Down to the wire

Our man at AJAC’s Test­Fest touts his favourites

Winnipeg Free Press - Section F - - AUTOS - xDNoY LOUKA

NI­A­GARA FALLS, ONT — Well, that was quick. For an event that I look for­ward to at­tend­ing ev­ery year, Test­Fest al­ways seems to pass me by like a C7 Corvette whis­tles past a road course marker.

Last week, I spent five days driv­ing 41 dif­fer­ent ve­hi­cles (a few of them twice) in 12 dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories as part of the Au­to­mo­tive Jour­nal­ists of Canada’s an­nual ef­fort to de­ter­mine the best new ve­hi­cles for sale in Canada for 2014.

Un­like pre­vi­ous years, AJAC mem­bers went home without know­ing the win­ners in each cat­e­gory — this year, the an­nounce­ments won’t be made un­til De­cem­ber 3 in Toronto. Even though I’ve cast my bal­lots in five dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories, I don’t know which ve­hi­cles will end up on top. But that won’t stop me from mak­ing some fear­less pre­dic­tions based on what I saw last week.

First, let’s take a step back and look at the venue for this year’s event. Af­ter five years in Ni­a­gara-on-the-Lake, our event moved about 25 km south to Ni­a­gara Falls — more specif­i­cally, the Legends on the Ni­a­gara golf com­plex. The Legends turned out to be an ex­cel­lent venue, with suf­fi­cient space to park all of this year’s en­tries (most of which were present in trip­li­cate) and a slick pri­vate road that served as a quasi-high-speed closed-course for the higher-per­form­ing ve­hi­cles in the com­pe­ti­tion.

Be­ing right next to the Ni­a­gara Park­way also per­mit­ted count­less photo ops near the wa­ter and among the thick au­tumn fo­liage of the re­gion. Now, back to the ve­hi­cles. I was as­signed three cat­e­gories ini­tially, but I man­aged to make it through five of the 12 groups dur­ing team testing in the first three days. The groups and my im­pres­sions fol­low.

FAM­ILY CAR OVER $30K

Chevro­let Im­pala LTZ Ford C-Max En­ergi Honda Ac­cord Hy­brid Mazda6 VW Jetta Tur­bocharged Hy­brid

This cat­e­gory brought with it a var­ied group of en­trants rang­ing from the full-sized Chevy Im­pala to the Ford CMax En­ergi plug-in hy­brid. And while we drove these cars back-to-back, it was im­me­di­ately clear that most of these were go­ing af­ter dif­fer­ent cus­tomers.

Most im­pres­sive to me was the Mazda6, for its ca­pa­ble dy­namic traits com­bined with st­ingy fuel con­sump­tion. Close be­hind was Honda’s new Ac­cord Hy­brid, one of the most driv­able hy­brids on the mar­ket and based on one of the best mid-sized sedans out there. The Im­pala im­pressed with its size and smooth­ness, clearly the most tra­di­tional of the bunch.

I would have wel­comed more seat time in the C-Max En­ergi. This plug-in hy­brid didn’t get a fair shake be­cause it wasn’t plugged in be­tween driv­ers. What that meant was that it tested more like a con­ven­tional hy­brid, negat­ing its abil­ity to cruise around on pure elec­tric power for sig­nif­i­cant dis­tances and so mak­ing it seem like just a re­ally over­priced hy­brid.

LUX­URY CAR OVER $50K

Acura RLX Cadil­lac CTS Hyundai Equus In­finiti Q50 Hy­brid Jaguar XF AWD Lin­coln MKZ Mercedes-Benz E250 BlueTec 4Matic

I men­tioned last week be­fore Test­Fest that Hyundai was poised to play with the big boys in this class. I didn’t re­al­ize that the Equus would prove to be the most lux­u­ri­ous en­try in this class. From the ef­fort­less waves of power pro­vided by its 429-hp V-8, to its 17-speaker au­dio sys­tem, to four heated and ven­ti­lated seats, the Hyundai re­ally im­pressed.

Per­haps the most shock­ing fea­ture of this lux­ury liner was its lane-de­par­ture warn­ing sys­tem, which starts with an au­di­ble warn­ing when the ve­hi­cle de­tects that it’s wan­der­ing out of its lane. If that doesn’t do the trick, what fol­lows is a rather vi­o­lent tug on the driver’s seat belt, pre­sum­ably to wake up said er­rant driver. A unique ap­proach, to be sure.

The MKZ is quite a looker, but its pow­er­train is sim­ply out­classed by the other con­tenders. The most dis­ap­point­ing en­try in the group, how­ever, was the In­finiti Q50 hy­brid, which has re­placed the suc­cess­ful and ap­peal­ing G37. It seems In­finiti is more in­ter­ested in mov­ing to­ward pro­duc­ing an au­ton­o­mous car than it is in mov­ing its cus­tomers. Shame.

On the other end of the spec­trum was the Cadil­lac CTS, equipped for Test­Fest in V-Sport trim com­plete with a 420hp twin-turbo V-6. Sure, it’s a $75,000 CTS, but Cadil­lac has nearly per­fected the bal­ance be­tween sport and lux­ury with this new car. Funny, that’s some­thing In­finiti used to be good at.

SUV/CUV OVER $60K

Acura MDX Buick En­clave BMW X5 Mercedes-Benz GL 350 BlueTec 4Matic Porsche Cayenne Diesel Range Rover Sport V6

This cat­e­gory isn’t nor­mally one I’d lean to­ward, but I found the en­tries in this class piqued my in­ter­est. I mean, who couldn’t re­sist the idea of a Range Rover that has just un­der­gone an 800lb. diet? Ac­tu­ally, that’s not too dif­fi­cult con­sid­er­ing the last Sport weighed in at 5,500 lb. It’s a great util­ity ve­hi­cle none­the­less, not giv­ing up its off-road her­itage but im­proved in ev­ery way from the old truck.

The MDX is also a joy to drive — too bad about the com­pany’s ob­ses­sion with jam­ming as many lights as it can fit into the Acura’s head­light clus­ters.

My pick, depend­ing on my mood, would likely be Porsche’s diesel Cayenne, which looks great, drives even bet­ter and man­ages to con­sume just 9.0 L/100 km in com­bined city/high­way driv­ing, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial rat­ings.

And BMW’s new X5 makes a strong case for it­self, par­tic­u­larly in 445-hp xDrive 50i trim. That’s re­ally about 150 more horses than this truck­let re­ally needs but, what the heck, it’s fab­u­lous.

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