A Suzuki SX4 gets up close and personal with a Mercedes-Benz S-Class on the TestFest track
A Suzuki SX4 gets up close and personal with a Mercedes-Benz S-Class on the TestFest track. Click image to enlarge

Article by Paul Williams; photos by Arne Glassbourg

It had become an annual pilgrimage for members of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC). Each year, at the end of October, they’d trek from all parts of the country to their test headquarters in Belleville, Ontario. Their objective: to drive and evaluate all the new vehicles scheduled for introduction to the Canadian market for the upcoming model year. The results of this “TestFest,” as it has informally come to be known, ultimately determine the Canadian Car of the Year (CCOTY), and Canadian Utility Vehicle (formerly Truck) of the Year.

But this October, if the journalists went to Belleville, there would have been no one to meet them. That’s because after a 15-year run there (20 years, including earlier venues), Testfest moved to a completely new location. After arranging to take over an airport in the Niagara Peninsula, erecting a giant portable Media Centre, and flanking it with $10 million worth of new vehicles (65 models, approximately three of each, representing 22 brands), the basics were in place for the most ambitious testing effort since the Canadian Car of the Year’s inception.

An aerial view of the 2007 TestFest site in Niagara-on-the-Lake
An aerial view of the 2007 TestFest site in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Click image to enlarge

Behind the Media Centre, CCOTY staff turned the airport’s runways into what most described as a top-rate performance testing circuit, compliments of track and driver training expert Pierre Savoy and his team. Outside, 13 drive routes ranging in length from 13-24 kilometres were used to compare the vehicles back-to-back, in real-world driving conditions.

Held over three days, with 70 registered journalists representing all the major media outlets in Canada, and over 100 support professionals, including technical personnel, event managers, manufacturer representatives and executives, the CCOTY TestFest may be the biggest, most thorough program of its type in the world. Participation in it is a key benefit of AJAC membership, and its results have significant impact on consumer buying decisions.

But why move from Belleville to Niagara? Outgrowing the facilities in Belleville, the new Niagara location promised better resources, enthusiastic community support from the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, and the opportunity to try out new ideas that would maximize the number of journalists driving and voting on the vehicles.

Hello, pretty kitty... mrow!
Hello, pretty kitty… mrow! Click image to enlarge

The CCOTY management board (all AJAC members) worked closely with AJAC President Richard Russell and AJAC Manager Beth Xenarios, to make both the move, and the experience for journalists and manufacturers, as smooth as possible. As you might expect, when managing an event of this scale, there were some glitches. But as one manufacturer rep said, it looked to him as if we were practising the “duck theory” of event execution: “calm above water, with feet spinning below.”

Even the weather cooperated.

Although the event has changed and grown over time, the intent is the same: to provide expert opinion and objective data to consumers, that helps them with their new vehicle purchase.

AJAC journalist members know that with so many vehicle choices, it can be confusing for consumers to get the information they need, and to find their way through the maze of brands, models, trim levels, packages and prices with which they are faced when selecting a new car.

The CCOTY program divides entries into categories that reflect current vehicle types, and anticipate future trends. The idea is to group vehicles in categories that are likely to endure year after year, while remaining open to changes in the marketplace, like this year’s emergence of the Crossover Utility Vehicle (CUV) for instance, and retreat of Minivans.

Journalists judging the SUV under $35,000 category commiserate
Journalists judging the SUV under $35,000 category commiserate. Click image to enlarge

The backbone of the CCOTY program is its commitment to back-to-back testing – same roads, same day – of each vehicle in its category. Even if journalists have driven some of the vehicles at an earlier date, they unfailingly report that the experience of driving similar vehicles one after the other is a unique and valuable comparative tool (and one that is rarely, if ever, otherwise available to them).

In addition to back-to-back testing, all vehicles are performance tested by an expert team (this year it was Marc Lachapelle, Richard Russell, Jeremy Sinek) for acceleration (0-100 km/h, 80-120 km/h) and braking (100-0 km/h) times (see the results from the performance testing).

On the drive routes, score sheets record opinions covering 21 separate evaluation parameters, including styling, quality, visibility, occupant environment, noise, vibration and harshness, performance, vehicle dynamics, safety features, cargo convenience, environmental responsibility and off-road capability (trucks and SUVs only). These scores are submitted online, and the results tabulated to determine the category winners, which will be announced on November 21, 2006.

From those winners, the 2007 Canadian Car of the Year and Utility Vehicle of the Year will be selected, and announced at the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto, February 14, 2007.

The buzz at the event this year? First, there sure were a lot of crossover utility vehicles (CUVs). These are vehicles that resemble an SUV, but are based on a car platform. They are becoming increasingly popular as consumers look to move on from a minivan, want the high seating position and functionality of an SUV, but prefer the fuel economy and driving dynamics of a car. Examples were the Ford Edge, Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-7 and Jeep Compass. In all there were 22 SUV/CUV vehicles entered, which is one-third of the total entrants. So much for the wholesale move to compact cars!

Put wings on these Audi S8s and they'd probably fly, too
Put wings on these Audi S8s and they’d probably fly, too. Click image to enlarge

Second, the Audi vehicles were the topic of many conversations. The perfection of their interiors and awesome performance from the RS4, S6 and S8 sedans were not lost on the journalists, even when compared with serious competition from the likes of BMW, Lexus, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz.

Third, the performance numbers for some of the entrants were impressive, to say the least. The Mazdaspeed3, for instance, along with the Saturn Sky Redline and very surprisingly, the Kia Amanti, are very fast cars at affordable prices. Likewise, the Ford Shelby Mustang is a serious performer in all areas of operation.

Another observation was that the domestic manufacturers have some very nice new vehicles for 2007. Ford’s Edge, Saturn’s Aura sedan and Sky Redline, Chrysler’s Sebring Touring and Pontiac’s Wave seemed well received. Of these, I drove the Saturn Aura, and was very impressed with its design, quality and performance.

Indeed, the quality of vehicles available to consumers at the “economy” end of the price spectrum was generally outstanding.

But the real buzz was from journalists powering their way though the vehicles, likely driving more cars within three days than they would at any other time during the year. Using a barcode system, journalists swiped their credentials, swiped a set of keys and hit the road in one vehicle after another. An excellent group of student assistants from Georgian College, and one from Niagara College managed vehicle logistics and on-site transportation for the journalists.

2007 BMW M Coupe taking a flogging on the track
2007 BMW M Coupe taking a flogging on the track. Click image to enlarge

Autos contributor Haney Louka led the voting journalists by testing 36 vehicles. Overall 1,560 evaluations were recorded, with each journalist averaging 22 vehicle evaluations over a maximum of three days testing.

Most desirable vehicle at the event? Really hard to say. My favourite was the BMW M Coupe. With its long hood, seats set back almost to the rear axle, invigorating sounds from the engine and fabulous looks, it is one tasty machine. I certainly wouldn’t sell it if I won one.

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