by Greg Wilson

Contenders lined up at Shannonville
Contenders in the ‘Best New Sports Coupe’ category line up at Shannonville.

Don’t look for the 2000 Ford Taurus, Suzuki Vitara or Toyota Echo among the winners, finalists or even ‘also rans’ of the Canadian Car and Truck of the Year awards – their manufacturers kept them out of the competition.

At least 10 eligible new vehicles were not entered or withdrawn from the annual Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) testing. Their absence has prompted concerns about the value of awards that are not representative of all cars and trucks on sale in Canada.

“It seriously undermines the legitimacy of the awards,” said Dennis DesRosiers, President of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants. “How many consumers understand that not all vehicles, not even just the newly-introduced vehicles, aren’t entered?”

“Yes, the omissions are a problem,” said George Iny of the Automobile Protection Association. “Our biggest concern is that basically this is an evaluation of what’s new this year, and the public understands it as an evaluation of everything on the market. I think there is a mis-perception..”

Manufacturers offer different reasons for pulling their vehicles, although at least one admits it made the decision because it felt its products had little chance of winning.

Four Audi TTs wait to be driven
Four Audi TTs wait to be driven.

Along with the Taurus and Echo, missing entrants included the Toyota Celica and Avalon, Ford Excursion and Chevrolet Tracker and Monte Carlo.

Three vehicles that had been entered were withdrawn: the Volvo V70 R AWD Wagon and Suzuki’s Vitara and Esteem Wagon.

Another three, the Dodge Dakota Quad Cab, Toyota Tundra and Mazda MPV were not entered because there weren’t enough competing vehicles in their categories. This automatically eliminated them as potential 2000 Truck of the Year winners.

To be eligible, vehicles must be new or significantly redesigned for the 2000 model year, and there must be at least three new vehicles in each category (e.g. Best New Economy Car). This year, 63 vehicles were entered in 11 different vehicle categories.

All vehicles must be provided for a three-day “Test-Fest” in which they are driven on the street and track by AJAC members. The auto writers score vehicle attributes between one and 10, and the totals are used to determine the winners in each category.

Two Porsche Boxster S's and a 911
Two Porsche Boxster S’s and a 911.

Unlike many automotive award programs, AJAC’s eligible vehicles are determined by the participating manufacturers rather than by AJAC members, giving manufacturers the option of including or not including models.

Manufacturers fund the entire “Test-Fest,” paying fees of approximately $2,000 per vehicle entered to cover the cost of track rental and facilities.

As a result, not all cars in each class are evaluated by association members, and in some classes, potential winners are missing. For example, this year’s Best New Economy Car category did not include the Toyota Echo, a car that recently won the European Car of the Year Award under its
European name, the Yaris.

In theory, AJAC could replace missing vehicles by renting them from rental car companies, but this would not sit well with the manufacturers who fund the event and choose which vehicles to enter.

Ford of Canada product information manager Ron Dennis said the newly redesigned 2000 Taurus was unavailable in time for the test program on Oct. 27, even though the Taurus had been available to some journalists at previous media previews.

In the case of the new Excursion sport-utility, “it was decided … that making it an entry should wait for a future AJAC Test-Fest,” he said.

Ford did enter the new Ford Focus and Lincoln LS.

General Motors of Canada had 10 vehicles entered in the awards, but chose not to submit the new Chevrolet Tracker and Monte Carlo.

The assembled journalists
Assembled journalists get last-minute instructions on back to back testing.

“The Tracker was all-new for the 1999 model year, and we wanted to focus on our 2000 model year products,” said Richard James, assistant manager of product communications.

The Tracker, however, was not entered in last year’s awards as it was not introduced until later in the 1999 model year.

The new Monte Carlo was kept out, Mr. James said, because, “it’s unique to its segment (large two-door coupe) and we felt it did not fit the AJAC category.”

Suzuki Canada’s national advertising manager, Mike Kurnik, says the Vitara and Esteem were withdrawn for “mostly marketing reasons.”

“I just looked at the (SUV) category – GM didn’t enter the Tracker (a rebadged version of the Vitara) – and thought we wouldn’t be very competitive this year.”

Added Mr. Kurnik: “The Esteem Wagon, should it have won, wouldn’t have made a lot of sense for us.”

Track testing at Shannonville
AJAC teams test all vehicles on the track as well as the road.

Volvo withdrew its V70 R AWD Wagon, “to focus on the AJAC Technology Awards via our Dynamic Stability Traction Control System,” according to Larry Futers, product PR manager at Volvo Cars of Canada.

One manufacturer, Toyota Canada, has not entered any vehicles in the awards for the past two years.

“Over the years, the influence of the awards has not been living up to what we expected it would be,” said F. David Stone, Toyota Canada’s manager of corporate planning and communications.

“We’re concerned that not enough top writers are involved. When I put together a list of journalists to do long leads (new vehicle previews) … I see a lot of people who aren’t AJAC members.”

Mr. Stone also expressed some concerns with the Car of the Year evaluation process, but wouldn’t cite specifics.

Greg at the wheel
Author Greg Wilson at the wheel of the BMW X5.

Gerry Malloy, AJAC’s Car of the Year co-ordinator, doesn’t believe the absence of some vehicles threatens the credibility of the awards.

“If the manufacturer’s don’t have enough confidence in their own vehicles, then they’ve made the decision for us,” said Mr. Malloy.

Category winners were announced December 7th in Toronto, and the overall Canadian Car and Truck of the Year winners will be announced Feb. 17 at the Toronto auto show.

Click here to see the winners of AJAC’s Car of the Year awards.

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