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Ford comes out on top at AJAC TestFest

Published October 26, 2012

Here are this year’s TestFest winners:

City Car: Ford Focus EV

Small Car under $21K: Mazda3 SkyActiv Sedan

Small car over $21K: Hyundai Elantra GT

Family Car under $30K: Honda Accord Sedan

Family Car over $30K: Ford Fusion Hybrid

Luxury Car : Cadillac ATS

Sports Performance under $50K: Ford Focus ST

Sports Performance over $50K: Porsche Boxster

Prestige Performance over $75K: Porsche 911 Carrera S

SUV-CUV under $35K: Ford Escape 1.6 L EcoBoost

SUV-CUV $35K-$60K: Hyundai Santa Fe

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE - There are more than 80 car reviewers here at Niagara airport from auto media across Canada. They’re striding in and out of an aircraft hangar to collect and drop off ignition keys, drinking bad coffee from paper cups and cursing the weather, while more than $7 million worth of vehicles get wet in the rain.

Nobody wants to be in the hangar. Everyone wants to be in a car, wipers wiping and seat heaters heating. So in endless succession, the reviewers fill up their coffees and head back out with keys in hand for another loop of damp local roads.

This is TestFest, where the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) meets each year to judge cars for the title of Canadian Car of the Year.

More: AJAC ‘best of’ list the only one that counts

TestFest is not part of the exotic world of car testing. These are Canadian cars driven on Canadian roads, in Canadian weather. That includes potholes and corrugation and mud, because that’s the real world for Canadian drivers.

This year, there are more than 60 cars entered in various categories in competition for the title. Judges are assigned to two or three categories each, and then all the cars within each category must be driven on a set route on the same day, to compare them fairly. This can make for a long day and frayed nerves, and it needs meticulous pre-planning by the organizers.

The weather was much better on Monday, when TestFest opened, but deteriorated into rain through Tuesday and Wednesday before the sun came out again Thursday. On Monday, the roofs came off the convertibles and the temporary runway track began to coat with rubber from the performance cars.

But TestFest isn’t just hot Mustangs and Camaros and 911s. The competition is open to any vehicle that is all-new or substantially revised for 2013, and the local roads filled with Beetles and Accords and electric i-MiEVs.

Not all went smoothly, of course. There was concern when a judge drove away in one of the Prius Plug-in Hybrids without disconnecting it from the electric charger. That was like pulling away from the pump with the gas hose still in the filler tube, except the judge didn’t even notice when the charger cable snapped away. No harm was done, but somebody had to reset the computer on the Prius before it could be driven again.

Every model entered had to provide three cars of each to be available to judges. An exception was made for the rare Chevy Corvette 427 (a 60th anniversary edition, entered as a convertible) because General Motors could only find two of the low-volume car that weren’t spoken for by customers; unfortunately, one of that pair blew its clutch out screaming on the runway track and the entry was suddenly down to just one car. GM blamed the Vette’s hard summer at the hands of its racing team.

It was lucky it was the clutch that blew. In Tuesday’s downpour, a huge pothole formed on the entry laneway to the car’s parking lot. Some of the lower-slung cars were brushing their spoilers very close to the ragged edge of the asphalt when their stiff suspension jarred into the deepening crevasse.

Organizers called the town, which owns the airport, and were told the lengthy procedure to request a pothole be filled. Despairing against bureaucracy, they began arranging for some private gravel to try to plug the hole when suddenly, a town truck appeared with some cold fill and the pond was no more. Even bureaucrats can move quickly when there are exotic cars in danger.

The SUV drivers had never been worried about the pothole, though — in fact, they’d aimed straight for it and the rougher the better. Just the week before, TestFest organizers were surveying the dirt track that’s obligatory for all off-road-capable vehicles when the property’s new owner arrived and had them escorted from the land — the existing arrangement for its use was suddenly null and void. The gates were locked behind them.

So this year, there’s no way to evaluate SUVs and crossovers away from the highway and the runway track, though there is a stretch of gravel road that was part of the test course. Everyone knows that’s really the sole use of most of these vehicles anyway, but even so, organizers went looking for an alternative for next year. And according to AJAC organizer Clare Dear, they may have found it on a landscaper’s property nearby.

“The guy’s a gearhead,” says Dear. “He wants to be a part of this, and we’re hoping he can be. It’s too bad it couldn’t be in time for this year, but this is what TestFest is all about — we just keep evolving.”

And by Wednesday, when judging finished and an accounting firm began tabulating the 40,000 different ballot scores to determine the winners, TestFest proved once again that a bit of rain and cold is all part of the experience. This is October in Canada, after all.

wheels@thestar.ca

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