Armed with the latest iPads, loaded with sophisticated analytical software, 26 of the country’s top motoring journalists will soon gather at a country hotel outside Johannesburg with a single aim in mind: deciding the South African Car of the Year (COTY) 2018.

It may seem like an insurmountable task to compare the wallet draining German marques with a Japanese or Korean compact costing a fifth of the price – or less. But the South African Guild of Motoring Journalists, which operates on a quasi-military basis when it comes to membership, has had a mountain of experience running this competition since 1986.

From an extensive list of 35 semi-finalists, just 10 models have made the cut and the finalists will be put through their paces with routes and handling tests that weren’t designed by Lewis Hamilton, but rather to emulate the average driver’s capabilities and desires.

The jury will score the mixed band of automobiles on a long list of criteria, from aesthetics to ergonomics, from fuel consumption to environmental friendliness – and most importantly on value for money.

That’s how the modest Opel Astra was able to trump the likes of the majestic Jaguar F-Pace and edge out the Audi A4 by a mere handful of points.

That was after three Porsche victories in a row and the Volvo XC90 scooping the honors with the resultant prestige and sales in COTY 2016.

“By virtually unanimously approving of the Opel Astra, the jury has again proven that experience is the key to the success of the competition,” says Car of the Year convenor Bernard Hellberg Jnr.

“The Astra is a worthy winner of South Africa’s ultimate motoring accolade.”

And it wasn’t for the first time. The Astra 160iS was top of the podium when the Springboks won the World Cup back in 1995.

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In recent years it is the model series, and not specific engine variants, that gets adjudicated and the manufacturers are discouraged from loading their entry with optional extras to impress the panel of motoring journalists.

Just like judging a forward 4.5 somersault in tuck position at the Olympics, radical low and high scores get eradicated to prevent over-enthusiasm or any hint of bias.

So, onwards and upwards to the title aspirants for 2018 and the ranges that you might be tempted to chalk down for your festive season shopping list.

BMW is the most decorated winner in the competition’s history having taken the crown six times.

And the Bavarians are back in the frame with the all-new 5-series.

The BMW 5 Series sedan (Photo by www.bmw.co.za)

The marketing blurb may wax lyrical about the exterior styling changes with the signature kidney grille being larger and more upright, the headlight elements going from round to hexagonal and the stretched lines with the rear window being steeply raked to give more of a “fastback” appearance.

But, apart from the awe-inspiring i8 and a few other exceptions, BMW have taken the conservative road and you won’t be staggered by the new look.

Which means that you may not feel such a pang of envy if you pull up next to the latest offering in your sixth generation 528i. But when you open the door of the current 5-series you may turn very green indeed. This is where the “Business Athlete” hits the mark in virtually every aspect.

Daniel Mayerle and the design team have done an astounding job with an interior, that is modern and clean-cut without being brash, and controls and infotainment that are cutting edge yet practical.

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There is a disconnect in the premium motoring world when it comes to technology. The trend is to try and lead the race with touch-screen systems that are designed for techies at Elon Musk’s rocket factory yet it is mainly the stone-age.com generation buying the cars.

And BMW have come up with an intuitive system with enough manual overrides so that you don’t have to go through a painful and distracting series of screen options to turn the aircon up!

I tested the two-liter turbofour 530i which is faster, more fuel efficient, emits fewer pollutants and weighs in at a basic price of $62,000.

It may not push your adrenalin to the limit, but will take you to the ton in a shade over six seconds and is smoother than George Clooney sipping a Nespresso.

If you have a penchant for fancy features, you’ve come to the right cabin. How about Gesture Control so that you can just swipe your hand to the left to disconnect a call from the boss or rotate your finger clockwise to raise the radio volume.

And wireless charging for your cellphone by just placing it on the neat pad in front of the gear selector.

The list of options is overwhelming – which makes ordering the right specifications for your new chariot a compelling and possibly expensive exercise.

The Porsche Macan, Cayman and Boxster have all taken the laurels before and now the incredibly roomy four-seater Panamera is in the mix with its controversial rump getting some remarkable aluminium surgery. It is now the complete looker we have come to expect from the Stuttgart stable where the cars are sculpted rather than designed.

And the attention to the rear end is a total disservice to the Porsche team which has been so energetic and visionary in producing a vehicle where virtually only the badge remains the same.

The V-shaped array of controls has been replaced by touch screens which burst into life when you ignite the turbo and it is a bewildering experience getting to know your way around this cyber cockpit. Maybe a prime case of techno overkill?

What I could feel by the seat of my pants is that the Audi-developed 2.9-liter V-6 Turbo, very ably assisted by the new 8-speed gearbox, propels the Panamera 4S to 100km/h in 4.2 seconds.  The series must be a serious challenger.

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Land Rover is yet to take the title as South Africa’s Car of the Year, but the new Discovery, which has shed 400 kilos and has reportedly got astounding off-road ability, may have what it takes to go beyond its rivals in the market.

What the Discovery hasn’t shed is the dollars. With a base price of $72,000 it may battle in the value-for-money stakes.

On the financial front, the Alfa Romeo Giulia is well placed among its obvious rivals in a cash-strapped economy. The base price for the perky two-liter petrol with 8-speed automatic transmission is a touch over $40,000.

Compared to some boring teutonic monikers, the Italian name conjures up images of passion, style and performance and the Giulia doesn’t disappoint in terms of ABS – Adrenalin Boost per Second. After all it is the runner-up in Europe’s Car of the Year.

The winner overseas? The fashionable Peugeot 3008 SUV which is not the first French voiture to strut its stuff on the local COTY catwalk but could be the first to drive away with the prize.

Honda call the CR-V a comfortable runabout vehicle. They have sold more than nine million of them in 150 countries around the world with the more robust and chunky fifth generation set to keep the cash register ticking.

Then there is the futuristically-styled Toyota C-HR which takes crossover sportiness to a new level and undercuts the Honda and Peugeot by a substantial margin.

Toyota won the very first Car of the Year way back in 1986 with the Corolla Twin Cam, and the C-HR leads the charge for the country’s leading automaker.

But heavy competition in the crossover/SUV stakes (along with a bigger dent in the bank balance) comes from the latest Audi Q5. No visually dramatic changes but bigger, lighter and with 10 liters more luggage space.

The pint-sized Suzuki Ignis crossover hits our shores at a quarter of the Q5 price and is practical yet fun to drive with some modern, youthful interior touches. Amazingly it accommodates my lanky two-meter frame with ease!

I’m not sure if the Kia Picanto would do the same, but the third-generation looks set to put some zing into the competition with its “tiger-nose” grille and price tag of under $10,000.

And finally there is the Volvo S90, taking on the likes of BMW, Merc and Audi in the full-size luxury market. Volvo are hoping to complete a hat-trick for the Swedish automaker after are putting a massive capital injection of $11 billion behind the fray.

Now it is down to the motoring jury to tap their iPads at the beginning of 2018 and assess every aspect of the chosen 10. The irony is that none of them will know the final result until the curtain is drawn around the winner of the Car of the Year at the big reveal in March.

Drivers, start your engines…

Written by Derek Watts