Thurs., Oct. 27; Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON. The wind whipping off of Lake Ontario blows my baseball cap a couple of Cessna lengths down the runway of the Niagara District Airport. A small group of business commuters has just puddle-jumped to this regional landing strip, from the Billy Bishop terminal on the Toronto Islands. It’s a 15-minute flight, versus a 90-minute drive, offering plenty of perspective — including how far inland are Niagara’s famous Falls, their plumes of spray observable only in the far distance.
I’m a recognized journalist on the Canadian automotive circuit but, as I am not a card-carrying member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) — rebellious, to be sure — I am uniquely qualified for today’s assignment. I have come to Niagara-on-the-Lake to observe, in the classic style of Man on the Street, what can fairly be called the automotive zoo officially titled Test Fest, perhaps better understood as the determination process for Canadian Car of the Year (CCOTY).
Year after year, you’ve seen the CCOTY logo, mostly in the advertising campaigns of various winners (various, because there are one dozen topline categories beyond THE Car, plus numerous additional subcategories). You’ve also understood the shorthand: A consensus of experts says that, basically, this baby’s the real deal. Now, who exactly are those experts, how many of them vote, upon what criteria do they vote, how many cars do they drive, does the Niagara region have an airport… Correct: You, the Man on the Street, have asked yourself none of these questions.
Still, those questions are like toothpaste and tubes (or, to a lesser degree, pressure and tires); once squeezed…well, attention is warranted. Consider that, to qualify for CCOTY, an automobile must be truly of its production year. What this means is, though hundreds of vehicles hit the Canadian market every calendar year, probably not more than, say, one hundred would qualify as legitimately new. By the time that the CCOTY shortlist is determined, anywhere from 40-75 vehicles can be up for consideration.
I describe CCOTY as a zoo because zoos are, by necessity, superbly-run outfits. As I am about to witness, what qualifies the week-long Test Fest judging program for this metaphor is that hundreds of automotive beasts (numeric discrepancy from above paragraph because, simply, many manufacturers must provide multiple models, due to category overlap) are expertly herded by dozens upon dozens of journalists on the “grounds”: a rough quadrangle defined by farmland stretches of two-lane, along with one very circuitous, heavily pyloned airport tarmac.
You read correctly: Not only does the Niagara region have an airport, but also Test Fest essentially shuts down the Niagara region airport for the better part of one full week, every year. Alas, “essentially,” because a few scheduled planes must still land every day, which grinds the CCOTY pylon course to a minimum hour-long halt. Test Fest would be a much, much cooler event if it had vetoing power over the local Mavericks.
My drive partner for the day is AJAC member Justin Pritchard, a Sudbury-based automotive journalist so dedicated to his craft that he drives to Toronto and back once a week, every week, to test new vehicles. Yes, on paper, that sounds like it’s not work; yes, it’s work; and yes, CCOTY is work to an exponential degree (more on this later). Now, the term “drive partner” suggests that I need to be watched. Possibly true, as we have established that I am a bit of a provocateur, but that’s simple coincidence: Drive partners share observations and challenge each other to push vehicles to their limits, and such pairings are common on ride-and-drive events, which is how I proceed to treat my Test Fest visit.
Some eight windy and winding hours after that top-of-morning baseball cap recovery, a truly exhausting day has wrapped. I am hotel-bound, as are some 50% of the participating journalists. This 50% is no slacker contingent: it merely represents those who were luckily able to fulfill their category goals for the day. And today was the third consecutive day, of four, for the AJAC testing. Make no mistake: Testing is a synonym for driving all day, practically non-stop (many journos are seen eating their lunch sandwich as, seeking their next test model, they walk the horizon-defying rainbow-hued rows of available CCOTY vehicles stretching across the airport parking lot).
Pritchard and I have spent the day focussing on the category “Sports/Performance Over $50,000” (the selection was mine). Fifteen AJAC journalists evaluate this category, taking six 2011-model vehicles out for a road test and a track test. On the docket, in the order presented on the AJAC website: BMW 1 Series M Coupé (which proved to be the winner for this year’s category), Chevrolet Camaro Convertible, Chrysler 300 SRT8, Hyundai Genesis R-Spec, Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class and Porsche Cayman R, all of them evaluated for 28 different attributes (ex. transmission/drivetrain, ride comfort, interior noise).
My ride partner and I race against the clock to conduct our drives — a total of 45min combined for road and track — and tabulate our evaluations before the hour strikes…taking us back out on the road (and track) once more. Again, on paper, it sounds like it’s not work; again, it’s work. Hence the end-of-day exhaustion, exhaust fumes notwithstanding. Truth be told, the AJAC voting process is so detail-oriented that there’s another full article’s worth of material in the what-it’s-like-to-judge story. Just ask Justin Pritchard — better yet, let Pritchard tell you himself, here, today, at DailyXY.
Mind you, I’m not copping out: I participated and voted for “fun” (a polite way of saying: my votes were never registered) in the Sports/Performance Over $50,000 category, and I am happy to table my results. While all six vehicles on offer were, as expected, outstanding, two stood above the rest. I have always been partial to the Hyundai Genesis — a previous CCOTY overall winner, BTW — which barely qualifies for the over-$50,000 price point yet offers almost twice the value in performance and handling, in addition to being beyond-comfortable. On the scale of 10, which is how all votes are recorded, my overall average for the Genesis was 8.7; it took a majority of above 8 (sometimes decimaled), two 10’s (driver position & ergonomics, throttle response) and, inevitably, a handful of 7’s and under.
My personal winner for the category was the Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class, which, registering a final collective score of 663 from the AJAC journos, officially came third — five points behind the second-place Porsche Cayman R and 21 points behind the winner, the BMW 1 Series M Coupé.
Why did I lean Mercedes? Well, honestly, I don’t know. Pritchard sympathizes, and says that the distinctions of quality in this category — really, any CCOTY category — are practically ineffable. The best of the best are being evaluated; the journo’s job is to identify the truly superlative. But how does one explain what was the in-the-moment rationale, especially after the moment? Why did I give the CLS an overall 9.1? How to explain why I awarded it 10 for roominess/comfort/access and gave the Chrysler 300 SRT8 a 9.6 for same? (I did not use a tape measure.) How to explain why I gave the CLS a 7 for steering — an unimpressive number, being so far removed from the standard-setting 10, but surely one that indicates a vehicle being well above-average! — and awarded the Hyundai a 7.2 for same, because I realized that I liked the Genesis that much better?
Yesterday, at the Canadian International Auto Show, the Hyundai Elantra was named this year’s official CCOTY. Nothing to do with my Genesis-leaning opinion, of course; still, an interesting coincidence.
Did I have fun at Test Fest? To be sure. Was it work? To be surer, and with a very capital W. Am I glad that I can’t vote in this process? To be surest; and in the politest sense, I am quite happy to continue to decline. Then again, maybe I’ll have my standard, and automatic it too — because it would be fun to observe once more, for just one day, another year.
Image courtesy of AJAC.