by Tony Whitney

A few weeks ago, I took a look at contenders in the 2005 Canadian Car and Truck of the Year awards, which is staged by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC). It took a fairly lengthy feature to go through all the vehicles in the running for these prestigious awards because there are a full dozen categories. While critics have complained that there may be too many categories in this competition, it only reflects the wide choices vehicle buyers have these days and after all, it does mean that more automakers get AJAC Award bragging rights.

Snapshot: Canadian Car of the Year contenders car of the year
2005 Kia spectra LX. Photo: Laurance Yap

Snapshot: Canadian Car of the Year contenders car of the year
2005 Mazda6 Sport. Photo: Greg Wilson

Snapshot: Canadian Car of the Year contenders car of the year
2005 Chrysler 300C. Photo: DaimlerChrysler

Snapshot: Canadian Car of the Year contenders car of the year
2004 BMW X3 3.0i. Photo: Paul Williams

Snapshot: Canadian Car of the Year contenders car of the year
2005 Hyundai Tucson. Photo: Grant Yoxon

Snapshot: Canadian Car of the Year contenders car of the year
2005 Volvo S40. Photo: Paul Williams

Snapshot: Canadian Car of the Year contenders car of the year
2005 Ford Mustang GT. Photo: Grant Yoxon

Snapshot: Canadian Car of the Year contenders car of the year
2005 Honda Odyssey. Photo: Greg Wilson

Snapshot: Canadian Car of the Year contenders car of the year
2005 Mazda6 Sport Wagon. Photo: Grant Yoxon

Snapshot: Canadian Car of the Year contenders car of the year
2005 Toyota Tacoma. Photo: Grant Yoxon

Snapshot: Canadian Car of the Year contenders car of the year
005 Mercedes-Benz SLK 350. Photo: Paul Williams

Snapshot: Canadian Car of the Year contenders car of the year
2005 Honda Accord Hybrid. Photo: Honda
Click images to enlarge

AJAC recently published its list of category winners, but the overall Car of the Year and Truck of the Year won’t be revealed until February 16th at the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto. The two winners will be chosen from among the category winners described below.

AJAC’s Best New Economy Car is Kia’s Spectra LX sedan, which should please this emergent Korean manufacturer that’s part of the Hyundai group and has been trying very hard to match heavy hitters like Toyota, Honda and Nissan in the import nameplate market.

Best New Family Car is the Mazda6 Sport, which confirms the excellence of this automaker’s “6″ series models and the smaller “3″ sedan and hatchback. Mazda has done so well in recent times it’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, its entire future was in the balance.

The folks at DaimlerChrysler are thrilled that a model they worked so hard to create and market won Best New Luxury Car – the Chrysler 300C. This elegant, roomy and beautifully-built sedan has been in great demand and I’ve heard that for some versions, there’s even a waiting list – an all too infrequent happening for many automakers.

The Best New Sport Utility Vehicle as judged by AJAC members was the BMW X3 3.0i – a compact SUV that’s just a little smaller than the popular X5 high-end luxury model. The X3 is the nearest thing you’ll get to an off-road vehicle with handling and “feel” reminiscent of BMW’s 3-Series sport sedans and coupes.

The crossover category is fairly new and was slotted into the AJAC Awards roster to cover vehicles that are practical and utilitarian, but don’t fit into the mud-plugging SUV category. For 2005, Best New Crossover is the Hyundai Tucson, a compact, sub-$20,000 rig that’s been drawing lots of praise from the automotive press for all kinds of reasons, not least its excellent build quality.

Best Sport Compact winner is the Volvo S40, which looks a lot like a downsized version of the bigger S60, but has a character all of its own. The Swedish automaker has a great reputation for solidity and safety and although this sedan is compact and affordable, it has all the benefits of the bigger models in this respect.

Perhaps it will be no surprise to anyone that Ford won Best Sports/Performance Car with its wonderful new Mustang. Few models in recent years have so cleverly respected the past while embracing the future as this new Mustang. The car looks superb and is dynamically far superior to the model it replaces – which is saying a lot.

Right at the other end of the automotive spectrum is the category for Best New Minivan and the 2005 winner is the Honda Odyssey. This latest Odyssey is so roomy and accommodating it should nudge the term “minivan” out of our vocabulary for good. Fold down the rear seats, remove the middle pair and you could probably get a Smart car in there. Top versions have very enticing levels of luxury, including DVD players for rear seat passengers.

Mazda took another category by edging out the competition in Best New Station Wagon. Wagons are making something of a comeback as many buyers discover they don’t really need a large SUV and this new Mazda is one of the most appealing. It looks more like a sports hatchback than a wagon, though it offers lots more cargo space than any “hatch.”

Pickup trucks are huge sellers in North America, especially the full-size models. It was a compact that won Best New Pickup though – the new Toyota Tacoma. Bigger in all dimensions than its predecessor, this truck comes in an amazing variety of configurations – 18 by some counts. Add Toyota’s reputation for build quality, durability and resale value and the reasons for this truck’s popularity are clear.

AJAC’s Best New Convertible is the outstanding SLK 350 from Mercedes-Benz. Far more attractive than its predecessor and a lot more powerful, this superbly-built sports car has a metal roof that folds neatly into part of the trunk area – making it a coupe as well as a convertible. The unique folding top design of this car makes it a lot stiffer than many rival ragtops and the last one I drove had nary a squeak or rattle anywhere.

The final award category – and another fairly new one – is Best New Alternative Power vehicle, which has been dominated by hybrids in the past. Once again, it was a gasoline/electric hybrid that took the laurels – Honda’s Accord Hybrid. This is the largest hybrid sedan we’ve yet seen and is bound to prove popular. It was developed by Honda after considerable experience with Insight and Civic Hybrid models, so this type of drivetrain is really entering the mainstream.

Don’t be disappointed if your favourite vehicle didn’t take top accolades. Very often, just a few points separate the top three vehicles in the various categories, so many fine products didn’t make the top twelve. The winners are judged using a very complex and scientifically-based system, but there are always a few puzzling omissions in any competition. Generally though, AJAC came up with a very deserving roster of winners.