Visiting Napa Valley’s Meadowood resort, touring the prominent local wineries, and driving 13 of the finest new automobiles sound like enjoyable ways to spend a few fall days. But the readers who participated in this year’s Car of the Year event were told that the extent of their pleasure could significantly affect some businesses. “What you say over the next couple of days might make or break a car manufacturer’s sales for the upcoming year,” automotive editor Gregory Anderson recalls instructing the assembled drivers/judges on the eve of the magazine’s annual comparison test, which this year included 13 cars with a collective sticker price of $3.4 million.
Arranging for all of those vehicles to arrive at Meadowood at or about the same time is no mean feat, says Anderson. “It’s like herding cats to get these cars together, but when it comes together, it’s great,” he says, explaining that he began planning the deliveries with car manufacturers a year ago, nine months before the event took place.
The Lotus Exige S arrived in Napa almost directly from England, leaving Lotus barely enough time to break in the car’s engine before the judging began. The Porsche 911 Turbo was equally fresh out of the factory: The Car of the Year competition marked the first time any media member was allowed behind the wheel. The Bugatti Veyron 16.4, one of only a handful in the country, had to be transported from Miami by truck to participate.
Anderson regrets that Ferrari, whose F430 Spider won last year’s competition, was not able to defend its title this year by sending a 599 GTB Fiorano to Meadowood. But as he learned from his first Car of the Year event last year, some things are out of his hands. “At a certain point, you just have to let go,” says Anderson. “Ultimately, it’s up to the car manufacturers.”
Veteran auto journalist and Robb Report senior correspondent Paul Dean has a long-standing fondness for Lotus, whose Exige S is one of the cars he writes about in the Car of the Year feature. It began in the 1950s, when Dean—then a reporter for a London newspaper—became one of the first journalists to interview Lotus founder Colin Chapman. “We heard word that there was this funny little car being built in a garage next to a coal yard,” Dean remembers. “It was a special car that [Chapman] had created, and he was just tearing up the opposition in hill climbs and rallies. As soon as he kept winning, people asked, ‘Oh, can you make one of those for me?’ That’s how it started. It was that simple.”
Not surprisingly, the Lotus Exige S tugged at Dean’s heartstrings. “It was nostalgic to drive the Lotus again, to see that the basic concept has not changed,” he says. “You sit low in the car, with just one sheet of aluminum between your butt and the surface of the road. Every part of that car is designed for one purpose: maximum performance.” But it was not the Exige S that made the strongest impression on Dean. That distinction belonged to the Bugatti Veyron 16.4. “That car is a piece of French sculpture,” he says. “Visually, it’s stunning; from a mechanical point of view and in terms of performance, nothing like it has ever been seen before.”
Senior vice president of creative development for CurtCo Media (Robb Report’s parent company) Robert Ross, who also served as a Car of the Year driver, judge, and writer, is pleased to report that none of this year’s participants left Napa Valley with a blemish on his or her driving record. The judging takes place on public roads, not on a closed course, and speeding tickets have been issued to drivers in years past. “It’s sort of a running joke. We were looking for the cop this year but couldn’t find her,” says Ross, recalling how last year one driver was cited for traveling well over 90 mph on roads where the speed limit ranges from 35 mph to 60 mph. “Man, she threw the book at him,” he says of the police officer involved.
Ross emphasizes that the event does not encourage reckless driving, but he understands how it could transform some normally upstanding citizens into scofflaws. “Any time you get a bunch of guys trying to gauge the performance capabilities of a 1,000 hp supercar,” he says, “it’s inevitable that guys will get a little frisky.”