cover story car of the year award 2007
The retro-chic 500 swept all before it in this year's contest. John Simister, one of the British judges, gives his considered verdict on a tight field
Was it ever in doubt? Fiat's new 500 is Car of the Year, as chosen by the European Car of the Year (Coty) organisation, which has declared each year's most significant and admirable car since 1963. There are other Coty awards made by individual publications and organisations, but this is the big one, chosen by 58 jurors from 22 countries across Europe. And it's clear from the scores that the great majority, apart from some Germans and a "nil points" Portuguese, loves the 500.
The retro-chic Fiat scored 385 points, and was especially liked by the French, the Swiss, the Russians and, unsurprisingly, the Italians, with all these countries' jurors giving the Fiat their highest scores. It's a great result, because it shows that this year the jurors were able to lighten up and not be driven quite so hard by serious and worthy notions of greenness and functional perfection.
It probably helped many of them, including me, that the Fiat is a small, affordable, economical car anyway, but then so is the second- place Mazda 2. What did it for the Fiat is that it has captured the public's interest like no other car in years. Everyone wants to see it, sit in it, know about it. This is a car far above the level of domestic appliance; it's fun to own and use, an accessory to make you feel good in a car-world under constant assault from government.
That the Fiat is far from perfect - its ride over Britain's particular type of disintegrating road surface is not good - doesn't matter. What does matter is that thousands of people want one, badly. As a criterion for a significant and admirable car, that will do nicely.
The jury, too, might have been mindful of the debacle that was Coty 2002. The Peugeot 307 won that year, a car that will one day disappear from history without trace. The Fiat Stilo, about which even Fiat is now embarrassed to talk, came third. But 2002 was the year of BMW's new-generation Mini, which didn't even make the top three despite making a bigger impression on the buying public than any other car that year. Hindsight is a useful thing, and hindsight might well have ensured the same mistake hasn't happened again.
So, how does the judging work? The countries with the most car sales, which are Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the UK, each have six jurors, of whom I am one. The representation decreases with the size of a country's market, but each juror has 25 points to allocate across at least five out of the seven shortlisted cars. No car can score more than 10 points and there must be no joint first places.
The shortlisted cars are chosen by all jurors out of all eligible new models released since the previous Coty contest. To be eligible, a car must be properly mass-produced (so no Ferraris or Rolls- Royces) and available for sale in most of those 22 countries by the time the result is announced. Nowadays there can be up to 40 eligible cars a year, and each juror must select seven cars to enter the voting pot. The seven most-voted-for make up the shortlist.
In my own experience, sometimes my favourite seven miss the majority mood significantly. Other times they are closer to the consensus, as they were this year. My only two that didn't make the cut were the Skoda Fabia and the Hyundai i30, their places taken by the Nissan Qashqai (which deeper thought and the sampling of the optimum 1.5-litre diesel version has raised in my estimation) and the Kia Cee'd. The latter is a sister car to the Hyundai anyway, and possibly made the cut because it is built in Europe (as the i30 will later be). I prefer the Hyundai for its higher-quality interior, but I'm pleased at least …