Test­ing cars is se­ri­ous busi­ness

In­side look at Car of the Year com­pe­ti­tion

Winnipeg Free Press - Section E - - AUTOS - HANEY LOUKA

THIS year marked the 28th time jour­nal­ists from across the coun­try gath­ered to put new cars and trucks through their paces in the Au­to­mo­bile Jour­nal­ist As­so­ci­a­tion of Canada’s (AJAC) an­nual Cana­dian Car of the Year (CCOTY) com­pe­ti­tion. I’ve been to half of those — this is my 14th con­sec­u­tive TestFest — and I’ve looked for­ward to it this year as much as I did at Year 1.

My in­volve­ment was stepped up this year when I signed up to be one of six folks tasked with or­ga­niz­ing the event. The re­al­ity, how­ever, is putting an event of this mag­ni­tude to­gether re­quires the time and en­ergy of dozens of peo­ple over the course of sev­eral months. As this was my first year as a CCOTY di­rec­tor, the ex­pe­ri­ence al­lowed me to see what goes on in the back­ground, lead­ing up to and dur­ing the four-day event.

Cen­tral to this year’s prepa­ra­tions was a change in venue to the Cana­dian Tire Mo­tor­sport Park (CTMP) in Clar­ing­ton, Ont. Con­trary to our pre­vi­ous Ni­a­gara Falls, Ont. lo­ca­tion, where we drove scenic roads but didn’t have a proper test­ing fa­cil­ity at our dis­posal, this year’s edi­tion of TestFest was sin­gu­larly fo­cused on giv­ing jour­nal­ists the op­por­tu­nity to ex­pose the en­tries to con­di­tions that truly test their met­tle.

CTMP, for­merly known as Mosport, is a fa­cil­ity lo­cated about 90 kilo­me­tres north­east of Toronto. There are three tracks on the grounds here, in­clud­ing a four-km road course and a 1½-km kart track. We opted for the 2.9-km driver de­vel­op­ment track to chal­lenge driv­ers of ve­hi­cles in the sports and pres­tige cat­e­gories.

We also turned a sec­tion of open paved lot into a lower-speed han­dling course marked by traf­fic cones for the small car and fam­ily car groups, while jour­nal­ists test­ing sport util­i­ties and crossovers got to drive them on stun­ning off-road trails offering chal­leng­ing con­di­tions be­yond what most driv­ers will see in their day-to­day drives. To state it sim­ply, I can’t imag­ine a bet­ter venue to serve as the TestFest home base.

Of course, a large por­tion of the eval­u­a­tion takes place on pub­lic roads, from which jour­nal­ists de­rive most of the sub­jec­tive rat­ings on the vot­ing bal­lots. But hav­ing the track and off-road fa­cil­ity al­lowed us to ex­plore the lim­its of th­ese ve­hi­cles in a safe and con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment. Oh, and it’s bags full of fun, too.

The event is funded through en­try fees paid by the man­u­fac­tur­ers. But car com­pa­nies can’t just pony up the cash and en­ter as many ve­hi­cles as they want. A car or truck has to be com­pletely new or at least changed enough that con­sumers will ap­pre­ci­ate the dif­fer­ence from its pre­de­ces­sor. Nec­es­sar­ily, th­ese rules are set up to al­low for some dis­cre­tion on the part of the CCOTY group as each year brings dif­fer­ent ideas from the man­u­fac­tur­ers re­gard­ing what is new and it’s up to us — and the AJAC mem­ber­ship at large — to de­ter­mine if con­sumers will agree.

En­tries must be on sale in Canada and avail­able for pub­lic pur­chase by Dec. 31. Any ve­hi­cles which would oth­er­wise qual­ify but don’t meet the on-sale date re­quire­ment may be en­tered in the fol­low­ing year’s com­pe­ti­tion. Those ne­go­ti­a­tions took place in June and July, cul­mi­nat­ing in this year’s group of 41 en­tries com­pet­ing in nine cat­e­gories. In sub­mit­ting en­tries, man­u­fac­tur­ers com­mit to send­ing three iden­ti­cally equipped ex­am­ples of each model to our test venue for a week at the end of Oc­to­ber.

The pe­riod of time be­tween when en­tries are fi­nal­ized and the start of the event passes quickly. Man­u­fac­tur­ers must gather the re­quired in­for­ma­tion on each ve­hi­cle and sub­mit it to the CCOTY group. The sub­mit­ted data in­cludes spec­i­fi­ca­tions, di­men­sions and fuel consumption fig­ures — all of which are en­tered into a data­base that forms part of the scor­ing for each en­try. This ob­jec­tive scor­ing com­bines with sub­jec­tive rat­ings en­tered by jour­nal­ists to form a ve­hi­cle’s over­all score. Each ve­hi­cle class as­signs dif­fer­ent weight­ing to num­bers ac­cord­ing to what mat­ters most to buy­ers in the re­spec­tive seg­ments.

For ex­am­ple, buy­ers look­ing at a Porsche Cay­man GT4 don’t worry too much about ride qual­ity or cargo space — they are more in­ter­ested in throt­tle re­sponse and han­dling. But those in the mar­ket for a Honda Pi­lot would have those pri­or­i­ties re­versed. Our scor­ing sys­tem is cus­tom­ized to ac­count for th­ese dif­fer­ent con­sumer tastes.

Once the com­pe­ti­tion be­gins, jour­nal­ists are re­quired to drive all ve­hi­cles within a cat­e­gory on the same roads on the same day. This year’s weather val­i­dated that re­quire­ment as the rem­nants of hur­ri­cane Pa­tri­cia swept through the re­gion re­sult­ing in 58 mil­lime­tres of rain and high winds for a full day of test­ing. If jour­nal­ists were al­lowed to drive some cars in a cat­e­gory on a warm sunny day and oth­ers on this stormy one, they would lose their frame of ref­er­ence when es­tab­lish­ing their sub­jec­tive rat­ings.

And be­cause the jour­nal­ists’ rat­ings are com­bined with those ob­jec­tive scores es­tab­lished by data, it truly is im­pos­si­ble for this to be merely a pop­u­lar­ity con­test. Even af­ter the week is up and ev­ery­one goes home, no­body knows the out­come un­til the re­sults are de­ter­mined in­de­pen­dently and an­nounced in Novem­ber.

It’s a fast few days at TestFest, but hav­ing the event run smoothly re­quires months of prepa­ra­tion.

HANEY LOUKA / WIN­NIPEG FREE PRESS

Jour­nal­ists are re­quired to drive all ve­hi­cles in a cat­e­gory on the same roads on the same day. Haney Louka surely be­gan his rigourous day with the yel­low Porsche.

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