Surprise packet named Car of the Year
The unheralded Skoda Kamiq has been crowned News Corp's Car of the Year.
It's the first time in the 24-year history of the award that a small SUV - and a three-cylinder vehicle - has won the award.
This year's awards reflected the seismic shift in the Australian carpark in the past decade.
With the death of the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon, buyers are flocking to city-sized SUVs that combine practicality and roominess with a small footprint and low fuel bills.
Private sales of SUVs were up by 50 per cent in November, driven by new arrivals of pint-sized softroaders.
Four of this year's seven finalists were powered by three-cylinder engines, a scenario that would have been unthinkable five years ago.
Strict European vehicle emission laws are driving the change.
The EU has mandated that all new passenger cars emit less than 95 grams of CO2 per kilometre - or fuel usage of about 4 litres per 100km - from next year.
In contrast, Australia has no mandated emissions target. Instead, there is a voluntary commitment by the car industry to reduce passenger car emissions to 100g/km CO2 by 2030.
Despite the fact that our standards lag Europe by more than a decade, manufacturers will continue to bring in more efficient cars because they have to build them for other markets.
The good news for buyers is that the new breed of three-cylinder city cars are surprisingly zippy.
Makers compensate for the lack of cylinders with turbocharging, which delivers more low-down grunt.
Six of the seven finalists were turbocharged, the exception being Toyota's Yaris Cross, which uses an electric motor to boost power.
The Kamiq's power numbers look paltry on paper, but Car of the Year judges were impressed with the SUV's performance.
The Czech-built Kamiq also made an impression by offering noticeably more cabin space than its rivals, as well as more hi-tech equipment, including four USB-C outlets and a digital display instead of the traditional speedo and tacho in front of the driver.
It also had a number of clever family-friendly features not available in any of its rivals. There's an umbrella hidden in the front door panel, a rechargeable torch in the rear load area and several nets and hooks to make sure groceries don't roll around.
Skoda, a subsidiary of Volkswagen, has been slowly carving out a growing niche in Australia since its 2007 return to the market after a two-decade absence.
Once the butt of cruel jokes about its reliability - when it was part of communist Eastern Europe - the brand has developed a reputation for quality and value for money. The Kamiq undercuts most rivals on price.
The Kamiq name continues Skoda's tradition of taking inspiration from the indigenous people of Alaska and the northern reaches of Canada, the word 'kamiq' originating from the Inuit language meaning 'something that fits perfectly'.
Kia's seven-seat Sorento SUV narrowly missed out on the award, attracting three votes to the Skoda's four. Kia is another brand on the move. The South Korean maker is poised to overtake Ford and Mitsubishi in this year's sales race to become the fourth-biggest brand in Australia. Ford's turbocharged Fiesta ST rounded out the top three.
The Fiesta was the only hatchback in this year's final, reflecting the slide in sales of traditional cars.
In 2014, sedans and hatchbacks made up close to 50 per cent of new-car sales.
This year, they have dwindled to 25 per cent, as SUV sales account for half the market. The other 25 per cent is made up mostly by four-door 4WD utes, which are increasingly being used as family vehicles.
Originally published as Surprise packet named Car of the Year