What's it like to judge Australia's Best Cars? We ask RACV's Liam McPhan, who put some of the top cars through their paces at the Australian Automotive Research Centre near Anglesea.
Photos: Shannon Morris, Ben Weinstein and Shannon Reddaway. Slow-motion video: Jade Thrupp.
So you got to drive some of the best cars in Australia on a closed testing track through bush and gravel and mud. Is that as fun as it sounds?
If you love driving cars it is certainly a lot of fun, but there’s much more to it than that.
Sure, part of the testing involves finding the limits of the vehicle, but a big part of the focus is placed on driving the vehicles in the same way most drivers would use a particular kind of car.
First impressions of the AARC facility?
The sheer size of the place, it covers 1000 hectares!
We drove in on an unsealed road, then through the gates and around the corner to see the cars lined up, ready to be driven. The scale of what was to come over the next four days began to sink in.
A poster on the wall inside showed the testing ground from the air. Some of the other judges (there were eight of us, all experienced testers from Australia’s auto clubs) pointed out the various places where we’d be doing all our testing and I started to think I might get lost.
How was the track?
For my first run around the testing loop I was a passenger, and we used the sighting lap to check for hazards, and for the more experienced judge to run me through what a typical test lap looks like, highlighting reference points for braking and acceleration runs, advising speeds for the slalom and lane-change manoeuvres and pointing out suggested driving lines around the smooth asphalt and the coarse, slippery gravel track.
Did you drive all day, every day?
The days were long, with breakfast at 7am, three-quarters of the day in the cars, and the afternoon discussing our thoughts about the vehicles in great detail among the judges, sometimes extending discussions through dinner.
We’d already driven tens of thousands of kilometres across the year examining every aspect of the top vehicles’ features and performance, so there was plenty to talk about and evaluate.
What was the best bit?
The sports cars came out later in the week and then it was all smiles as we put some pretty impressive machines through their paces. After this we put the SUVs and utes through a series of off-road tests - mud, potholes and all.
How did you get into this?
There’s no one way into the industry, but almost all the ABC judges have a technical background.
I got my boat licence at 12, car learner permit at 16, and I loved driving cars from the minute I got behind the wheel. I studied mechanical engineering at RMIT where I took part in Formula SAE, a competition where engineering students design and build a small open-wheel race car. I also have a motorbike which I’ve ridden on the Phillip Island Circuit.
I did an internship with a defence contractor, then landed my current job at RACV where I test and review vehicles, and work on projects including fuel prices and car operating costs.
Would you do it all again?
Absolutely.This was a chance to get behind the wheel of vehicles I otherwise wouldn’t get the opportunity to drive in my lifetime.
At a professional level the best thing about the program was the level of experience and expertise brought by the judges. It’s been an amazing learning experience both about myself, the industry, and the incredible level of engineering that goes into producing the cars on our roads today.
Australia's Best Cars will be revealed on 21 June. Look out for our dedicated eNews announcing all 15 category winners, from micro to sports cars, SUVs to utes, or go to racv.com.au/abc