Next week sees a new European Car of The Year unveiled and, although there’s no Geneva Motor Show to trumpet the occasion, it’ll still be big news.
To celebrate, Keith Adams chooses ten of the best previous award winners since those early beginnings. It’s subjective, of course…
Car of The Year: The best of the best?
The European Car of The Year (CoTY) is open to cars available new in at least five European Union (nee EEC) states, and which sell a minimum of 5000 per year. The event has grown significantly since the award was first run in 1964, but the spirit of the event remains the same.
The CoTY award has caused discussion amongst enthusiasts since its first running back in the autumn months of 1963. Back then, it was a far smaller voting panel, with four western European countries represented – now, it’s 23 countries and 59 judges. These days, there are usually so many cars that the organisers need to run the event in two stages, with a qualification process and then a short list. But whatever the mechanics, one thing is sure – there’s always plenty of discussion about the merits of the winning car. Every year, without fail…
When there’s a fallow year, we get weak winners – as was the case most notably in 1979 and 1982 (look at the list of Top Threes below our Top 10 to see what we mean). The judging panels have also been notoriously slow to pick up on market trends – was it really only 2018 that the first SUV/Crossover won an award? But there have been some great decisions over the years, so rather than pick on the cars that perhaps shouldn’t have won (we know which these are), it’s time to celebrate ten of the best.
Of course, it’s a highly subjective list – but you wouldn’t expect anything less from AROnline. Enjoy our Top 10 favourites!
10: 1966 – Renault 16
1966 winner, the Renault 16, saw off Rolls-Royce and Oldsmobile
The idea that a family car could have four doors and a hatchback rear was still quite a novelty back in 1965 – especially those that were stylish, roomy, fun to drive and seriously comfortable. But then, the Renault 16 was a sensational car when it arrived on the scene, giving the French middle classes a genuinely interesting mid-market choice, and the rest of Europe could only marvel at how the engineering team at La Regie could adapt the FWD package it first adopted so successfully in the R4 to a much larger car.
The CoTY panel voted for the R16 over and above the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow and Oldsmobile Toronado by a convincing margin, a decision that looks to have been the right one in retrospect.
9: 2011 – Nissan Leaf
2011 winner, the Nissan Leaf pushed ahead of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta and Vauxhall Meriva
Electric cars? Yeah, those funny-looking things that don’t go very fast or very far. In 2010, when the Nissan Leaf appeared, a lot of that thinking was banished into the history books. It was simple to drive, usable as a family car in a way that few EVs had come close to being previously, and would be eventually be built in Nissan’s UK plant in Washington – great news for AROnline readers.
The CoTY judges weren’t being particularly brave awarding the top prize to the Leaf, given the opposition that year, but it still made history by awarding it to become the first EV to take the top prize in this prestigious set of awards. The Leaf soon became a bit of a phenomenon, becoming Europe’s best-selling EV, racking up an impressive 500,000 sales by December 2020. The first models might have been blessed with a real-world range of less than 100 miles, but the Leaf has been continuously developed during its decade-long production run, and new models remain competitive today.
8: 1965 – Austin 1800
1965 winner, the Austin 1800, was a technical marvel – and a rare British Car of The Year
Looking through the list of CoTY winners is a sobering experience for us Brits – simply because we don’t actually win the award that often. But in the competition’s early years, we did pretty well – mainly because the UK industry was going through one of its most creative periods, spearheaded by BMC’s brave decision to push forwards with FWD across its sprawling range.
The Austin 1800 did have rather a lot going for it – masses of room inside, keen handling, ample performance and an excellent ride. It was, without doubt, a perfect car for the dreams and aspirations of young European buyers. Brits, on the other hand, would take longer to warm to the 1800 – but that’s not entirely the car’s fault.
It’s interesting to see that the 1800 beat the equally pioneering Autobianchi Primula into second place. However, although that car had FWD with an end-on gearbox and hatchback packaging, it was let down by its ageing 1221cc engine, and leaf-sprung rear suspension. That said, as we’d find out later, the Autobianchi marked the quiet beginning of what would become an avalanche of brilliant Dante Giacosa-engineered FWD Fiats in the decade to come.
7: 1977 – Rover 3500 SD1
BL’s mould-breaking executive hatchback had what it took to impress the Europeans
Forget memories of flaking paint, water-filled gloveboxes and crumbling electrics – when the Rover SD1 was launched in 1976, it really was cutting edge stuff. With supercar-inspired styling, a 125mph maximum speed and a bargain list price, the SD1 represented the dynamic future of executive motoring.
The CoTY jury was won over by these very qualities, despite BL’s exciting new car sharing a place on the shortlist with the commercially significant Ford Fiesta. But the SD1 represented so much when it was launched – it was the pride of the UK’s car industry, right down to the impressive new factory erected in Solihull. And for a few glorious months, the SD1 looked like it had all of the right ingredients.
Surprisingly, the Fiesta finished third, being pipped by the C2-generation Audi 100 – an efficient and capable executive saloon that could have done better had its lovely five-cylinder engine been available from launch in 1976.
6: 1972 – Fiat 127
The original supermini, perhaps – or it would have been had they fitted it with a tailgate
Fiat is generally regarded as a progressive and forward-thinking company. But it’s easy to forget that, when it came to introducing its FWD cars, it was actually rather conservative. Take the 127 – it was a stunningly space-efficient car for its time, featuring a transverse engine, end-on gearbox (as popularised by its architect, Dante Giacosa), and yet it didn’t feature a hatchback.
Fiat’s first supermini wasn’t a Fiat at all, but the 1969 Autobianchi A112… proving that the company was prepared to take risks, but not with cars wearing its own badges. As it transpired, the 127 received the tailgate it so richly deserved in 1972 (a year after launch), and never looked back from that point on, becoming a roaring success, and helping to define the supermini sector.
Why doesn’t it feature higher then? No hatchback at launch!
5: 1975 – Citroën CX
Replacing the Deesse wasn’t going to be the work of a moment, but Citroën succeeded admirably with the CX
Like the so many other cars on this list, the Citroën CX’s position isn’t defined by logic. Nor, could it be argued, by merit. After all, when it was unveiled in 1974, you couldn’t buy it equipped with Diravi steering, and the posh models were yet to receive the big-four ex-Traction Avant engine in fuel-injected 2.4-litre form. So its best years were still clearly ahead of it.
However, despite that, the CX was a brilliant car of its time – supremely comfortable, safe, fast, stable and a joy to drive. It also looked amazing. Citroënistes decried it for not being the Deesse, but despite slightly more faddish styling than its 1955 predecessor, the CX has aged wonderfully, becoming a classic even before it went out of production in 1989/’90.
Clearly, logic didn’t define its victory for 1975 – because, if it had done, there’d be a Volkswagen Golf sitting in this slot right now.
4: 1963 – Rover 2000
The Rover 2000 combined dignity and superb dynamics, a great first-ever CoTY
It could be argued that the Rover 2000 is a product built by an Engineering and Design Team at the absolute height of its powers. Spen King and Gordon Bashford created a compact executive saloon that out-drove the established three-litre opposition, and David Bache fashioned a progressively-styled body that pretty much defined the sector for years to come.
Triumph and BMW fans might argue that their 2000s were every bit an equal to Rover’s, but the CoTY jury saw it differently in period. During its long production run, the elegantly timeless P6 Rover just got better and better, receiving more power and luxury, before being topped off by the gorgeous 3500 V8.
The runner-up Mercedes-Benz 600 was – like so many of its successors – a technical masterpiece, but one that few could afford, while the third-placed Hillman Imp could be a joy to drive, and one that, had it been built properly and launched on schedule, might have given the Mini a much harder fight in the UK.
=3: 1970 – Fiat 128/1971 – Citroën GS
Two remarkable small saloons won on consecutive years, bringing modern dynamics to a previously prehistoric market sector
The Fiat 128 might have looked like a boxy saloon cast in the mould of the surprisingly brilliant 124, but what was underneath its unremittingly three-box skin really captured the imagination of the CoTY jury back in 1969.
When they voted the Fiat 128 as the 1970 Car of The Year, they did so on the strength of its engineering purity, brilliant packaging and excellent driving experience. The 128 was the template of the modern car, and Dante Giacosa’s (that name again!) masterpiece proved that FWD could work in its millions. They survive in huge numbers today, too – should you venture to Egypt, you’ll find yourself tripping over them – wearing the Nasr nameplate.
The FWD, Hydropneumatically-suspended, air-cooled Citroën GS was a technical dead-end, but one that remained in production for 15 years, and which proved that technical conformity was still a long way from engulfing the European car industry.
It offered all the advantages of a large car, such as supreme high-speed stability, loping ride quality, and shared much of the magic that made the Citroën SM such an amazing car. Of course, we know it failed to make money for its maker, and proved to be the penultimate Citroën to be powered by an air-cooled flat-four, so a glorious might-have been.
=2: 1983 – Audi 100/2019 – Jaguar I-Pace
Two very different gamechangers share the second-placed spot. From Audi, the lightweight, aerodynamic 100 which redefined the market for executive cars and, from Jaguar, the I-Pace, which showed that EVs could be great to drive, too…
In 1982, it felt as if the world had finally woken up to the benefits of aerodynamic vehicle design, and we entered the modern-era of car design. Within days of each other, Ford launched the Sierra (with a drag co-efficient of 0.34), and Audi brought us the flush-glazed, cigar-shaped C3-generation 100, which ended up trouncing Ford’s achievement in streamlining.
It delivered a Cd of 0.30 for the skinny-tyred single-mirrored 100CC. What the 100 did, though, was bring the executive car sector kicking and screaming into the modern-era, delivering a car that could top 120mph, easily beat 30mpg, and doing it all with an engine only marginally larger that 2.0-litres. The Audi 100 looked like the grandson of the 1968 CoTY, the NSU Ro 80, which is fitting, as the car had been trialled with a rotary engine during its development. What of the Sierra? That finished a mere 25 points behind in second place.
Although the Jaguar lagged behind the pace-setting Tesla Model S and X in terms of tech and range, and lacked their bespoke (and wonderful) charging network, the I-Pace’s great styling, interesting (and well-finished) interior and fabulous dynamics made it a great advert for Jaguar Land Rover’s eventual march towards electrification. And in getting the car out when it did, it beat Audi and Mercedes-Benz to the SUV-shaped EV party by more than a year. A good news story indeed.
All that really lets down the I-Pace is that it didn’t herald a new range of EVs to fight off the upcoming surge of new models from the rest of the industry. And that’s not really its fault. Jaguar says that its entire range will be electrified by 2025 (with the entire JLR line-up by 2030) – but it’s at the cost of the now-cancelled electric Jaguar XJ. Given the head start Jaguar Land Rover had over the opposition, that has been a bitter disappointment – especially as the market is now being flooded by EVs from its traditional rivals, Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
1: 1999 – Ford Focus
The Focus may as well have been in a different competition to the runners-up Astra and 206
With its concept car looks and brilliant dynamics, the Ford Focus was a game-changer. It shifted the medium hatchback sector 10 years into the future, and did so convincingly – indeed, it could be argued that the company has yet to replace it with anything nearly as appealing.
Washing away memories of the 1990 Escort (possibly one of the most cynically conceived cars ever built) and its facelifted offspring, the Focus was available with a full range of engine, body and transmission options, like all Fords, and every single one of them were truly appealing (even the ugly saloon). All that let the Focus down was the cheap-feeling interior, which really lagged behind the truly tedious Volkswagen Golf Mk4 – but then, everything else did, too.
What the Focus brought to its market sector was a well-engineered feel, gorgeous feedback from all of its controls and a sense of well-being in every drive. And as time wore on, the Focus also proved itself rugged and dependable, too. A truly seminal car…
|European Cars of the Year|
|1964||Rover 2000||76||Mercedes-Benz 600||64||Hillman Imp||31|
|1965||Austin 1800||78||Autobianchi Primula||51||Ford Mustang||18|
|1966||Renault 16||98||Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow||81||Oldsmobile Toronado||59|
|1967||Fiat 124||144||BMW 1600||69||Jensen FF||61|
|1968||NSU Ro 80||197||Fiat 125||133||Simca 1100||94|
|1969||Peugeot 504||119||BMW 2500/2800||77||Alfa Romeo 1750||76|
|1970||Fiat 128||235||Autobianchi A112||96||Renault 12||79|
|1971||Citroën GS||233||Volkswagen K70||121||Citroën SM||105|
|1972||Fiat 127||239||Renault 15/17||107||Mercedes-Benz 350SL||96|
|1973||Audi 80||114||Renault 5||109||Alfa Romeo Alfetta||95|
|1974||Mercedes-Benz 450S||115||Fiat X1/9||99||Honda Civic||90|
|1975||Citroën CX||229||Volkswagen Golf||164||Audi 50||136|
|1976||Chrysler Alpine||192||BMW 3 Series||144||Renault 30 TS||107|
|1977||Rover 3500||157||Audi 100||138||Ford Fiesta||135|
|1978||Porsche 928||261||BMW 7 Series||231||Ford Granada||203|
|1979||Chrysler Horizon||251||Fiat Ritmo||239||Audi 80||181|
|1980||Lancia Delta||369||Opel Kadett/Vauxhall Astra||301||Peugeot 505||199|
|1981||Ford Escort Mk3||326||Fiat Panda||308||Austin Metro||255|
|1982||Renault 9||335||Opel Ascona/Vauxhall Cavalier||304||Volkswagen Polo||252|
|1983||Audi 100||410||Ford Sierra||386||Volvo 760||157|
|1984||Fiat Uno||346||Peugeot 205||325||Volkswagen Golf||156|
|1985||Opel Kadett/Vauxhall Astra||326||Renault 25||261||Lancia Thema||191|
|1986||Ford Scorpio/Granada Mk3||337||Lancia Y10||291||Mercedes-Benz 200-300E||273|
|1987||Opel Omega/Vauxhall Carlton||275||Audi 80||238||BMW 7 Series||175|
|1988||Peugeot 405||464||Citroën AX||252||Honda Prelude||234|
|1989||Fiat Tipo||356||Opel Vectra/Vauxhall Cavalier||261||Volkswagen Passat||194|
|1990||Citroën XM||390||Mercedes-Benz SL||215||Ford Fiesta||214|
|1991||Renault Clio||312||Nissan Primera||258||Opel/Vauxhall Calibra||183|
|1992||Volkswagen Golf||276||Opel/Vauxhall Astra||231||Citroën ZX||213|
|1993||Nissan Micra||338||Fiat Cinquecento||304||Renault Safrane||244|
|1994||Ford Mondeo||290||Citroën Xantia||264||Mercedes-Benz C-Class||192|
|1995||Fiat Punto||370||Volkswagen Polo||292||Opel/Vauxhall Omega||272|
|1996||Fiat Bravo/Brava||378||Peugeot 406||363||Audi A4||246|
|1997||Renault Mégane Scénic||405||Ford Ka||293||Volkswagen Passat||248|
|1998||Alfa Romeo 156||454||Volkswagen Golf||266||Audi A6||265|
|1999||Ford Focus||444||Opel/Vauxhall Astra||269||Peugeot 206||248|
|2000||Toyota Yaris||344||Fiat Multipla||325||Opel/Vauxhall Zafira||265|
|2001||Alfa Romeo 147||238||Ford Mondeo||237||Toyota Prius||229|
|2002||Peugeot 307||286||Renault Laguna||244||Fiat Stilo||243|
|2003||Renault Mégane||322||Mazda 6||302||Citroën C3||214|
|2004||Fiat Panda||281||Mazda 3||241||Volkswagen Golf||241|
|2005||Toyota Prius||406||Citroën C4||267||Ford Focus||228|
|2006||Renault Clio||256||Volkswagen Passat||251||Alfa Romeo 159||212|
|2007||Ford S-Max||235||Opel/Vauxhall Corsa||233||Citroën C4 Picasso||222|
|2008||Fiat 500||385||Mazda2||325||Ford Mondeo||202|
|2009||Opel/Vauxhall Insignia||321||Ford Fiesta||320||Volkswagen Golf||223|
|2010||Volkswagen Polo||347||Toyota iQ||337||Opel/Vauxhall Astra||221|
|2011||Nissan Leaf||257||Alfa Romeo Giulietta||248||Opel/Vauxhall Meriva||244|
|2012||Chevrolet Volt/Opel Ampera||330||Volkswagen up!||281||Ford Focus||256|
|2013||Volkswagen Golf||414||Toyota GT86/Subaru BRZ||202||Volvo V40||189|
|2014||Peugeot 308||307||BMW i3||223||Tesla Model S||216|
|2015||Volkswagen Passat||340||Citroën C4 Cactus||248||Mercedes-Benz C-Class||221|
|2016||Opel/Vauxhall Astra||312||Volvo XC90||294||Mazda MX-5||202|
|2017||Peugeot 3008||319||Alfa Romeo Giulia||296||Mercedes-Benz E-Class||197|
|2018||Volvo XC40||325||SEAT Ibiza||242||BMW 5 Series||226|
|2019||Jaguar I-Pace||250||Alpine A110||250||Kia Ceed||247|
|2020||Peugeot 208||281||Tesla Model 3||242||Porsche Taycan||222|