Voting for the Grade A ride

BY Kelly Taylor and Haney Louka. Oct 28 04:00 am

Kelly Taylor and Haney Luoka are veterans of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada’s (AJAC) annual Canadian Car of the Year competition, with 16 and 14 years respectively. Each year, they try to get into the minds of nearly 70 voting journalists, whose job it is to get into the minds of Canadian consumers — to come up with fearless predictions about which entries will take their category. Predictions for this year’s event, which culminates today, are as follows:

Small car: Chevrolet Cruze, Chevrolet Spark, Hyundai Elantra, Mini Cooper Clubman, Subaru Impreza.

KT: It’s hard not to be impressed by the Impreza. Powerful boxer engine, standard all-wheel drive — and a full-time system at that — and outstanding handling give it a leg up. As with the Cruze, the Impreza has a much more impressive interior than some previous models and, for better or worse, has lost the quirky design that made for a very polarizing exterior.

HL: The Impreza has always appealed to journalists, but these days it aims for the heart of the market, and this new model finally puts the words “Subaru” and “appealing design” in the same sentence. The key is whether the Impreza’s unique character has survived the transformation. We shall see.

Kelly’s prediction: Subaru Impreza.

Haney’s prediction: Subaru Impreza.

Full-size car: Chevrolet Malibu, Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid, Kia Optima, Kia Optima HEV, Toyota Prius Technology, Volkswagen Golf Alltrack.

KT: This category is a battle between the Malibu and Optima. These are, arguably, the two hottest looking cars in this fight, and the Malibu’s newfound sense of interior style will also score bonus points among testers. The Alltrack might slip in as a sleeper in the Top 3, as well, given its all-wheel drive and what promises to be Golf-like ride and handling.

HL: I think the VW will do well in this crowd, with an unbeatable utility component that’s sure to help its chances, although the Malibu and Optima are both very appealing. The Golf Sportwagon took home its category title last year, and I think the Alltrack will help VW pull another one off.

Kelly’s prediction: Chevrolet Malibu.

Haney’s prediction: VW Golf

Alltrack.

Full-size premium car: Buick LaCrosse, Cadillac CT6, Genesis G90, Mercedes-Benz E 300 4Matic, Volvo S90.

KT: The E-Class remains the epitome of full-size luxury as a conservative executive sedan with toys and amenities designed to impress. Cadillac’s CT6 and Genesis’s G90 are probably the most “full” of full-size cars here, with footprints considerably larger than Cadillac’s newly expanded CTS and Hyundai’s Genesis sedan.

Buick’s LaCrosse could well be the sleeper here. It’s full size but with a starting price in the mid-30s. It has a Cadillac-worthy interior, complete with a BMW-like shift lever and sleek interior design. This much space, this much luxury — and for so little money — could well put it over the top.

HL: In this premium category, it’s about making driver and passengers feel good. As with the XC90 that preceded it, the S90 comes exclusively with a turbo four engine. It may have enough power to produce the performance, but there may be more than one person that can’t connect a $60,000 car with a four-banger under the hood. Regardless, style and luxury are king in this class, and the S90 delivers.

Kelly’s prediction: Buick LaCrosse.

Haney’s prediction: Volvo S90.

CONTINUED ON E2

Sports-performance car: Fiat 124 Spyder, Ford Focus RS, Hyundai Elantra Sport.

KT: Nobody can argue with the dynamics of the Fiata, as the Mazda MX-5-based Fiat 124 is called. There’s no reason to expect it to not be the equal of its Mazda cousin, which means it will be, by far, the best-handling of the bunch. Ford’s Focus RS is the new beast of the hot hatchback market, with 350 of both horses and pound-feet of torque from its 2.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder. But it’s also almost $50,000.

HL: The Elantra Sport looks to be an appealing variation on Hyundai’s successful compact sedan — I’m looking forward to getting behind the wheel. But this sporty sedan is likely to be overshadowed by the other two entries here, and rightly so: high expectations surround the Mazda-based Fiat 124. But this class belongs to the Focus RS, which is a very special car indeed: wildly entertaining and astoundingly quick, the RS should walk away with this one.

Kelly’s prediction: Fiat 124 Spyder.

Haney’s prediction: Ford Focus RS.

Premium sports-performance car: BMW M2, Mercedes AMG C63S Coupe, Porsche 911 Carrera 4S.

KT: For a shopper, these three cars will come down to personal preference, and part of that might be price either way, with the BMW the least expensive of the bunch and the 911 C4S the priciest. In the middle is the fastest and most-powerful, the AMG C63 S, with 505 horsepower on tap, good for a 0.2-second advantage over the 911 in 0-100 km/h times. And for a bunch of journalists who absolutely love to drive, and who covet the joy of seat-pinning acceleration, that might be too much to overlook.

HL: I just want to drive all of these. But if I were to pick the one that best addresses the wants of its prospective Canadian customers, I’d have to go with the Carrera. With all-wheel drive and the expectation of stunning performance from its new turbocharged flat-six, the 911 is a study in constant evolution that never fails to impress.

Kelly’s prediction: Mercedes-Benz AMG C63 S.

Haney’s prediction: Porsche 911 Carrera 4S.

Small utility vehicle: Ford Escape, Kia Sportage, Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV-4 Hybrid with Technology pack.

KT: Scratch a little beyond the surface and some significant upgrades to the Ford Escape are apparent. It’s deathly quiet, thanks to some new sound-deadening, new glass and tweaks to the aerodynamics. It feels as though the chassis stiffness is improved, while changes to the interior provide more storage and utility. The space in the Forester isn’t quite what you’d expect in this segment. Given the low position of the boxer engine and resulting lower centre of gravity, however, the handling will rank among the best of them.

HL: This is a fiercely competitive segment with big sales volumes, so it’s not surprising that there are no real risk-takers here, with the possible exception of the Kia’s front end styling. Kia never fails to impress with its premium design, and the RAV4 is likewise better looking than ever. Subaru is holding fast to its traditional Forester formula. But I’ll agree with Kelly on this one. Ford has tweaked the Escape as it battles for top sales spot in the segment, with its just-right size and leading edge technology.

Kelly’s prediction: Ford Escape.

Haney’s prediction: Ford Escape.

Full-size utility vehicle: Chrysler Pacifica, GMC Acadia, Mazda CX-9.

KT: The Pacifica is Chrysler’s take on a premium minivan, and this one’s a pretty choice, but it comes with a price tag to match. Like other General Motors products, the Acadia has again made huge strides in design, engineering and build quality. It will give the Mazda CX-9 quite a run. But in the end, it’s hard to argue with the CX-9’s stunning implementation of Mazda’s Kodo design language.

HL: I’ve just spent a few days behind the wheel of the new Pacifica. While it’s mighty impressive in its efforts to be the ultimate people mover, it’s still a front-drive minivan with a $50K price tag. I’m looking forward to trying the new downsized GMC Acadia, which will offer customers style and technology in a tidier package than previously available. But I’m most excited about the new Mazda CX-9. It’s quite a looker and Mazda has finally dropped the old gas-guzzling V-6 in favour of a torquey turbo-four that gets Skyactiv technology.

Kelly’s prediction: Mazda CX-9.

Haney’s prediction: Mazda CX-9.

Premium utility vehicle: Buick Envision, Cadillac XT5, Lexus RX350 F-sport Series 3, Maserati Levante S, Mercedes-Benz GLC 300 4Matic.

KT: Lexus’ new RX has, perhaps, finally got it all right. Stylish exterior, gorgeous interior and excellent dynamics. The Buick continues the evolution of the brand, but it’s up against tough competition here, even with a price advantage. Cadillac is continuing with its Arts and Sciences design language and by roughing off some of the harsher angles, is now producing the most attractive examples yet. I think the edge has to go to the Benz. There’s something that just screams premium about a car that’s all-wheel drive but feels like a rear-driver. Honestly, I might take the RX as a family car, but here, the GLC has better dynamics and a price $20,000 lower.

HL: I’ll go with the mystique of the Maserati in this premium segment. Its six-figure price will ensure exclusivity. With such a large price range in this class, it’s difficult to know how journalists will vote here. But the others are just so… common.

Kelly’s prediction: Mercedes-Benz GLC 300 4Matic.

Haney’s prediction: Maserati Levante S.

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