CAR OF THE YEAR

Winner of 2014's ST Car of the Year is BMW's first electric car, the i3

The i3 - BMW's first mass-produced battery-powered car - drives like no other electric model.
The i3 - BMW's first mass-produced battery-powered car - drives like no other electric model.PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG, ASSISTED BY CHONG JUN LIANG LOCATION: PEARLS CENTRE

BMW's i3 wins 2014 title by being much more than a car with zero tailpipe emission

Ladies and gentlemen, it is our pleasure to announce the winner of 2014's ST Car of the Year: the BMW i3.

It is no mean feat for any car to beat a field of more than 50 contenders, but for such an unconventional and unlikely candidate to do so, there must be something really special about it.

And there is. The i3, BMW's first mass-produced battery-powered car, drives like no other electric model.

It delivers the same level of excitement, exuberance and engagement as its finely tuned Bavarian brethren at the wheel. It makes all other electric cars seem rather insipid, with the exception, perhaps, of the Tesla Roadster.

Unlike the two-seat Tesla though, the i3 offers a huge dose of practicality. It accommodates four adults comfortably and has enough luggage space for a short "staycation".

Its construction is also special, being made of carbon fibre and plastic. This contributes to the car's light weight, which contributes to its performance and economy.

If you consider this, the i3 is not exorbitant, even if it is costlier than all other premium hatchbacks (which it was ranked against).

Torque associate editor Daryl Lee, one of the nine Car of the Year judges, says: "The term 'game-changer' is often bandied about in the car industry, but very few cars are actually worthy of the title. The BMW i3 is one of those cars."

The i3 is certainly a game-changer in the design department. Never mind that it does not resemble any BMW - it looks like nothing else on the road. Day to day, it actually turns more heads than a red, hot supercar.

Ms Lynn Tan, a regular contributor to Life! Motoring and Torque, says: "Driving my family around in the BMW i3 makes me feel like we are The Jetsons. Short of being able to fly, the i3 is as futuristic as The Jetsons' Aerocar and it makes other cars on the road seem like they belong in The Flintstones."

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Kevin Chin, another panelist, concurs: "It debunks all electric-vehicle stereotypes with its innovation, cool factor and immensely rewarding, out-of-this- world driving experience.

"With an alluring interior, radical looks and clever engineering, you feel as if you're driving the future."

Be that as it may, the i3 clinched the ST Car of the Year title by a strand of carbon fibre. It is the thinnest margin any winner has had since the awards began in 2003.

Behind by just one point is the Mercedes-Benz S-class, another game- changer. Sure, the flagship Merc delivers oodles of luxury and comfort, but the latest model is also a technological showcase.

Like the i3, it offers a peek into the future, where cars are quite different from what they are today. In the case of the Merc, autonomous driving technologies abound.

In slow-moving stop-start traffic, you can actually take your hands off the wheel and let the S-class convoy drive on its own. The car will also warn you of collision risks, including those posed by vehicles coming from its sides.

All well and good, but luxe barges tend to look like, well, barges. But not the new S-class. It is actually rather sleek and elegant for something so big. And it is pretty driveable too.

Panellist Edric Pan says: "I'm not a fan of unwieldy, gadget-laden limos so the new Mercedes S-class had a doubly hard time winning me over. Yet, it did so convincingly.

"It's amazingly nimble for its size, rides beautifully and looks avant-garde yet regal. But that gorgeous, exquisite cabin is what makes it so special, elevating it above rival flagships and making you relish every ride.

"It has raised the bar very, very high indeed."

Adds Torque editor David Ting: "The car is luxurious without being too ostentatious, and sophisticated in its onboard technology without being too complicated for the towkay.

"It's as comfortable as a private yacht while performing like a speedboat. It's a limousine with lots of zing."

The second runner-up title goes to another German - the Macan, Porsche's encore to its highly successful Cayenne sport utility vehicle. It trails a distant 22 points behind the S-class and won the hearts of judges by being even more engaging than the capable Cayenne.

Even judge Andre Lam, who much prefers to be in a low-slung supercar, was convinced.

"Petrolheads hate SUVs, but the Macan has risen above the bias," he says. "Its chassis dynamics are so good that the entire package is now completely convincing as a Porsche."

These cars stood out from a list of 55 all-new models launched by authorised agents during the year (November 2013 - November 2014).

This year, the selection process started with an elimination process that shortlisted 10 finalists, up from nine last year.

As before, the voting regimen was vigorous and thorough. Each contender was rated according to nine attributes: performance, handling, ride, build quality, efficiency, ergonomics, styling, value for money and X factor.

A maximum of five points could be given to any one attribute of each car. It is interesting to note that the BMW i3 and Mercedes-Benz each garnered the most number of full marks - 15. They were followed by the BMW 2-series, Hyundai Genesis and Lexus ES, which clinched five each.

The 10 cars shortlisted were judged according to their peers and not against one another. In the end, aggregate points by all panellists were summed up and a winner emerged.

For the first time since the awards started, there was a tie for the top spot. Another round of voting - also via a secret ballot - was carried out, resulting in the BMW i3 pipping the S-class by a solitary point.

The i3 is the first BMW and third consecutive German car to have clinched the title. As for Mercedes, it is the closest it has come to winning.

Between the two, it is clear we get more than a good glimpse of the future of the automobile.

christan@sph.com.sg