As with other industries and the arts, there are no shortage of gongs handed out in the car business. Numerous magazines have their "Car of the Year" prizes, and there are trophies for everything from best stereo system to dealer of the decade. But the prize the car industry wants most is European Car of the Year (Coty), and this year the surprise winner is the Alfa Romeo 156.

I say "surprise" not because I was one of the judges who failed to vote for it. (I judged it the second best new car of the year, after the new and staggeringly competent Volkswagen Golf.) Rather, it's rare for a sports saloon to win. Usually, mainstream family cars win Car of the Year, and the extra sales that go with it.

Fifty-six motoring journalists representing all major European countries vote in the Coty competition. They are usually specialist magazine writers, although there are some newspaper journalists. Each selects his or her top five new cars of the year and a short list of five cars is then determined. This year, the short list consisted of the Alfa, the Golf, the Mercedes A-class, the Audi A6 and the Citroen Xsara. The judges then vote from the short list, allocating 25 points across a minimum of four cars. Each judge must pick a clear winner. The Alfa won easily, gathering 454 points. Its nearest rival, the Golf, collected 266.

The Mercedes A-class probably would have won, had it not rolled itself out of contention. It was during a Car of the Year test session that one or two of the Scandinavian judges first suspected the car of instability. One of the judges, from the Swedish magazine Teknikens Warld, later carried out a "moose avoidance test", in which an A-class swerved violently without braking while loaded to the limit. The little A-class turned upside down, as (soon after) did the car's reputation.

Initially, I voted for the A-class, despite news that the Swedish magazine had rolled one. OK, it may be more inclined to tip in extreme manoeuvres than a conventional small hatch - conditions that 99.9 per cent of motorists never encounter. But in a conventional front impact or side crash - more likely in Britain than a rollover - it is probably miles safer than most small cars.

I changed my vote only after Mercedes, in a move probably inspired more by panic than logic, temporarily withdrew it from sale. If its maker had lost confidence in it, why should I support it?

The anti-A-class momentum among Coty members helped the Alfa. It is a car of completely different character. The A-class is futuristic and will be widely copied. That is why - even if it lost the Coty prize - it will be remembered as the most important car of the year. The 156, on the other hand, is a car of great emotional appeal - like all great Alfas. It looks fabulous and drives brilliantly. But, optional hi-tech diesel engine excepted, the 156 is not a landmark in the history of motoring, even if it is a significant car in the recent history of Alfa.

Instead, the Coty jury, unusually this year, voted with their hearts. When I discovered that the 156 had won, I was delighted. Hang its "big picture" relevance. Here is a car that makes you feel good about driving and about cars. Here is a gorgeous piece of fin-de-siecle industrial design. Here is a car that buyers will love owning and show off with pride to friends. Here, in short, is a worthy car of the year.

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