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1998 Mercedes ML320

The 1998 Car of the Year, as selected by the Automobile

Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC), is a truck the

Mercedes Benz ML320 sport utility vehicle.

The M-Class won out over 48 other new cars and light trucks.

The nominees underwent an exhaustive evaluation and voting

procedure by nearly 50 automotive journalists from coast to

coast at a four-day Test Fest at Shannonville Motorsport Park,

east of Belleville, in late October.

Jo Anne Caza, marketing manager for Mercedes Benz Canada, said

winning "the overall award is a real surprise for us.

"We're overwhelmed!"

AJAC president Harry Pegg, automotive writer for the Calgary

Sun, in presenting Caza with the trophy, said:

"The ML320 represents a significant change of direction for

Mercedes Benz in that it puts them in a segment in which they

have never competed before."

They're obviously competing well: The M-Class is effectively

sold out through the middle of next year.

The truck, built exclusively in Tuscaloosa, Ala., also won the

Best New Sport Utility category. By AJAC rules, only category

winners are eligible for the overall title.

The other 1998 class winners:

Best New Family Sedan: Volkswagen Passat.

Best New Luxury Sedan: Audi A6.

Best New Luxury Coupe: Mercedes CLK320.

Best New Sports Sedan: Audi A4 1.8T.

Best New Sports Coupe: Acura Integra Type R.

Best New Sports Car: Porsche Boxster.

Best New Wagon: Volvo V70.

Best New Van: Toyota Sienna.

Best New Pickup: Mazda BSeries.

The other finalists in the Best New Sport Utility class were

the Dodge Durango and Subaru Forester, with Honda CRV, Isuzu

Rodeo and Lincoln Navigator rounding out the field.

It's the second time in three years that a light truck has

been chosen as Best New Car, reflecting the increasing

popularity and competitiveness of the market's truck segment.

AJAC's overall winner for 1996 was the Dodge Caravan/Plymouth

Voyager minivan. The BMW M3 sports coupe won last year.

It was Deutschland uber just about Alles in the AJAC contest

this year. Runners-up for Car of the Year honours were the

Porsche Boxster and Audi A6.

The sports car finalists competing against the Boxster were

the Chevrolet Corvette and Mercedes SLK230. The other

contenders: Acura NSXT, BMW Z3 2.8 and Plymouth Prowler.

Family sedan finalists defeated by the Passat were the Honda

Accord and Nissan Altima, followed by the Chevrolet Malibu,

Chrysler Intrepid, Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique, Mazda 626 and

Toyota Corolla.

This was perhaps the strongest field in the competition.

Mercedes needed a light truck to haul away all its trophies.

Its CLK320 (which I test in Wheels today) out-pointed the BMW

325is and Volvo C70 to take the luxury coupe title.

Audi was also a double category winner. The pretty A6 captured

the luxury sedan race over finalists Lincoln Continental and

Volvo S70, plus Buick Regal and Lincoln Town Car.

As the top sports sedan, the equally pretty A4 1.8T edged out

the Ford Contour SVT and Lexus's mighty GS 400, with the Benz

C280 Sport and Oldsmobile Intrigue figuring close in the

counting.

Acura's Integra Type R didn't have to worry about German

competition, winning sports coupe laurels over its Japanese

countrymate, the Subaru Impreza 2.5 RS. The Ford Escort ZX2 and

Honda Accord coupe completed the field.

The only category containing a German car that wasn't won by a

German car was Best New Wagon. The Volvo V70 got the nod over

the Mercedes E320, with Suzuki's Esteem and Volvo's Cross

Country AWD also competing.

The Volvo V70 was the only Canadian-built car to claim a

prize; the vast majority of V70s sold in Canada are assembled in

Halifax.

Besides the Benz MClass, American plants also were

responsible for the two other light-truck category winners.

Toyota's Sienna van, built in Georgetown, Ky., overcame the

revamped Ford Windstar and the new-to-Canada Oldsmobile

Silhouette.

And the Michigan-native Mazda B Series compact pickup edged

out its corporate cousin, the Ford Ranger, and the

Tennessee-made Nissan Frontier.

Two new prizes were inaugurated by AJAC this year:

Best New Design Award — won by the Porsche Boxster. Runners-up

were the Chrysler Intrepid and Plymouth Prowler.

Nominees in all classes were eligible, and all AJAC members

could vote.

Best New Technology Award — won by Goodyear's Extended

Mobility Technology ("runflat") tires.

Runners-up were BMW's sideimpact, head restraint system and

General Motors' OnStar satellite/cellular communications system.

This prize was judged by AJAC members with particular

expertise in automotive engineering or technology.

Goodyear runflats are standard equipment on the 1998 Corvette

and will come to the aftermarket early in the new year.

Public relations consultant Doug Mepham, a longtime observer

of the Canadian automotive scene, said he could not remember

when the AJAC awards had been so competitive. "You look at the

complete entry list and realize there were no losers at all."

For full details on this year's Car of the Year testing and

impressions of vehicles in each category, see Wheels, Nov. 5,

1997.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie is Wheels' chief automotive

reviewer.

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