Behind the Scenes at 2013 TestFest: Part 2


It’s noon on Wednesday. After two-and-a-half days of switching and out of cars, the first round of voting is done. KPMG begins tabulating over 40,000 votes this afternoon.

The Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) has rented the Niagara-on-the-Lake Airport for the week. Instead of a track, there’s “handling course” set up out on the runways. There are 60 different models (180 test cars in total) being reviewed by over 80 journalist AJAC members. After swiping a barcode on our personalized lanyards, we’re given a set of keys. We then walk outside onto the tarmac, which is divided by category.

Of the 11 categories, I was assigned two that I had to complete by now: small cars under $21k (Chevrolet Spark, Dodge Dart, Kia Rio LX, Mazda3 SkyActiv sedan, Nissan Sentra, Toyota and Toyota Prius c) and family cars under $30k (Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord sedan, Mitsubishi Lancer AWC, Nissan Altima). We drive them on pre-assigned routes; each test takes from half to three-quarters of an hour.

On a scale of 1 to 10, 7 being ‘good’ and 1 being just plain unkind, we rate aspects of the styling and appearance, occupant environment, performance and vehicle dynamics. There are a total of 18 separate subjects we rate.

The rules here are strict and the AJAC executive team brooks no deviation. For instance, a category must be completed on a single day. In other words, no journalist can drive 3 of the cars in one of his categories one day and the remaining 4 the next. The reason? To keep the conditions and comparisons as similar as possible. Some categories contain as many as 8 vehicles but most are just 4 or 5, so it has not been onerous.

Another interesting rule: even if we’ve previously driven and reviewed a given car, if it’s in our assigned category, we must test it again here with the others in its category. The reason is sound: an impression of a car changes when directly compared to its competitors. An example: I was at the launch of the Chevy Spark in August, immediately after returning from 5 days in California, bombing around in Cadillac XTS and ATS models. No surprise, the Spark didn’t feel exciting then. On Monday however, it was a completely different experience among its peers.

I blew through my categories fairly quickly and signed up for a couple more yesterday. As of half an hour ago, I’ve tested 20 different vehicles and expect to drive at least 15 more before the week is through.

Busy as the days have been, the nights have been riotous fun. However all play and no work makes Steve a wreck. Tonight is the big annual AJAC party, with entertainment provided by The Troubadours, a ragtag combination of auto journalists with guitars and big amplifiers. Fortunately, I’ve volunteered to sit in on the piano and do some crooning. Being part of the band will keep me sober and I’m looking very forward to not being hungover tomorrow during the final round of judging.

Image courtesy of AJAC.

This is a test