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AJAC TESTFEST: King of the crossovers

Santa Fe Sport wins mid-priced SUV/CUV crown

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It may be the lowest priced model in its class, but the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, is still packed with features. Both these factors surely helped it win.

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It was a close race in the SUV/CUV $35-60K category, with the Nissan Pathfinder finishing a close second.

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Although his fellow AJAC members voted for the Cadillac ATS, Haney Louka still prefers the BMW 328i in the luxury car category.

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NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. -- To say I look forward to the end of October each year is a bit of an understatement, and it's not because of Halloween.

For 10 years running, I've attended the annual Car of the Year TestFest put on by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada, or AJAC for short. So, in the next several months, when you see a bunch of ads for new cars citing AJAC awards, you'll know it all starts here.

One of the categories that was of particular interest to me this year was the SUV/CUV group priced between $35,000 and $60,000. Sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and the more recently evolved crossover utilities (CUVs) are the most popular vehicles for moving people and their stuff around town and across the country. Descendants of wagons and then minivans, these newer two-box designs are more stylish and are marketed (rightly or wrongly) as a more rugged way to get you where you need to go.

This year's mid-priced crossover category fielded eight entries that ranged from the $35,299 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport to the $58,400 Infiniti JX35. It's a wide range, to be sure, and even though the Santa Fe took home the honours for the class (and deservedly so), there are some honourable mentions.

But let's start with the winner. Since the last-generation Santa Fe was introduced for 2007, I've been a big fan, so the new one had some big shoes to fill. For 2013, it will come in two lengths because it's replacing the Veracruz as well. For this competition, only the Santa Fe Sport (sport for short) model was entered because the long-wheelbase model will not be available in time. We expect to see that one at next year's TestFest.

The Sport is available with a naturally aspirated base engine, but Hyundai provided the optional 2.0-litre turbo unit that pushes 264 hp and 269 lb-ft of torque. Its closest competitor in this crowd was the Ford Escape Titanium, also a five-seater with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine. The Santa was loaded, but the Escape was even more so, and its premium pricing landed it at $42,329 -- a full $7,000 more than the Hyundai. And this much I can tell you: it is not $7,000 more vehicle.

In fact, the Escape's lofty pricing puts it in the company of the more upscale V-6-powered entries: the GMC Terrain Denali and Acura RDX. Priced in the low- to mid-$40s, the RDX runs away from the Terrain, though, because of the latter's inferior driving dynamics and interior quality.

It's frustrating, because the General has shown signs of brilliance with some models but in other cases, such as this one, it seems the old GM keeps haunting us. On the plus side, it features the General's new direct-injected 3.6-litre unit and generates more than 300 hp. But that just doesn't make up for its other shortcomings.

Ditto the Chevy Traverse, which is a jumbo-sized utility that's about as close as you can get to a van in terms of practicality and interior space. It was the only front-driver of our group (the rest of the entries had all-wheel drive) but rang the register at $42,095. Its drivetrain is more refined than in previous years, though, with the same direct-injected V-6 as the Terrain and a redesigned six-speed automatic that does its job much more competently than in previous years.

At the high end of the range sit Lexus and Infiniti, both pushing the $60K price cap. The Lexus RX 350 has always been a solid contender in this class, but in loaded F-Sport trim, it's both confusing and overpriced. Confusing because who wants a crossover with artificially heavy steering and a really stiff ride? And overpriced because the RX range starts at a competitive $44,950 while the F-Sport adds $13K in extras.

Infiniti has managed to pack a lot of luxury and utility in its new JX full-size crossover. Built on the same platform as the new Nissan Pathfinder (which we'll get to in a moment), the JX has seating for seven with an easily accessed third row. To demonstrate this, Infiniti had a full-size forward-facing child seat installed in the second row and it was still a cinch to slide that row forward to gain access. Once back there, legroom is sufficient, but the seat bottom is too low to provide any real support for adults. That third row is there in a pinch and folds flat to provide a voluminous cargo hold when it's not needed.

All of the expected Infiniti luxury touches are there, and the 3.5 V-6 is a proven mill that provides enough (although not tons) of grunt for this 2,000-kilogram family hauler.

The surprise of the bunch (and my personal choice) was the new-for-2013 Nissan Pathfinder, which, as I mentioned, shares dirty bits (including basic engine and transmission design) with the Infiniti JX. But this value-oriented model starts the pricing way down at $29,998 and came in as-tested at $37,698.

Standard on this seven-seat ute are push-button ignition, tri-zone climate control, 18-inch alloys and six-speaker audio. The entered model was also equipped with leather seats, fog lights, remote start, second-row heated seats, heated steering wheel, a tow package (good for 5,000 pounds or 2,250 kg), and lots of other goodies.

The Pathfinder is a solid drive, with perhaps my only complaint being that its CVT allows a bit more engine droning than the Infiniti JX, which seems to have been programmed to operate more like a conventional automatic. Other than that, it's the value king in this segment without feeling cheap.

Even though it didn't win, the Pathfinder is my choice for best new mid-priced CUV. And for the record, it placed a close second to the Santa Fe.

Haney's Faves

Okay, so the winners have been announced. That won't stop me from picking my own favourites in each category:

CITY CAR: Ford Focus EV

SMALL CAR UNDER $21K: Nissan Sentra

SMALL CAR OVER $21K: Ford C-Max Hybrid

FAMILY CAR UNDER $30K: Honda Accord Sedan

FAMILY CAR OVER $30K: Ford Fusion Hybrid

LUXURY CAR: BMW 328i

SPORTS/PERFORMANCE CAR UNDER $50K: Hyundai Genesis Coupe

SPORTS/PERFORMANCE CAR OVER $50K: Porsche Boxster

PRESTIGE/PERFORMANCE CAR: Porsche 911 Carrera S

SUV/CUV UNDER $35K: Hyundai Santa Fe Sport

SUV/CUV $35-60K: Nissan Pathfinder

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