UPDATE: 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
This month, dozens of auto reviewers will drive to St. Catharines to drive dozens of vehicles, where they’ll choose the AJAC Canadian Car of the Year for 2013.
Those reviewers are all qualified members of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada, and 79 of them will be judging 60 different vehicles to determine the best in each category. Of those class-winning vehicles, three will be shortlisted as contenders for Car of the Year, and another three as Utility Vehicle of the Year.
Judging is both anonymous and consistent. There are 11 different categories of vehicles, and most judges are assigned to two or three different categories, driving 20 or so cars in total. It’s important that the judging compares apples to apples, not apples to oranges, so the vehicles must be driven back-to-back, on the same route and under the same conditions.
Once the reviewer has driven each vehicle, he or she fills out an anonymous checklist of “impressions” of the vehicle and there are many different areas for consideration: not just objective things like performance and safety and visibility, but subjective values like driver comfort and smoothness of operation and value for money.
All the scores on all the ballots are then added up and the category winners are chosen and announced that week. Then all the judges drive those winners and vote in the same way for the best of the best; the Car and Utility Vehicle of the Year will be announced in February at the Toronto Auto Show.
The process has been worked out by AJAC over the 28 years that the awards have been presented, and there’s no secrecy behind the decision-making. Auto companies consider very carefully which vehicles to enter into which categories for their best chance of winning.
“Since the process of judging became public knowledge, we can almost calculate, based on the established criteria, how one of our vehicles is going to do against the competition,” says Jerry Chenkin, executive vice-president of Honda Canada Inc.
This is one of the challenges of the competition, though: it’s only open to vehicles that are all-new for the model year, or have been significantly revised. The 2013 Car of the Year will not necessarily be the best vehicle for sale in showrooms, but just the best “new for 2013” model.
There’s no Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic entered, for example — they had their chance when their current generations were introduced, but they’re not eligible now. To include every vehicle available would be to judge more than 200 cars and trucks against each other back to back, which is too vast a task for AJAC’s contemplation.
“I think it works,” says Charles Renny, AJAC’s treasurer, who’s running for the association’s presidency this year. “I think it’s the best we have at the moment. If we can find a better way to do it, then we’ll do it.”
There’s a cost to manufacturers for entering their vehicles for consideration — about $3,500 per model, plus the logistics to supply three of each to the St. Catharines site for testing — and not all makers believe this to be worthwhile. Audi Canada has not entered any of its cars into the competition this year, and there are no smaller makers such as Ferrari or Bentley.
Besides, ever since the $130,000 Audi R8 was named Canadian Car of the Year in 2008, there’s been a weighting system against such expensive vehicles, making it less likely that a luxury model can win the top prize.
Porsche Canada, however, used to ignore the TestFest program but now enters its vehicles for consideration. Marketing manager Laurance Yap — a former Wheels journalist and former AJAC board member — says that it’s a fairly inexpensive way to promote its newest vehicles to media and the public, whether they win something or not.
Is there a better way of determining the Car of the Year? Honda’s Chenkin suggests that perhaps the competition should be open to just two or three categories each year, rotating every few years, so that every vehicle in that category is considered regardless of its model year.
But the current system does allow experienced car reviewers to offer unbiased opinions on every model they’re given access to and to pass those thoughts on to the public in a completely transparent way.
Winning an award is not the only criteria that a buyer should consider, but it’s immensely helpful in narrowing down the choices.
Freelance writer Mark Richardson is a member of AJAC and will be a judge at TestFest.