Is the European Car Of The Year award an invaluable guide for consumers looking for the best car their money can buy? Or is it just a classic example of how a group of Europeans could never collectively reach the obvious conclusion, even if it was parked in front of them with flashing LED lights on its roof?
Last week saw the 2014 ECOTY reach its climax. The competition shortlist was made up of seven of the best cars of the last 12 months, including the BMW i3, Citroën C4 Picasso, Mazda3, Mercedes-Benz S-class, Peugeot 308, Skoda Octavia and Tesla S.
The winner was announced at the start of the Geneva Motor Show and it was the staff on the Peugeot stand who were left grinning as the new 308 was crowned this year’s champion. It won by a big margin too, beating the BMW i3 by 84 points (307 to 223), with the Tesla S close behind with 216.
Well done Peugeot. It’s recognition of the hard work they’ve put in over the last couple of years to turn around their fortunes and invest in better cars. It’s fair to say their new 208 and 308 are much better than the cars they replaced.
But that doesn’t mean the 308 deserved to win. It is, after all, just another hatchback. A good one, admittedly, but not one that pushes the game on. It’s about as conventional as you get and, while many buyers like conventional, it’s not the sort of thing awards should be celebrating.
European emissions standards are among the toughest in the world, designed to force manufacturers into making their cars hug trees, cuddle polar bears and run on little more than fresh air. They’re the stick that’s used to beat the manufacturers whereas ECOTY has been the carrot to reward good behaviour.
Previous winners have included the all-electric Nissan LEAF, the Toyota Prius hybrid and the range-extender Vauxhall Ampera. Three cars that take slightly different approaches to the problem of ‘green’ motoring but that share common goals – to make motoring more sustainable.
So maybe the ECOTY judges were suffering from green fatigue. Maybe they were bored with advanced technology winning and decided they needed to pick something a bit more ordinary to redress the balance. Because the car that should have won was one of the most advanced designs we’ve seen for some time. The car that should have won was the BMW i3.
For a start it’s an electric car. ECOTY has already been there and rewarded the Nissan LEAF for that but in the i3’s case it’s an electric car with a range of up to 100 miles. ‘So what?’, you may say, ‘the LEAF and Renault Zoe can match that’. What you can’t do with the LEAF or Zoe is order them with a range extender, but in the i3 you can specify a small two-cylinder petrol engine and 9-litre fuel tank. The petrol engine acts as a generator to keep the battery topped up and almost doubles the range to 186 miles, preventing range anxiety from scaring off buyers.
More significant is the fact that it’s the first mass-produced car to use carbon fibre in the construction of its passenger compartment. Yes, the same technology used in Formula 1 and high-end supercars is now featured in a compact electric car that’s being built in big numbers.
Carbon fibre is a vital part of the car’s structure and the material’s strength and low weight are a key element of BMW’s design philosophy. A carbon fibre structure weighs around half of its steel equivalent and almost 30% less than aluminium, allowing BMW to offset the weight of the lithium ion battery. Light weight means it needs less battery power to keep up a respectable range and that means smaller batteries can be used, reducing the biggest cost that faces electric vehicles.
The i3 also looks like something from a sci-fi movie. It’s still recognisable as a car (sadly no hover function here) but the two-tone colour scheme, black tail gate, big wheels and distinctive LED lights make it look like a concept car that’s mistakenly found itself in the showroom.
That futuristic design hides some clever thinking. The batteries, for example, sit underneath the seats, keeping the centre of gravity nice and low to improve stability. The narrow, low resistance tyres are in stark contrast to the fashion for wider tyres and bigger cornering speeds, but they’re there to improve efficiency and range.
OK, so the i3 isn’t cheap at over £30,000, but that’s before you include the £5,000 government subsidy (it’s still available so grab it while you can). If you’re not averse to buying a car on finance BMW do offer tempting finance packages and the i3 doesn’t tie you in to a battery lease, unlike a certain French model, so it’s more affordable than the price label suggests.
The i3 could be the car that makes electric go mainstream. Nissan and Renault have both made very good electric cars but outside of the motoring press few people know about them. What the BMW badge does is add that aspirational factor, that magical ‘must have’ aura that’s going to pull punters in from the streets and into the driving seat of an electric car.
And that’s why the European Car of the Year award really doesn’t matter. Yes, the Peugeot 308 is an improvement on the car it replaces but is that really all we want? The same but a little better? Can’t we be more ambitious than that?