The Angeles Crest Highway twists and turns through the mountains northeast of Los Angeles. It’s a wiggly route up to the ski hills, and for a few days each year, it’s an unofficial test road for the World Car of the Year Awards. Which is why I’m here.
There are about 100 automotive journalists around the world who judge vehicles to decide the winner – I’m one of three Canadians. We drive cars throughout the year, but the California test drives are an opportunity to consider various vehicles for the North American market driven back-to-back on the same challenging route: some city, some interstate and the Angeles Crest.
There are 78 vehicles in contention this year, everything from the Porsche 911 GT3 RS to the Ora Funky Cat compact electric car. The deadline for voting is the end of January, when they’ll be whittled down to a short list in each of five categories, before more judging and then the final announcement at the New York auto show in the spring.
But first, I have a bunch of cars to drive up into the California mountains.
Cars are judged on eight parameters, including value, safety, innovation, emotional appeal, market significance and environmental impact. On these roads, I’m concerned about comfort and performance.
First up was the Hyundai Ioniq 6, the new electric sedan that will come to Canadian showrooms this spring. Half of the two-dozen vehicles waiting to be driven here are fully electric or plug-in hybrids, and last year all three finalists were fully electric. The ultimate award went to the Hyundai Ioniq 5.
To be eligible, vehicles must be mass-produced, either all-new or significantly redesigned, and must be sold in at least two major markets on at least two continents. The Ioniq 6 qualifies easily, but I agreed not to reveal anything about the vehicle until a later time before being handed the key – it won’t be driven by most automotive journalists for several more months yet. All I will say is that it’s similar to the existing Ioniq 5.
Next, I drove the Nissan Ariya, the long awaited electric crossover that’s now arriving in showrooms and is already sold out. Electric vehicles have the advantage on tightly winding roads because their centres of gravity are lower and distributed more evenly than most – the majority of their weight is in the batteries, which are stored flat beneath the EV’s floor. The Ariya didn’t disappoint in its handling, but it was relatively slow; I was happy to follow behind an old Toyota Camry on the mountain road. This was the front-wheel-drive version – the all-wheel drive should arrive soon, but like most EVs, Nissan has had supply-chain problems with the Ariya’s production.
The crossover Kia Niro EV proved practical but lacklustre, because it’s not a vehicle designed for making the most of curving canyon roads. The Mercedes-Benz EQB was more enjoyable with its extra power and driver-coddling comforts, and despite having all-wheel drive, the luxury electric SUV starts just slightly higher than the top-trim Ariya. For that small price difference, I would recommend the EQB.
The Mercedes-Benz EQS, despite only being one letter different from the EQB, costs much more than any Nissan save the GT-R. With a $136,000 price tag, it has many comforts, including luxuriously padded head restraints, but they were expensive, cancelling them out in the voting. (If something is better, it earns more points, but if it comes at an extra cost, that removes the points). Performance was exceptional for such a heavy SUV, but again, throw in enough costly batteries and you can go as fast and about as far as you like.
I came back to reality with the gas-powered sports cars. The 300 horsepower Toyota GR Corolla was less expensive than most of the World Car test fleet, at about $50,000, and was a pleasure to drive once I reached the Angeles Crest. Before then, in town and on the interstate, not so much, where it was bumpy and noisy. Once I reached the mountains and set the limited-slip differential to give priority to the rear wheels, I enjoyed the curves, but the six-speed manual transmission felt unfamiliar and inefficient after the single-gear transmissions and regenerative braking of the electric cars.
And then there was the new Nissan Z with its 400-horsepower twin-turbo V6, which was always comfortable, always responsive, and always satisfying. Its price tag of $60,000 for the Performance trim level, with leather seats and 19-inch wheels, only added to the appeal. I stayed out longer in the new Z than I was supposed to because it was such a pleasure to drive. It’s my choice for World Performance Car, but like the Ariya, Nissan can’t supply enough of them to meet demand and is not currently taking orders.
I drove many other cars too, noting their strengths and weaknesses, but these are the vehicles that stood out for me. My choice for World Car of the Year will be the Hyundai Ioniq 6, and my choice for World Electric Vehicle of the Year will be the BMW i7 that I first drove in Palm Springs. World Luxury Car? That’s a tougher decision – perhaps the BMW 7 Series again, or maybe the Lucid Air that you’ll read about here soon. There’ll be a second round of voting next month before everything is revealed April 5 in New York.