by Greg Wilson

Once again, Canadian automotive writers belonging to the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada have driven, compared, and rated new and significantly redesigned 2003 cars and trucks at the annual AJAC Test-Fest, a four-day buffet of the latest automotive machinery to hit the market (and some that isn’t on the market yet).

Approximately 60 journalists from across Canada gathered at Shannonville Race Track in Ontario (near Belleville), Oct 24th – 26th, to drive the contenders back to back, both on and off the track. Journalists rated vehicles on their performance, interior room, styling, cargo space, features and a host of other factors. The results were sealed in a ballot box, and are being tabulated by an independent accounting firm which will keep them secret until the winners of each category are announced on November 21st at the Montreal Auto Show press day at the new Palais des Congres de Montreal. The overall Car and Truck of the Year winners will be announced next February at the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto.

This year, there were nine categories and a total of 52 vehicles entered in the competition. Most vehicle manufacturers were represented, with the notable exception of Toyota who has declined to participate in this event for many years despite AJAC’s repeated attempts to entice it into the competition. Rumour has it though, that they will be returning next year.

The nine vehicle categories and their entries include:

Economy Car under $18,000

  • Dodge SX 2.0
  • Hyundai Accent
  • Kia Rio RX-V
  • Mitsubishi Lancer ES
  • Pontiac Sunfire Coupe
  • Suzuki Aerio GL Fastback

Family Vehicle

  • Honda Accord Sedan
  • Kia Magentis
  • Chrysler PT Cruiser Turbo
  • Saturn ION
  • Suzuki Aerio SX Fastback AWD

Luxury Car

  • BMW 745Li
  • Infiniti M45
  • Mercedes-Benz E-Class
  • Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class

Sports Coupe/Sedan under $35,000

  • Honda Civic SiR
  • Hyundai Tiburon
  • Mazdaspeed Protege
  • MINI Cooper S
  • Mitsubishi Eclipse GTP
  • Saab 9-3 Linear

Sports Coupe/Sedan over $35,000

  • Audi A4 Cabriolet
  • Infiniti G35
  • Cadillac CTS Sport
  • Jaguar S-TYPE R
  • Mercedes-Benz C32 AMG

Sports/Performance Car

  • Acura NSX
  • BMW Z4
  • Mercedes-Benz SLK32 AMG
  • Nissan 350Z

Station Wagon/MPV

  • Audi A4 3.0 Avant
  • GMC Savana
  • Mazda MPV
  • Pontiac Vibe
  • Subaru Baja
  • Volkswagen Jetta Wagon
  • Volkswagen Passat W8 Wagon

Sport Utility under $45,000

  • Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXT
  • Honda Pilot
  • Kia Sorento
  • Jeep Rubicon
  • Mitsubishi Outlander XLS
  • Subaru Forester
  • Nissan Murano

Sport Utility over $45,000

  • BMW X5 4.6iS
  • Ford Expedition
  • Land Rover Range Rover
  • Lincoln Navigator
  • Mercedes-Benz G500
  • Mitsubishi Montero Limited
  • Volvo XC90 2.5T

This week, we examine Economy Cars (under $18,000), Family Cars, and Luxury Cars – and I go out on a limb with MY PICK* for each category.

Economy Cars

Dodge SX 2.0

Fresh styling and a new name may not be enough to convince voters that the new Dodge SX 2.0 is more than a rebadged Chrysler Neon, a car that was first introduced in 1994 and updated in 1999. For 2003, the Dodge SX 2.0 base and Sport models have the Neon’s familiar 132 horsepower 2.0 litre four cylinder engine and sporty R/T models have the 150 horsepower version. The SX 2.0 is certainly a roomy compact sedan with good handling, peppy performance, good fuel economy, and a class leading 7 year/115,000 km powertrain warranty – but it’s biggest asset is it new lower base price of just under $15,000. Still, AJAC journalists may have trouble shaking off the notion that this is a recycled Neon.

Hyundai Accent

Hyundai’s popular entry-level car has revised exterior styling and new seat fabrics for 2003 and continues to be offered in the 2-door GS and GSi hatchback models and the 4-door GL model. While the GS uses the 1.5 litre engine, the Gsi and GL models have a more powerful 1.6 litre engine. A new ‘comfort package’, which includes air conditioning and power windows, locks and mirrors, was made available on the GL 5-speed model midway through 2002. The Accent scores well in the areas of value for money, manoeuvrability and handling, fuel economy, and utility (hatchback), but it is not as refined, or as quiet, or as well-finished as some cars in this class. Still, it’s a lot of little car for the money.

Kia Rio RX-V

2003 Kia Rio RX-V
Click image to enlarge

This small wagon/hatchback gets a styling makeover, more standard equipment, and a new 1.6 litre four cylinder engine with 104 horsepower, up from 1.5 litres and 96 horsepower. As before, it’s offered in RX-V and RX-V Sport models, but each has more standard equipment: RX-V models add alloy wheels, keyless entry, CD player, fog lamps, and heated mirrors. RX-V Sport models add air conditioning, CD player and fog lamps. The inexpensive RX-V is roomy for a small car, easy to drive and park, fuel-efficient, and comes with a standard 5 year/100,000 km warranty. Interior quality could be better and the car feels less substantial than some of its competitors. But like the Accent, it’s a great value.

Mitsubishi Lancer ES – MY PICK*

2003 Mitsubishi Lancer ES - Photo: Grant Yoxon,
Click image to enlarge

Expected to be Mitsubishi’s biggest seller in Canada, this compact four door Japanese-built sedan has rather conservative styling, but its 120 horsepower 4 cylinder engine is a willing performer, and its attractive interior is roomy for a compact car. Lancer’s are offered in ES, LS and OZ Rally trim levels – the latter with a sportier suspension and tires. For a base price under $16,000, the Lancer ES base model is a good value, and its warranty is comparable with other Japanese cars. Compared to the other AJAC competitors in this class, the Lancer is more refined, quieter and easier to drive – it’s almost a class above the others. I think it deserves to win this class.

Pontiac Sunfire Coupe

2003 Pontiac Sunfire Coupe
Click image to enlarge

Revised styling, a new instrument panel, 60/40 split rear seatbacks, and a new standard ‘Ecotec’ 2.2 litre four cylinder engine are the big changes to the 2003 Sunfire Coupe. The aggressive new styling is a matter of taste, but my guess is that anybody over 25 won’t like it. The new 140 horsepower balance-shaft equipped Ecotec engine is smoother than the old 115 horsepower 2.2 litre four and 150 horsepower 2.4 litre ‘quad cam’ engines, and provides surprisingly quick straight-line performance. As well, the Sunfire’s suspension has been tweaked for handling. The Sunfire coupe’s bodystyle isn’t as practical as some of the wagons and sedans in this AJAC category, and its basic platform is dated. I can’t see it winning this category.

Suzuki Aerio GL Fastback

2003 Suzuki Aerio, Photo:  Laurance Yap,
Aereo AWD shown. Click image to enlarge

Introduced in 2002, this tall hatchback from Suzuki has a roomy interior and cargo area with folding rear seatbacks and easy hatchback access, a relatively powerful 141 horsepower 2.0 litre four cylinder motor, and nimble driving manners. Its unusual digital instruments and average interior quality may turn off some judges, but its combination of practicality, driving ease, performance, fuel economy, and price are unmatched by other vehicles in this AJAC category. The Aerio comes in GL, GLX, and SX trim levels ranging in price from under $16,000 to just under $20,000. This could be a surprise winner.

Family Vehicle

Honda Accord sedan – MY PICK*

2003 Honda Accord sedan - Photo:  Laurance Yap,
Click image to enlarge

All-new for 2003, the Honda Accord sedan gets more power from a slightly bigger 2.4 litre four and revised 3.0 litre V6 engines, a new five-speed automatic transmission, an improved manual transmission on base models, new standard ABS brakes, a stiffer body, and a little more interior room. The optional 3.0 litre V6 now has 240 horses, on par with the sporty Nissan Altima (last year’s Car of the Year), giving it comparable straight-line performance. The Accord’s standard 2.4 litre four banger (up from 2.3 litres) with I-VTEC (intelligent variable valve timing and lift electronic control) is even sweeter than the previous motor. The 2003 Accord is still not an exciting car to look at, and some dimensions, such as rear legroom are actually down, but let’s face it – few cars fit the definition of a ‘family car’ better than the Honda Accord sedan.

Kia Magentis

2003 Kia Magentis
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This little known mid-sized family car shares a similar platform with the Hyundai Sonata. It’s offered with either a 149 horsepower 2.4 litre four cylinder engine or a 178 horsepower 2.7 litre V6 and standard automatic transmission – V6 models are available with a 4-speed Steptronic with manual shift capability. The Magentis isn’t the most powerful, the roomiest or the best-looking sedan in this category, but it does offer a very smooth ride, decent handling due to its fully independent suspension, a smooth-running V6 powerplant, a low asking price, and a good 5 year warranty. It’s difficult to imagine the Magentis beating the Honda Accord for best family sedan, but it certainly scores well on value.

Chrysler PT Turbo

2003 Chrysler PT Turbo
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While the original PT Cruiser resembled an old hot rod, its standard 150 horsepower 2.4 litre four cylinder engine wasn’t exactly a tire burner. Now with a 215 horsepower turbocharged four cylinder engine, the PT Turbo will perform more like a hot rod is supposed to. As well, the sporty PT Turbo has 17-inch painted five-spoke alloy wheels, all-season P205/50HR-17 inch tires, a modified suspension, and four-wheel disc brakes with standard ABS. Though it might seem a tad sporty to be in the ‘Family Vehicle’ category, the PT Turbo is a practical too, with four doors, lots of headroom, folding rear seats and up to 64.2 cu. ft. of cargo space. Still, it doesn’t ride and handle as well as some of its competitors, and I don’t see it winning Best Family Vehicle.

Saturn ION

2003 Saturn Ion sedan
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Saturn took a long time to replace their bread-and-butter S-Series sedans, but the new ION will certainly cause a stir in the affordable compact family car class. For one thing, it’s considerably bigger than its predecessor with more interior room, and a wider track for better handling. It offers a more powerful balance-shaft equipped Ecotec 137 horsepower 2.2 litre twincam 16 valve four cylinder engine as standard equipment, and there’s a new continuously variable transmission, a new five-speed automatic transmission, and a new torsion beam rear suspension. The interior features instruments mounted in the centre dash area. One Saturn trademark feature is carried over: those dent-resistant plastic body panels. It certainly has a lot to offer.

Suzuki Aerio SX Fastback AWD

2003 Suzuki Aerio - Photo:  Laurance Yap,
Click image to enlarge

The tall Aerio hatchback (which Suzuki calls a ‘Fastback’) and the Aerio sedan replaced the Esteem in 2002. For 2003, Suzuki adds an all-wheel-drive Aerio Fastback model. This relatively affordable small car is very roomy inside and has lots of cargo space easily accessible by the lift-up hatch. Its fuel-efficient and surprisingly powerful 141 horsepower 2.0 litre four cylinder engine provides perky performance, and the new all-wheel-drive system adds traction and stability in the wet, snow and ice. It’s one of the least expensive AWD cars on the market, so it will score well on value. While it’s not as refined as some of the other cars in this category and the dash layout may turn off some drivers, the Aerio SX AWD is well-equipped and offers a lot of versatility for the money.

Luxury Car

BMW 745Li

2003 BMW 745i
2003 BMW 745i shown, Click image to enlarge

The long wheelbase version of BMW’s new flagship 7-series sedan has more interior room, particularly for rear passengers who are likely to be chauffer-driven in many countries. The 745Li’s 325 horsepower 4.4 litre V8 engine will take this big sedan from 0 to 100 km/h in an amazing 6.2 seconds, yet offer fuel consumption of up to 8.2 litres per 100 kilometres on the highway – the latter due in part to its standard 6-speed automatic Steptronic transmission. The 7-Series I-drive control, which uses a toggle and menu system for activating the heater, radio and so on, may get some negative reviews from AJAC judges. And the 745Li’s unusual front and rear styling won’t please everyone. It’s also the most expensive car in this category. As high-tech as the new 7-Series sedan is, I don’t think it will win this class.

Infiniti M45

2003 Infiniti M45
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This new mid-sized, rear-wheel-drive luxury sedan from Infiniti is based on the Japanese market Cedric sedan, and is positioned between the top-of-the-line Q45 and the G35 sedan. Equipped with the Q45’s potent 340 horsepower 4.5 litre DOHC 32 valve V8 engine and 5-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode, the M45 is a quick performer and offers decent handling courtesy of its 4-wheel independent suspension (front strut/rear multi-link), and P235/45WR-18 Michelin tires. The M45 is one of the few cars to offer optional Intelligent Cruise Control, an automatic speed adjustment system which uses lasers to sense vehicles ahead and adjust speed to maintain a selected distance. While its performance may outshine many of its rivals, the M45 is not a particularly good-looking car, and it’s likely to lose points for styling. And it’s interior menu-driven control system, like the Q45’s, is confusing.

Mercedes-Benz E-Class – MY PICK*

2003 Mercedes-Benz E Class
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Slightly wider, taller and sleeker than the previous E-Class sedan, the new E-Class has a stronger body, a new multi-link front suspension, brake-by-wire Sensotronic braking system that apportions braking forces to each individual wheel, a bigger trunk, a new split folding rear seatback, an inflating driver’s seat, and better crash protection. Two engines are offered: a carry-over 224 horsepower 3.2 litre V6, and the 306-horsepower 5.0 litre V8 borrowed from the S-Class. The 2003 E-Class is an impressive car in most respects with a good combination of safety, a comfortable luxurious interior, and seamless performance and handling. My guess is this is a good contender for Best Luxury Car.

Mercedes-Benz CLK Coupe

2003 Mercedes-Benz CLK coupe
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Larger and more stylish than the previous model, the redesigned Mercedes-Benz CLK coupe has more interior room and a larger trunk. Front and rear passengers have more leg and elbow room than before, and the redesigned interior is more attractive than before. The centre ‘B’ pillars have been removed, creating a more streamlined profile and improving the driver’s visibility when changing lanes. Three engines are offered: a 3.2-litre V6 (CLK 320), a 5.0-litre V8 (CLK 500) and 5.5-litre V8 (CLK 55) in the AMG-tuned model. Though the CLK is roomy for a coupe, it can’t compare to the larger sedans in this category – and its fairly high price may prompt AJAC judges to wonder about its value for money. A good car, but probably won’t win this category.

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