Curbside Newsstand: 2023 European Car of the Year – A Jeep?


2023 European Car of the Year

In the summer of 2004 I flew solo to Paris with the intention of meeting our son, who was at that time living outside the city in the 21st Arrondissement (sic.).  My plan was to pick up a rental car at Charles de Gaulle Airport and make a beeline for the Paris suburbs.  GPS on a phone was still only a gleam in some Silicon Valley developer’s eye in those days, so I did what had to be done in that age of the world:  I printed out reams of pages from MapQuest.

Online reservations had been made at Europcar, so all I needed to do was pick up a car and motor through the sun wreathèd streets of Paris to my intended destination.  I’d spent the flight from Heathrow practicing conversational French in my head so I could breeze through the line at the rental agency and soon be on my way.  Of course, the man at Europcar took one look at me and broke straight into English, so my imagined scenarios were all in vain.  The gent at the desk then tossed me the keys to a Peugeot 307 diesel five-speed, and after a trek through the airport garage I found the purplish four door hatch that would carry us for the next few weeks.  The little Peugeot–awarded the European Car of the Year distinctions in 2002–made a good first impression, but as it had been some time since I’d driven a diesel I checked the owner’s manual for any critical info that I might lack.  In reality, there was little need to adapt as the little oil-fired four started up without ritual or hesitation and I made my way into the swirling maelstrom that is Paris traffic.

COTY Peugeot 307 and Andrew at Mont Saint-Michel

After four or five laps of the Boulevard Périphérique and some ill-advised detours into central Paris, I despaired of ever finding my way home to Seattle again, let alone any proximity to the town where I was, in theory, headed. Printed maps proved to be of little service when I couldn’t take my eyes off the road for more than two seconds without risking utter destruction from the mad buggers on motorbikes threading their way between lanes at 115 km/h.  At stop lights I would grab the sheaf of papers on the passenger seat and try to fix in my memory the names of streets where I was supposed to turn, but to little avail.

Long story short, I actually did find the proper route eventually and as a consequence I write this seated safely at home in the Pacific Northwest rather than in some Paris cafe in the Montemartre (which in retrospect doesn’t sound so bad).  But once my son and I were reunited and we had onboard an actual navigator, finding the proper road became less problematic, although we still ended up lost for an admittedly large percentage of our travel time.  For example, we actually ended up in Versailles, not by design, but because we had gone astray once again.

Peugeot 307, at speed.

We did manage to head due west to Normandy and Bretagne on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day and then pointed the Peugeot’s prow northward to Germany to visit family.  The 307 ate up the Autoroutes and Autobahns and proved adept at cruising in the 150 km/h range without protest.  We continued to get lost at an alarming rate–we had given up on finding the Aachen Cathedral when we noticed that we were driving straight past it–but always recovered and found that so long as we stayed out of the left lane on the Autobahn, we remained mostly safe and untrammeled by the executive class Mercedes and BMW’s whizzing past at startling speeds.  The former European Car of the Year purple hatch served us well through all of our trials, and it was with some reluctance that we returned it to its airport base before heading by train across the Chunnel to Ellowen Deeowen (apologies to Salman Rushdie).

The reason for this rather long prologue is that I’ve been poring over the lists of European Car of the Year winners since its inception in 1964.  Out of all those years, I count only nine of the honorees that I’ve actually driven, and most of those were produced before 1980.  The Peugeot 307 mentioned above remains one of the exceptions, and the only one that I sampled on its native soil.  It was also the one I drove the most miles (or rather kilometers), something in the neighborhood of 2000.  Our car back at home at the time was a Mazda Protégé 2.0 liter, which had more oomph than the 1.6 liter diesel in our rental, but likely not much more top end given the 307’s gearing.  The purple Peugeot may have been more handy in the utility sweepstakes given its four-door hatchback design, but in most areas the two cars manufactured half a world apart seemed comparable; still, the 307 remains memorable and has cast a rose-tinted glow on the entire Peugeot range to this day.  All told, this is a roundabout introduction to the business at hand, which is the announcement that twenty years on one of Peugeot’s current stablemates has gone and won the European Car of the Year title for 2023.

For those of us residing on the left side of the Atlantic the annual to-do of selecting a European Car of the Year tends to fly over our heads, if for no reason other than the winner will likely never appear on our shores.  Indeed, since the year 2000, only nine cars that won the laurel wreath were ever certified for sale in the USA. Of those that did attempt a landing, only the second generation Toyota Prius ever sold in what could be considered to be large numbers, although maybe a case could be made for the 2013 VW Golf and 2015 VW Passat.  Otherwise we’re left with the last generation Fiat 500, the Jag-u-ar I-Pace, and Volvo XC-40.  Oh, and the original Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt/Vauxhall Ampera.

As it is, any Car of the Year trophy is generally met with a yawn if not outright skepticism in the U.S. as the award is generally associated with the annual Motor Trend bagatelle, which has a somewhat suspect reputation given that it was given with much fanfare to such questionable choices as the Chevrolet Vega, Monte Carlo and Citation, the Plymouth Volare/Dodge Aspen, the Renault Alliance (!), and that pièce de résistance, the ’82 Chevy Camaro, which was unable to accept the trophy as a door and rear axle fell off on the way to the awards banquet.  At best, the prize has been regarded as a marketing exercise designed to attract advertising dollars.  A more cynical view would be that the winning manufacturer simply deposited a large check in the appropriate account in a calculated offer to outbid the competition.

A more realistic examination might suggest that Motor Trend was sometimes forced to choose the most presentable pick of a very inauspicious litter during the lean years of the ’70’s and ’80’s, together with the possibility of what looked good on paper might appear somewhat less promising in the metal.  Nevertheless, any such award/marketing exercise tends to be taken with a large grain of salt despite the fact that Motor Trend’s record over the past decade seems to hold up reasonably enough.  In any case, motoring enthusiasts tend to be a tough crowd with a long memory, so any journalistic sins tend to have a long shelf life.

The fact remains that the European Car of the Year is chosen by a more rigorous selection process than the solipsistic and USA-centric Motor Trend award as a jury of 59 journalists from 23 countries are appointed to vote for the winning vehicle.  Jurors each have 25 votes at their disposal to award as they see fit, although the points aren’t distributed wily-nilly through the entire automotive universe–a short list is placed on the front porch in a mayonnaise jar and members divvy out their 25 points according to the dictates of their own consciences.  You may wonder how the shortlist is created, and it seems your guess is as good as mine.  The manner in which the total field itself is chosen seems perfunctory, as it is comprised of all new models introduced for sale during the course of any given year.

VW ID Buzz–the Microbus lives!

Nissan Ariya–Nissan reborn.

Updated Kia Niro.

In 2023, the short list was comprised of the following:  Volkswagen ID Buzz, Nissan Ariya, Kia Niro, Peugeot 408, Renault Austral, Subaru Solterra/Toyota bZ4X, and Jeep Avenger,  The winner and champeen for the current year (drum roll) is the Jeep Avenger.  What exactly, you may wonder, is a Jeep Avenger?  Well  . . . it’s complicated.

Peugeot 408 . . . new style Stellantis.

And the Renault Austral: in the Outback?

Chunky Toyota EV. Even the Nissan looks better?


Stellantis, the latest ‘merger of equals’ in the automotive industry, has only been in existence since 2021, and in that time has managed to confirm itself as a force to be reckoned with.  The merger and its consequences were discussed on this site more or less as breaking news. (http://QOTD: Stellantis – A Star Is Born, But Which One Are You Rooting For?)  Given that two years have elapsed, maybe it’s time to revisit the multinational auto behemoth to observe the current state of affairs

Stellantis/Jeep stylists do the job.

With fourteen brands and two “mobility service business” (parts suppliers?) to juggle, Stellantis would appear to have a logistical nightmare on its hands.  In a market  on the verge of major disruption as it transitions to EV’s, coping with the development and marketing of all those marques would seem to verge on a constant state of chaos.  Instead, we watch its CEO, one Carlos Tavares, keeps all those balls in the air with seeming ease.  After acquiring Opel and Vauxhall, which had been economic drains on General Motors for decades, Tavares, as head of Groupe PSA before the Stellantis merger, turned Opel into the black within the space of a year.  Those of us who feared that weaker brands under the corporate umbrella would immediately be shuttered came to find that Tavares had permitted those makers ten years, an entire decade, to turn their their ships around.

And, after the consensus among automotive observers opined that Fiat-Chrysler had no path forward to an EV future before the merger, a scant two years later we find an electrified Jeep has been awarded European Car of the Year.  Now, certain caveats must be added at this point as the Avenger is not exactly a clean sheet design, but shares a platform with the Peugeot e-208, e-2008, as well as the Vauxhall Corsa Electric and Mokka, not to mention the DS 3.  Consequently, it can be argued that all the engineering heavy lifting had been done, which is certainly true.  The fact remains, though, that the Jeep personnel assigned the task completed their brief with something more than average success given the hardware now resting in the trophy case at company headquarters.

Peugeot e-2008

Vauxhall Mokka

DS 3

Gaining the attention of such a diverse jury may have been a monumental task in the first place as none of the accounts I’ve  read from its members showed any predisposition to bestowing favor on the American interloper best known in Europe for the Cherokee, Compass and Wrangler, which may be serviceable enough, but not something that has set the continent on fire.  To cite an example, the appointed juror from Top Gear,  Paul Horrell, observes the following:

“This car caught me out. I expected to dislike it but experience proved the opposite. It’s very usefully small but drives like a refined bigger car. So it’s at home in cities and on the open road as well as in mildly rough going. (More than mildly rough with the coming 4xe.) Interior design and space use commend it too.”

Horrell’s initial dismissal was likely a common response and to have overcome it by producing a class-leading EV would seemingly demonstrate that M. Tavares’s organization has its ducks in a row.  It’s one thing to jump on the EV bandwagon, another to engineer a class-leading vehicle on Jeep’s first attempt.  Whether this success will precede others in the fiery furnace of the marketplace remains to be seen, as reliability (not a Jeep strength, historically), dealer network, and charging networks, among other factors will ultimately determine how the American upstart will thrive in the crowded European market.

At the same time, the accolades for the little Jeep pose other questions, and not only for Stellantis, one of which is how its many brands will survive amidst the changes that churn the automotive scene.  On the one hand, Stellantis holds rights to a number of motoring icons including Alfa Romeo, Citroën, Lancia, and Maserati. The long-range outlook for those brands cannot be seen as particularly rosy, yet Tavares is giving them enough slack and time to see what happens.

And that result is not all that easy to predict, given that what could be perceived as a minor model produced by a brand with not a great deal of market penetration has proven to be competent and memorable.  If the EV platform underlying the Avenger is first rate, as it seems to be, then one of the initial challenges for Stellantis has already been surmounted as success in that emerging field must be essential if the consortium is going to remain viable in the future.  But this result also raises questions about some conventional wisdom, which goes something like this:  small companies with limited production and market reach are doomed given economic realities. Historically, this has proven pretty much to be the case, so why should things change now?

The standard of the Jeep Avenger EV, quickly adapted from its Peugeot, DS, and Vauxhall stablemates, demonstrates what may be an emerging reality:  Stellantis, with relatively minor investment, may be able to produce a variety of vehicles from its range with only minor changes.  How is this new, you might ask, as badge engineering has been going on since at least the 1960’s.  The difference is that an EV platform, once engineered and in production, can easily be clothed in any number of body styles tailored to fit any number of markets and consumers.  Take, for example, the runner up in the Car of the Year sweepstakes this year, the VW ID Buzz, which resurrects one of those cult memories from ages past–the VW Bus.  The Microbus of story and legend was, in reality, a pretty crappy vehicle by any standard, but it created an image in the minds of many that lives on, for whatever reason.  The new EV VW will no doubt be a much better vehicle than its distant ancestor, but then all new vehicles, EV or IC, are vast improvements on their predecessors.  The important thing is that designers are free to borrow from whatever memories of the past that resonate in consumers and quickly supply something to meet their desires, nostalgic or impractical as the case may be.

Given that ability, how necessary would it be to set up vast new worldwide sales and service networks from scratch for something like Lancia, Citroën, or Maserati?  Simply put up a few new signs, ship the cars to to existing Stellantis dealers, and let the buyer decide what’s viable and what isn’t.  Most of the vehicles will be essentially the same save for the body panels, so investment is minor.  On the other hand, if a new Lancia Fulvia, designed to evoke memories of the original, proves to be a runaway success, then stamp out the panels on a 3-D printer and meet the demand.  A new Citroën DS?  No worries, it’ll be in the showroom by spring, although maybe as a DS-DS? (DS is the relative recent Citroën offshoot).  An Alfa Romeo Disco Volante?  No sooner said than done.

Lancia Fulvia styling proposal.

And the inevitable DS . . .

Disco Volante caught not spinning.

The purist will scoff and insist that these new creations will bear only a passing resemblance to their inspirations, that they have no pedigree and lineage, and they are EV’s to boot, but those complaints will likely be drowned out in the rush to see the latest new thing.  And after all, Stellantis will have trademark rights to all those new Maseratis, Lancias, and Citroëns, so what’s all this business about lineage and continuity? What do they even mean?  If someone can introduce a new Vanwall from scratch when Vanwall never dreamed of building a production road car in its long-ago history, then who can second guess Stellantis if it decides to introduce a special edition Talbot?  Those with naming rights hold the key to their marque’s future, not the old Motorsport archives.

Vanwall? Seriously?

As Tavares notes in his 2003 CES address, the critical piece of the companies plan is software, not hardware:  that is where the 21st century automaker will stand or fall, and he insists that Stellantis is in the vanguard of this brave, new world.  If we retain any lingering 20th Century conceptions of the auto industry, this speech will quickly disabuse us.  So, keep an eye on M. Tavares . . . we are watching a radical shift in the order of things.  As we continue to watch the shift from an analogue to a digital world, how it will all fall out is not easy to predict at this point, but seeing it unfold is bound to keep our attention.  So keep an eye on those European Cars of the Year:  they could very well point the way forward.