Testing times | The diary of a Cars Awards 2023 juror
You never forget your first time at Gerotek. That spooky, vast Armscor-owned facility near Hartbeespoort.
For me it happened as a fledgling journalist in 2011.
Breaking my Gerotek virginity was a training course hosted by Yokohama Driving Dynamics which used a fleet of Opel Corsa OPC models and a Chevrolet Lumina SS as tools with which to impress on attendees the finer points of car control.
A lot has changed since then. The motoring media landscape is a very different place. And the new car market has seen disruptions and disrupters of various kinds.
But as it was when it opened its doors nearly 50 years ago, Gerotek remains a true vehicular torture chamber.
It set the stage for the official round of testing in the latest Cars Awards, hosted by Cars.co.za, a competition that is in its seventh iteration.
Awarding the best
I had the privilege of serving on the panel in 2018, 2019 and 2020. When the invitation came to join the 2023 round, it was an easy decision. Full disclosure: judges are remunerated by Cars.co.za for their expertise and contribution.
There are 20 judges on the panel comprising motoring journalists, technology journalists and social media content creators in the automotive space.
The format of the Cars Awards remains largely unchanged. Nearly every category in the South African new car market is represented, with finalists chosen by the Cars.co.za editorial team using an assortment of metrics.
For this round there were 39 finalists across 13 categories: Entry-Level Hatch, Budget Hatch, Compact Hatch, Entry-Level Crossover, Compact Family Car, Family Car, Premium Crossover, Executive SUV, Premium SUV, Adventure SUV, Performance Car, Leisure Double-Cab and Electric Vehicle.
The judges' scores count for 50% of the final result. The other half depends on data from the Cars.co.za ownership satisfaction survey. You can read more about those details and the other mechanisms underpinning the competition, on their website.
What follows here is an account of my two days as an evaluator in the categories with which I was entrusted: Performance Car, Entry-Level Hatch, Premium SUV and Entry-Level Crossover.
Tough obstacle courses
The test regimen for the vehicles started at the skid pad to assess wet weather stability. Next up a high-speed freeway simulation, followed by emergency braking and slalom. Then came the dynamic handling circuit.
After this, my personal favourite, the suspension track: a row of punishing surfaces from Belgian paving to potholes and corrugated surfaces that resemble the washboard my grandmother used in her outside sink. The Performance Car contenders were exempt from the suspension track.
The final test was tackling the famous mountain circuit, which is like the dynamic handling circuit, but with breathtaking elevations and a coarser surface.
It is a very comprehensive series of tests, truly revealing the depth of engineering behind an automobile. Of course, our evaluations also included static prodding: testing audio systems, infotainment capabilities, rear legroom and plenty more. Quite exhaustive.
Coming in hot
In recent years, the Performance Car category of the event has seen exhilarating battles.
In previous instalments of the awards, cars such as the Porsche 718 Cayman S, BMW M2 Competition and Audi TT RS made evaluators' collective tasks quite tricky. The R1m price cap in the category has meant the exclusion of the above ilk.
No matter, because the trio in the 2023 competition are attainable prospects performance-minded consumers in Mzansi are not going to sneeze at: the Toyota GR Yaris, Toyota GR Corolla and Honda Civic Type R. All are fitted with manual gearboxes.
I started in the Yaris and it offered the same instant, enjoyable familiarity of hanging with a good friend. From the embrace of the seat to the grip of the three-spoke steering wheel, recollections of why the model was so highly praised at launch returned.
That 1.6-litre, three-cylinder motor is more energetic than you might initially think, highly tractable and with a serious threshold for a good wringing. It sounds fantastic too; deep, buzzy and soulful for something with such a small displacement. On the handling front, it proved terrier-like as it scampered up the mountain circuit in a fashion that felt almost cartoonish. I climbed out grinning.
On the move, the kinship between the GR Yaris and Corolla is clear. But driven back-to-back, the larger footprint and added weight of the Corolla is apparent, even though its 1.6-litre is in a slightly more potent state of tune. Driven in the 30:70 torque split setting, the Corolla was playful. The assurance of the front axle pulling you tidily out the other side of the corner makes for quick, composed progress.
Expectations were high for the Civic Type R. Unlike the Toyota products, I had yet to sample the Honda until the Cars Awards. Its all-red interior was striking, obviously livelier than the other two. Like forebears, the FL5 Civic Type R is very clearly squared at the committed enthusiast.
Whereas the Corolla is tempered with a sense of pragmatism that would hold it in good stead as a daily driver, the Civic is raw, unfiltered, completely immersive and on-edge. You wrestle with the steering wheel as the limited-slip differential does its thing, the short-throw shifter with its cold, metal knob is a tactile delight to operate and seeing the bars of the digital tachometer chase and hit redline becomes an addictive game.
A stark contrast moving from the Performance Car trio and onto the Entry-Level Hatch category.
After a sip of water and a few minutes to calm down, my frame of mind was suitably adjusted, ready to zone in on the practical elements that set good budget apart.
In the running we have the Suzuki Celerio 1.0 GL, Renault Kiger 1.0 Zen and Suzuki Swift 1.2 GLX. The price cap here is R250,000.
The bug-eyed Celerio was where I started. Being a sweltering day, my first move was to crank up the air-conditioner to maximum. It did the job.
Its zingy, eager three-cylinder felt plucky. Despite expected body roll on the slalom and a high seating position, road manners were fair, with a confident sense for such a diminutive car. Certain ergonomic quirks, like the placement of electric window switches, took me by surprise.
Next up, a vehicle I had no expectations of testing again since my first encounter with it at the regional launch last year. Indeed, my comments about the Renault Kiger were less than favourable.
At the very least, the Kiger has a respectable four-star Global NCAP safety rating in its favour. Putting the model through its paces over the punishing Gerotek ensemble made for an interesting refresher. The suspension track shakedown in particular, was an eye-opener.
South African consumers love the Suzuki Swift, as evidenced on the monthly new vehicle sales charts. Here, it put its best foot forward in GLX guise, outfitted with trimmings that included a leather-wrapped steering wheel and keyless-entry. The B-segment hatchback proffers a grown-up feel, with decent performance and charming exterior aesthetics.
The Premium SUV category price ceiling is R1.8m. The contestants are all undoubtedly compelling, but remarkably diverse.
We have the BMW X5 xDrive30d M Sport, BMW iX xDrive40 and Land Rover Defender 110 D250 SE County in the running.
I started in the X5, which offered an excellent reminder why BMW is regarded as the leader of the respective class. Remember the X5 was among early pioneers of the road-biased SUV breed.
The smoothness, refinement and torque-richness of the six-cylinder diesel was mightily impressive. Out on the handling circuits, the X5 demonstrated a sweet blend of plushness and dynamism. Sporty when you need it to be, cosseting the rest of the time.
Though a member of the same family, the iX is a universe apart. That spacious, futuristic interior takes some getting used to, making the X5 seem slightly outmoded by contrast.
Its silent electric powertrain is another source of fascination, hustling the heavy SUV from standstill to freeway digits in comical fashion. This is a fast car, no doubt about it. A true lounge on wheels, the iX feels as hefty in the corners as it looks.
Of the three, the Defender has the obvious advantage if off-road travel is part of your agenda. It is also the most spacious and versatile with a third seating row.
Not often you see a modern Defender on steel wheels. Outfitted in the County package, our test unit looked ready for outdoor adventure. What it lacked in agility and handling prowess it compensated for in ride comfort.
A hot market
A leading provider of market insights reported earlier this year that the average vehicle loan amount in the country is R390,000. That makes the Entry Crossover category quite relevant, with a price cap of R400,000.
A large and increasing number of South African consumers are looking at crossovers as upgrades from hatchbacks or sedans. Here, we have three desirable picks, two of which come from emerging Chinese players.
My stint began with the Japanese player in contention: the Suzuki Grand Vitara 1.5 GLX manual. An attractive looker, with a roomy cabin and durable feel, the model is right on the money in terms of what one expects from the Suzuki brand.
Hopping into the Haval Jolion 1.5T Premium automatic made for quite a different sensation, however, with its perceived upmarket impression. Soft-touch surfaces, padded panels, a relatively smooth, turbocharged-petrol motor and good cabin insulation: at the price, you can understand why Mzansi consumers find it an enticing prospect.
Then came the Chery Tiggo 4 Pro 1.5 Elite automatic. The supplied test unit had about 17,000km on the odometer, with strong evidence (including aromas) of a rather interesting life. Over the skidpan, slalom, braking test and handling circuit, the Chery trekked on.
Interesting discoveries had been made by the second-last corrugated stretch at the suspension track. Truth be told, at that point I was ready to throw in the towel: could have been the distinctive cabin odour, or my body protesting after two full days of Gerotek punishment. Testing in the name of consumer journalism is hard work.
The winners will be announced in late February 2024.
In addition to serving on the Cars Awards panel, the author is also a World Car Awards juror and portfolio member on the South Guild of Motoring Journalists' Car of the Year committee.
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