Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
2008 Mini Cooper S (left) with the 2008 Audi R8; photo courtesy AJAC/Arne Glassbourg. Click image to enlarge


By Chris Chase

Photo Gallery: Testfest 2008

Reader poll: Predict the results!

Discuss this story in the forum at CarTalkCanada

Niagara-on-the-lake, Ontario – It’s pretty rare that automotive journalists get to drive more than one competing vehicle back-to-back, and it’s for that reason that the annual Automobile Journalists Association of Canada’s “Testfest” event is so valuable to us. Here, we get the chance to drive just about every brand new vehicle, grouped into categories dictated by vehicle type and, in some cases, price. It’s a great way for us to get an idea of how any one vehicle fits in its respective segment.

This year’s categories were a bit different than those in the 2007 version of Testfest. Last year, there were enough small car entries to warrant splitting them up into under and over $18,000 groupings, but this time, there were just five cars lumped into a single Small Car category. Same deal for family cars: six entries, one group. Three vehicles qualified each for the Luxury Car, Convertibles, Minivans and Sports and Performance over $50,000 categories. There were six cars in the goofy-grin-inducing Sports and Performance group and four entries each in the Pickup Truck and Prestige Car over $75,000 groupings. As last year, the biggies were the SUV/CUV groups: 11 vehicles competed for SUV/CUV $35,000-$60,000 honours; four in the SUV/CUV over $60,000 group and seven in the Under $35,000 category.

Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
Autos contributor Russell Purcell test the BMW 335i Cabriolet on the road course (top) and the 2008 Volvo C70 and Infiniti G37 on the track; photos courtesy AJAC/Arne Glassbourg. Click image to enlarge

Here’s the who’s who for this year’s edition of Testfest, listed alphabetically by category name.

Convertibles

The convertible category saw two hardballers, the BMW 335i cabrio and Volvo C70, pitted against the Chrysler Sebring droptop, which was way out of its league in this company. All three cars here had folding metal tops, with the Sebring being the only one available with a traditional cloth roof. The BMW was my favourite, its turbocharged six-cylinder providing effortless torque; it was also the most fun, thanks to its manual transmission.

Family car

Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
2008 Dodge Avenger (top) and 2008 Chevrolet Malibu; photos courtesy AJAC/Arne Glassbourg. Click image to enlarge

A few fresh faces here, and a few others that have been on the roads for a few months, at least; naturally, all were making their Testfest debut. The mainstream entires were the domestic newbies, the Chevy Malibu and Dodge Avenger, going up against the eighth-gen Honda Accord. The hybrid version of the Saturn Aura was here too (the gas-only Aura competed last year), and the Kia Rondo and Subaru Impreza wagon were the misfits with their hatchback bodies. The Malibu and Accord will be the big sellers in this group, no doubt, and the Avenger will do okay too, despite a few key deficiencies. The Aura Hybrid is a compelling vehicle, though a future version with GM’s second-generation hybrid powertrain will be better. The Impreza was a surprisingly good fit here, despite being smaller than most of the other cars; it’s quiet and smooth on the road. The Rondo’s Euro-cool sensibility and seven-seat interior makes it the black sheep for sure. The Accord is the safe bet here, but the Malibu is worlds better than its predecessor. Look for the Honda or Chevy to take this category.

Luxury car

Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
2008 Cadillac CTS (top) and 2008 Volvo S80; photos courtesy AJAC/Arne Glassbourg. Click image to enlarge

The Cadillac CTS represents another quantum leap for GM; it’s a very nice car that feels like it should be a terrific alternative to the German and Japanese models that are its key competition. The Mercedes-Benz C Class is a lovely-looking car and will probably appeal, aesthetically, to the same people who think the CTS looks weird (for the record, I think the CTS is the hands-down winner in the looks department). The Volvo S80 was the only V8-powered car in the group, and the most expensive by a large margin. While I have a soft spot for the big Swede, it makes the least visual impact of the three cars here. Many have been looking forward to the new CTS for some time, and I think it delivers on its promises. My prediction is that the CTS will win here, but with the Mercedes close on its heels.

Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
2008 Dodge Grand Caravan (top) 2008 Hyundai Entourage; photos by Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge

Minivans

The minivans segment has shrunk considerably in the past year or so, and it’s telling that two of the three entries here come from Chrysler. The Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan are more or less the same vehicle, but the T&C costs about 50 per cent more as the two were equipped for Testfest’s purposes. The Hyundai Entourage, which went on sale for 2007 but was out too late to qualify last year, splits the difference price-wise. I (sadly) haven’t had a chance to drive the new Chrysler vans, but Editor Greg Wilson drove all three entries here, and preferred the Entourage. That one I have driven, and I can agree that it’s a very competent van. No doubt the new Chryslers will be winners in the sales race, however.

Pickup trucks

Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
2008 GMC Sierra (top) and Contributing Editor Chris Chase takes the 2008 Toyota Tundra through the off road course; photos courtesy AJAC/Arne Glassbourg. Click image to enlarge

Two of the entries, the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, look similar on the surface, but the Chevy had a 5.3-litre V8, while the GMC had a 6.0-litre; the GMC was a few thousand pricier too. These new GM trucks are lovely on the road and look great too, inside and out. The Tundra is terrific too and its 5.7-litre V8 a real powerhouse, but I find the interior to be too pretty for a truck’s. The Dakota had Chrysler’s new 4.7-litre V8, which felt like a great improvement over the old 4.7-litre. The ride here was the cushiest, and this mid-size truck was also the smallest, so it’s not really fair to compare to the others here (though it wasn’t far off the Chevy in terms of power). The Silverado felt like a great all-around truck, but the Tundra has more power for less money as equipped here. Toyota gets my vote for overall value, but my heart would choose the Chevy.

Prestige car over $75,000

Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
2008 Lexus LS600hl (top) 2008 Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG; photos courtesy AJAC/Arne Glassbourg. Click image to enlarge

Four vehicles competed here, all very different in nature. The Audi R8 is a shoe-in for the new Most Coveted award, with its dramatic looks and awesome performance. The Jaguar XKR is no slouch either, and it’s arguably the sexiest car in the group. The two sedan entries were the Lexus LS600h L and Mercedes’ S63 AMG. The Lexus gets the green nod, but who can say no to the Audi’s sinister face, with its sneering LED daytime running lights?

Small car

Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
From top: 2008 Saturn Astra, 2008 Suzuki SX4 sedan, 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer and 2008 Ford Focus; photos by Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge

Depending on what kind of car buyer you are, this is either one of the least exciting groups of cars or the most interesting. The Saturn Astra is the only brand new nameplate here, but all except the Suzuki SX4 make their debut this year. The SX4 did compete last year, but in its original hatchback body style; the sedan that competed here is a new addition for 2008. The Mitsubishi Lancer GTS is a fun little car with great handling; if only it had more power. The “new” Ford Focus’ redesign is mostly skin-deep, but this felt like a surprisingly competent little car, even compared to the other fresh faces in the group. Not nuts about the new dashboard, though.

The Saturn Astra is a carbon copy of the Opel version sold in Europe; GM officials say the only significant change is the name. The Astra is a great drive, with that intangibly European combination of sharp handling and comfortable ride. The interior is even more European-looking than the outside, and not everyone will like the strange ergonomics. The SX4 sedan looks less goofy than the hatchback, and the manual transmission model here was good fun to drive; there’s lots of headroom, but the short wheelbase means less rear seat space than some of the other cars here offer. The 2008 Subaru Impreza makes its second of three appearances in this category, in sedan form. Again, it’s a smooth and comfy car that will make it competitive. The Impreza and Astra are my favourites, but the Astra looks like a slightly better value.

Sports/Performance over $50,000

Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
2008 Audi S5; photo courtesy AJAC/Arne Glassbourg. Click image to enlarge

Audi had two entries here – the S5 and TT – pitted against the Infiniti G37; it’s the only car here I haven’t had a chance to drive. The S5 is a hot-looking car, though the Infiniti isn’t far behind. A drive in the G37 might change this, but my vote goes to the S5 for its combination of great looks and awesome V8 power.

Sports/Performance under $50,000

Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
From top: 2008 Honda Accord Coupe, 2008 Dodge Caliber SRT4 and 2008 Subaru WRX; photos by Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge

The fun-per-dollar ratio peaks right here, with this group of six cars. The Nissan Altima and Honda Accord coupes are the cruisers of the bunch, with lots of power combined with loads of comfort and capable handling. The Dodge Caliber SRT4 is simply wicked, but is the harshest, too. The Mini Cooper (another 2007 introduction that was too late for last years contest) is tough to tell apart from the first-gen car, but it’s got new engines and a new (and imperfect) interior. It’s the smallest inside too, but is so much fun to drive that it almost doesn’t matter. The 2008 Subaru WRX is the Impreza’s third appearance at Testfest; it feels a lot like the regular version, only with way more power. The Volvo C30 T5 is powerful and smooth, but lacks the sharp handling of many of the other cars in the group. I was initially not a huge fan of the new Impreza (I still don’t love the looks) but a direct comparison in this group made the WRX my favourite of these six cars.

SUV/CUV $35,000-$60,000

This was a huge category that threw some very different vehicles into the ring together. The GMC Acadia is one of the biggest trucks here, and is smooth and spacious but heavy. The Hyundai Veracruz is a little smaller, but feels more athletic, at least in a straight line.

Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
From top: 2008 Infiniti EX35, 2008 Volvo XC70 and 2008 Land Rover LR2; photos courtesy AJAC/Arne Glassbourg. Click image to enlarge

Infiniti’s EX is fresh from the drawing board and brings the look of the larger FX to the mid-priced SUV segment. The Jeep Grand Cherokee can be had with a number of different engines, but the one here featured Chrysler’s Mercedes-sourced (and sorely underused) 3.0-litre turbodiesel V6. The Land Rover LR2 is the follow up to the Freelander and is a major improvement too. The Mazda CX-9 was a 2007 initially, but didn’t make it to Testfest in 2007; in any event, it has a new engine for 2008.

The Nissan Pathfinder gets new power and some styling tweaks for 2008, while the Saturn Vue is all-new. The Subaru Tribeca gets more sensible styling for 2008 and a more powerful engine that runs on regular fuel. The Toyota Highlander is all-new this year and isn’t as all-around impressive at it could be, sadly. The Volvo XC70 is all-new, too.

Picking a favourite here is tough, thanks to the vast range of vehicles entered. The Veracruz is among my top picks, though, thanks to its strong value and impressive on-road performance.

SUV/CUV over $60,000

Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
2008 Mercedes-Benz M-Class; photo courtesy AJAC/Arne Glassbourg. Click image to enlarge

Four entries in this category, with two coming from Mercedes-Benz: the GL Class is the bigger of the two, while the second-gen M-Class is back with sharper styling and better engines than the original; it was the only diesel-powered truck of the four. The BMW X5 is a direct M-Class competitor, and much more expensive, at least as kitted out for Testfest. The only non-German entry was the Buick Enclave; it’s comfortable, but perhaps a bit out of its league in the face of the other three trucks. Of the four here, I’ve only driven the Enclave, but I like the idea of a diesel-powered crossover, as a diesel’s torque seems like a good fit for this class. My pick is the Mercedes-Benz M-Class.

SUV/CUV under $35,000

Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
Feature: 2008 Canadian Car of the Year Testfest car of the year
From top: 2008 Saturn Outlook, 2008 Jeep Liberty, 2008 Nissan Rogue and 2008 Mitsubishi Outlander; photos by Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge

This is where to find a little truck with a little price-tag. That said, not all the entries here are small: the Saturn Outlook dwarfs its competition and as such, is a strong value considering its commodious eight-seat interior.

The Jeep Patriot shares mechanicals with the softer-styled Compass; it looks better and can be better equipped for real off-roading. The Jeep Liberty comes with even better off-road credentials and is pretty nice looking, too. The Ford Escape Hybrid was one of two hybrids here, the other being the Saturn Vue Green Line.

The Nissan Rogue brings that company’s smooth-running continuously variable transmission (CVT) technology to the small-ute segment; the Mitsubishi Outlander uses a more conventional powertrain, but is a strong value for a refined little truck: it’s one of three V6-powered entries (the others are the off-road ready Liberty and family-friendly Outlook). Again, the variety here makes it hard to predict a winner, but I suspect the Outlook might do well in voting. My pick, though, would be either the Rogue or Outlander, as both bring something a little different to the party: in the Rogue, it’s the smooth CVT, while the Outlander’s trick tailgate is nifty.

It’s our job as AJAC members to select the winners, but readers may wish to speculate on the outcome of each category, and predict how the journalists will vote. Even though readers will not have seen — and definitely won’t have driven the subject vehicles back-to-back — it’s still interesting to predict what the experts will ultimately say.

If you’d like to have a go at predicting this year’s outcome, Autos has developed some online polls to do just that.

Give it a try!

Category winners will be announced December 4, 2008. Be sure to check Autos, and see how close you came to predicting this year’s category winners for the 2008 Canadian Car of the Year.

Watch www.Autos.ca next week, as Senior Editor Paul Williams brings you a behind-the-scenes look at the second edition of Testfest held at its new home in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

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