2010 Porsche Panamera
2010 Porsche Panamera. Click image to enlarge

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By Chris Chase

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Testfest 2010

Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario – It’s tough to get excited about October and November. Most of the trees have dropped their colourful leaves, and after thanksgiving, there are no more long weekends until Christmas, and little else of note happens save for the weather tending toward the cold and grey.

Thank goodness, then, for Testfest, the bright spot of late fall in Canada, where members of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) get to test, evaluate and vote on every new, 2010 model year (including vehicles that were redesigned for 2009 but came to market too late for last year’s competition) car and crossover with the aim of choosing the Canadian Car of the Year and Canadian Utility Vehicle of the Year.

This year, Testfest was held a week later than usual in order to avoid interfering with journalists’ travel plans for the Tokyo auto show. Sixty-eight Canadian writers travelled to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario to drive and evaluate 51 vehicles in 12 categories, ranging from entry-level economy cars, to mid-priced crossovers, to prestige vehicles worth close to $200,000.

Noteworthy this year is the fact that three diesel-powered vehicles earned category wins. This lends credibility to the automakers’ approach to introducing their latest diesel engines in (mostly) high-end vehicles, from which the technology will, hopefully, trickle down to lower-priced models in coming years.

It’s also worth noting that of four hybrids entered this year, only one – the Lexus RX 450h – earned a category win. This, I think, has less to do with the quality of the other hybrid entrants – the Honda Insight, Toyota Prius and Ford Fusion Hybrid – and more with the fact that many journalists (myself included) and consumers still find it difficult to compare hybrids directly with similarly-priced non-hybrid vehicles, at least in lower price classes.

2010 Mazda3 GS
2010 Mazda3 GS
2010 Mazda3 GS (top, by Jil McIntosh); 2010 Mazda3 Sport GT (bottom, by Greg Wilson). Click image to enlarge

Each category winner automatically becomes a candidate for the two overall prizes, and while journalists cast their votes for Car and Utility Vehicle of the Year before heading home, those results won’t be announced until early next year, at the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto. Until then, read on to learn about the category winners, and which vehicles I think are viable candidates for the two top prizes.

CARS

Small car under $21,000 – Winner: Mazda3

Before the results were announced, very few journalists I spoke to had a clear idea of what car would win in this category. The Mazda3 was the easy choice, despite its controversial new styling, but the quality of the Hyundai and Kia entries showed how far these Korean brands have come in recent years. The Elantra in particular was a compelling package in that it combined wagon utility with surprisingly agile handling. The Forte Koup was the third entry, and earned points for its great looks. The Mazda’s mechanicals are far more sophisticated, though, and it won mainly on the basis of its refined drivetrain and terrific chassis.

Small car over $21,000 – Winner: Mazda3 Sport

With seven entries, this was one of the largest categories at this year’s Car of the Year event. The Mazda3 Sport emerged the winner, but finished just one point ahead of the very impressive new Volkswagen Golf. The Kia Forte sedan placed third, albeit by a much larger margin. The four also-rans include the Honda Insight, Kia Soul, Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback and Nissan Cube. Of note was the Kia Soul, which was, unfortunately, far outclassed in this group. Kia would have done far better to enter a lower-priced version in the under-$21,000 group; as it is, the Soul and the similarly-boxy Cube tied for last place in this group.

Family car under $30,000 – Winner: Volkswagen Golf Wagon TDI
2010 Volkswagen Golf Wagon TDI
2010 Volkswagen Golf Wagon TDI; photo by James Bergeron. Click image to enlarge

Volkswagen’s bread-and-butter model has undergone an identity crisis in the last few years. In 2007, VW replaced the venerable Golf name with Rabbit, but has now switched back to Golf for 2010. The Golf TDI wagon (which replaces last year’s Jetta wagon) emerged the winner here against formidable competition. The 2010 Subaru Legacy finished a close second place, while the Ford Fusion placed third. The Toyota Prius finished off the podium. Notable is that the Jetta was the most expensive car in this group, at $29,275, while the Fusion was about $300 cheaper.

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