An award given by seven prominent European car magazines to the best car in the european market. As they put it themselves, it is "...an international award, judged by a panel of senior motoring journalists across Europe. Its object is to acclaim the most outstanding new car to go on sale in the 12 months preceding the date of the title".
The journalists that make up the judging committee are from the following magazines: Auto (Italy), Autocar (UK), Autopista (Spain), Autovisie (Holland), L'Automobile Magazine (France), Stern (Germany) and Vi Bilägare (Sweden). The prize is one, regardless class, so cars of all types (or "segments" in car sales lingo) compete in one category, as long as they are (roughly) general-purpose production cars. The criteria are "design, comfort, safety, economy, handling, performance, functionality, environmental requirements, driver satisfaction, and price". Also, remember the prize is for cars sold in Europe, and that's the reason why you won't find any real American cars in the winners' list.
One can argue a lot about the judgement of each year, as it is quite obvious that people who take the decision are not totally irrelevant to (or, do not benefit from) car industries. The judgement is often debatable for its "political" nature, trying to give a push to car companies that need it desperately, or keeping a balance between large European manufacturers by giving the award to each one's models in round robin. However, it's still an award that is generally taken seriously by both manufacturers and customers throughout Europe.
After all, time is the best judge, and if you look at the winners' list, you'll find among them both cars that definitely deserved it and cars that completely failed in the market and were forgotten. So here it is (with a few entirely subjective comments):
- 1964: Rover 2000
Those were the days for the British car industry. Before the oil crisis of 1973, that is. Brits also seemed to have generally more influence over Europe then. British cars were generally beautifully designed but with a reputation of being unreliable. Few of the numerous models or even brand names are remembered now (for example, third place of that year was awarded to another British company named Hillman).
- 1965: Austin 1800
Austin was one of the companies that produced the legendary Mini. Here it applied the front wheel drive to a quite larger car, not with the same success.
- 1966: Renault 16
Not exactly a beauty, but the French were then somehow ahead of their time in design, being the first in Europe to create medium or large hatchbacks (or two-volume cars).
- 1967: Fiat 124
The Turin based firm may be looked down on by most Europeans, but they've always been masters in creating small and small-to-medium cars. This classic small sedan not only sold well but also survived for three decades under the label of Seat and later Lada.
- 1968: NSU Ro80
A beautiful car, one of the first to feature a Wankel engine. Charmed those who drove it but disappointed those who bought it, as this technology was not mature and proved too unreliable. Its failure led to the extinction of the NSU (Neckarsulm) label through acquisition by Audi
- 1969: Peugeot 504
Designed by the famous Italian house Pininfarina, featured disc brakes on all wheels, a feature that hasn't yet reached all production cars 35 years later.
- 1970: Fiat 128
Another small sedan, one of the first cars of such small size with front wheel drive. Excellent exploitation of space, both for passengers and luggage. Its engine also stood out for good performance.
- 1971: Citroën GS
One of the cars worth the prize 100%. Its aerodynamic design made it look from another planet, compared to its contemporary cars. Also famous for its hydropneumatic independent suspension, leading to outstanding roadholding. The TV commercial showed how it could safely go on three wheels if needed!
- 1972: Fiat 127
The smaller brother of 128, awarded the prize two years earlier. Also based on the classic Fiat recipe. Small, economic car with decent performance.
- 1973: Audi 80
Audi was building its good name then while still making almost identical counterparts of Volkswagen models. Good performance and the sense of prestige for those who couldn't afford Mercedes's or BMWs.
- 1974: Mercedes 450S
The oil crisis was a major milestone for car manufacturers, especially outside America. It seems strange today that the years following the crisis most awards went to cars of luxury and large displacement. This S-Class might not be as prestigious as its 60s predecessors, but was still awe-inspiring with its 4.5 litre engine.
- 1975: Citroën CX
Something like a big brother of the GS, replaced the legendary DS (a model allegedly designed with Bezier curves!). Aerodynamics, luxury, comfort and interesting looks. Like the GS, you can't believe it when you see it side-by-side with contemporary cars.
- 1976: Simca 1307-1308
Simca was the fourth of the mainstream French manufacturers, together with Renault, Peugeot and Citroën. Also the one that didn't survive. This roomy family hatchback had the (trademark French) good road behavior.
- 1977: Rover 3500
A voluminous sporty hatchback with a V8, 3.5 litre engine was the attempt of Rover to survive in Britain of the punk era? There must be something wrong here! At the time, almost the whole of the British industry had merged into one group, British Leyland. The 80s would mark the end of "independent" British car manufacturers.
- 1978: Porsche 928
This was the most extreme car to win the award ever, as Porsche always made sports cars for very few people. This one aimed to succeed the legendary 911, but despite its technical perfection, it lacked the elegance and classic beauty of its predecessor.
- 1979: Simca-Chrysler Horizon
Two "Car of the Year" awards in four years and cooperation with an American giant couldn't save the French label from extinction or rather takeover by the Peugeot group a few years later. Still, this car won deservedly based on its sturdiness and good roadholding. The model was also marketed under the Talbot label for a while.
- 1980: Lancia Delta
For World Rally Championship fans, Delta is a legend. Designed by the famous Giugiaro, it was the first model produced by the traditionally elegant italian firm right after the merger with Fiat. Oddly, the early production Delta was more known for its elegance and roadholding than for its performance.
- 1981: Ford Escort
Before all car factories moved to countries with lowest possible wages, Ford Europe was based in Germany and UK. The various models named Escort from 1968 to the late 90s were very popular in Britain.
- 1982: Renault 9
A small, conservative 4-door sedan that became very popular at those years when even medium-sized cars were not very affordable. Also one of the first small cars with a 5-speed gearbox.
- 1983: Audi 100
A sedan with classic, boxy look that reinforced the image of Audi as a high quality car manufacturer.
- 1984: Fiat Uno
The company was in a very unpleasant financial situation after several unsuccessful attempts to market medium and larger cars. Fiat was saved by the success of this small car which replaced the 127.
- 1985: Opel Kadett
The Germal subsidiary of General Motors has been making models named Kadett from before World War II, with no continuity in design approach. This was the last Kadett, as the model was renamed to Astra in the early 90s. Opel is marketed as Vauxhall in the UK, Holden in Australia and who knows what else throughout the world.
- 1986: Ford Scorpio
A product of then still asleep Ford Europe. Only remarkable for the standard ABS on the whole range.
- 1987: Opel Omega
A large sedan certainly more affordable than any other German model of the same size. Germans do dominate the larger cars' group, but Opel has never had a large share of that. Someone who could afford a Mercedes or even an Audi would be quite unlikely to buy this car.
- 1988: Peugeot 405
This mid-sized sedan continued the resurrection of Peugeot that began with the introduction of 205. A decent, affordable family car that won the prize in jury unanimity.
- 1989: Fiat Tipo
One of those winners that have gone into oblivion, despite their transient success. Rather like a family size Uno, won the prize mostly for its good value for money.
- 1990: Citroën XM
It seems that the company that once made cars like the DS, GS and CX had now lost that innovative touch. This car was impressive technically from many aspects, but its looks were no match for the competing german models. Wasn't a success in market either.
- 1991: Renault Clio
This model replaced the classic best-selling Renault 5 and featured the traditional good roadholding and a range of aggressive engines added to its style. A big financial success up to these days, it's a favourite of young people all over Europe.
- 1992: Volkswagen Golf
The Golf was introduced in the 70s and was the first Volkswagen best seller after the legendary beetle. It played a crucial role in making compact hatchbacks the standard family car in Europe and its third generation was finally awarded Car of the Year, perhaps on behalf of its whole history. During the years, Volkswagen transformed from "people's car" to a brand creating cars of sturdiness and superior build quality but also among the most expensive in their group and with quite unimaginative design. This makes for a company image that appeals mostly to middle-aged and conservative people.
- 1993: Nissan Micra
At last, the European journalists acknowledge the existence of Japanese cars. The Japanese invaded the European market in large scale at the late 70s, but they had to display their notorious reliability for more than a decade before overcoming the Europeans' prejudice about their products
- 1994: Ford Mondeo
This lengthy (for European standards), slim saloon was a cornerstone in the American giant's attempt to recapture a significant market share in Europe. Result of a massive investment on both sides of the Atlantic, had the extra plus of affordable price.
- 1995: Fiat Punto
People at Fiat seem to always have an ace up their sleeve to save them in hard times. This was another huge financial success in small category, following the tradition of 128, 127 and Uno.
- 1996: Fiat Bravo/Brava
It's a rare thing for a brand to win the award two consecutive times. This time the choice doesn't seem too bright, though. The double (3 and 5 door) model made an impression initially, but soon developed a reputation of unreliability. The model was silently replaced by Stilo and forgotten.
- 1997: Renault Mégane Scénic
Renault was the first company in Europe to produce a multi-purpose vehicle (MPV), the Espace, in 1985. The 90s brought a new interest to small multi-purpose vehicles, and the Scénic was the most successful among them, its success even surprising its own manufacturer who hadn't planned its production to meet the demand for this model.
- 1998: Alfa Romeo 156
The Milan-based brand has always had the reputation of creating bold, outstanding designs. This may well be the most beautiful medium-sized 4-door passenger car in the European market for the last 25 years. Gave a great push to the company that had become a subsidiary of Fiat, specializing in cars with a sportive character.
- 1999: Ford Focus
The so-called "new edge" design style is largely what brought Ford models back to first choice after many years.
- 2000: Toyota Yaris
By 2000 Japanese cars had proved their unquestionable quality, yet there the European public still had one last objection: design and style. This was one of the most European-looking Japanese cars of all times, designed by the Greek Sotiris Kovos.
- 2001: Alfa Romeo 147
The success of 156 allowed the brand to create another outstanding car, the 147, a few years later. A two-door hatchback for those who like speed and exceptional looks.
- 2002: Peugeot 307
Beautiful design, reasonable quality and (perhaps most of all) affordability led to a huge success for the French brand. The design was largely based on another big success of Peugeot, the smaller 206.
- 2003: Renault Mégane
The second generation of the Mégane has controversial looks, the kind that isn't very likely to be considered a classic when years go by. When it comes to active and passive safety though, the model simply stands out.
- 2004: Fiat Panda
The original Panda was introduced in the early 80s and the 4x4 version was still manufactured until recently. A practical city car with clever design and competitive price, it's already quite a success.
- 2005: Toyota Prius
In 1993, the Japanese giant was denied participation to "The Partnership for the Next Generation of Vehicles (PNGV)", a Clinton administration project that funded research for fuel-effective, low-emission vehicles. However, they took the American manufacturers by surprise, presenting their own hybrid car (a car with both an internal combustion engine and an electric engine) in 1997, before the Americans had even developed the prototypes. The first Prius was available only in Japan, but the second version, presented in 2000, was available also in the US. This is the third version, presented in late 2003 and aiming to conquer the whole world. An expected winner in a time when more and more people are concerned about the environment.
Quotes in italics from http://www.caroftheyear.org