Last week I joined about 70 automotive journalists from across the country in southern Ontario for the Canadian Car of the Year (CCOTY) testing. The annual event, dubbed TestFest, was put on by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) at the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (CTMP) in Bowmanville, Ont. for the third straight year.
But this time, it’s different.
Traditionally, CCOTY has been open only to those vehicles that are new or significantly revised for the next model year. It was a thorough scientific process built on a philosophy that all entries should be driven back-to-back on the same roads, on the same day. That eliminates many variables, and is perhaps the most direct way to compare entries.
For 2018, AJAC has revamped the program in a way that increases its relevance to those in the new vehicle market. For the first time, any vehicle currently for sale was eligible for entry into the competition.
The change is significant. While it’s good to highlight what’s new for the model year, the whole point of this exercise is to help consumers. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I’m shopping for a new vehicle, I don’t disqualify a model just because it’s more than 12 months into its production cycle. There should not be an automatic assumption that just because a vehicle is new, it’s better than its contemporaries. Because often that’s not the case.
The flipside to this approach is the number of entries in each class becomes much higher, such that it would be impossible for individual journalists to drive all of the entries in their assigned categories under the same-day, same-roads premise.
Now, journalists are able to submit ballots for vehicles they drive throughout the year. They then attend the CCOTY “TestFest” in October to supplement and round out their evaluations. With the new system, we have more journalists driving and voting on more vehicles — ultimately resulting in category and overall winners that are determined based on a larger field of more direct competitors.
The scoring process itself is now more subjective and relies entirely on the subjective ratings given by AJAC journalist members. And these folks should know: only those journalists who conduct regular test drives are eligible to vote in the CCOTY competition.
There are components of the program that haven’t changed: test drives consist of routes on public roads, supplemented by closed courses designed to put the entries to the test. There is a handling course that all vehicles were allowed to negotiate. It consisted of an autocross-style layout defined by cones and chalk lines in an open parking lot. Figure-eights, slaloms, tight corners and a short straight all were at play here.
Most crossover-utility vehicles (CUVs) and trucks were allowed on an off-road course located on the CTMP grounds. It was mild by off-road standards, but surely more of a test than even the most neglected cottage trail would provide. There are a couple of spots at the beginning of the trek that had the vehicles teetering with a wheel in the air. Not only does such an obstacle put a vehicle’s rigidity to the test, but also its ability to move power from one airborne wheel to the others that have contact with terra firma. It was good fun — and all in the name of conducting a proper evaluation, of course.
The last, and by far the best, closed-course portion of the CCOTY program is CTMP’s Driver Development Track. The 2.9-kilometre circuit includes 18 turns and was used to evaluate the sports and performance entries in the competition. Because auto journalists cover a huge range of skill levels, we kept things safe by having professional drivers from Driveteq available to ride shotgun and provide some coaching.
The most fun was had in a Porsche 911 Carrera 4 GTS, while the biggest surprise of the bunch was provided by Honda’s new fire-breathing Civic Type R.
In all, the changes to this year’s CCOTY program were enacted with the new vehicle buyer in mind. Stay tuned for the Canadian Car and Utility of the Year to be announced at the Canadian International Auto Show in February — with category winners being announced ahead of the show.