What Car? Car of the Year winners. Remembering the greats

By: Jim Murrayjones
What Car? Car of the Year winner 2019, the Kia e-Nero, the first electric car winner
Renault 20 TS Renault 20, the inaugural What Car? COTY winner

It might be an unexceptional vehicle today, but in the late 1970s, the Renault 20 TS was something of an extraordinary car. Conceived during the decade’s energy crisis, it was an executive car that could clip 0 to 60mph in a heady 12.7 seconds. Enough to outpace contemporary rivals from Ford and Rover.

With power steering, electric front windows and central locking, Renault made the bold claim that no other luxury vehicle packed as many features at its price point.
 
But as unremarkable as these standards appear today, there remains one accolade that will forever stand the test of time. The humble Renault 20 TS went down in history as the first ever winner of the What Car? Car of the Year Awards, when the event premiered in 1978.

Kia receive their prized accolade in 2019

The Oscars of the Car World

Known affectionally by insiders as the COTYs, the What Car? Awards have grown to become the motoring world’s equivalent of the Oscars. From the start, the COTYs, were designed to be the antidote to awards that championed the fastest or sexiest cars of the day.
 
Their original premise was pure and simple: to cater to the average man or woman on the street. As What Car? themselves claimed at the time, “a ‘rich person’s car of the year’ wasn’t going to help anyone”. With the country heading towards the infamous winter of discontent, they weren’t wrong.

To qualify for the awards, a car has to be available to order by the time of the ceremony and must have been launched in the previous 12-months.  
 
Forty-five years later the What Car? awards are more influential than ever. The cache of receiving the hallowed “What Car? Winner” label, is a badge of honour that can catapult sales and brand reputation. The VW Golf, Nissan Qashqai and Ford Fiesta are three such winners that went on to ride a huge wave of success.
 
Next year, for the second time in its history, MotorEasy will be headline sponsors. The event, on January 20 at the Grosvenor House London, is a glittering ceremony attended by a who’s-who of industry figureheads.  In the wake of a lockdown that has stretched global supply chains and tested the very best manufacturers, it occurs at a time of enormous significance for the industry.

As Motoreasy CEO Duncan McClure Fisher put it, “the whole motoring sector is gripped by seismic change, the transition to electric drive trains, the compounding effects of the pandemic and a far more global competitor market has opened-up the race for innovation and investment. Winning the awards has never been more important to a brand's commercial success.”

Four-time winner, the VW Golf, perhaps the gold-standard family hatchback

Tracking the Progress of Time

Looking back over its 45-year history, the What Car? awards have been a constant barometer of trend and fortune sweeping the industry. Amongst the rollcall of winners, the VW Golf has remained the most steadfast, winning the award on four occasions.
 
It also provides a record of just how far cars have evolved in the intervening years, perhaps nowhere more so than emissions. Thanks to inventions like catalytic converters introduced from 1993 and diesel particulate filters introduced from 2011, it would take 50 new cars today to produce the same emissions as just one vehicle in 1970.

Peugeot 205, winner in 1984, a hothatch whose legacy endures

During the early years, COTY winners were exclusively European, with French brands Renault and Peugeot making a regular appearance. Notably the 1984 winner, the Peugeot 205, whose GTi version remains a much-lauded hot hatch amongst petrolheads everywhere.
 
It wasn’t until 2002 that the first Asian car brand reigned supreme, the Toyota Corolla. Recognised for its fuel efficiency, reliability and practicality, the Corolla remains to this day one of the best-selling cars of all time. By 2021, it clocked-up the milestone of 50 million cars sold, across 12 generations of model stretching back to 1966.

Toyota Corolla, the first Asian COTY winner in 2002

Throughout the 2000s, What Car? winners have steered a more northern European course, with BMW and the Volkswagen Audi Group claiming 10 wins between them. Perhaps surprisingly, Audi themselves had to wait as late as 2011 to claim a top podium position, the Audi A1 seizing the crown, despite the best efforts of early trailblazers like the iconic 1980s Quattro.

Perhaps surprisingly, Asian brands have remained relatively few and far between amongs the top-spot winners. Alongside the aforementioned Corolla, the Nissan Qashqai claimed top spot in 2014 and in 2019 the Kia e-Niro achieved the historic landmark of becoming the award’s first ever electric car winner.

And the winner is...

So, as we edge towards the awards ceremony on January 20th at the Grosvenor House London, which car will claim the hallowed prize of 2022 overall winner? Could it mark a permanent swing towards electric vehicles? If so, perhaps the VW ID.4., Kia EV6 and Hyundai Ioniq 5 might stand a chance.

One thing is for sure, whoever claims the spot will have deserved their win, riding the rigour of a scientifically forensic judging process that puts cars through a famous three stage evaluation – on road, on track and on paper. For the test boffins at What Car?

It's a combination of crunching the numbers to evaluate real-world cost of ownership and value for money. Before putting the cars through their paces at the Millbrook proving-ground circuit. Finally, there's a blended test of motorway and everyday urban roads to assess the drive experience.

It's perhaps that last stage that echoes back to the What Car? founding mission: to find find the best new car for sale that caters to the needs of the average person on the street.  

Every What Car? Car of the Year Winner Since 1978

  • 1978 Renault 20 TS
  • 1979 Peugeot 305
  • 1980 Vauxhall Astra
  • 1981 Volkswagen Golf GTI
  • 1982 Mercedes 200T
  • 1983 MG Metro
  • 1984 Peugeot 205 
  • 1985 Volkswagen Golf 
  • 1986 Saab 9000 Turbo 16
  • 1987 Renualt 21 Savanna GTX
  • 1988 BMW 7 Series 
  • 1989 Ford Fiesta 1
  • 1990 Rover 214 Si
  • 1991 Rover Metro 
  • 1992 Volkswagen Golf 
  • 1993 Ford Modeo 
  • 1994 Peugeot 306 
  • 1995 Volkswagen Polo 
  • 1996 Peugeot 406 2.0 LX
  • 1997 Renault Megane Scenic 
  • 1998 Land Rover Defender
  • 1999 Rover 75 1.8 Club
  • 2000 Skoda Fabia 
  • 2001 Ford Modeo 
  • 2002 Toyota Corolla
  • 2003 Seat Ibiza
  • 2004 Volkswagen Golf
  • 2005 Land Rover Discovery TDV6
  • 2006 BMW 3 Series 
  • 2007 Vauxhall Corsa 1.4 Club
  • 2008 Jaguar XF
  • 2009 Ford Fiesta
  • 2010 Peugeot 3008
  • 2011 Audi A1 
  • 2012 Volkswagen Up
  • 2013 Audi A3 Sportback
  • 2014 Nissan Qashqai
  • 2015 Skoda Fabia
  • 2016 Audi A4 
  • 2017 BMW 5-series 
  • 2018 Volvo XC40
  • 2019 Kia e-Niro – the first electric car winner
  • 2020 Ford Puma
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