For the 59 judges from across Europe, six of them from the UK (including me), this was shaping up to be a close contest. Last Monday, the European Car of the Year (COTY) winner was to be revealed at the Geneva Motor Show for the first time. Could Volkswagen's Up mini-car beat Vauxhall's electric-petrol Ampera? Or would high technology rule, as it did in 2011 when the electric Nissan Leaf won?
I didn't even include the Leaf in my shortlist last year, as to me it fails to do what a car should, by grinding to a halt after 80 miles for a lengthy recharge. But the Ampera is different, because not only can you charge it from the mains, you can also drive it a proper distance, as its petrol engine powers a generator which recharges the battery when required. It looks futuristic and feels it to drive.
Every judge produces a shortlist, and the seven most-voted-for cars become the final shortlist. This meant that three of my nominations this year – the Porsche 911, Peugeot 508 and Hyundai i40 – didn't make the cut, but my other four – the Up, the Ampera, the Range Rover Evoque and the Fiat Panda – did. These four finalists were joined by the Citroë* DS5, the Ford Focus and the Toyota Yaris. The Evoque and Focus could be the wildcards, but the zeitgeist suggested little hope for the Yaris and the DS5.
The new Yaris is competent enough but has lost the charm of its rounded predecessors with their clever digital speedo-in-a-mirror. Now the Toyota is overstyled and feels cheap. As for the DS5, it looks great and feels superficially special inside – but this prestige-infused rival for a BMW 3-series, available as a moment-seizing diesel-hybrid as well as with a vigorous turbo-petrol engine, is ruined by being as clunky to drive as it is exciting to look at, thudding and jerking over bumps, with steering that has little feeling of connection to the wheels, making it a curiously numb drive.
The Focus is a good car but somehow less pleasing to drive than the old one, mainly because of its electric power steering. Such retrogression bodes ill for a potential Car of the Year, but its case is salvaged by the introduction of an amazing new engine that produces 125bhp from just three cylinders and a tiny, economical 1.0-litre capacity. This is the future of mainstream car engines.
The Evoque is a fashion model among 4x4s, a concept-car-made-real which fits perfectly with today's market. It is also good to drive – but rather expensive.
Each judge had 25 points to spread across at least five cars, with a maximum of 10 for any single car and no joint first places. In last place overall came the Toyota, with 122 points. Sixth was the DS5, with 144; fifth the Panda – more a facelift than an all-new car – with 156. Fourth came the Evoque with 186; I thought it would do better, but the Focus beat it to third with an impressive 256 points. Apart from that Evoque/Focus transposition, the final order mirrored my own. That means the Up came second with 281 points, and the Ampera (sold as the Chevrolet Volt in the US) won Car of the Year, with 330 points.
It's a well-deserved win, even though it comes as the US factory temporarily suspends production because demand there has dropped right off. That has happened because of a scare over the battery catching fire, though that is a problem that occurred only in some prototypes some weeks after they had been crash-tested. The problem was fixed and any cars already sold were modified, but US press hysteria has caused a lot of unnecessary damage.
Some of it seeped into COTY, unfortunately – the sole Turkish judge gave the Ampera zero points for this reason – but the overall win should help restore confidence in the cleverest, most advanced car currently on sale. Drive the lively, comfortable, intriguing Vauxhall Ampera and you are truly driving a piece of the future.