Feature: 2009 AJAC Testfest: Category Winners car of the year
Aerial view of the Testfest site – photo courtesy AJAC/Arne Glassbourg. Click image to enlarge

By Chris Chase

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CCOTY Testfest 2009

Niagara-on-the-Lake – For most Canadians, a year clearly starts every January 1 and ends decisively on December 31. If you’re an accountant, your calendar is probably dictated by April’s income tax deadline. And if you’re a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC), your annual schedule contains a week in October dedicated to that organization’s annual orgy of new cars, “Testfest.”

This year, more than 80 auto writers from across the country gathered at the Niagara airport near Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, where Testfest has been held for the past three years, to evaluate 56 new cars and trucks in 14 categories. All of this was done with the eventual aim of choosing two that stand above the rest: Canadian Car of the Year, and Canadian Truck of the Year.

This year’s twist was that the winners in each category would be announced the morning of Friday, October 24, the idea being that this would give every journalist the chance to drive all the winners before trekking back home.

As in past years, the overall winners – Canadian Car of the Year and Canadian Truck of the Year – won’t be known until February 2009, when they’re announced at Toronto’s Canadian International Auto Show. But, for now, here’s a rundown of this year’s category winners, which vehicles they competed against, and the ones we think are candidates for the two top prizes.

Small car under $18,000 – Winner: Toyota Corolla

Feature: 2009 AJAC Testfest: Category Winners car of the year
2009 Toyota Corolla – photo by Chris Chase. Click image to enlarge

The new-for-2009 Corolla was up against the Chevrolet Aveo and Smart Fortwo. Of the three, the Corolla is the only one that looks new, while the Aveo and Fortwo come bearing mostly mechanical updates. The Corolla proved to be the most well-rounded car here. With air, automatic and keyless entry for less than $18,000, Editor-in-Chief, Greg Wilson, felt the Corolla was clearly superior, to the point that it shouldn’t have even been in the same class as the others. Assistant Editor, Jil McIntosh, thought the Fortwo felt like “the least car for the most money,” with an “awful” transmission, though she sees the appeal of a car that makes a strong statement and “can be parked in a phone booth.”

Small car over $18,000 – Winner: 2009 Pontiac Vibe

Feature: 2009 AJAC Testfest: Category Winners car of the year
2009 Pontiac Vibe – photo by Jil McIntosh. Click image to enlarge

This was an interesting group of three cars, notably because the biggest difference between the Vibe and its Toyota Matrix twin is their names. The third entry in the category was the 2009 Honda Fit. Good thing I’m not a betting man, as I had picked the Fit for the win for the way its clever interior makes the most of its small footprint. But, as Jil McIntosh commented, it seemed like Honda made a mistake entering its pricey Fit Sport, as it came with the highest price and a “harsher, noisier ride” than the others.

Greg Wilson, too, thought the Fit was overpriced and that the other two offered more for the money. Indeed, the Vibe had traction and stability control, items you can’t get in a Matrix until you’re spending more than $23,000 (the Vibe’s as-tested price was $20,405, versus the Matrix’s $19,460).
Jil McIntosh thought it was her imagination at first, when she found the Vibe offered a quieter ride and better build quality than the Matrix, but I agree – and we’re not the only ones.

Family car, $22,000-$30,000 – Winner: 2009 Mazda6

Feature: 2009 AJAC Testfest: Category Winners car of the year
2009 Mazda6 – photo by Chris Chase. Click image to enlarge

Mazda’s win in this category didn’t come as a surprise to many. The other cars in the group were the Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Magentis and Volkswagen Jetta TDI wagon.

Greg Wilson thought the Kia Magentis was a dark horse and had more personality than its Sonata twin, and found the Jetta wagon to be less-refined and smaller inside than the other cars here, while carrying the highest price tag. Jil McIntosh thought the Magentis will be most under-rated by the buying public, “which is a shame” as it offers peppy acceleration and fun handling.

For the record, I thought the Mazda6 was the best car in this group, both in terms of its performance and looks. Others complained of a firm ride, but I prefer that to the Stay-Puft suspensions that so many family cars ride on. If this car foreshadows the company’s future design direction, expect Mazda’s success to continue.

Family car, over $30,000 – Winner: 2009 Volkswagen Passat CC

Feature: 2009 AJAC Testfest: Category Winners car of the year
2009 Volkswagen Passat CC – photo by Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge

What VW missed out on in the lower-priced family car category it gained back in the over $30,000 group, with its new Passat CC taking the honours. It was competing against some formidable competition, too, in the form of the Nissan Maxima, Pontiac G8 (six-cylinder) and Volvo V70. The Passat was easily the nicest-looking in the group, and offered a nice combination of performance and refinement, despite being the only four-cylinder vehicle of the four.

Jil McIntosh was surprised by the G8′s strong powertrain, but thinks it looks too much like a front-driver (despite being rear-wheel drive) and she found the interior styling a little weird, with too many controls located on the centre stack. Considering this car uses the same V6 as will be used in base versions of the upcoming Camaro, Jil has high hopes for that car.

Luxury Car, under $50,000 – Winner: Hyundai Genesis

Feature: 2009 AJAC Testfest: Category Winners car of the year
2009 Hyundai Genesis – photo by Jil McIntosh. Click image to enlarge

This one was a bit of a surprise, but at the same time, it wasn’t really. What was impressive was the margin by which the Genesis won: 14 points over the second-place Infiniti G37x S, and the Hyundai was the only car without all-wheel drive! Other competitors in this group were the Acura TL, Audi A3 2.0T quattro and the Saab 9-3 Aero XWD.

I agree with Jil that the Infiniti was the most fun the drive. While the Acura’s all-wheel drive system “held the car around the cones like it was on rails,” she thought its ride was far too firm. I didn’t like the 9-3′s light steering as much as Jil did, but I agree that some of the interior switchgear feels a bit cheap in a car costing nearly $50,000. The Audi is cool, but nearly $44,000 is a lot of dough for a hatchback, even in hatch-happy Canada.
Jil’s prediction is the Genesis will fight for the overall Car of the Year title with the Mazda6.

Luxury Car, over $50,000 – Winner: Audi A4 2.0T quattro

Feature: 2009 AJAC Testfest: Category Winners car of the year
2009 Audi A4. Click image to enlarge

The A4s that Audi shipped to Niagara for Testfest were four-cylinder models, and many of the attending journalists were sure that it would be outclassed in this group of three. After all, the Acura RL and Lincoln MKS both have significantly more horsepower.

But Senior Editor, Paul Williams thought the MKS was too ponderous on the track, and though the RL had just about every amenity imaginable, including a sophisticated all-wheel drive system, the Audi’s “perfectly-rendered interior, solid-as-a-vault construction and chiseled appearance,” as Williams aptly put it, helped it rise to the top of this crop. Jil McIntosh thought the A4 deserved to win too, particularly considering it was the least-expensive car in the group.

The A4′s win proves that horsepower isn’t everything; this car is one of three VW Group vehicles in this year’s Testfest to use the company’s 2.0-litre turbo four, whose power output makes it feel like a much larger engine.

Pick-up – Winner: Dodge Ram

Feature: 2009 AJAC Testfest: Category Winners car of the year
2009 Dodge Ram – photo by Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge

Going in, the Ford F-150 was the favourite here, if only because of this truck’s solid reputation and its long heritage. But the Ram won in what was one of the biggest upsets in this year’s CCOTY contests. The 2009 is a significant leap forward from its predecessor, though, so the win is justified. It’s also a nice shot in the arm for a company – Chrysler – whose vehicles haven’t had much luck finding critical acclaim lately.

The Ram was fitted with Dodge’s 5.7-litre HEMI V8, now tuned for 390 horsepower and 407 lb-ft, and carrying an as-tested price of $48,910. The Ford, on the other hand, came to the show with a 5.4-litre V8 making 310 horses and 370 lb-ft and was priced at $53,799. Many journalists preferred the Ram in their back-to-back drives, with the consensus being that it was simply the better truck.

The vote spread between these two trucks was just seven, so it’s clear that these are both terrific trucks. Jil McIntosh’s only complaint is that these two, like so many full-size trucks these days, are “ridiculously oversized.”

Note that CCOTY rules generally require three vehicles to make up a category. Originally, the Hummer H3T was set to compete in this category, but GM pulled it out (likely because the brand is up for sale, says Jil).

Prestige, over $75,000 – Winner (tie): Mercedes-Benz CL550 and Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG

Feature: 2009 AJAC Testfest: Category Winners car of the year
2009 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG – photo by Jil McIntosh. Click image to enlarge

Word has it that Mercedes had only planned to enter one car in this category, but added a second when it became clear that if they didn’t, there would be just two vehicles and no Prestige category at all. The third entry was the quirky BMW X6.

When the votes were initially counted, the X6 emerged the winner. That was a surprise, I think, because despite its rakish looks, it’s more of a high-end crossover than a prestige vehicle.

The SL63 is my favourite here, with its 518-hp, 465 lb-ft V8, but the CL550′s 382 hp/391 lb-ft are nothing to sneeze at either. Then again, the X6 is one of the first BMWs to use the company’s new twin-turbo V8, which makes 400 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque.

The X6 stands out in this group, but I can’t help thinking that it would have been a better fit in the SUV over $60,000 category.

Sports/Performance, under $50,000 – Winner: BMW 135i

Feature: 2009 AJAC Testfest: Category Winners car of the year
2008 BMW 135i. Click image to enlarge

There was little doubt as to which car would win this category, especially after driving all five entries, which included the Subaru WRX STi, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, Acura TSX and Dodge Challenger.

I think the Challenger and STi were the brutes here, but in different ways; Paul Williams found the Challenger to be unexpectedly entertaining in the twisties. The Mitsubishi was the most technically sophisticated with its twin-clutch sequential transmission, and while the TSX is a good car, some journalists found it didn’t feel like enough of an improvement over the first-generation car, though its leather seats and navigation system were real pluses to some testers.
If the 135i was a delight on the road, it turned into a track monster – albeit a very comfortable one – on the CCOTY test track. It was that balance, felt Williams, that helped it earn the win.

Sports/Performance, over $50,000 – Winner: Lexus IS F

Feature: 2009 AJAC Testfest: Category Winners car of the year
2009 Lexus IS F (with BMW M3) – photo by Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge

The votes in this category must have been very close. After all, it pitted one of the most revered performance cars in recent memory (the BMW M3) against one of the most sought-after badges in all of auto-dom (the Nissan GT-R). This was a six-entry field, with the balance of the competitors being the Cadillac CTS-V, Jaguar XF Supercharged and Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG.

In the end, no one seemed as surprised by the win as Toyota/Lexus’ own PR staff. I’m sure they thought the M3 and GT-R were the front-runners, but my gut tells me that the journalists testing this group liked the IS F’s combination of raw performance and practicality. Black sheep as it is in the Lexus family, it’s hard not to get a kick out of the IS F.

Convertible – Winner: Audi TTS

Feature: 2009 AJAC Testfest: Category Winners car of the year
2009 Audi TTS – photo by Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge

It seems there’s always one car in the convertible category that you can’t help but feel sorry for. Last year, it was the poor Chrysler Sebring, which didn’t stand a chance against the BMW 3 Series and Volvo C70.

This time around, the Car of Pity was the Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder, which was pitted against the Audi TTS and Mercedes-Benz SLK350.

Thing is, on paper, the Mitsubishi doesn’t lack much: it has a strong V6 and is a terrific-looking car. But the drive just doesn’t compare to that of the two luxury models, something that not even the Eclipse’s strong value could overcome.

SUV/CUV, under $35,000 – Winner: Subaru Forester

Feature: 2009 AJAC Testfest: Category Winners car of the year
2009 Subaru Forester – photo by Jil McIntosh. Click image to enlarge

The Forester has been around for 10 years, but this is the first time it’s received any major attention in terms of a redesign. This one’s bigger and more refined, and it’s these factors that helped it win out against the Volkswagen Tiguan and Dodge Journey, despite having the least power and slowest acceleration.

The Journey’s V6 was strong, but Greg Wilson found interior quality to be lacking compared to the Subie and VW. Also, the Journey didn’t have all-wheel drive, while the others did. Assistant Editor, Jil McIntosh, thinks the Journey is worth a look for its price, but also found the interior unappealing and the seats uncomfortable.

I agree with Wilson in that the Tiguan’s downfall was probably its price: this was the only entry that stickered above $30,000. At a lower price, I think the VW could have won easily, as its powertrain and performance impress, big-time.

SUV/CUV, $35,000-$60,000 – Winner: Ford Flex

Feature: 2009 AJAC Testfest: Category Winners car of the year
2009 Ford Flex SEL AWD – photo by Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge

I fully expected the Honda Pilot to win in this category, mainly because it’s a Honda and everyone loves Hondas, don’t they? Not enough, apparently. Ford and Honda weren’t the only strong contenders here: The Flex and Pilot competed against the Chevrolet Traverse, Chrysler’s Aspen Hybrid, the new Kia Borrego, the Nissan Murano and the Toyota Sequoia.

Size-wise, the Toyota and Chrysler were misfits, being significantly larger than the others, and the Borrego was the only other entry that could rightly claim any true truck DNA.

Paul Williams wonders how the huge Sequoia could possibly accelerate from zero to 100 km/h in just 7.1 seconds, but the answer is simple: lots of motor. Paul found that all the entries here performed well off-road, and the Sequoia, Flex and Traverse all fared well in voting, but felt the Flex won out for its “appealing originality.” Jil McIntosh thinks it’s a strong contender for overall Truck of the Year honours, and I have to agree.

SUV/CUV, over $60,000 – Winner: Mercedes-Benz M-Class

Feature: 2009 AJAC Testfest: Category Winners car of the year
2009 Mercedes-Benz ML 320. Click image to enlarge

The M-Class was Mercedes’ third winner at this year’s CCOTY event. The truck the company sent was an ML320 BlueTEC model, fitted with the brand’s super-clean 3.0-litre diesel V6. The also-rans were the Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid, the Infiniti FX50 and the Lexus LX570.

The Benz’s 210-hp engine doesn’t turn this truck into a speed demon by any stretch, but there’s loads of torque, and a seven-speed automatic means it’s easy to keep this motor in its powerband for confidence-inspiring acceleration.

Also impressive is the engine’s lack of noise and vibration, which have typically been diesel’s biggest turn-offs.