It's voting time for Car of the Year 2009, the Europe-wide competition to find the best new car launched in the past 12 months. Fifty-eight judges from the most influential newspapers and car magazines across 22 countries have already each given their top-seven shortlists. The final seven-strong shortlist was announced at the Paris motor show two weeks ago.
Each judge – of which there are six in the UK, including myself representing The Independent on Sunday – has 25 points to distribute between the seven cars. The UK judges met at Silverstone race circuit last Monday to sample diverse versions of the seven car ranges on the track and, more importantly, on the road. So, which one will win? Will innovation rule or will competent consistency win the day? Sometimes, an unremarkable car wins through scoring many second places.
These, then, are the seven contenders for Car of the Year 2009; four of my own nominations failed to make the cut so it's goodbye to the Jaguar XF, the Volkswagen Scirocco, the Ford Kuga and the Mazda 6. In a fortnight's time we'll know which of the seven is Car of the Year 2009.
This is a competent car, with a hi-tech digital instrument pack and pleasingly smooth, light, precise controls. Its steering is a vast leap forward from its predecessor's stodgy, anaesthetised system, and the Mégane flows over Britain's disintegrating roads with a dynamic authority. But it's not particularly quiet, and its styling is contrived and unmemorable. The old Mégane's singular looks made the roads a more interesting place. This one does not.
Tricky one. I put the last Golf in top slot for COTY 2004, but time moves on. The new Golf has moved on less, sharing more major components (including virtually all the understructure) than any previous Golf has with its immediate predecessor. It's quiet, civilised, pleasing if unmemorable to drive and it has an interior of class-busting quality, and it feels more than ever the mini-Mercedes. But a significant new car? No.
Citroë*goes German. Only the nose and the concave rear window reveal its marque identity. Inside there's a generic Teutonic feel. But the C5 is nothing special to drive. It feels bulky; its steering is vague; the Citroë*USP of hydropneumatic suspension fails to raise ride comfort above that of cheaper steel-sprung versions. Great idea, imperfectly executed.
The Insignia expunges the ghost of mediocrity that haunted its Vectra predecessor. The look, feel and quality are German, and the Insignia oozes technology in its suspension, transmission and adaptive headlights. There's little deep pleasure gained from driving it, though.
A small(ish) car with a big personality steeped in red-blooded heritage. It works, too. The 1.4-litre turbo engine is a feisty thing; the Torque Transfer Control keeps the front wheels nailed to the cornering line, and it looks terrific. Even the steering, which I disliked at launch, has been improved. You'd enjoy owning the MiTo, and that's crucial.
Drive the Superb after driving the Insignia and C5, and you wonder where the others went wrong. The Skoda flows beautifully along British roads, always responsive, always natural. It has fabulous rear-seat space and it's very well finished. The combination bootlid and tailgate is a piece of genius that gives the Superb a USP. It's no beauty but the Skoda is great value and a great car.
A small car ought to be fun to drive, to that end it has everything – weight, size, agility potential – on its side. The Fiesta (main picture) succeeds where many of its rivals do not, yet it has the feeling of quality and integrity expected of a bigger car. And it looks great, a faithful version of the wedge-waistlined Verve concept car. The super-frugal, free-road-tax Econetic diesel version could be all the car you'd ever need. The winner? I hope so.