The Numbers Game: Without data, you’re just another automotive outlet with an opinion
To paraphrase the quite-dead St. Augustine of Hippo, “Numbers are the language to confirm the truth.” And from where we sit, the old guy may have been on to something. Nowadays, all kinds of insights are being confirmed by what’s called Big Data—wherein mountains of digits get fire hosed through brain-boggling supercomputers.
Unfortunately, how we roll at Motor Trend is restricted by $600 Dell laptops. But we gleefully overcompensate for this by testing the ever-loving heck out of our field of Car of the Year hopefuls. And why not? Winning this contest means donning the biggest crown any new car gets to wear.
Let’s start with those two testing locales—the lab-coat setting of the Hyundai/Kia desert proving ground in California City (where we wear jeans and T-shirts) and the real-world environs surrounding the nearby settlement of Tehachapi (where everybody wears jeans and T-shirts). Both are tip-top places to test, so it’s no wonder that we’ve been visiting both for a solid decade now. (Special thanks to Hyundai for putting up with us all these years.) This is where our 11 judges congregated to drive our 23 eager contestants (actually 32 when you include significant drivetrain and trim variants) generously provided to us by 18 automotive brands.
Some numbers: To gauge high-speed stability, we circled the test track’s 6.4-mile oval for a total of 2,254 miles. While we sussed out ride quality, the lumps and bumps of the facility’s special surfaces pavement left 528 miles of thumping and hammering impressions on our bruised buttocks. Fortunately, the track’s winding road handling course soothed our pain with a 15-turn asphalt ribbon sprawled over a four-story elevation change. This somehow consumed much more tire tread than its 954 miles of testing would indicate. Several judges—who, me?—left behind considerably more rubber than others.
More numbers: If you total road test editor Chris Walton’s quarter-mile launches back to back, he was accelerating—continually—for 13.8 miles. To stop all that velocity, Chris punished his neck, collarbone, and pelvis with 128 threshold-braking tests (yet somehow held onto his carnitas taco lunches). Meanwhile, over at the figure-eight course I painted the sign of infinity with brush strokes of tire rubber for 60.7 miles—including 21.6 miles of steady-state cornering. I’m still weaving like a sailor after shore leave. At the Technical Center, the 145-pound Benson Kong supervised the weighing of 59.6 tons of cars.
All of this girded us for two days of looping the 27.6-mile subjective driving route through and around Tehachapi with our finalists. Even with our winnowed field, we still drove a staggering 3,339 miles (somehow avoiding the local constabulary in the process).
In total, we evaluated the field for 7,153 miles, the equivalent of driving from L.A. to Istanbul. We jotted 65,000 words in our notebooks about the contestants. That’s 311 miles and 2,826 words per entrant. We drank enough coffee to bolster Starbucks’ third-quarter profits. In the end, we debated the pros and cons of our Eventual Eleven for two (sometimes fractious, often humorous) hours.
All to discern the smallest digit of them all: one. To which we’ll hand our golden calipers for 2017. A truth with which St. Augustine would probably concur.
- Scott Evans – Associate editor
- Tom Gale – Guest judge
- Jonny Lieberman – Senior features editor
- Edward Loh – Editor-in-chief
- Angus MacKenzie – International bureau chief
- Frank Markus – Technical director
- Alisa Priddle – Detroit editor
- Mark Rechtin – Executive editor
- Kim Reynolds – Testing director
- Chris Theodore – Guest judge
- Chris Walton – Road test editor
2017 CAR OF THE YEAR CONTENDERS
- Buick LaCrosse
- Chevrolet Volt
- Fiat 124 Spider
- Ford Focus RS
- Honda Accord
- Hyundai Elantra
- Jaguar XF
- Kia Cadenza
- Kia Forte
- Mercedes-Benz C300 Coupe 4Matic
- Mercedes-Benz E300
- Mini Clubman
- Toyota Prius Two Eco
2017 CAR OF THE YEAR FINALISTS
- Audi A4
- Cadillac CT6
- Chevrolet Bolt
- Chrysler Pacifica
- Genesis G90
- Jaguar XE
- Porsche 911
- Tesla Model S 60/75
- Volvo S90
How We Test
Every September, this swath of the land north of Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert near Mojave is overrun by alien invaders. Its normal inhabitants of camo-painted Hyundai and Kia prototype vehicles, driven by serious-minded engineers, scurry for cover. One after another, rumbling transporters pull into the Hyundai-Kia-Genesis California Proving Ground parking lot, hiss to a stop, and expel the most interesting new cars this model year has to offer. Quickly, the cars scatter, some to the vast vehicle dynamics area for figure-eight testing, others to the straight stability road for acceleration and brake stops. Photographers commence shooting, their assistants battling to keep light boards steady in the persistent winds and blazing sun. Sunscreen-slathered videographers head to prime locations for panning shots. Cars take turns lapping the giant oval, bouncing over the rough-road special surfaces area, and snaking the winding road handling course. It’s a Barnum and Bailey five-ring circus. Keys are swapped, notes scribbled. Tacos are eaten and water chugged.
By the end, we narrow the field to 11 finalists. The unselected, heads still unbowed, reboard their transporters for the early ride home. Meanwhile, the favorites head for the nearby town of Tehachapi for our competition’s second act, our real-word on-road final shake out. The proving ground—our annual home away from home for a decade—returns to its normal rhythm. Until next year.
PHASE 1: TESTING, LIMIT HANDLING, AND THE HIGH-SPEED OVAL
Every September, this swath of the land north of Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert near Mojave is overrun by alien invaders. Its normal inhabitants of camo-painted Hyundai and Kia prototype vehicles, driven by serious-minded engineers, scurry for cover. One after another, rumbling transporters pull into the Hyundai Motor Group California Proving Ground parking lot, hiss to a stop, and expel the most interesting new cars this model year has to offer. Quickly, the cars scatter, some to the vehicle dynamics area for figure-eight testing, others to the straight stability road for acceleration and brake stops. Photographers commence shooting, their assistants battling to keep light boards steady in the persistent winds. Sunscreen-slathered videographers head out for panning shots. Cars take turns lapping the giant oval, bouncing over the rough-road special surfaces area, and snaking the winding road handling course. Keys are swapped, notes scribbled. Tacos are eaten and water chugged.
By the end, we narrow the field to 11 finalists. We then head for the nearby town of Tehachapi for our competition’s second act, our real-word on-road final shakeout. The proving ground—our annual home away from home for a decade—returns to its normal rhythm. Until next year.
PHASE 2: REAL-WORLD ROAD LOOPS
We took 11 cars forward this year to tackle the real-world road loop in Tehachapi, California. This 27.6-mile mix of highway, city, and tight canyon roads starts in Tehachapi before climbing a mountain pass. The route snakes back toward State Route 58 via a two-lane country road. Judges pay attention to road and wind noise, steering response, and ride quality. They also test audio, climate, and driver-assistance systems.
1. Tehachapi Boulevard
Low-speed stop-start driving tests transmission calibration, throttle and brake tip-in, low-speed ride, and visibility.
2. Tehachapi–Willow Springs Road
Broken pavement tests tire noise suppression and whether NVH is transmitted into the body structure.
3. Tehachapi–Willow Springs Road summit
A sustained climb tests torque and transmission response; a sustained descent tests cruise-control effectiveness.
4. Cameron Road
A canyon road with mid-corner elevation changes induces major transient loads, ideal for testing steering, chassis balance, and body control.
5. Rail Crossing 1
A sharp bump at 10 mph tests the suspension effectiveness.
Patched and broken concrete induces tire noise and high-frequency vibrations. Smooth asphalt tests ride quality in a commuting situation. The freeway stretch also allows for testing of cruise control, passive and active safety systems, semi-autonomous driving, and passing power.
7. Rail Crossing 2
An angled crossing induces twisting loads for a good assessment of chassis rigidity.