VOTY '13: How Did We Get Here?

Getting a Bath Finally!
Last year's VOTY prepping for its evaluation… Photo by Randy Stern

The 2013 Victory & Reseda Vehicle of The Year process is underway.

Through the evaluations, scoring, panel judgments and so forth, there is an art to keeping all of this together. It takes time, but it also takes understanding each vehicle o make the right judgment towards a particular score. The result is a tight race between a dozen or so vehicles that makes even selecting five finalists a tougher proposition than most.

How does a vehicle become a VOTY? Good question! Perhaps it is time to dig deep into the evaluation process.

THE TALE OF THE TAPE: The easiest data to glean from each vehicle are the numbers associated with each one. Specifications help to frame a comparison between engines, drivelines and performance to be simplified in looking at each one. Consider the variety of vehicles that are considered for the VOTY and use the law of averages. A small 1.2litre engine may not be equal to a big V8, but somewhere in the middle is a common thread. It could be a large four-cylinder – about 2.4-2.5litres – or a V6 commonly found on most crossovers and SUVs. It is hard to say what the average is without revealing any critical data pointing to a VOTY winner.

The horsepower race also continues. It used to be that the average engine amongst VOTY candidates would be below 200 horsepower. It is now over that threshold – securely. No one saw the onslaught of the 200-horsepower four-cylinder engine. Nor did anyone figure that turbochargers would become more reliable enough to be considered commonplace in today's automobiles. You could also throw in the growing use of electric motors, regenerative braking, along with other efficient and sustainable means of power generation and enhancement. The automobile is much more complex than before – a greater consideration when evaluating these candidates.

The trend amongst these candidates has been the number of gears in the transmission. It used to be that six ratios were the top of automatic transmission engineering. Now, it is nine ratios. It creates two interesting trends amongst the VOTY candidates – the common use of the six-speed automatic gearbox and the improvements upon continuously variable transmissions. Both are good topics of debates amongst enthusiasts and journalists alike.

Fuel economy is a given considering all of the above. V&R average fuel consumption average amongst test vehicles did jump well into mid-20s. Crossovers and SUVs helped fuel this jump with more reaching over the 20MPG threshold in mixed driving. More mid-sized vehicles are finding the 30MPG threshold, as well. Is it efficiency by design or by a right foot behavior – you decide!

Lastly, we have seen the average price of an automobile jump considerably over the past few years. It used to be that you could count on a compact never reaching over $20,000 fully loaded. That is now set at $25,000. Mid-sized automobiles are averaging close to $28,000 based on equipment levels. Then again, V&R has seen some vehicles roll in at $60,000 or more this past "year." It would not be wise to speculate the reason why. There are plenty of thoughts on this subject to parse out.

LOOK AND FEEL: As much as online shopping is convenient without the hassle of retail help, nothing compares to using your senses to know when something is right. This goes for automobiles. How do you know is a vehicle is right for you if you do not look and feel one?

The eye is a great judge. Through the gift of sight, the stimuli will know whether a vehicle can engage other senses positively or otherwise. The eye also remembers. Without sight, how can you recall what something looks like?

This is why it starts outside – examining the exterior. The visual exercise concentrates on which line attracts the most and draws one inward to the vehicle. Grille textures, materials even aerodynamic tricks are considered when visually inspecting each product. Though many different kinds of vehicles are lumped into the VOTY mix, there is both common themes and distinct ideals to consider when looking at a particular vehicle. These days, relativity is becoming blurred from small cars to SUVs to trucks. All could be eye pleasing in their own way – even on a level playing field.

Going inside the cabin, another sense is deployed – touch. This could be construed as playing to a cliché by motoring journalists about the use of soft touch materials to perceive quality inside of a car. There is some truth in this. People want quality builds and long lasting materials to work with. The days of fading colors, cracked plastics and soggy seats are passé. We demand excellence even at the lowest price point.

The touch/feel element of the interior examination is key to a relationship with a vehicle. If you could understand the operation of the switches, knobs, screens and other touchable points, could you use them competently? Could one comprehend the information available in the instrument panel or other varying screens?

The final piece of this puzzle is the body's relationship with the cabin. Ultimately, seating is the biggest factor for any driver. The point of this exercise is to witness a tall person with some girth on his body take his place behind the wheel and behind himself as positioned behind the wheel. One does not accept the fact that fitting front and back is good enough. There is also comfort and support to be considered. Whether you drive across town and over several counties, one must be able to enjoy the drive without complaint – no mater where you sit.

THE EXPERIENCE: When an ignition is engaged – either by a key or a button sensed from a fob – the fun begins.

To know a vehicle is to drive one. Each vehicle went through an average of 400 miles a piece in urban, suburban and rural environments. They saw duty in heavy traffic in downtown Minneapolis, looping around the Twin Cities' freeway systems and allowed a chance to roam further afield from Duluth down to Wabasha to Mankato, Willmar and Saint Cloud. Some even had the chance to cross into Wisconsin – a few went deeper.

No matter where they went, there are key points of evaluation that needed to be judged on. Measuring driving dynamics does not require exacting data through computers and measuring instruments. It could also be seen experientially.

One could experientially absorb the power of an engine, whenever on the highway or around town. One could measure the transmission’s reaction to throttle with some instrument or smart phone application. Rather, the degree of roll on the corners, braking distance and response action, steering lock and degree of "play" on-center – all could be measured scientifically.

Driving dynamics is born from "feel." The human response to "feel" is not absolute, but it helps to have a standard response to a vehicle’s behavior. It helps to measure the experience to capture the "feel" of a vehicle. This means taking each subject on the same roads, driving the same way every time and understanding how each one responds to each segment of roadway or route.

Just like in some Olympic competitions, there is a score to attain. Do well, and it gets a good score. Simple as that.

YOU: You actually have an impact on how the VOTY race will finish. Yes…you!

You are the ones that go on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and on the site to say something about a particular test vehicle. It does not matter if you like it or not, your impression of that vehicle lends itself enough attention to be scored.

In social media, this is called engagement. When something is broadcasted onto a channel, a response is elicited – invited or otherwise. Even if you have anything to say – good, bad, sarcastic, witty – that is put down as a score. By responding on Facebook, Twitter and on the site, you provided the attention that candidate needed. Those vehicles thank you.

Another form of engagement was through a small panel of colleagues and fans of the site. They formed a group of panelists who are familiar with the work and understand the importance of the VOTY. They provided an opportunity to influence the outcome of the award by bringing forth a mix of knowledge, expertise and experience.

The ultimate form of engagement comes from you – again. When the online poll opens on Monday, November 18, you get to choose amongst the five finalists announced to receive the VOTY. That is two weeks of balloting from you in order to provide a winner. By opening up to a public vote, you get to choose your Vehicle of The Year from five choices. That alone makes this award influential to those watching the process.

This is how the VOTY is won. It may not seem dissimilar to other awards, but there are unique qualities that somehow make this work. All that matters now is which five vehicles you get to vote on starting Monday.

It all started with 39 tested subjects. To become one of the five finalists, the process of getting to there is a tough one. No rocket science or supercomputers were used to determine this next phase in the VOTY. You simply had to be damn good to earn it.

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