Feature: AJAC Car of the Year: Coupes/Sedans under $35,000 car of the year
Journalists put coupes/sedans under $35K through their paces at TestFest, October, 2003. From front: Pontiac Grand Prix, Mazda3, Acura TSX, Dodge SRT-4 and Toyota Solara. Click image to enlarge

Story by Paul Williams
Photos: Dennis Miles, Ryerson University

The Automobile Journalists Association of Canada “Car of the Year” competition is held each year on and around the Shannonville racetrack, near Belleville, Ontario. Automotive writers from across Canada test vehicles over a three-day period (category winners were announced December 2nd). This year there were ten categories of cars, trucks and SUVs, totalling about 60 entrants. The main condition for participation is that the vehicles must be new to the market in 2003 as 2004 models.

I’ve already reported on the economy cars, and just like that category, the five Coupes/Sedans under $35,000 were an auto-jumble of makes and models.

We had a classy Toyota Solara competing alongside a snarly Dodge SRT-4, an all-new Pontiac Grand Prix, a zippy Mazda3 hatchback, and rounding out the strange bedfellows, an Acura TSX sedan. How do you pick a winner from five really different types of cars?

Feature: AJAC Car of the Year: Coupes/Sedans under $35,000 car of the year
2004 Toyota Solara. Click image to enlarge

Let’s look at them one-by-one. The 2004 Toyota Solara was the only coupe in the group, a four-seater wearing brand new sheetmetal, and powered by a 3.3-litre V6 making 225-horsepower and 240 lb.-ft of torque. Its appearance is elegant and swoopy with lots of exterior dazzle and flash.

The deep blue metallic paint on our $30,900 test car was polished to perfection, and its jewelled lights reflected brilliantly in the sun. The Camry-based Solara is long (4889 mm) and spacious inside, with big doors that permitted easy entry and exit to the rear seats.

The dashboard reminded me of one of those small, hi-tech, home stereos you put by your bed. Silver metallic, with illuminated switches and knobs, and big instruments with easy to read markings (although readings on the liquid crystal display minor gauges disappear when you wear sunglasses). The interior of the Solara is Lexus-like in its fit and finish, all very tailored and comfortable.

This flashy appearance of the Solara contrasted with its mild, somewhat soft, road manners. It’s really not a sporty vehicle at all, even though its coupe specification may suggest an owner with sporty aspirations. The suspension is set for cruise, the five-speed automatic transmission shifts seamlessly, the steering is leisurely, the engine is quiet and doesn’t deliver as much power as you expect. Perhaps this is a car for the young-at-heart, rather than the genuinely young.

Nonetheless, the Solara is pretty much loaded, with six-disc CD changer, front and side airbags, ABS, premium JBL sound system, power windows, doors, locks and driver’s seat and 17″ alloy wheels. The Solara runs on regular gasoline.

Feature: AJAC Car of the Year: Coupes/Sedans under $35,000 car of the year
2004 Dodge SRT-4. Click image to enlarge

The Dodge SRT-4 is a whole ‘nuther car. Here’s a four-door compact sedan that offers 230-horsepower and 250 lb.ft of torque from its 2.4-litre, turbocharged DOHC engine, likes premium gas, and is built for nothing more than power and handling. At a base price of $26,950 ($27,745 as-tested with sunroof) it’s a performance bargain and an absolute blast to drive.

At times, the sounds coming out of the oversized exhaust were positively rude, as it belched, barked and blatted its way around the racetrack. At idle it’s quiet enough, but give the SRT-4 some gas, drop the clutch, and it leaps noisily away, its limited slip differential and 17″ aluminum wheels with performance tires doing their best to dig in and keep you in a straight line.

Not that the SRT-4 can’t go around corners. The PVO (Performance Vehicle Operations) folks at Dodge have breathed all over the suspension, steering and brakes (four-wheel discs, front ventilated, ABS standard) to give you an exciting ride in a well-balanced car.

For performance driving, the seats were the best of the bunch, and the rear spoiler was at the opposite end of discreet. If this were salsa, it would be “extra hot.” Think of the SRT-4 as a street-tuned sport-compact, with a dash of NASCAR thrown in.

Feature: AJAC Car of the Year: Coupes/Sedans under $35,000 car of the year
2004 Pontiac Grand Prix. Click image to enlarge

Pontiac’s new Grand Prix GTP was the largest car in this category, a $34,475 mid-size four-door sedan that would be full-sized if it were made in any other country but the US. The car features Pontiac’s new-look body treatment with all the trademark body cladding gone. This gives the Grand Prix a cleaner, smoother look that improves it from all angles over previous models.

The supercharged, 3.8-litre V6 engine delivers a formidable 260-horsepower and a brawny 280 lb-ft of torque, which moves this 1,625 kilogram car smartly off the line. The surprise for me was the Grand Prix’ ride and handling. On the track, the car was much nimbler and more stable than I expected. Pick your driving line through the curves and the Grand Prix would track right through with little body lean, and composure you’d expect from a smaller, lighter car. The engine was plenty powerful, and the transmission quick to find the right gear. Brakes, also, did a fine job of bringing the Grand Prix down from speed.

Away from the track, the Grand Prix was comfortable to drive, with a full range of appointments and power amenities. A fine car for a long trip, I thought. The trunk opening is nearly 25-centimetres wider and the lift-over height almost 15-cm lower than on the previous model. The Grand Prix requires premium gasoline.

Feature: AJAC Car of the Year: Coupes/Sedans under $35,000 car of the year
The author driving the 2004 Mazda3 Sport. Click image to enlarge

The Mazda3 sedan was very impressive in the Economy Car category, and the Mazda3 Sport was equally impressive here. The as-tested $23,185 (base $20,185) four-door hatchback was definitely the little car that could. It uses a 2.3-litre, DOHC, four-cylinder engine that produces 160-horsepower and 151 lb.-ft of torque.

Unlike the SRT-4 this is a sporty car, rather than an all-out performance machine. But this car was a revelation on the track, its chassis and engine working together to produce a beautifully balanced vehicle at full throttle, under hard braking, on the straights and on tight corners. What a delight!

On the road the car was comfortable and roomy, with excellent cargo capacity. Power was more than sufficient for a vehicle this size.

The Mazda3 interior is expensively rendered, even though the car is at the low end of the price spectrum in this category. Rain sensing windshield wipers, 17″ alloy wheels, fog lights, six-disc CD changer, steering wheel mounted cruise and audio controls, air conditioning, sunroof and ABS are included in the as-tested price.

Additionally, the design of the car is striking, especially from the rear. Fuel consumption on the highway is estimated at a low 7.0 L/100 km and it uses regular gas.

Feature: AJAC Car of the Year: Coupes/Sedans under $35,000 car of the year
2004 Acura TSX. Click image to enlarge

Finally, the $34,800 Acura TSX is the second rung of Acura’s sedan ladder (between the entry-level EL and the middle-executive TL). The appeal of the TSX is its excellent, free-revving, 200-horsepower engine, and silky six-speed transmission (or optional five-speed automatic with sport shift).

The TSX is fully loaded with all the desirable bells and whistles, like dual-zone automatic climate control, a 360-watt, eight-speaker premium audio system, keyless remote, electro-luminescent instruments, 17″ alloy wheels, xenon lights, stability control, perforated leather seats and much more.

The interior of the TSX is finely crafted and compares favourably with its German competitors in this price range, although it’s likely to have much more standard equipment than those cars.

On the track the TSX was well balanced, competent, and a lot of fun to drive. Sportier tires would improve its handling, but the same tires would be less suited to everyday driving (which is what most drivers will be doing). On the road, everything is immediately within reach, easy to operate, legible and works well. This is a driver’s car with creature comforts.

The exterior design is a new, sharper edged look for Acura, but still somewhat restrained in its execution.

My pick? If you add up my 19 scores for the categories on my score sheet (which I haven’t done because AJAC also includes a formula to factor in the price), and keep in mind relevance to the marketplace, I think you’ll find the Acura TSX marginally topped out the Toyota Solara. So it’s my choice from the head. But if you asked me which car impressed the most, regardless of scores, I’d go with the Mazda3 Sport. It’s $12,000 less than the Acura, which has to count for something. And as it turns out, my gut feelings were correct. The winner was the Mazda3 Sport.

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