Car of the Year 2021 shortlist announced

Andrew English
·6-min read
Land Rover Defender (2020)
Land Rover Defender (2020)

This year’s seven-strong Car of the Year shortlist has been published, with a few surprises such as the inclusion of the specialist off-roader, the new Land Rover Defender, and only one example of a car based on the VW Group’s  modular MQB A8 platform, the Skoda Octavia (its Volkswagen Golf sister made the 29-car long list). 

As well as the Defender and Octavia, the list comprises: Citroën C4; Cupra Formentor; Fiat New 500 electric car; Toyota Yaris; and the Volkswagen ID.3 electric car.

The 60 judges from 23 European countries will now focus in on these seven models, with the winner being announced on 1 March.

Whether that takes place on the eve of the Geneva motor show, as has been the tradition, remains to be seen. The live event was cancelled last September but a virtual show could yet take place.

All seven shortlisted cars are profiled below, with links to our review of each.

Land Rover Defender

Land Rover Defender 90 (2020)
Land Rover Defender 90 (2020)

More than worth the wait. After a drive during the first lockdown we already knew that the new Defender was pretty good in long-wheelbase, five-door 110 form but the shorter, three-door 90 version trumps it. With better dynamics, off-road agility and the same lovely interior, it is a complete star – and it looks terrific, too. Time and Land Rover’s reliability will determine how it goes down with the company’s traditional commercial markets, but on the evidence so far it should be out there doing the tough jobs for years to come

Citroën C4

Citroen e-C4 electric car (2020)
Citroen e-C4 electric car (2020)

Citroën is trying to please everyone with its all-new C4 family hatchback, which is available in petrol, diesel and fully electric forms. With a combustion engine, Citroën has achieved something rather remarkable; a classy feeling and spacious interior, with a magic carpet ride quality, perfect for long-distance travel. The electric ë-C4 has its charms, not least inside, but an extra 300kg blunts the suspension’s abilities and makes driving feel leaden after the vivacious combustion-engined cars. As a second car, or a runaround with a reasonable range it does the job, but it’s really not rounded enough to be the only car on your drive.

Cupra Formentor

Cupra Formentor (2020)
Cupra Formentor (2020)

Using the Cupra name for a range of go-faster regular Seats might cause some confusion, but this machine is a credible product all the same. Quick, quite good to drive, spacious and reasonably comfortable, the Formentor is much more than a parts-bin special. The forthcoming plug-in hybrid, with its favourable tax treatment, is likely to appeal to user-chooser fleets more than the 2.0-litre turbo petrol model we tested, but on this evidence this car is worth a look, not least because the premium opposition is so much more expensive.

Fiat 500

Fiat New 500 (2020) - electric car
Fiat New 500 (2020) - electric car

Based on a new, lightweight floorpan, the New 500’s excellent 199-mile range gives it an advantage over the immediate electric car opposition (the existing model continues, with conventional combustion engines). It looks terrific, drives nicely and if it weren’t for the ride quality, we’d love it completely. We’re hoping that the smaller wheels and tyres improve the ride, and that the forthcoming cheaper and more sensibly specified models retain the 42kWh battery pack and that all-important range. It’s a brave move by Fiat and, as well as being a good-looking city car, this new electric Cinquecento is a car you’d want to use for a lot more than simply pootling around town.

Skoda Octavia

Skoda Octavia Mk4 (2020)
Skoda Octavia Mk4 (2020)

Price notwithstanding (there will be cheaper as well as more expensive versions to come), the Mk4 Octavia is a very impressive piece of kit and should continue to be popular with family buyers. It is available as an excellent estate as well as a hatchback-equipped saloon, which enhances its appeal. The perceived quality of the cabin is top of the class and the chassis dynamics are good, with a fine ride and much improved handling. Whether you’d choose to spend as much as the £30,000 of our test car is a moot point; there will likely be an Octavia to suit most tastes and pockets, including a vRS performance variant.

Toyota Yaris

Toyota Yaris (2020)
Toyota Yaris (2020)

While it’s not quite as involving as the best-selling Ford Fiesta, the latest hybrid-only Yaris is better to drive than any that has gone before (apart from the extraordinary, rally-bred GR Yaris) and is probably more capable than a small hatchback needs to be. If you drive in urban conditions you should see the sort of mid-60s mpg as claimed, while the interior is of high quality and pleasing to live with. As an alternative to a small, battery-electric hatchback, this Yaris might not be quite as good for the planet but it’s a better all-rounder. 

Volkswagen ID.3

Volkswagen ID.3 (2020)
Volkswagen ID.3 (2020)

Nicely designed electric family hatchback, with a lightweight and stiff bodyshell and a comfortable but assured ride quality. Our initial impression was that what lets the ID.3 down is its initially promising but ultimately annoying facia and an interior that looks and feels cheap compared with the ubiquitous – and effortlessly classy – Golf. Yet on further acquaintance it’s sensible without feeling boring; it’s also as spacious and as practical as any modern family hatchback, and feels far less overblown than the larger, heavier EVs from some other manufacturers.

In the race to be crowned Car of the Year 2021, it is interesting that the latest Audi A3, which some journalists suggest is the best of the current Golf-based VW Group models, didn’t make the cut. Despite elbowing the Octavia out of the 2020 Coty long list in favour of its Mk8 Golf, parent company VW received short shrift from the 60-strong Coty jury last year, with the Golf not even making the shortlist. This year will mark a cold serving of revenge for the bosses at Skoda’s headquarters at Mlada Boleslav in the Czech Republic.

Compensation, such as it exists, comes to VW in the form of the inclusion of the ID.3, which is the first result of a massive investment in battery technology and architecture.

As well as a few moments of self-congratulation at Land Rover’s Solihull base (although the Defender is actually built at Nitra in Slovakia), there might be cheers at the Seat HQ in Martorell in Spain, too, with its new high-design, high-performance Cupra marque making the shortlist.

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