An AJAC journalist tests the Smart fortwo on the team test route
An AJAC journalist tests the “Smart fortwo” on the team test route. Click image to enlarge

by Tony Whitney

The list of eligible vehicles for the prestigious Automobile Journalists Association of Canada Car and Truck of the Year Awards constitutes the best list I know that covers all that’s new and exciting for the new model year – regardless of vehicle type.

To be eligible for the AJAC awards, a vehicle really does have to be all-new or significantly redesigned, and not just a bodywork refresh or an engine swap. Just about all magazine-type market reports include every available vehicle, including many with minimal changes for the new model year.

The AJAC awards have often been described as the fairest in any country staging such contests. This is no popularity contest and results are obtained using a complex, scientific procedure. It costs journalist members no small amount of money to attend the four-day Ontario “TestFest” around which the awards are based. They drive vehicles back-to-back under all kinds of road, off-road (where applicable) and track conditions.

For people planning to buy a new vehicle over the next few months, this list should certainly be a key factor, though it’s worth remembering that there are all kinds of outstanding products in the marketplace that may be in their third or fourth years of production. Also, because a particular vehicle doesn’t win its category, that doesn’t mean it’s some kind of “lemon.” Voting in the AJAC awards is usually very close and there’s often just a few points separating winners and losers. Category winners will be announced in December.

Autos's Paul Williams working hard in the AJAC tent
Autos’s Paul Williams working hard in the AJAC tent. Click image to enlarge

The auto industry is going through a vibrant period of new model introductions, so the list of 12 categories and vehicles is lengthy. Incidentally, the Car of the Year and Truck of the Year (announced next February) come from the winners of these categories.

Most of the eligible vehicles have been driven and tested by Autos staff and contributors. To read a full report, click on any of the links below.

In the Economy Car category, the finalists are the Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac Pursuit (replacements for the long-lived Cavalier and Sunfire), Hyundai’s Accent 5-door, the Kia Spectra 5-door (those hatchbacks are sure bouncing back!) and the novel Smart fortwo coupe and cabriolet.

In the Family Car segment, the final list is the Buick Allure (sold in the US as Lacrosse), Ford’s big Five Hundred, the Mazda6 Sport, Pontiac’s’ exciting G6 and Subaru’s stylish new Legacy.

CandianDriver's technical editor Jim Kerr enjoying the comfort of the Mercedes-Benz SLK 350
CandianDriver’s technical editor Jim Kerr enjoying the comfort of the Mercedes-Benz SLK 350. Click image to enlarge

In the luxury car division we have Acura’s RL, which should mark a return to serious “flagship model” contention by Honda’s luxury division. Lining up against the spiffy new Acura is the long-awaited Cadillac STS, Chrysler’s hot selling 300C sedan, Infiniti’s G35X with its all wheel drive, Kia’s remarkably affordable Amanti and Volkswagen’s big Phaeton – a major competitor in an import class previously dominated by the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, BMW 7-Series and Audi A8.

Sport utility products continue to sell strongly in just about every class and AJAC’s SUV category is thus well populated with new models – they just keep coming! Included are the compact BMW X3, Infiniti’s big QX 56 luxury model, Jeep’s new Grand Cherokee, the stylish and technically fascinating Land Rover LR3 (which replaces the ageless Discovery), the Lexus GX 470 which fits neatly between two existing luxury sizes from Toyota’s luxury brand and Nissan’s new Nissan and extensively updated Pathfinder.

Team testing on the roads of Belleville
Team testing on the roads of Belleville. Click image to enlarge

The “crossover” category is a relatively new one for the AJAC competition and its inclusion must have provided much food for thought – and no small amount of lively discussion – among the organizers. There are so many vehicles that cross the boundaries between what were previously fairly easy to define market slots that even experts are confused by the various “sub-niches” in the industry right now. Of course, the buyer always wins in these situations for the simple reason that there are more vehicles and vehicle types to choose from in the marketplace.

Crossover finalists include the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford’s Freestyle SEL, Hyundai’s Tucson, Nissan’s X-Trail and the Subaru Outback. I suppose that all these products could have been slotted in somewhere else, but the judges decided that each of them had special qualities that defied categorization elsewhere in the competition. I should add that the AJAC members who make these category decisions include at least one professional engineer and several people with technical and marketing expertise. Although I’ve been an AJAC member for many years, I’ve never been closely involved with the Car of the Year organization.

The sport compact segment is booming right now and the auto industry is meeting demand with all kinds of interesting new products. AJAC’s choices for Sport Compact honours include Ford’s Focus ST, Kia’s Spectra 5-door, the modified Mazdaspeed MX5 Miata roadster, Saab’s Subaru-based 9-2X, Saturn’s Ion Red Line (Red Line is Saturn’s performance brand name) and the Toyota Corolla XRS. It’s a surprise not to see a Honda in there somewhere, but the company must be close to releasing its next Civic line-up and is not making any major changes for 2005.

Enthusiasts will always argue just what a sports or performance car really is, but for the purpose of the AJAC awards the parameters are fairly broad. In the group’s Sports/Performance Car segment, the finalists are the desirable new BMW 645Ci coupe, Cadillac’s powerful and modernistic CTS-V sedan, Chevrolet’s exciting new Corvette Roadster (CD Test: Corvette coupe), the smaller but no less interesting Chrysler Crossfire SRT-6 Roadster, Ford’s attention-grabbing all-new Mustang and the exceptionally fast and luxurious Mercedes-Benz C55 AMG. This category is eclectic to say the least with its mix of coupes, sedans and roadsters.

Consumers have an amazing selection of performance cars these days, considering that it was once believed by some analysts that the category would be strangled by emission control legislation and economy demands.

The minivan market has been fairly quiet lately, probably due to a softening of interest in these vehicles as buyers moved to SUVs. Even so, there’s still lots of action out there for people who want the maximum amount of practicality from their vehicles. AJAC’s minivan segment list includes the Dodge Grand Caravan with its much-trumpeted (and rightly so) hideaway central seats, Honda’s all new Odyssey and the Saturn Relay/Buick Terraza.

Perhaps some minivan owners have switched to station wagons and that product sector has certainly been growing in recent times. As a result, the AJAC short list for Wagons is quite lengthy and includes the Chevrolet Malibu Maxx, Chevrolet’s Optra Wagon (CD Test: Optra5 LS), the stylistically ground breaking Dodge Magnum RT, Jaguar’s elegant X-Type wagon with its all wheel drive, the smooth-driving and attractive Mazda6 Sportwagon, Subaru’s enduring Legacy and Volvo’s very appealing new V50 which is loosely based on the Swedish automaker’s S40 sedan.

Nissan Frontier getting down and dirty at the off-road track
Nissan Frontier getting down and dirty at the off-road track. Click image to enlarge

Pickups don’t change that much from year to year and that’s one of the valid reasons for buying one, apart from the obvious utilitarian value of these rigs. The chances of your new truck looking out of date in just a few years are remote, although all automakers make regular changes to improve their products, both cosmetically and technically. Even so, AJAC has come up with four new pickups for its 2005 contest and they include the Dodge Dakota with its Ram “big rig” styling, the husky Ford F-250 Super Duty, Nissan’s revised Frontier compact and Toyota’s reworked Tacoma compact.

Convertibles are another vehicle category that’s seen a revival in recent years and fans of wind-in-the-face motoring have never had it so good – at least, not since the 1930s. AJAC has a strong list of contenders for 2005 honours and these include the luxurious Audi S4 Cabriolet, the superfast new Chevrolet Corvette ragtop, Chrysler’s PT Touring version of the almost legendary PT Cruiser, Mercedes’ new SLK 350 with its folding steel top, the endearing Mini Cooper S Convertible, Saab’s safe and speedy 9-3 model and Toyota’s Canadian built and very stylish Solara. Interestingly, all but two of these vehicles will seat four occupants, so perhaps there’s something of a trend developing there. It wasn’t long ago that convertibles offering room for four were very rare birds.

The final AJAC category up for grabs is that covering Alternative Power – a fairly new segment for obvious reasons. It’s encouraging to see that this category is not just devoted to hybrid gasoline/electric vehicles. Diesels seem to be making progress too. Included for the 2005 awards are the Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra hybrids (a first for GM here), Ford’s Escape SUV hybrid (another first), Honda’s Accord hybrid (giving the company three products in this category), the Jeep Liberty with its Mercedes-Benz produced diesel engine and from Mercedes-Benz itself, the E320 CDI – a welcome return for MB to the diesel market.

Whichever vehicles come out on top in this competition, you can bet that their awards will be well-earned. There are some truly outstanding products out there and just because your favourite vehicle failed to garner top honours isn’t a reason for not buying it. The points spread between winners and runners-up is often almost too close to call.

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