By Paul Williams
The Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) recently held its Canadian Car of the Year awards testing, with journalists from around the country evaluating all-new vehicles for the 2013 model year. Winners of the 11 vehicle categories were announced at the end of October with the overall Car of the Year and Utility Vehicle of the Year to be announced in February, 2013.
But there are many awards programs, with just about every automobile publication, website, blog, and group handing out trophies and plaques of this type or that each model year. Consumers are right to ask why the AJAC awards should carry more or less weight, and indeed why AJAC itself should have more stature among the array of media outlets and individuals commenting on cars.
First of all, AJAC isn’t a media outlet. As a non-profit, incorporated professional organization, AJAC represents almost 150 journalist members and 35 corporate members. Annual fees from both groups fund its break-even operation, which includes costs associated with Canadian Car of the Year testing. Of course, AJAC is legally bound by stringent reporting procedures common to all incorporated associations, which ensure that all money raised by the association is used appropriately. Additionally, AJAC has a statement of ethics built into its constitution that prevents members from personally benefitting from positive vehicle reviews or passing off advertising as editorial. All of its members have been vetted to confirm their expertise and their affiliation with reputable media outlets, and, in the case of the Canadian Car of the Year, they go through a two-year probationary period before their evaluations can be fully included in the final results.
In other words, it’s not about the individual testers, or the media outlets for whom they write. In the case of AJAC’s Canadian Car of the Year awards, it’s about the vehicles, and the consumers who buy them.
As you might have surmised, Canadian Car of the Year testing isn’t simply a list of personal favourites, nor does it rank vehicles based on short drives or press introductions held throughout the year. As pointed out above, many magazines, TV shows, websites and individuals annually pick what they consider to be the best vehicles, but in contrast, AJAC’s Canadian Car of the Year is built upon a comprehensive and standardized set of objective and subjective parameters, each of which is carefully weighted (having good brakes gets a higher proportion of points than having a good audio system).
Scores are determined over a full week of testing and evaluation during which each vehicle is driven back-to-back on the same day, in the same conditions and on the same roads. It’s a process honed over 29 years of testing, and it has evolved into arguably the most sophisticated and credible journalist-run awards program in the world.
A distinguishing feature of the AJAC Canadian Car of the Year awards is that not all vehicles available on the market are tested each year. Instead, the program tests vehicles that are either all-new versions of existing models (this year an example would be the Honda Accord, with its new body, drivetrain and interior), or all-new vehicles on the market (this year, the Ford C-Max, for instance, or the Chevrolet Trax).
Why not test every vehicle each year? Logistics, basically. In order to maintain the rigourous procedures used by AJAC’s Canadian Car of the Year program, it’s not realistic to test the 250-plus models available on the market each year. But because the program’s procedures remain fundamentally consistent from year to year, consumers can easily compare this year’s all-new Accord with last year’s all new Kia Optima, for instance, using comparative tools available at ajac.ca.
The vehicles entered are grouped into categories, not all of which are contested each year. For example, there were no all-new pickup trucks this model year, nor were there any all-new minivans, so those categories were not included. There were lots of SUV/CUVs, however, and they were divided into sub-categories by price.
Again, an argument could be made that all SUV/CUVs or all small cars should compete each in a single category. That way you’d theoretically arrive at the overall best SUV/CUV or best small car. But because the AJAC program is consumer oriented, it creates categories based on real-world purchasing behaviour. For consumers, price is a huge factor, so announcing that the Best Small Car is a $50,000 Audi A3 is not helpful to the much larger portion of people whose budget is under $20,000. Consequently, vehicle types are grouped by pricing that realistically reflects how people buy vehicles.
Similarly, all of the mainstream cars (as opposed to sports/performance cars) are entered and tested with automatic transmissions. While a manual transmission vehicle would be less expensive, or preferred by a car enthusiast, the fact is that in Canada a very small percentage of cars are ordered with manual transmissions. Furthermore, because all vehicles tested have automatic transmissions, no vehicle gains advantage by having a manual transmission. This is especially relevant when comparing acceleration times (although some of the newer double-clutch automatics may outperform manuals).
Do the testers play favourites? In my experience, no. Typically, you fill out your ballots as you drive the vehicles, enter them into the online database and let the system crunch the numbers.
What all this means to consumers is that AJAC’s Canadian Car of the Year testing procedures are about as comprehensive, unbiased, and fundamentally sound as they can be at this point in time. Yes, there are other programs, and consumers are advised to consult those when considering a vehicle purchase, along with reading reviews from a range of sources.
But in a sea of opinions—not all of them informed—it’s good to know that data generated at the AJAC Canadian Car of the Year awards program is based on the experience of professionally accredited journalists and on test results founded on sound engineering principles.
Along with the quality vehicle reviews at Autos.ca, don’t forget to check out ajac.ca for additional performance data and vehicle comparisons.