Smart ED was dismissed for having only a 58-mile (93-km) range, technical director Frank Markus said, “Thank God. Could you imagine spending 300 miles (483 km) in one? That should be against the Geneva Convention!” It got cruel from there. “This is as far from the ultimate driving machine as they’ve gone,” said Chris Theodore about the BMW 5 Series. After Detroit editor Alisa Priddle explained how much she enjoyed the “More Cowbell” in the Model 3, Angus weighed in with his feelings: “I hate f—ing cowbell.” When we got to the Lincoln Continental, a person who shall remain anonymous began defending the car. “There’s a lot of money to be made from this level of tastelessness.” At one point, things got so heated that Mark sardonically blurted out, “Let’s just piss off every automaker, shall we?”
However, one large theme emerged after the “discussion.” The Korean car industry is on the ascent. Two Kias made the final cut—the surprisingly good Rio and the impressive Stinger, making up 25 percent of the finalists—and the Hyundai Elantra GT Sport was our bubble car, meaning it almost came along for the final two days. “Good value, good warranty? No! Good cars,” Chris Walton said of the Korean entries. Angus said if he were Japan, he’d be worried. The room agreed.
Speaking of Japan, we took an unusual step with the Honda Civic Type R, electing to not only bring it along as a finalist but also to separate it out from its lesser brethren, specifically the Si. See, the Civic itself was actually new two years ago and was a finalist in our 2016 competition. We dig that car. In fact, the Civic went on to win one of our Big Tests, straight-up beating every other car in its class. We view the Civic Si as a variant of the Civic we already know and love and therefore not Car of the Year material. The Civic Type R? An entirely different animal.
I’ve rarely witnessed so many people so impressed by a performance car. Angus crowed it’s the most impressive car from Honda since the original NSX. I kept asking the question, “What if the new NSX was this good? Hell, half this good?” Using the excuse/insider knowledge that the Type R is actually designed and built by a crew in the U.K., as opposed to Ohio, we took the unusual, probably unprecedented step of bringing the Type R along as a stand-alone finalist.
Anyhow, we had our Elite Eight.
That night we finally broke into the liquor and even a couple of cigars. If Tom’s design showcase is the part of Car of the Year evaluations we could profit from, then knocking back a couple while talking shop about the car industry is the part that would cost us. Tales and truths are told. Boardroom dramas revealed. Due to the possibility of personal defamation lawsuits, perhaps the less said here, the better.
The next morning began our standard finalist drive loops. Because we had gotten our high-speed thrills out of our system at the proving grounds, for the most part the loops were uneventful. (I got pulled over by a friendly Tehachapi officer for something or another but was let go with a warning.)
The talk at lunch was mostly about how good all the finalists are and how the argument the next day should be a knock-down, drag-out type of affair. I developed some sort of flu and headed back to my room as soon as the loops were done. Everyone else went off on a photo shoot and then dinner.
A pounding on my door woke me up at around 9:30 p.m. It was Ed and Frank. They wanted the whiskey. I handed over three bottles. Two of them came back the next day.
We had four loops left the following morning, then lunch, and then the main event. Of the eight finalists we brought along, seven were deemed competent enough to take home the Golden Calipers. After shining on the test track, the Lexus LC 500h had failed to impress us out in the real world. We probably should have brought along the V-8, but the thinking was that because Toyota has built its rep as the leader in hybrid tech, bringing along the gas/electric LC 500h was the smart play. Turned out we brought the right car, but only because it made our decision-making process easier. With such stiff competition you’d think that the deliberations would be testy. For the most part, though, they weren’t, with several cars being billed as “great car, just not Car of the Year.”
If there was a single car I think most judges would have stolen, it was the Porsche Panamera Turbo. Yes, sure, of course, it starts at $147,950 USD, but have you driven it? Forget about straight-line speed (0–60 in 3.0 seconds, quarter mile in 11.4 seconds at 121.2 mph (195 km/h)), on the winding track the 550-horsepower, 4,662-pound (2,115-kg) big-dog Turbo cornered so hard that the windshield wiper fluid sloshed out of its container and across the windshield. It happened to me! That said, the “little” 4,498-pound (2,040-kg) twin-turbo V-6 4S Panamera was pretty sweet in its own right.
Although either Porsche constitutes a legitimate finalist, the decision was made to bring the 4S—not the Turbo—along. I gotta tell you, I was against this. However, most people felt the Turbo constituted “too much.” I’m not saying why or how, but it was pointed out that at 189 mph (304 km/h) the car chimes in with a message to check the tire pressures. OK, fine, so perhaps the Turbo is too much. Did having the plenty powerful 4S instead of the mighty Turbo sink the Panamera’s COTY chances? Yes, but not for the reason you might well be thinking. The 4S developed a rattle in the plastic blank that serves as the key. Literally, it’s a $0.28 USD piece of plastic that you twist—instead of a starter button—that drove many of us crazy. Sometimes it really is the little things.
Then came the four cars that could have taken home the calipers, Alfa Romeo Giulia, Honda Accord, Kia Stinger, and Tesla Model 3. The Stinger just surprised everyone. We felt that the AWD GT model was about 90 to 95 percent as good as the car Kia benchmarked, the Audi S5 Sportback. However, it was two-thirds the price. Hard to argue against that.
The Accord blew us all away. Not only did we deem it tops in the midsize family sedan segment, but dynamically speaking, the 2.0-liter 10-speed version was a better sport sedan than the BMW 530i. You might find that last part hard to swallow, but as my father always said, “Truth is a defense.”
The tensest moments came when we got to the Tesla Model 3. A couple of us were mesmerized by the latest car that Musk built, specifically because unlike the Model S and Model X, we won’t be seeing any with six-figure price tags. However, like the two big Teslas before it, the first edition Model 3s are fully loaded, fully specced, and priced accordingly. Will we ever see a $35K USD Model 3? That question lingered in the room. As we evaluate COTY finalists using our key criteria, the Model 3 fell down on Value.
As is the usual fruit of the process, the best car won. We sit in an L formation during the final deliberations, with only half the room visible, the faces depending on where you reside in this politburo. I’ll never forget looking at the smiles on the faces of Chris Theodore, Chris Walton, Christian, Ed, Frank, Alisa, and Tom as we discussed just how fun the eventual winner was to drive. On top of its outstanding performance, superior handling, strong fuel economy, excellent safety record, and killer value, the Alfa Romeo Giulia is just flat-out fun. For me, that sealed the champ’s fate more than anything else. Shouldn’t our Car of the Year bring childlike grins to the faces of grizzled veteran auto scribes? Although it wasn’t a unanimous choice (the Accord, the Stinger, and the Model 3 also garnered first-place votes), in the end the best car was crowned 2018 Motor Trend Car of the Year. As it should be.