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Should you trust Car of the Year awards?

I recently spent five October days at Niagara-on-the-Lake testing some of the 56 vehicles competing for the 2009 Canadian Car of the Year and Truck of the Year awards.

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I recently spent five October days at Niagara-on-the-Lake testing some of the 56 vehicles competing for the 2009 Canadian Car of the Year and Truck of the Year awards.

The results, according to the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada, help buyers make informed decisions when purchasing new vehicles. The association, of which I am a member, says that surveys show more than half of new-car buyers are influenced by its awards.

But should you use this information? My advice is to treat it as one more tool in the arsenal – a guide to help with your decision, but never to make it for you.

The idea of a “car of the year” award effectively started with Motor Trend magazine, which in 1949 gave its inaugural nod to Cadillac in recognition of a revolutionary new engine.

During the early years, it went to the manufacturer, not the car, and for three years it wasn’t awarded at all, since nothing was deemed sufficiently worthy.

Now, over the next few months, there will be a sea of them, as every publication and association names its annual winners: Car and Driver, Green Car Journal, Road & Track, Top Gear, What Car, MSN and Mother Proof, among many others. There’s a North American Car of the Year, a European Car of the Year, a World Car of the Year, an International Car of the Year, a Japan Car of the Year and even a Lithuanian Car of the Year.

Should they matter to you? That depends on how you use them. Last year, AJAC’s Car of the Year was the Audi R8, which cost $139,000 and sold about 100 in Canada. Its worthiness of the title was really a moot point to almost every buyer. What is far more useful to consumers is the information that decides the winner in each category, available through AJAC’s website at ajac.ca. This details how each vehicle rated with judges – and remember that it’s subjective – as well as important objective information, such as acceleration times, braking distance, cargo capacity and fuel consumption.

No matter whose “car of the year” announcement you’re reading, look at how vehicles are tested. If you want a work truck, give more weight to an award where judges towed and hauled with them, rather than just drove them on the street. If it’s a family vehicle, look for a test that assesses safety features, and how easy it is to install child seats or load groceries. Consider who’s judging: a driving enthusiast magazine will likely give more weight to sporty handling than to everyday practicality.

Remember that almost all of these awards are for vehicles that are new or substantially redesigned for that year, and the best car for you might not have been in the running.

In most cases, judges are driving brand-new vehicles, prepped for the event, for a very short period of time. If possible, include data from companies that perform longer-term testing and compare reliability, such as Consumer Reports. But release your inner cynic, and read the fine print. While J.D. Powers’ famous Initial Quality awards are based on responses from thousands of new-vehicle owners, the survey only asks about the first 90 days of ownership.

Who decides which car is the best? Consider the awards and read the reviews, but from there, it’s up to you to determine your needs in a vehicle, and to test-drive them thoroughly to find the one that fits.
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