December is when much of Australia starts preparing for the festive season.
But for the nine seasoned Australia’s Best Cars judges, it means descending on the Australian Automotive Research Centre at Anglesea, south-west of Melbourne, to put the best of the market’s new cars to the test for five gruelling days.
Best Cars is the most comprehensive, objective and transparent vehicle test in the country, covering everything from city cars and SUVs to sports cars and four-wheel drives.
During the testing week almost 50 cars will cover 10,000km through a range of carefully chosen disciplines designed to assess how comfortable a car is, how it performs and whether it lives up to its intended function.
But Australia’s Best Cars judges also collate data on everything from fuel consumption and insurance costs to dealer accessibility and servicing costs, all with the aim of arming consumers with detailed information on which is the best car for them.
And it’s not just that week of judging that makes an Australia’s Best Cars winner. Throughout the year judges from motoring clubs around the country are driving and evaluating hundreds of cars.
“Australia’s Best Cars is a 12-month program each year,” explains the RACV’s Greg Hill, a Best Cars judge since its inception in 2000. “When we finish our judging at Anglesea we write our stories then start working on next year’s program.”
The judging process, too, gets a tweak to ensure it’s relevant and up to date, accounting for the arrival of new technologies – which, more recently, includes crash avoidance technology such as autonomous emergency braking – and changes in market trends, such as the dramatic shift towards SUVs over the past decade.
“We review the judging every year,” says Greg. “The basic core of the testing is the same but we move with the times as required … we review it to reflect changes in market trends and new features.”
It’s all with the aim of ensuring the dozens of new arrivals are accurately and meticulously scored – all with consumers in mind.
And testing begins before judges arrive at the high security proving ground that is used to train drivers, develop new vehicles and host events covering all things automotive. People movers, for example, are used to ferry judges and their luggage from the airport, giving a crucial insight into how they meet the Family Wagon criteria.
But the testing week is where the intense focus on the latest new arrivals and the Australia’s Best Cars finalists heats up.
“Test week is the final piece of the puzzle. It’s a chance to confirm and refine our year-long testing work,” says Greg, adding that the competition continues to improve, further challenging judges to ensure their methodology is right.
“Sometimes it’s not until you step back into something that was terrific a few years ago that you realise how far things have come.”