250 cars, 63 journalists, and 4 days of back-to-back testing

By Paul Williams
Photos by Greg Wilson and Paul Williams

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2006 Corvette Z06
2006 Corvette Z06. Photo: Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge

Picture a racetrack and its surrounding grounds, where 250 new cars of all makes and types have been trucked in, and neatly arranged in rows. Now punctuate the landscape with luxury RV’s decked out with car company banners and flags. Listen for the roar of engines in the background, as vehicles are performance-tested on the track.

Look more closely and you’ll see cars like the 2006 Corvette Z06, the new Honda Civic Si, Toyota Yaris, Mercedes-Benz CLS and Dodge Magnum SRT8, their keys hanging on boards, ready to be signed out by the fortunate few automobile journalists for team and individual testing.

If this is work, you may be thinking, where do I sign up?

The location is Shannonville’s Motorsport Park, just outside of Belleville, Ontario, where, for the past 20 years, members of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) have gathered for AJAC’s annual Canadian Car of the Year “Testfest.”

This year, from October 26-30, 63 of Canada’s most experienced auto writers (11 of them regular contributors to Autos) collectively evaluated 62 new or significantly new vehicles in 11 categories over the four-day period. On December 6, the category winners will be announced, and next February (at the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto) two of those winners will become 2006 Canadian Car and Truck of the Year. One of the category winners, Alternative Power, will be announced at the Montreal Auto Show in January, 2006.

2006 Honda Civics
2006 Honda Civics

Cars lined up ready to go
Cars lined up ready to go

Track testing the 2006 Dodge Magnum SRT8
Track testing the 2006 Dodge Magnum SRT8

2006 Chevrolet Trailblazer SS
2006 Chevrolet Trailblazer SS

2006 Audi A3
2006 Audi A3

Sports Performance category vehicles
Sports/Performance category vehicles
Photos: Greg Wilson. Click images to enlarge

The Canadian Car of the Year’s main purpose is to provide consumers with sound, comparative information to help with their automobile purchasing decisions. Surveys by AJAC show that the Canadian Car of the Year Awards have a significant influence on the purchase decisions of Canadian car buyers.

What makes Testfest so special is the way the vehicles are evaluated. Teams of journalists drive each vehicle in its category back-to-back, on the same roads, in the same conditions, on the same day. Then they take them to the track, or if they’re trucks, to the off-road course. Journalists report that driving up to nine vehicles in a category back-to-back can really highlight their differences, and with the detailed voting ballots used at Testfest, it provides probably their best opportunity for direct comparison and evaluation.

This year the field was particularly strong. New cars have evolved into such sophisticated and high-quality products that they rarely generate serious criticisms. But certain vehicles did stand out.

In the Economy category, the Korean-built Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio are packed with features, have vastly improved build quality compared with earlier versions, and sell at a price that really challenges their Japanese and American competition. The Toyota Yaris and Honda Civic, however, are also appealing, and the Pontiac Pursuit and clever Chevrolet HHR are good value. My nod goes to the Honda Civic. Standard side-curtain airbags and anti-lock brakes in even the base $16,800 model, along with modern styling and a roomy interior would get my vote.

Family cars under $35,000 comprised five cars, and this one’s hard to call. The Chevrolet Impala is a very complete vehicle that drives well, has attractive styling and is well-priced. It’s definitely worth a look. I like the new Ford Fusion, as well, with its tidy appearance and great road manners, and the $26,600 Hyundai Sonata GLS V6 is a fine effort. The new Jetta has substance and the Passat’s a lovely driving car with a superb interior, but maybe a bit expensive. Hyundai would be thrilled to win this one and it could happen.

Most people would love to own any one of the Family cars over $35,000. It was a large category with eight vehicles contending. Audi’s legendary interior detail and new direct injected engines for the A3 and A4 separate them from the other vehicles, and the A4 Avant is equipped with Quattro all-wheel drive. But the BMW 3 Series Touring is a combination station wagon and sports car, and it, too, has all-wheel drive. The Buick Lucerne is surprisingly taut and comfortable, while the Charger RT offers family-sized roominess with power and attitude. The Hyundai Azera has looks and quality at a killer price, and the Saab 9-3 SportCombi gets you individuality and European flair. Finally, the Toyota Avalon offers Lexus luxury at a Toyota price, and throws in some howling performance as well. The $37,605 Charger RT could surprise. It’s Canadian-built, after all.

As if the family cars weren’t enough, the Luxury and Prestige category overpowers you with refinement and quality. The Audi A6 is so fine that you can’t imagine that driving the rest can offer any improvement. The interior, the exterior, the powertrain and the balance make this a quintessential luxury car. But wait, the Mercedes-Benz CLS Class is drop-dead gorgeous. This is a sublime Mercedes driving experience, and it’s hard to take your eyes off the sumptuous stitching of the leather, the precision instruments and quality throughout that only $100,000 can buy. Contrast this smooth operator with the BMW 5 Series Touring and you get a contrast, indeed. A fantastic driving machine; a turbine-like engine, a six-speed manual transmission and the “M” package make you just want to drive away and not come back.

2006 Lexus IS 350
2006 Lexus IS 350

2006 Mitsubishi Eclipse GT, 2006 Chevrolet Corvette Z06
2006 Mitsubishi Eclipse GT, 2006 Chevrolet Corvette Z06

Family cars under $35K
Family cars under $35K

TestFest at Shannonville Motorsport Park
TestFest at Shannonville Motorsport Park

2006 Audi A6
2006 Audi A6

2006 BMW 530 Xi Touring
2006 BMW 530 Xi Touring
Photos: Paul Williams. Click images to enlarge

Lexus GS? Real luxury but so different from the Germans. Softer, supple, technical, refined, like the infiniti M45 Sport except the Infiniti goes like a rocket with its V8 engine and performance suspension. You’ll find a magnificent Bose audio system in the Infiniti, as well. The Lincoln Zephyr didn’t really belong in this category, as it was half the price of the other cars. But put it in the “Family over $35,000 and it would hold its own. Finally, the R-Class Mercedes-Benz is a huge vehicle; exceedingly comfortable; a “Grand Sports Tourer,” according to Mercedes. It’s something to see.

Of course, you want a decision. I have to abandon the Audi, reluctantly desert the BMW, and drive away in the $99,155 CLS.

The Sports/Performance category is where you find the less practical, more outrageous vehicles. These are two-door cars, rather than sedans, and what a line-up.

The Chevrolet Cobalt SS is a screamer with great handling. What a nice, tight, vehicle! The Chevrolet Corvette Z06 is literally breathtaking. It looks a million-dollars, and its acceleration will compress the air right out of you. Handling, braking, everything is superb in this car. With the Z06, $89,900 is spelled B-A-R-G-A-I-N.

But the Honda Civic Coupe Si is mad-fun and very affordable at approximately $25,000. You can fling this car around the corners and wind its 197 horsepower 2.0-litre engine to crazy r.p.m.’s., and it just keeps coming back for more. Si-lovers won’t be disappointed. That is, if they ever get out of the all-new Mazda MX-5. This car has become the perfect sports roadster; a real driver’s car, especially in GT trim. The new Mitsubishi Eclipse looks great, I think, but can a car have too much power? The 263-hp, front-wheel drive Eclipse pushes the limit, that’s for sure. This is one quick ride.

I liked the looks of the Pontiac G6 GTP Coupe, and appreciated its fine interior, and the Pontiac Solstice definitely dazzles with its gorgeous lines. But as the saying goes, its beauty is only skin deep.

Corvette, Civic. Civic, Corvette. I’ll go with the Corvette Z06. It’s an exquisite sports car with Canadian race-driver Ron Fellows expert development contribution.

The V6, direct-injected, Audi A4 in the Sports Sedan category is smooth and refined, while the Subaru Impreza WRX gives you instant response from its throttle, steering and brakes. Both vehicles are sporting radical new grilles and both cars are all-wheel drive. The as-tested price of the Audi is about $20,000 more than the WRX, but the latter car is more elemental. The new Lexus IS pumps out 306 hp from its 3.5-litre V6 (more than a Mustang GT, come to think of it). It’s a rather mean looking machine for a Lexus, all the more appropriate to battle the BMW 3 Series, perhaps. And speaking of the $47,900 330i 3 Series, it’s still the one to beat in this category.

2006 BMW 530 Xi Touring
2006 BMW 530 Xi Touring

2006 Lexus GS 430
2006 Lexus GS 430

2006 Lexus GS 430
2006 Lexus GS 430

2006 Mercedes-Benz CLS
2006 Mercedes-Benz CLS

2006 Mercedes-Benz R350
2006 Mercedes-Benz R350

Autos Editor Greg Wilson driving 2006 Subaru WRX
Autos Editor Greg Wilson driving 2006 Subaru WRX
Photos: Paul Williams. Click images to enlarge

A new category this year was Multi Purpose Family Vehicle, which was largely inspired by the new Mazda5, representing a vehicle type very popular in Europe. If it catches on here, look for more tall wagons/small vans with multiple seating and sliding doors. Also in this category was the Mercedes-Benz B-Class, an entry-level Mercedes that starts at $30,950. The B-Class is cleverly engineered to maximize interior space and is unlike any other Mercedes you’ve seen. Other vehicles in this category included the distinctive Subaru B9 Tribeca (with seating for seven), the Kia Sedona minivan (two of them were specially shipped from Korea to Belleville, and for that reason, were “the most expensive Sedonas on the planet,” according to one Kia executive), and the Pontiac Torrent, which is a variation on the Chevrolet Equinox and built in Ingersoll, Ontario. For my money, it’s the B-Class. It’s innovative, sophisticated, and it’s a Mercedes.

The SUV category was huge this year, and so were many of the SUVs. Present and accounted for were the new Ford Explorer, Hummer H3, Jeep Commander, Kia Sportage, Mercedes-Benz M-Class, Nissan Xterra, Range Rover Sport, Saab 9-7X, and Suzuki Grand Vitara. The Kia Sportage is the best value, that’s a given. Any vehicle that comes standard with electronic stability control, side curtain airbags, alloy wheels, power everything, fold-flat seating, and anti-lock brakes for $20,000 deserves some kind of award for sure. The Explorer’s got a great ride, the H3 has a great personality, and the Commander looks suitably commanding with its massive Jeep grille and four-square stance. The best new SUV is a hard one to pick, however. The Range Rover Sport is a fine piece of technology. It uses gas like crazy, but these are SUV’s, right? Then again, the Suzuki Grand Vitara is the best effort from Suzuki in a while and offers great value for the money. In the end, don’t discount the $55,750 Mercedes M-Class as it has off-road grunt and urban sophistication.

There were only three pickup trucks entered this year, and each was completely different. The trucker’s truck would be the Dodge Ram 2500 Megacab. A huge machine with a massive cab, this big diesel rig will do everything you want from a pickup. The “family” truck is the Honda Ridgeline. Here’s a complete reinvention of the pickup, with its independent rear suspension, combination of unibody and ladder frame, lockable trunk under the truck bed and large cabin with smooth, car-like ride. Then there’s the “executive” truck in the Lincoln Mark LT. It’s an elegant, urban machine with fine leather interiors and dashing chrome trim. Three trucks, three personalities, but only one winner. It’ll likely be the $35,200 Honda, for thinking outside of the truck box, so to speak.

The inaugural Modern Muscle category was somewhat emaciated by the no-show of the Cadillac STS-V and Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8. The remaining vehicles were suitably pumped up, however. The Mazdaspeed6 cranks out 274 hp from its 2.3-litre, turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine. The power gets to the road via an all-wheel drive system and special wheels. The Chevrolet Trailblazer SS is a highly modified version of this SUV, with a 6.0-litre V8 making 395 hp and 400 lb.-ft. of torque. Its good handling surprised a lot of people. The $46,050 Dodge Magnum SRT8 was the star, however. Awesome power, fabulous looks, amazing handling.

Finally, there was a category showcasing Alternative Power vehicles. This year we saw a diesel from Volkswagen, three hybrids, from Honda, Toyota and Lexus, and an ethanol powered Impala from Chevrolet. You’ve got to love a car that gets 5.1 L/100 km on the highway, and the Volkswagen Jetta TDI does it with an incredibly quiet and powerful diesel engine. But the Honda Civic Hybrid does even better for the same price, although it’s way behind the Jetta TDI in torque. The Lexus RX 400h and Toyota Highlander Hybrid extend the fuel savings to SUVs, and the Impala can be ordered with a no-charge “flex-fuel” option so that it can run on up to 85% ethanol (E-85). There’s virtually no ethanol available in Canada, but there may be in the future, and this is a very clean-burning fuel.

Likely the $25,800 Honda for this one, although all the manufacturers should be congratulated for developing this important technology.

Be sure to check Autos’s news scroll on December 7 for 2006 Canadian Car of the Year category winners.

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