Canadian Car of the Year: The Driver’s Seat

To any hot-blooded car lover, the testing procedure for Canadian Car of the Year (CCOTY) looks like a whackload of fun. Well, it is. It’s also exhaustively thorough, and thoroughly exhausting. Yes, we love doing it.

Every fall, a panel consisting of several dozen Canadian automotive experts convenes in Niagara on the Lake, Ontario, to test the calendar year’s new-vehicle offerings and, ultimately, decide on the Canadian Car of the Year (CCOTY).

The week-long event, now formally named Test Fest after enjoying the same as a nickname for more years than anyone can seem to remember, sees voting members of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) assigned to test competing vehicles in numerous classes. This year, we were joined by a contingent of non-AJAC journalists — read about DailyXY’s here.

Eligible voting members fill out a lengthy evaluation form on each model after an approximately 45-minute test-drive. That checklist is sort of like a ballot — sort of. For example, there are no check marks. In a simpler election, you just put a tick beside your favorite candidate. For journos voting on the Canadian Car of the Year,  the process is much more complicated. A lengthy list of attributes is considered, ranging from driving position to ergonomics to engine pleasantness to brake pedal feel. Voting experts rate all of these factors on a scale of 1 to 10, and can even use decimal places to express differences, so slight as to be almost ineffable, between the characteristics of competing models.

Filling in each vehicle’s evaluation requires plenty of thought, consideration and patience. It’s important business. In fact, on the Test Fest grounds, it’s not uncommon to see journalists  completing a vehicle’s form in the back seat of a test car, in a quiet corner somewhere, or even outdoors under the late-October sun. It makes for a sort of quiet seriousness, eerie and nearly sombre — especially when surrounded by hundreds of bright, new and energetic machines.

Compounding the evaluation process is the requirement that voters evaluate all contenders in each category back to back on the same day — driving as many as 13 vehicles in an 8-hour period. Test-drives run a minimum length and include components on public roads, a handling course and even an off-road course, if appropriate. If a voter doesn’t complete an entire category in one day? Their votes for vehicles in that category don’t count. If you’ve got a big category to complete, you can forget lunch.

So, yes, AJAC takes this back-to-back stuff quite seriously. It’s the heart of the evaluation system. And with so many vehicle categories, attributes and journalists, there really is no better way to fish out differences between similar but competitive models.

Ah, but (there’s always a but) the aforementioned qualitative marks only comprise part of each vehicle’s total score. The qualitatives are combined with quantitative figures that take into account factors including trunk space, braking distance, emissions ratings — things that not even expert journalists can measure. These quantitatives are weighted differently across the various categories, which means that even a roomfull of voters certain of the winner of a given category can be left surprised. It happens, and it’s just a fact of life when participating in what is possibly the most comprehensive vehicle testing system in the world (if it’s not, it’s right up there). Daunting for the participants? Sure, but even more rewarding.

A quick example. The Sports/Performance category is a fun, albeit very challenging category to rate. The qualifying vehicles are flashy and fast, but also represent a tremendously wide range of characters. These are cars designed to elicit emotion from their drivers, and they do this in different ways. Does the BMW 1M’s sweet turbo six-cylinder operate more slickly than the big  beastly V8 in the Dodge Charger SRT8? Do the brakes feel more precise in the Hyundai Genesis than they do in the Porsche Cayman R? Does the Camaro Convertible handle or steer differently, being the only ragtop in the group? Which one has the smoothest, fastest-acting transmission?

Performance-related data points are weighted heavily in the S+P category — being that this is a group of cars consumers purchase largely for ‘feel’ and performance. The BMW 1M ended up winning this year’s over-$50,000 (there’s an under-50, too) Sports and Performance category. That victory gave the BMW a shot at overall Canadian Car of the Year award. Great performance, great feel, and a pretty darn good price, too. Your writer preferred the Cayman R, though it performs similarly to the BMW while costing a heap an a half more. Oh, did I mention that price and overall value are part of the scoring, too?

At the end of the day, this isn’t the kind of work that any of AJAC’s voting members could ever convince anyone was “work” at all. Still, despite the redlining, hard-braking, full-throttle acceleration and quick but informative visits with each car’s personality, it’s a process significantly more involved than driving around and picking a favourite.

Image courtesy of AJAC. 

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