Testing cars is serious business
Inside look at Car of the Year competition
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.
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.