Deciding how any given category is going to go in the annual Canadian Car and Utility Vehicle of the Year awards is often a daunting task.
Each year, votes are gathered over months from nearly 100 automotive journalist members of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada who work, live, and drive from coast to coast, from Vancouver to Halifax.
Have you ever tried to get a group of colleagues that diverse and far-flung to agree on anything? I have, and it certainly isn’t easy.
By early January, though, AJAC will have a consensus to deliver on what its experts consider to be the top vehicles across 12 different categories, which will be announced at the Montreal auto show. Then, in February, at the opening ceremonies for the Canadian International AutoShow in Toronto, the overall 2019 Canadian Car and Utility Vehicle of the Year will be revealed. And in March, the Canadian Green Car and Utility Vehicle of the Year will be announced at the auto show in Vancouver.
For now, we can only speculate on what the winners might be, and where the large SUV category is concerned, I feel as though my picks are educated guesses at best. There are a couple of different ways that it could play out.
One possibility is that the category’s returning champion, the Mazda CX-9, could remain victorious for another year. But five new challengers have come forward to try to knock the CX-9 off its throne: the Subaru Ascent, the brand’s first-ever three-row SUV; the next-generation Hyundai Santa Fe and Ford Expedition; the heavily facelifted Kia Sorento; and the performance-oriented Dodge Durango SRT. Each one enters the fray making a strong case for itself, and I wouldn’t be shocked if one of them pulls off a surprise win.
Keeping with my own scores, here are my predictions.
Sixth Place: Dodge Durango SRT
In my heart of hearts, this car is the clear winner – what an exciting and diverse vehicle! It’s not often that starting a three-row SUV gets the heart pumping like the roar of the Dodge Durango SRT’s 6.4-litre V8 does. And it happily goes from slinging mud to screaming around a track with commensurate ease – I mean, more or less, factoring in the inevitable handling hit that comes from the sheer size of this beast, though the active damping does help some.
On paper, though, at least as far as the Canadian Utility Vehicle of the Year awards go, the head takes over and this car just doesn’t work. At $85,072 as tested, the Durango SRT puts far more than most people need into a package that’s too expensive for most people to want.
Fifth Place: Ford Expedition
The next-generation Ford Expedition falls under a similar banner. For what it is, it’s really very good. The 3.5-litre EcoBoost V6’s power and delivery feel just right, and the updated platform makes it an exceptional handler for its size.
It’s that size, though, that will ultimately count against it most: Canadians tend not to want vehicles this large unless they truly need to move a lot of people, gear, and trailer at once, and so it stands to reason that Canadian automotive experts wouldn’t put the Expedition forward as the top choice for drivers across the country, from city to rural and with diverse sets of needs, unless it really stands far and away above the rest. In this group, it doesn’t.
If you’re shopping among the very largest SUVs on the market, though, don’t let the Expedition’s ranking here sway you. In my estimation, it’s the current leader in its segment.
Fourth Place: Hyundai Santa Fe
By putting a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine into the new Santa Fe, Hyundai seeks to tackle the previous generation’s Achilles’ heel, which was its lackluster fuel economy. In that regard, it should be a hit. However, I think its designers missed the mark on styling. The front end in particular has elements that feel over-emphasized and not as fashionable as the competition.
The powertrain drives suitably well, it handles fine, the steering feel is average, the cabin lets in a bit of wind noise – in brief, the new Santa Fe is certainly acceptable, and at $44,999 for the Ultimate trim I tested the price is certainly right. But in the realm of exceptional, it falls short.
Third Place: Kia Sorento
If you’re looking for an affordable way to move seven people around, the Sorento can still be considered the value leader. The updates in its recent refresh only bolster its standing in that regard: it’s quieter, the new 8-speed automatic transmission that goes with the V6 is well-behaved, it has a great suite of tech features, and it’s packaged well at affordable price points.
On the down side, the third row is still quite difficult to access, and the interior is on the darker side and feels down-market once you’re up into the $48,865 price tag of the SXL trim I tested. But if you don’t need something with quite so many nice-to-have features and you’re looking for a well-priced people-mover, the Sorento is a great place to start.
Second Place: Subaru Ascent
Subaru’s first attempt at a three-row SUV, to my mind, has the best shot at knocking Mazda’s CX-9 off its pedestal. There are plenty of details that it gets right: the third row, while not especially spacious, is very easy to access; the design hits all the right marks; handling and ride comfort are excellent; the infotainment is well-designed and easy to use; and, as one would expect from a Subaru, its off-road performance is nothing short of confidence-inspiring.
Where I think the Ascent loses ground is in its powertrain – the 2.4-litre Boxer engine feels a touch underpowered, and the CVT seems to need to work harder here than in smaller Subarus, leaving it feeling buzzy. Although the Limited trim I tested is priced at a relatively reasonable $46,495, the performance penalty these factors will incur could be too large a hurdle to overcome.
First Place: Mazda CX-9
Don’t be surprised if the Mazda CX-9 ends up taking the title for AJAC’s Best Large SUV for the second year in a row. Mazdas tend to be very popular picks among the voting ranks, especially where SUVs are concerned: their drive dynamics suit people who love to be behind the wheel, and they’re also often the most stylish while offering premium accents that other mainstream brands can’t match such as the CX-9 Signature’s real wood and chrome interior finishes. It’s also more than a pretty face: although it lacks some of the off-road features of its competitors, it still felt right at home crawling along in our washed-out-cottage-driveway off-road simulation.
Where I think it could take a hit is in the value score, which balances its price – the Signature model I drove rings up at $53,595 – with its raw functionality. The CX-9’s third row is dark and very tight, the cargo space is smaller than average, and although I’m a fan of the usability of the dial-operated infotainment system, plenty of others aren’t. Still, scoring in the Canadian Car and Utility Vehicle of the Year program tends to favour driving-oriented factors, so I expect that once the ballots are counted, the CX-9 will maintain its edge.
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