November 6, 2006
The trio of MazdaSpeed3s Mazda sent to TestFest for evaluation; photo by Arne Glassbourg. Click image to enlarge
By Chris Chase
It’s like porn for automotive journalists. Even for car writers, it’s rare to have so much sexy new sheetmetal gathered in one place, at one time. In late October, the members of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) gathered in Niagara-on-the-Lake for “TestFest”, the annual smorgasbord of new cars and trucks in which AJAC members cast their votes for the best new vehicle in each of 13 different categories, which then go on to compete for Canadian Car of the Year, and Utility Vehicle of the Year (formerly Truck of the Year) honours.
The categories went like this: Small Car under/over $18,000; Family Car, $22,000-$30,000; Family Car over $30,000; Luxury Car under $50,000; Prestige Car over $75,000; Sports/Performance Car under/over $50,000; Convertible; Pick-up Truck; SUV/Crossover under $35,000, SUV/Crossover $35,000-$60,000 and SUV/Crossover over $60,000.
Small Car under $18,000
Starting from the bottom, the Small Car under $18,000 category presented an interesting group of vehicles. To me, the Honda Fit and Nissan Versa were the favourites going in – the Fit for its clever interior packaging and the Versa for its big-car behaviour in small-car clothes.
2007 Honda Fit; photo by Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge
As always, the Hyundai Accent represents a great value and is a respectable little car, but isn’t groundbreaking in any way; the Yaris sedan is a pleasant car, but can get pricey when optioned to match the others. The Pontiac Wave was restyled for 2007 but doesn’t bring anything else new to the party.
It’s no secret that I love the Fit, and it stands a good chance of winning this category, but the Versa is a dark horse and should fare well in voting.
Small Cars over $18,000
In Small Cars over $18,000, there are a couple of cars that are significant improvements over their predecessors, and others that didn’t impress me as much.
2007 Hyundai Elantra; photo by Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge
The 2007 Hyundai Elantra is a surprise in terms of interior appointments, looking and feeling inside like a car that costs more than its approximately $23,000 as-tested price would convey. It also feels much more competent on the road than its predecessor.
The ’07 Nissan Sentra is the other quantum leap here, with a much larger interior and far more engaging looks than the old, underwhelming version. The Suzuki SX4 is more conventional-looking than its Aerio ancestor, but performance isn’t anything special, and initial impressions suggest that its fuel economy and highway cruising range are well below what they should be.
Dodge’s Caliber looks like nothing else in this class and has a number of nifty features, but I’m not sure the optional continuously variable transmission (CVT) takes full advantage of the engine’s power. It tends to be buzzy on hard acceleration and the Caliber feels cheaper inside than the others.
The Volkswagen Rabbit is typically German: solid on the road, nice to look at inside and out and well-equipped, though it’s the most expensive here by more than $1,000. Despite that, it’s hard not to like the Rabbit, though I think the Elantra may have caught many by surprise. Expect the Hyundai to do well in the voting.
Family Car $22,000-$30,000
The Family Car $22,000-$30,000 group will be interesting to watch. The competitors are the Chrysler Sebring, which for 2007 has dropped its dull-as-dishwater duds for a distinctive and quite attractive new exterior. It’s also the only one here with V6 power and was the nicest to drive; it carries the highest as-tested price, though not by much.
2007 Chrysler Sebring; photo by Bob McHugh. Click image to enlarge
The Nissan Altima is an evolutionary design that retains many styling cues from the last-generation car without sharing any sheetmetal. The nicest improvement is inside, in the form of a more attractive dashboard. My tester had the only CVT of the bunch, but Nissan’s proven it can make these gearless wonders work well, and its four-banger makes almost as much punch as the Sebring’s V6.
We’ve seen the Kia Magentis as the Hyundai Sonata introduced last year; it feels similar to that car, but seems to ride on a firmer suspension. The interior isn’t quite as nice as the Sonata’s though. A Toyota Camry LE rounds out the group. It strikes me as the road-sofa of the bunch, but feels very well put together, as Toyotas tend to be. As Autos’s senior editor Paul Williams put it, the Camry is all the car most buyers in this class will need, but the Sebring is my pick for being the car they might want just a little more.
Family Car over $30,000
In the Family Car over $30,000 category, the Saturn Aura was the big surprise. Its European roots show through in its on-road comportment, and the fit and finish inside is generally good, save for a somewhat scratchy switch or adjustment here or there. It’s a looker on the outside, too.
2007 Saturn Aura; photo by Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge
The Nissan Maxima is super smooth, and its 3.5-litre V6 and CVT are well matched and provide performance fitting of an entry luxury sport sedan. It and the Aura are my favourites, but the Aura comes out on top for its better looks.
The 2007 Kia Amanti is a major improvement over the old version, though it retains the goofy Mercedes E-Class-esque front end of the original. This is the car I’d choose to be driven in, as it had the most comfortable back seat by far.
The VW Passat wagon had the second-highest as-tested price, but the least power from a turbocharged 2.0-litre engine that felt strained on spirited acceleration. A gorgeous, car, though, and the wagon body style is a rarity here.
A Toyota Camry Hybrid rounded out the group. Its environmentally-conscious nature can’t be ignored, but it wasn’t as refined as I expected it to be. If I wanted a Toyota hybrid, I’d choose the Prius first.
Luxury Cars under $50,000
Luxury Cars under $50,000 form the smallest category, with just three cars. The Infiniti G35x has a history of upstaging its German rivals with a combination of more interior space and overall value. A new interior addresses the main complaint that many have had with the G35.
The Lexus ES350 is a dressier Camry clone, but packs a powerful 3.5-litre V6 that should prove competitive. Don’t expect the new ES to be sportier than its forebear, though. This car has always been about quiet, comfortable cruising. This is the least expensive car here.
2007 Infinti G35; photo by Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge
The Lincoln MKZ is the most expensive car in this small group and is generally an impressive piece, though I’m not nuts about the interior, which makes the car feel less expensive than it is. This little Lincoln looks sharp, though, and is a nice drive with a strong engine, though it’s the least powerful of the three cars. My favourite here is the Infiniti for its classic long-hood, short-deck profile, class-leading horsepower and strong value.
Prestige Car over $75,000
The Jaguar XK Convertible is the odd one out in the Prestige Car over $75,000 group, competing with three big sedans. Its price would have made it an even stranger fit in the convertible category. Consequently, it’s the flashiest-looking here, though at least one tester noted lacklustre interior fit-and-finish for the price.
The Audi S8 might be the sports car of the bunch, with a firm ride and a high-revving V10 engine. It and the Mercedes-Benz S550 have all-wheel drive to get their 450 (in the Audi) and 382 (in the S550) horsepower to the ground.
2007 Lexus LS460; photo by Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge
The Lexus LS460 can’t better the Audi’s horsepower, but it does have an eight-speed transmission, the most in the group (the S550 has a seven-speed) and the most of any car, anywhere, for that matter. In a class where gadgets are god, we think the Lexus and Mercedes are the contenders here. If it was up to me, the nod would probably go to the Lexus for its super-quiet, cushy ride and because, well, saying your car has an eight-speed anything sounds really cool.
2007 Chevrolet Avalanche; photo by James Bergeron. Click image to enlarge
All three of the contenders in the Pick-Up category have four doors and V8 engines, but the Explorer Sport Trac is the smallest, which may hurt it in terms of overall utility. The Chevrolet Avalanche is a nifty take on the pick-up theme, with its cool midgate, which essentially allows the rear seat to be folded down for more carrying capacity.
The Cadillac Escalade EXT is the most expensive here by a wide margin but offers the most flash for the cash, with big 22-inch wheels, cushy leather seats and a fancy interior that belies this truck’s utilitarian bones. The EXT is based on the Avalanche and shares its midgate and rugged lined bed. Power is stronger too: this ‘Slade pick-up uses a 403 horsepower V8 in place of the Avalance’s smaller 320-hp motor. The Sport Trac gets a 292-hp version of the 4.6-litre V8 used in the Mustang; it and the Cadillac have six-speed automatics, while the Avalanche makes do with a four-speed.
I like the Avalanche best for its combination of size and true utility. You can’t help but feel self-conscious in the Escalade, and to me, that’s not what trucks are about. The Sport Trac is useful too, but didn’t feel as well screwed together.
Sports/Performance under $50,000
The Sports/Performance under $50,000 class is tons of fun, with a dash of practicality thrown in. Headlining the group is the MazdaSpeed3, the highly-anticipated turbocharged version of the Mazda3 Sport. With 263 horsepower, this is the most powerful car in the group (by a margin of three horses over the Saturn Sky Redline) and is perhaps the zippiest hatch available in Canada. An as-tested price of $31,185 strikes me a strong value, too.
2007 Volkswagen GTI; photo by Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge
The all-new VW GTI – based on the more pedestrian Rabbit – carries all the hallmarks of its less-expensive cousin but offers 50 more horsepower in the form of a 200-hp turbocharged four-cylinder. The overall feel is less sporty than the Mazda, with a softer ride and slightly slower responses, but we think this would be the easier car to live with on a daily basis.
The Acura CSX Type-S is a fun ride. Essentially a four-door Honda Civic Si with flashier duds, this car shares the Civic’s annoying drive-by-wire throttle that takes some of the fun out of shifting the car’s six-speed manual transmission. The ride is harsher than in the GTI, and is almost as firm as the Mazda’s. The motor’s high-revving nature is fun, but the torque offered by the boosted motors in the other three cars is more addictive.
Like the Jaguar in the Prestige class, the Saturn Sky Redline is a black sheep here. It was the only car without four doors, and the only one with next to no trunk space. That said, it’s sexy and a blast to drive fast, though it can be a handful at the limit. My choice here is the MazdaSpeed3, with the GTI coming in a very close second, perhaps only for its deficits in the performance department.
Sport/Performance over $50,000
I’m not entirely sure how the Lexus GS400h got into the Sport/Performance over $50,000 party, but it didn’t really fit in. Certainly it’s powerful, but doesn’t have the sporting character of the others here. The two Audis – RS4 and S6 – are terrific performers. The RS4 is the more raw of the two, its six-speed manual transmission lending it a more direct feel on the road. The S6′s Lamborghini-derived V10 makes some of the sexiest sounds this side of an erotic film and both sport firm suspensions that don’t punish occupants.
2007 BMW 335i; photo by Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge
BMW’s 335i Coupe is the GTI of this group, offering strong performance, but dialing back the “sport” part of the equation a couple of notches. We can’t complain about all the torque from the twin-turbo inline six. Also from BMW was the M Coupe, the hardtop version of the Z4-based M Roadster. It’s sportier than the 335i, but is also more difficult to contain at the limit.
Even more visceral is the Ford Mustang Shelby GT500, packing a class-leading 500 horsepower from its supercharged 5.4-litre V8, a detuned version of the motor in the awesome Ford GT.
The RS4 is my favourite here based purely on performance, but its $94,200 base price is hard to swallow. The 335i gives up a bit of practicality given its two-door set-up, but it’s my favourite for its combination of flexible power and useable rear seat.
The weather during TestFest may have been cooler than we expected, but the sun was out enough to allow us some top-down enjoyment of the cars in the convertible class. The Pontiac G6 Convertible was the only domestic entry here and one of two with a folding hardtop. Sadly, it was also the least pleasing, with lots of cowl shake with the top down (things improved with the roof, up, though) and an unexciting interior.
2007 Volkswagen Eos; photo by Peter Bleakney. Click image to enlarge
The Volkswagen Eos was the other convertible hardtop here, and despite a price $3,000 more than that of the G6, it struck me as a better value. The structure is noticeably stiffer top up or down and cargo capacity with the top down is actually quite useful, unlike in the G6.
The soft-top entries here are the Audi A4 convertible and the Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder. The Eclipse is the most powerful car in the group, but it also exhibited the most annoying torque steer. It’s a looker though, with extroverted lines that are a contrast to the A4′s sleek and subdued looks.
The Eos is more expensive than both the Eclipse and the G6, but the useable trunk and nifty top – which also incorporates a sunroof for days when going topless isn’t an option – make it a strong value. The Eos is my pick of this fun-loving group.
SUV/CUV under $35,000
The popularity of affordable SUVs and crossovers is reflected in the SUV/CUV under $35,000 group, which was the largest here with nine competitors.
The Dodge Nitro and the Jeep Compass and Wrangler Unlimited four-door came to TestFest from the DaimlerChrysler juggernaut. The Nitro is little more than a re-bodied Jeep Liberty while the Compass is a re-styled Dodge Caliber. The Wrangler Unlimited was my favourite of the three for being the most honest vehicle of the trio, despite being the least comfortable on-road.
The Ford Edge impressed me with strong power, a roomy interior and lots of safety features for the money. Honda’s CR-V is all-new but possesses many of the same qualities – namely quality itself – that have helped make it popular in the past. All it needs is V6 power; the Honda, the Compass and the Saturn Vue Green Line were the only ones here with four-bangers.
2007 Hyundai Santa Fe; photo by Chris Chase. Click image to enlarge
Speaking of the Saturn, its green appeal is apparent, though it’s not as efficient as other hybrids. The Hyundai Santa Fe is one of the strongest in the class, with a nice powertrain and interior and lots of value. The Mazda CX-7 is the most fun, with good looks and handling. The Toyota RAV4 is a wonderful vehicle, as you might expect, but surprisingly, doesn’t feel as refined as the Santa Fe, which is my pick here.
Moving up the ladder to the SUV/CUV, $35,000-$60,000 group and there’s much more diversity to be had. The Acura RDX is a gateway to the luxury crossover market. Its turbocharged engine – a first for Acura – is quite impressive, as is the handling. It also had the lowest as-tested price.
2007 Chevrolet Tahoe; photo courtesy General Motors. Click image to enlarge
The new Chevrolet Tahoe is a big improvement over its predecessor and would make a great workaday SUV. The Aspen is the first full-size SUV from Dodge in a long time and is much flashier than the Chevy, though it is designed for many of the same heavy-duty tasks. The Lincoln MKX on the other hand, is aimed at the same buyers who might consider the RDX, and shares the Ford Edge’s bones. We’re not sure the Lincoln is worth the price premium over the Edge, though.
The Suzuki XL7 is much larger than the vehicle it replaces, and comes with much more power, too, in the form of a Cadillac-sourced V6. The FJ Cruiser is the fun-loving entry in the group, and is designed more for the trail than blacktop, though it’s quite comfortable on the road.
The Tahoe is a nice blend of comfort and capability without being too over the top, and as such is among my favourites here.
SUV/Crossover over $60,000
If you have more than $60,000 to spend, the choices in SUVs are just as varied as they are in the lower-priced groups. Like the smaller RDX, the Acura MDX Elite features the same Super-Handling all-wheel drive system but also gets a nifty active damper system. It’s the least expensive here and, like the Ford Expedition and GMC Yukon, would fall into the $35,000-$60,000 in base form.
2007 Ford Expedition Max; photo by Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge
Audi’s Q7 and Mercedes-Benz GL represent Germany and bring with them big price-tags and lots of technology. The Cadillac Escalade and GMC Yukon come from General Motors, while the Ford Expedition MAX and Lincoln Navigator are both built by Ford.
With the exception of the Escalade, the domestic-built models are more utilitarian than luxurious, though they can still be optioned out for comfort while offering a strong work ethic.
The Expedition Max offers the most truck for the money, even if it can’t match the refinement of the import models. If looks are more important, the MDX is attractive, as is the Q7, though it’s quite pricey.