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Test Fest 2013: Back-to-back tests to determine the best

Series of hands-on tests determine best vehicles of the year

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NIAGARA FALLS, ONT.—The Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) will huddle all week this week to test every new car, truck, SUV and crossover available on the Canadian market at Test Fest.

The object is to choose the best new vehicle in each of several categories, as well as the overall car, truck and utility vehicles of the year.

We’ve been doing this for about 30 years. The process has been modified and improved over the years into what we now believe to be the most complex and objective such evaluation in the world.

The one thing that hasn’t changed is the key to the entire thing: “Back-to-back, same roads, same conditions, same day.”

There has never been a Test Fest where I haven’t been surprised by several vehicles I thought I knew well. Getting out of one and right into a direct competitor is really the only way to do this properly.

Our judging team consists of more than 80 journalists, representing outlets from coast to coast, in print, broadcast and web media.

Voting privileges are extended only to AJAC members who regularly road test vehicles. Newcomers must go through a couple of years of apprenticeship before their votes count full value.

All vehicles judged to be sufficiently new to qualify are grouped into categories, so we are not comparing apples to pineapples.

The categories are based on function and price, and depend to a degree on what sort of vehicles are entered. We need a minimum of three alike-enough vehicles to make up a category.

The journalists are then assigned to evaluate certain categories, typically three or four each, depending on the number of vehicles. They must drive each vehicle on the same day on the same route, including evaluation on a high-speed test circuit and/or a simulated off-road course or cottage road, depending on the category.

For each vehicle, the jurors rank a wide range of attributes, covering design, space, quality, performance, safety, economy and value, and enter their scores online.

In addition, a corps of professional test drivers evaluates every vehicle for acceleration from rest, passing acceleration and braking. Transport Canada fuel consumption figures are also factored in.

The attributes are weighted differently for the various categories, on the theory that acceleration from rest, for example, is more important for a sports car than a pickup truck.

Finally, a price factor is applied, on the theory that a more-expensive vehicle should be better at most things than a less-expensive one. This mass of data is then compiled by the accounting firm KPMG. The category winners will be announced Dec. 3.

The overall winners of Car of the Year, Truck of the Year and Utility Vehicle of the Year will be announced at the Canadian International Auto Show next February.

Complicated? Yes.

And we don’t always get it right. But if there is a better way to do it, nearly three decades of fine-tuning have yet to discover it.

Does anybody care about these awards?

The car manufacturers sure trumpet their victories, so they must believe consumers value our collective judgment.

When AJAC conducted market-research studies (three times in the past 15 years), we got consistent reinforcement that opinions of journalists are among the top three reasons to buy. And the AJAC awards score about 50-per-cent on the influence scale, which is pretty high as market research findings go.

Although a lot of industry buzz has been about electric cars, hybrids and fuel economy, the category I can’t wait to try is Sports/Performance. It will be my first chance to try back-to-back two of what I think are the most significant new cars of this year: the brilliant Jaguar F-Type and the vastly improved yet lower-priced Corvette.

Can a $50,000 to $80,000 two-seater be considered a valid candidate for overall Car of the Year? Why not? To me, a Car of the Year is one that moves the goalposts. Both of these do.

But with my dismal track record of pre-guessing winners, chances are neither of these will even win the category.

That’s why we run Test Fest.

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