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Paul Horrell: why I voted the Astra as Car of The Year

TG's own Paul Horrell is also a juror for European Car of The Year

I work on Top Gear, but I’m also a juror for the pan-European award, Car of the Year. The two are very different things. The Astra has just won CotY

If I was choosing the best car for us crazed Top Gear petrolheads, the Astra wouldn’t be it. Probably not even choosing among mid-sized hatchbacks.

But in the CotY judging, for normal carbuyers the Astra does a terrific job. Even if from a TG point of view the Golf and Focus both drive with slightly more elan.

Anyway the Focus and Golf aren’t eligible for CotY because they aren’t ‘of the year’. They’ve been around a while, and in fact the Golf won in 2013.

But the Astra is worthy of the CotY award. It has GM’s paradigm-shifting OnStar system, which brings a free high-speed wi-fi hotspot into the car, plus instant contact to a real human who will programme your nav system so you don’t have to. Or indeed do you a bit of light Googling. And who knows where you are so can tell you useful stuff locally without the hopeless scrolling of using on-line systems on car screens.

We jurors select a shortlist of seven cars. They were the Audi A4, BMW 7-series, Jaguar XE, Mazda MX-5, Vauxhall Astra, Skoda Superb, Volvo XC90.

Then to choose a winner we each get 25 points to award among them. We aren’t allowed to give any car more than 10.

Mine went like this:

Astra 6; BMW, Jag, Mazda, and Volvo 4 each, Audi 3, Skoda zero.

We also give our reasons. Here’s a copy of mine.

The Audi is a very well-executed car. To a strong platform it adds efficient powertrains, impressive quietness, superb interior quality and a brilliant infotainment interface. But its target audience is people who don’t really enjoy cars. The styling is conservative, even timid, and most versions don’t greatly engage the driver.

The 7-series is another one held back by ultra-conservative styling and muted driver feedback. But its weight-saving measures are admirable. The powertrain, chassis and driver support innovations are bold and effective. And all of this, with the exception of the carbon body elements, will soon be transposed down to cheaper, more widely sold BMWs.

Jaguar? This is difficult. For most people I’d actually recommend the Audi over the Jaguar. The Jaguar suffers a noisy diesel engine, a bit of wind rustle at speed, and a clunky infotainment system (which Jaguar acknowledges by planning a new one for 2017). But it’s a joy to drive and beautiful, and those things matter to me personally so I’ve indulged it with an extra point.

Mazda reminds us that driving joy doesn’t depend on having hundreds of horsepower. This little thing is light and simple and, if history shows us anything, cheap to own and reliable. If the chassis calibration was slightly different – to my taste the steering is too twitchy at the beginning and end of a corner – this might have been my top scorer.

The Astra is merely class-competitive rather than clearly class-leading for dynamics and space. But it’s light and efficient, and brings some good technologies at low prices. I think its connectivity – OnStar and screen interface – represents a step-change and will be of real benefit to millions of family and business buyers. It looks good too.

The Skoda certainly gives huge space and decent quality for the money. But it’s a good car not a great one, and an extended wheelbase hardy counts as an epoch-making innovation. Also, all the other cars on the shortlist are more or less entirely new this year. Not this one.

The Volvo is a wonderful family wagon: very well packaged, relaxing and safe, with lovely interior design. Those are obvious, so I’ll point out imperfections. Its much-vaunted screen-based interface doesn’t actually work as well as the Astra’s, in the real world the new engines save less fuel than expected, and the seat-fold mechanisms are fiddly.

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