A contender for the best luxury car under $60,000 - the Volvo S60.
A contender for the best luxury car under $60,000 - the Volvo S60. Drive

Safety first for contenders

MORE than $3 million worth of metal went under the microscope this week as judges picked the Drive Car of the Year for 2010 from a field of 47 contenders.

The results are under lock and key until November 25 but this year has revealed an industry responding to unprecedented pressure to lift its game on vehicle safety and the environment.

Every one of the cars, covering 14 leading vehicle categories, featured electronic stability control as standard equipment.

The technology, which applies brakes to individual wheels to stop a car skidding out of control, is described by some safety advocates as the biggest breakthrough since the seatbelt.

The federal government has mandated the technology for all new passenger cars from this time next year (and the Victorian government in May) but the industry is likely to reach full compliance before then.

All but one vehicle, the Volkswagen Caravelle people-mover, offers front, side and curtain airbags for occupants in the front and, in the case of cars seating more than two people, in the rear.

Most of the entrants also boast improvement in fuel efficiency and CO2 emissions, from the tiniest city runabout to the most expensive — and fastest — supercar.

Porsche's 911 Turbo illustrates the progress made on reducing emissions. It develops about twice as much power as a 2006 Commodore but uses only marginally more fuel.

Australia's first locally built petrol-electric vehicle, Toyota's Hybrid Camry, is also one of the finalists and the family-sized sedan used less fuel during testing than the smallest cars.

This year also marks the first time judges have considered an electric vehicle for the annual awards. Mitsubishi's i-MiEV didn't make the list of finalists because it can only be leased for now. It was also struck off the list because if it could be bought, it would be prohibitively expensive. Its lack of range — estimated at a maximum 160 kilometres — would have also presented logistical problems, with 11 judges lining up to drive each car over a 30-kilometre road loop and several handling exercises.

In a sign of the times, there are only two entrants in the large-car class: the updated Holden Commodore and the returning champion, the Nissan Maxima. Large-car sales have dwindled and development budgets have been squeezed accordingly, which means all-new large cars are coming along less frequently than they once did.

The situation provoked discussion of a merger between the mid-size segment and the large-car segment in this year's awards.

The blurring continues with soft-roaders, which have morphed from off-road vehicles to high-riding station wagons, attracting a flood of former buyers of large cars.

How, then, do you judge so many different vehicles against each other and how do you decide if an apple is better than an orange?

Each car is judged against a set of criteria rather than the others in its class.

The first place we look is under the bonnet. Does the engine do what it's supposed to efficiently and with the least adverse effect on the environment? We look at how the car performs on the road, from how it turns corners to how it soaks up bumps and potholes.

Then there's value for money: how many gadgets does it have and how much must you pay for it?

Comfort and practicality come into the picture. Can you fit a pram in the boot? If vision is limited, are there parking sensors and reversing cameras? What's legroom and headroom like in the rear?

Safety is the final criterion. While most makers offer strong occupant protection as a given, others go the extra mile. One of our finalists, the Volvo S60, has a world-first pedestrian-avoidance system that can anticipate a collision with a pedestrian and mitigate.

At the end of six long days, we end up with a winner — and a buyer's guide that should have something useful for anyone who's looking to find a new car.

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