NIAGARA FALLS, ON – The Automobile Journalists Association of Canada's (AJAC) annual TestFest is over, the voting is done and the results are being tabulated by the accounting firm KPMG.
Those results will determine winners of the Best New vehicle awards for 2015 in 15 categories, which will be revealed on December 15. From those class winners, overall Canadian Car of the Year and Truck/Utility Vehicle of the Year Winners will be determined.
The overall winners will be announced at the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto on February 12, 2015.
The five-day TestFest involved more than 70 voting journalists and 150 vehicles. I was one of those voting journalists and here's an overview of the candidates from my perspective, along with my own predictions for the winners.
31st Canadian Car of the Year awards
AJAC has been presenting its Canadian Car of the Year awards since 1985. The awards are unique in that the eligible vehicles, which must be all-new or heavily revised, are tested back-to-back on the same roads, in the same conditions on the same day.
Test Fest, as the event is known, is now settled into its third home base, situated on Niagara parks Commission properties in Niagara Falls, Ontario, where the on-site facilities, surrounding surface streets and highways and a purpose-built off-road course provide a great neutralizer.
While the overall number of entries was a bit lower this year than in some previous years, the quality of the entire field was seriously impressive. Particularly so was the sheer number of luxury and performance-oriented machines. More than half the field – 28 entries – came from a lux or near-lux brand, or were dedicated grin-inducers.
There were seven vehicles with as-tested prices of over $75,000, split into Prestige or Prestige Performance classes, and the epic Porsche 911 Turbo S hit almost three times that amount.
Every entrant in the Prestige Performance category packed well over 400 horsepower, but less-than-ideal conditions, like single-digit high temperatures and rain on voting days, meant most were unable to be used to their fullest.
To my ear, the Corvette Stingray Convertible and Jaguar F-Type R Coupe were tied for best exhaust note, but their normally sticky summer tires morphed into hockey pucks. The 560-horse Turbo S, with its all-wheel drive, was reasonably happy in the typical autumn weather.
In the vivid-blue Volvo V60 Polestar wagon earned plenty of respect for its balance of fun, luxury and utility, with easily the best seats in the test. But its 345-horsepower 3.0-litre inline-six seemed almost quaint next to the Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat.
The Hellcat’s supercharged 6.2-litre V-8, with its 707 horsepower and 650 lb-ft of torque is simply ridiculous, and it only has two drive wheels to the Volvo’s four, meaning equal levels of fear and thrills.
Ford’s new Mustang GT proved a nice upgrade from previous efforts, but also struggled to put its best foot forward.
The five-entry Sports-Performance Under $50K class had everything from the mild Kia Forte Koup to the ultra-raw Subaru WRX STI. While the BMW M235i provided an experience close to the company’s roots, the Volkswagen GTI delivered plenty of grins and with the second-lowest as-tested price it will be tough to beat.
In Luxury Car Under $50K, the Volvo V60 T5 Drive-E is at the top of my wish list, but the Mercedes-Benz C300 4MATIC is quite nicely appointed inside and its slightly lower as-tested price will almost surely cement its win here.
In the Luxury Over $50K class, the Acura RLX Sport Hybrid proved the best performing, but its lower quality cabin materials and face-palm-inducing integrated infotainment system make it hard to recommend.
The Cadillac ATS coupe is sexy and is priced only a set of optional floor mats above the class price floor, but it will have a hard time beating Hyundai. I know… the second-generation Genesis does a lot right and is a near-perfect package.
The two Family Car classes had six entries split evenly across the $30K dividing line, with several dramatic transformations, including the sleek Chrysler 200 and polished Subaru Legacy.
The Toyota Camry is significantly revised, and at least in new XSE trim looks menacing, although its four-cylinder engine is merely average.
The Subaru WRX is the odd-duck here, being not only significantly smaller than the other mid-sizers, but decidedly more fun to drive. But the Family Car classes are weighted towards usable space, cargo area, and fuel economy, so it faces the longest odds.
In the most modest class, the Honda Fit and Nissan’s new Micra battled to see which could provide the best value for money, especially given the price limit of just $21,000.
But while the Fit’s as-tested figure brushed that ceiling with added features of a moonroof, rear-view camera and heated seats, the Micra arrived nearly five-thousand less.
Sure, the Fit’s clever cargo system is worthy, but it brings unintentional drawbacks. To make its trunk as deep as possible, the fuel tank is mounted under the front row floor, which limits seat travel for tall folks like me. The Micra’s radio is also leagues easier to understand and operate than the knob-less Honda screen.
While the Volkswagen Golf's as-tested price of $24,295 is the highest in the Small Car over $21K class, the other two entries – Kia Forte5 and Mini Cooper – don’t quite offer the same level of polish.
Moving to utility vehicles, several automakers put forward excellent efforts, like the Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue and Subaru Outback in the Under $35K class. All deliver space-saving fuel-efficient packages and are completely ubiquitous on Canadian roads.
While both the Outback and Rogue are previous class winners, the Rogue wins on the image front and the Outback on space. The CR-V is the wild card, having the best city fuel efficiency and the lowest as-tested price.
In the mid-range $35K-$60 category, the Lincoln MKC is a serious player and not just the tarted up Ford Escape everyone is worried about. There are big improvements in the interior quality and interface, along with a quiet ride and a full load of technologies.
But it was pricier than all but the Chevrolet Tahoe, with a mid-$50K sticker. The Toyota Highlander offers plenty of value here with an as-tested price of around $40K, and near-equal capacities to the Tahoe.
Finally, the Over $60K class had a trio of quite different machines. The new GMC Yukon XL Denali doesn’t have the finely crafted interior or eight-speed automatic transmission found in the Cadillac Escalade, but it came darn close on the price tag at over $82,000.
By comparison, the Mercedes-Benz GLA 45 AMG is so extreme in its performance focus that we were barred from taking it on the off-road course. Hmmm. The Porsche Macan S proved a slightly larger, more comfortable machine than the Benz, and was happy in nearly any situation, including both the off-road and autocross course.
Overall Car of the Year
The Mazda6 and Mazda 3 placed one-two for the overall title last year but with no new vehicles eligible for 2015, Mazda kindly left the competition open for others.
Numerous heavy hitters, like the Honda Fit, Hyundai Sonata, Nissan Micra, Subaru Legacy and Toyota Camry brought impressively new or heavily updated products that will certainly find many happy homes in the coming year.
Volkswagen, however, another manufacturer with a strong Test Fest track record, put forward its latest Golf, which is itself a multiple CCOTY winner. The Golf, with its new 170-horsepower turbocharged 1.8-litre four-cylinder and six-speed automatic transmission will be a formidable contender.
The new MQB platform helps it be both larger and lighter than before, and even in non-GTI guise, it provides a nimble, responsive and comfortable ride.
In Canadian-favoured five-door hatchback form, the Golf provides excellent room and flexibility for families, and its fuel-economy ratings of 9.3 Ll/100 km in the city and 6.5 on the highway won’t break the bank.
While the new Mustang also has a shot from an emotional standpoint and is a previous CCOTY winner in 2005, it’s been a long time since a performance car won overall honours.
Hence, my prediction that the Volkswagen Golf will win the 2015 Canadian Car of the Year laurels.
Overall Truck/Utility of the Year
The global rise of the compact crossover has been felt even more keenly in Canada given our utilitarian, practical buying habits and generally terrible climate. However, Canadians love pickups even more. And this year is one of the strongest fields ever.
General Motors entered its newest mid-size Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon and covered the low and middle price segments with as-tested figures of $27K and $37K respectively. Both use GM's excellent 3.6-litre V-6 with over 300 horsepower and more-than-functional interiors.
At the other end is the Ram 1500, Canada’s second-best-selling vehicle, let alone pickup truck, and it comes to this test with the excellent 3.0-litre EcoDiesel engine. The small torque-monster and eight-speed automatic transmission mean the luxed-up $63,000 as-tested beast never feels flat-footed.
But, the Ford F-150 has been the best-selling anything in Canada for decades and a new one doesn’t come around very often. Given the company’s lasting dominance in North America, the company would have been excused if it had simply phoned it in.
Instead, Ford went the opposite direction, adopting expensive aluminum for the body and bed, and introducing even stronger materials for its frame. The resulting crash diet means a heavy tilt towards V-6 models with varying levels of power and torque.
The new twin-turbocharged 2.7-litre V-6 EcoBoost engine gets 325 horses and 375 lb-ft of torque, and proves responsive and potent in everyday use. While the $54,600 as-tested price is higher than average, the payoff should be worth it. That’s why it’s my pick for the Canadian Utility Vehicle of the Year.