One of the sideline awards we hand out for the AJAC Car/Truck (oops - "Car/Utility Vehicle") of the Year program is "Best New Design".
Not really a 'Miss Congeniality' prize, but one intended to reward car makers who can deliver vehicles with more-than-minimally-necessary aesthetic attributes.
It isn't only a beauty contest. It is supposed to represent design in all its aspects, including functionality and 'brand essence'.
According to the scoring criteria, the aesthetics score reflects the sheer beauty of the design. The function score assesses the manner and degree to which it accommodates the practical requirements of the vehicle type. And brand essence considers its success in conveying the image, heritage, and values of the specific brand.
In the old days, every car or truck was eligible for this award. Jurors would simply vote for the vehicles they felt looked the best.
Very democratic, very grass-roots.
Problem - there was so much divergence of opinion that we'd end up with forty-five cars tied for first place with one vote each.
Or near enough.
So the Organizing Group decided to create a short list, utilizing the knowledge and tastes of a small set of automotive design experts - decidedly not members of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada - to whittle down the roster to what they perceived to be the best candidates, and allow the rest of us to vote on those.
The experts are Robert Cumberford, a design columnist with the Ann Arbor Michigan-based Automobile Magazine who now lives in France; Paul Deutschman, a freelance car designer based in Montreal (the Callaway Corvettes are perhaps his best-known designs); Ken Cummings and Bruce Thomson, both of the latter being automotive design professors at Humber College.
This year's Best New Design candidates were the Audi A5 Cabriolet, BMW 335d sedan, Ford Taurus, Mazda3 and Nissan Cube.
Hello? What happened to the GOOD-looking cars?
OK, the award is not based strictly on aesthetics. But those criteria DO mention "Sheer beauty".
I see some "sheer" in here, but not a whole lot of beauty.
Where's the Cadillac CTS Wagon (right), clearly in my view (ahem...) the handsomest car out there? Seems to me it meets the other criteria pretty well too.
Where's the Jaguar XF-R (left)? Gorgeous, good room for its class, and definitely hitting the mark with respect to brand essence.
Or the Buick LaCrosse?
Or the Mercedes-Benz E-Class coupe?
Not on the list.
And how about the Audi R8 5.2, whose V8-powered clone won this award (and just about everything else) two years ago? Did stuffing two more cylinders under its comely rear deck simultaneously beat it with the ugly stick?
But (a) the 3 has never been a winner from a space utilization perspective, surely a strong factor in assessing the functionality of a sedan; (b) it is hardly a design ground breaker, and (c) it is hardly new - this generation was introduced in 2005 as a 2006 model year car; the car entered in this year's Test Fest was 'new' largely by virtue of its Diesel power train (which, of course, gave it its Category victory).
The Mazda3 (right) is a great little car, and I guess by virtue of it winning two of the classes it was entered in deserves recognition. But the gaping maw of a grille is a bit jaw-dropping, although Mazda Canada claims its customers love the way it looks.
The Nissan Cube (left)? Well, if you read our editor's comments on that car a couple of weeks ago you'll know that its aesthetic merit is, at best, highly controversial. Maybe that's the role of a design Short List committee, to force us design-challenged clods to consider something New, Different, Daring and Radical.
From a functional perspective, what's so 'Best New Design' about a box on wheels? Then again, this same panel put the Honda Fit on last year's short list and we were collectively, um, design-challenged enough to vote it in.
But does Ford even HAVE a brand essence?
Given that we could only vote for cars on the Short List, I think I gave Taurus my first place vote.
(I say "I think" because I didn't write down what I voted for, and once the votes are entered into the computer system they're blocked for even us to see.)
But Taurus ain't no Cadillac CTS Wagon.
I guess beauty as well as functionality and brand essence are all in the eye of the beholder.