What will be this year's Car of the Year? It's the time of year when 58 jurors from 22 European countries vote for the most significant and admirable new car of the past 12 months, an accolade guaranteed to make car creators and marketing gurus alike go weak with desire.
The jurors, of which the UK has six, including this writer, have already each chosen their top seven cars. From these nominations have been selected the seven most-nominated contenders, four of which tallied with my own choices.
We now have to award 25 points across at least five of the seven finalists, with a maximum of 10 points to any one car and no joint first places. The winner will be announced later this month. Unlike in the previous two years, there's no obvious favourite and little likelihood of strong followings across Europe for particular cars. There's no ground-breaking Toyota Prius,no quart-in-a-low-cost-pint-pot Fiat Panda.
So last Tuesday, 1 November, the UK jurors convened at Silverstone race circuit to see how the seven car ranges felt to drive on the rich variety of roads nearby. There's nothing like leaping from one car to the next, and driving them on the same roads, to concentrate the mind. So these are my post-Silverstone conclusions, and the scores I have awarded. The outcome turned out to be quite a surprise. I wonder how it will tally with the final, pan-European consensus result.
1. Toyota Yaris: 8 points
This is the most admirable car of the year. Its suspension combines suppleness and quietness with just the sort of crispness and agility a small car should have. It also has an electric steering system that works really well. I like the capsular style, the innovative and impressive interior, the all-done-by-mirrors instruments, and the low running costs. Soon we'll know if the other 57 jurors agree.
2. BMW 3-series: 6 points
BMW's best chance of winning COTY for years is beautifully built, capable and pleasing to drive. It has an admirable engine range, including British-built, four-cylinder units - with throttle-less Valvetronic camshaft technology - and some terrific diesels. It also has rear-wheel drive, which gives it pure steering and balanced cornering. But it's ugly and has a tendency to be knocked slightly off course by bumps at speed.
3. Renault Clio: 4 points
A big car in miniature,the new Clio is amplified by an interior of marvellous tactility and soft-touch quality. It handles smoothly and keenly, but the electrically assisted steering system flattens the friskiness and agility that a small car should have. The most powerful diesel engine is a fine thing, though. Good, but lacks charisma.
4. Volkswagen Passat: 3 points
I originally thought that the Passat was competent but hardly inspiring. The chrome frontal styling is contrived, the engines harsh and vocal, and the interior overstyled. The electric parking brake is tiresome, too. Yet the Passat has cool and unflustered directional stability, is good on bends and its suspension is brilliantly matched to UK conditions.
5. Citroën C1/Peugeot 107/Toyota Aygo: 2 points
This is a good little car and must be one of the favourites for the title. It's cute, cheap and fun to drive, with light, quick steering and a truncated tail. It's also economical and ecofriendly, with a 1.0-litre, three-cylinder engine. But the boot is tiny and the many cabin storage spaces don't make up for it. The ride can get restless, too.
6=. Alfa 159: 1 point
This is a better car to drive than its predecessor, the 156. Unfortunately, the dashboard is too big and brash, the steering too light and the driver too detached from the action. All the engines are impressive, from the 2.2-litre to the 3.2-litre V6 to the diesel, but the 156's subtlety has been coarsened.
6=. Mazda 5: 1 point
A clever six-seater MPV that you can make into a seven-seater. It's based on an extended version of the Ford Focus, hence the dynamic competence. It also has a built-in hard drive to store MP3 music files, which it records from the CDs it plays. An uncommonly good drive.