by Greg Wilson

Shannonville, Ontario – This featureless, wind-swept race-track bordering the Trans-Canada highway near Belleville, Ontario may seem like an unlikely Mecca for Canada’s auto writers and automobile manufacturers, but each year for the past ten years, they have returned here – the writers with their notepads, and the automakers with their shiny new vehicles – to conduct what is possibly the most rigorous new vehicle evaluation in the world.

50 Canadian auto journalists from major and minor print, TV, radio and internet media organizations descended upon Shannonville Race Track this week to drive and evaluate 58 new 2004 vehicles. The annual Canadian Car of the Year “test-fest”, sponsored by AJAC (Automobile Journalists Association of Canada), involves four days of back-to-back testing of new vehicles, from economy cars and sports coupes to luxury cars and pick-ups. To many car enthusiasts, this might seem like a dream come true – but the judging process involves long days of jumping in and out of cars, making notes, listening to presentations, filling in ballots – and of course – driving, driving, driving. Nobody here, however, is complaining.

The AJAC contest is unlike most other automobile awards contests where journalists must vote based on a memory of cars he/she drove at different times over the past year. The AJAC system involves journalists driving and evaluating vehicles back-to-back on the same day. In my opinion, there is no better way to discern the differences between competing vehicles in the same class than by driving one after the other.

Ten special teams of journalists – a mixture of senior and novice writers – drive all the cars in each category in typical urban/suburban/freeway routes and on a race-track under identical conditions. Driving routes are catered to the intended use of the vehicle type: for example, pickups and SUVs are tested on an off-road track as well as on public roads. Each journalist carries a clipboard and a rating sheet upon which he/she scores each vehicle in 21 different categories between 1 and 10 – categories include performance, fuel economy, vehicle dynamics, interior space and access, safety features and styling. The scores of expert journalists are given more weight than those of junior writers, and team testing accounts for 85% of the final ballot weighting. Other journalists not in the team, may also vote on an indidual basis if they have driven all the vehicles, and these results account for 15% of the ballot weighting.

The AJAC Car of the Year voting process has been tweaked and refined annually, and after more than 15 years of such contests, the “test-fest” is possibly the most thorough and organized automobile awards contest in the world. Its only drawback may be that only all-new or extensively redesigned vehicles are eligible – a vehicle that was redesigned in 2003, say for example a 2004 Toyota Camry – is not eligible to compete in the 2004 Best New Family vehicle class. One reason is that the simple logistics of gathering all the vehicles in all the classes would be impossible. So for this contest, as for most other auto awards, it’s the best “new” vehicle in each category.

But when the eventual category winners are announced on December 2, and the overall Car and Truck of the Year are announced at the Toronto auto show in February, you can be sure there were some darn good reasons those vehicles earned their accolades.

Contenders: 2004 Canadian Car of the Year Awards

    Economy Car

  • Chevrolet Aveo LS
  • Chevrolet Optra
  • Mazda3
  • Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback
  • Saturn Ion Quad Coupe
  • Suzuki Swift +
  • Toyota Echo hatchback

    Family Vehicle

  • Chevrolet Epica
  • Chevrolet Malibu
  • Mazda6
  • Mitsubishi Galant LS
  • Nissan Maxima
  • Suzuki Verona
  • Toyota Prius

    Luxury Car

  • Audi A8
  • BMW 5 Series
  • Cadillac XLR
  • Jaguar XJR
  • Mercedes-Benz CLK Class Cabriolet

    MPV/Crossover

  • Cadillac SRX V8
  • Chrysler Pacifica
  • Honda Element
  • Infiniti FX45
  • Lexus RX 330
  • Mercedes-Benz E-Class Wagon 4Matic
  • Mitsubishi Endeavor

    Sports Coupe/Sedan < $35,000

  • Acura TSX
  • Dodge SRT-4
  • Mazda3 Sport hatchback
  • Pontiac Grand Prix
  • Toyota Solara

    Sports Coupe/Sedan > $35,000

  • Acura TL
  • Audi S4
  • Audi TT 3.2
  • Chrysler Crossfire
  • Infiniti G35 Coupe

    Sports/Performance

  • Chevrolet SSR
  • Dodge Viper SRT-10
  • Mazda RX-8
  • Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG
  • Nissan 350Z Roadster
  • Subaru Impreza WRX Sti
  • Volvo S60R

    Minivan

  • Dodge Sprinter
  • Ford Freestar
  • Nissan Quest
  • Toyota Sienna

    Sport Utility

  • Buick Rainier V8
  • Dodge Durango
  • Lincoln Aviator
  • Nissan Pathfinder Armada
  • Subaru Forester 2.5 XT
  • VW Touareg

    Pick-Up

  • Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon
  • Dodge Ram 2500
  • Dodge Ram 3500
  • Ford F-150
  • Nissan Titan

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