THIS year's winner triumphed by delivering cheap thrills from an unlikely quarter. Who would have thought ultra-conservative Toyota would turn out such a great sports car?
If the automotive landscape of 2012 is remembered for one thing, it will be that the thrill of driving is alive and kicking.
The point was driven home by Drive's Car of the Year being awarded to the Toyota 86 GT, an unashamedly focused sports car, guaranteed to put a smile on the dial of those lucky enough to find themselves behind its steering wheel.
Anyone who thinks that choosing a sports car as the year's best is elitist should look at the value-for-money equation.
The Toyota 86 GT is Drive's Car of the Year and Best Performance Car Under $60,000 for 2012.
With a list price of $29,990 the 86 costs less than many mainstream family cars, including the cheapest version of Toyota's own four-cylinder Camry. In a global economy struggling to shake off the GFC blues, the combination of value and hedonistic driving enjoyment cannot be ignored.
Worried that performance cars are the natural enemy of the environment? Not when they're powered by a naturally aspirated (not turbocharged), 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine capable of delivering an official 7.8 litres/100km fuel consumption figure.
The Toyota 86 coupe was, of course, developed in conjunction with Subaru. That company not only supplies the horizontally-opposed engine and builds the car in its own plant but also has the mechanically identical - give or take some minor differences in suspension tuning and tyre size - BRZ.
Given the vast similarities between the 86 and BRZ, the latter was unlucky not to win the award but that's the way our Car of the Year awards work. The pair were both included in the Performance Car Under $60,000 category which the 86 won, largely because it is available at a cheaper price thanks to a reduced standard equipment list on the GT version.
Only a category winner can go on to take the major prize, so the BRZ missed out.
Take it from us though, the Subaru is every bit as thrilling to drive and those who want the BRZ's higher equipment levels, do the sums and buy it will not be disappointed.
The Toyota won its category by scoring heavily in each judging criteria. Its engine might not have the outright horsepower of some performance cars, but it provides the perfect amount to exploit the 86's nimble, rear-drive chassis.
It can be driven quietly and comfortably as a commuter car, albeit one with a stiffer than normal ride. On the track it can be easily provoked into lurid tail slides with its electronic stability control switched off, or remain commendably stable with it left on.
Equipment levels are not luxurious, but are more than adequate given the design goal of a low price and low weight for maximum performance. In terms of practicality, the rear seat is good for short trips (or shorter adults) and the folding rear seat means larger loads than a shallow boot would otherwise tolerate can be accommodated.
Five-star NCAP crash-worthiness indicates a safe structure, as does a full complement of seven airbags.
The Toyota 86 held its own over five days of gruelling driving and judging covering every available road condition.
Every car was taken around a road loop that distilled a wide variety of real-world conditions into something accessible for the judging panel, with its combined total of many decades of road-testing experience.
They included 100kmh highway driving, urban traffic conditions with suburban streets, traffic lights and school zones and pot-holed, low-speed, country roads.
The race track component wasn't just a chance to cut high-speed laps. It gave a safe and controlled environment to explore steering and handling limits, but also included disciplines such as a swerve-and-recover lane change exercise, a slalom between traffic cones and a hard braking stop from 100kmh.
All the time, judges were noting the minute details of each car's equipment levels, comfort, build quality, noise levels and all the other ponderables that determine category and overall winners. From all that, the 86 deserved to come up trumps.
The final vote between category winners to determine the overall winner was not a unanimous win for the 86 GT, however. Mazda's CX-5 received three of the nine judges' votes thanks largely to its brilliant diesel engine, sparkling dynamics and low fuel use.
The other two finalists that were debated heavily were the Kia Sorento SLi and Toyota Camry Hybrid H. Each were standouts and rounded out what was arguably the most impressive quartet of finalists for the coveted overall gong.
The Mercedes-Benz C250 CDI that took out last year's Car of the Year and again won the Best Luxury Car Under $80,000 category in 2012 failed to make it to the final four - just.
Speaking of votes, there were a few interesting statistics to come out of the overall testing. For instance, eight of the category winners were carryover champions from last year, indicating that on the whole, a good car can remain difficult to beat.
The five new category winners were the Kia Sorento, Porsche 911, Toyota Camry Hybrid, Mazda CX-5 and, of course, the Toyota 86.
The Camry Hybrid's win as Best Family Car made it the first hybrid champion, and also meant that along with Volkswagen and Mazda, Toyota had two category winners.
In technical terms, nine of the 13 category winners had four-cylinder engines, nine had turbocharged engines and seven were either diesel or hybrid powered.
The spread of dollar value for the 13 winners could hardly have been greater. They ranged from the $18,990 VW Polo 77TSI to the $262,600 Porsche 911 Carrera S.
And last, the 86 GT was the first Toyota to win the Car of the Year gong in the award's seven-year history, and only the second non-German one at that.
So take a bow Toyota 86. You were the right car at the right time, and an almost perfectly executed sports car at that.
The award winners were:
Drive Best City Car of the Year: Volkswagen Polo 77TSI.
Drive Best Small Car of the Year: Ford Focus.
Drive Best People Mover of the year: Honda Odyssey.
Drive Best Family Car of the Year: Toyota Camry Hybrid.
Drive Best Luxury Car under $80,000: Mercedes-Benz C250 CDI.
Drive Best Luxury Car over $80,000: Audi A6.
Drive Best Convertible Car of the Year: Volkswagen Golf Cabriolet.
Drive Best Performance Car over $60,000: Porsche 911 Carrera S.
Drive Best SUV over $40,000: Kia Sorento SLi diesel.
Drive Best SUV under $40,000: Mazda CX-5 Diesel.
Drive Performance Car under $60,000: Toyota 86.
Drive Best Ute of the Year: Mazda BT-50 XTR 4WD.
Drive Best 4WD or the Year: Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo diesel.
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