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Tech takes Car of
the Year

The 2024 South African COTY awards encapsulate a shift in the importance of high-tech features in vehicles, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

In most motoring awards, typically chosen by juries of “petrolheads”, cars are rarely judged on the basis of advanced technology. From the trim to the torque of a vehicle, it is usually all about appearances and experiences. And by experiences, I mean that it used to be all about the sense of power under the seat.

This year’s 38th annual edition of the South African Car of the Year (COTY) awards, announced on Wednesday night, suggested that times are changing. The big winner was BMW, taking the overall prize for its 7 Series, and taking the Family Car category with the BMW X1. If there’s anything both winners are known for, it is the on-board tech.

The BMW 740i that the judges put through its paces is one of the most expensive standard sedans around, with a price tag of more than R2-million. It is likely that could only be justified, in judging terms, by the mind-boggling array of technology on board. From heated and ventilated seats in the front and rear to surround view cameras that facilitate self-parking to a full gamut of safety features using artificial intelligence, it does not miss a tech trick.

The X1, a mini sports utility vehicle (SUV), has toned down versions of these credentials, but its win in the Family Car category still came as a surprise. It shows that the tech is no longer only about the driver.

The runner-up in the overall awards, the entry-level Suzuki Fronx, which also won the Budget Car category, is also defined by the extent of advanced technology that is more commonly associated with the high-end. The winning GLX manual edition of the Fronx includes surround-view cameras, keyless entry with push-button start, hill descent control, and front, side and curtain airbags.

Its 9-inch infotainment system connects to smartphones via Android Auto or Apple Car Play and, while requiring a cable for the link, offers one of the most seamless connections of vehicles that demand the handset be plugged in.

Even the COTY sponsor, Old Mutual Insure (OMI), stressed the industry’s rapid advancements, particularly in automotive safety. Managing director Charles Nortje highlighted “ever-heightening competition levels year on year, and with new technology and better value-for-money offerings from the different brands”.

The six-month-long judging process for the 2024 COTY competition resulted in18 finalists selected from 80 qualifying vehicles, in categories that included Budget/Compact, Premium, Luxury, and Performance.

Probably the most significant signal of a technology shift in the industry was the dropping of a previous New Energy category, geared (no pun intended) towards electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrid cars that combine petrol and battery-powered engines. Not that it became less important, but ironically because it became too important.

Once EVs began to be entered into multiple categories, it became illogical to give them their own, or what one might call a “Cinderella category”. As in the international Grammy awards, when the likes of hip-hop music and African music were elevated from what were derisively called the “kitchen Grammies” ahead of the event, these are now part of the main event.

A publicly-voted award, the Motor Enthusiasts Choice, resulting from a social media campaign led by OMI, went to the mid-range Mahindra Scorpio-N. It is another technology outlier, with multi-terrain prowess at a lower cost than most equivalent vehicles.

Unusually for its half-million rand price level, it includes an advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) with features like lane departure warnings and adaptive cruise control.
A tablet-style touchscreen infotainment system and a heads-up display on the windscreen in front of the driver give it a futuristic feel that, clearly, resonates with the public.

As both petrolheads and the public wake up to technology, we will soon stop differentiating between old-style and next generation vehicles.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx, editor-in-chief of Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee.

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