TestFest focuses on automotive excellence
By Jim Bray
Bowmanville, Ontario - An abundance of auto writers converged on Canadian Tire Motorsports Park last week to put the latest and greatest sets of four wheeled vehicles through their paces. It was 2016's version of the Canadian Car of the Year TestFest, an annual driving extravaganza hosted by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada.
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Canadian Tire Motorsport Park used to be called Mosport and is a world renowned racing facility that has hosted such honoured names as Stirling Moss, Jackie Stewart, Mario Andretti and Richard Petty (not to get petty with the name dropping…). The owners turned a good part of the facilities over to us to facilitate our wringing the bejeebers (well…) out of cars ranging from entry level to high end luxury. It was wonderful!
Here's a list of the vehicles that fought it out (Update - I've put the category winners in bold):
Sports - Performance (under $50K):
Sports - Performance (over $50K):
Prestige - Performance (over $75K):
Suv - CUV (under $35K):
SUV - CUV ($35K - $60K):
SUV - CUV (over $60K):
There were best "Green" vehicle entries interspersed through the categories as well, such as the Hyundai Tucson fuel cell SUV and the GMC Canyon diesel. In all, the entries represented a decent cross section of what's available in today's Canadian marketplace.
Each of us was assigned to multiple categories and we had to drive each entrant back to back on the same day. I was fortunate enough to help evaluate the Prestige - Performance, Sports - Performance (Over $A50K) and Family Car entrants. Once they were done, I foisted my opinions onto the Small Cars and the low and high end SUV/CUV's. Then I sullied the Hyundai Tucson (Fuel Cell Electric), GMC Canyon (Diesel) and the Volkswagen Golf R with my presence, though there wasn't time to complete their categories.
Handling courses were set up, one via cones on a big parking lot and - the best thing at any TestFest I've attended - another on the Driver Development Track, a 2.88 km road course that's shorter and tighter than the big track, but still pretty darn exciting. It was on the DDT that we put the highest performers through their paces and I still haven't gotten the grin off my face. The track was controlled and monitored strictly, and we risked being kicked out of the sandbox if we did anything stupid or dangerous - which was probably just as well. We got at least one lap accompanied by one of the pros, whose advice really came in handy.
There was also the best off road course of any TestFest I've attended as well as a designated route for the pickup truck entrants.
We also got to take the vehicles for a lovely test drive through the beautiful, rolling countryside decked out in its best autumn livery. This gave us real world experience with each vehicle, albeit only a brief first impression if we hadn't driven them before TestFest, and we opined about stuff like ease of use, roominess, noise vibration and harshness, cargo space, overall value etc. etc. etc..
Each vehicle was also put through measured performance evaluation by a panel of experts, to compile objective data for each vehicle.
The results of the objective and subjective reviews are tabulated and the winners for each category will be announced November 24. The overall 2016 Canadian Car of the Year and Canadian Utility Vehicle of the Year will be announced on February 11, 2016, followed by the 2016 Canadian Green Car of the Year on March 23.
The vehicles can tend to blur together a bit by the time we're finished, such is the intensive nature of the TestFest beast, but I do have some impressions to pass along.
I was really torn by Honda's new Civic. It's a great car, which should come as no surprise, and it would be quite sporty if not for the damn CVT Honda decided to put into it. They've turbocharged the Civic for 2016, too, and the horsepower jumps from 143 to 174, which is wonderful. There's also a new, single layer instrument panel - but still no volume control knob.
Scion's IM is quite nice and its CVT pretends it's a real transmission. The IM seems like the spiritual brother of the Toyota Matrix, and that's okay. It's equipped well for the price, too (all cars were in the 20 grand neighbourhood, give or take). The Toyota Yaris looks like a Toyota on the outside, but inside the only thing that doesn't scream "Mazda!" is the big pretzel Toyota logo on the steering wheel. I must admit to having been unaware of this cooperation between the two Japanese companies, but if one is going to spruce up one's entry level car I can't think of a better company to hand it to than Mazda. Needless to say, adding a dose of "Zoom-Zoom" adds some delicious spice to the new Yaris and I liked it a lot.
Volkswagen's Jetta, with the new 1.4 litre turbo four, is a wonderful car. Its 150 horsepower (with torque of 184) is used very well, there's very little turbo lag and the car feels more expensive than it is. Volkswagen is one of my favourite brands and so I was disposed to like the Jetta already - but sometimes going into a review expecting to like a car can lead to major disappointment if it fails to live up to expectations. The Jetta did.
I still hate the smart fortwo. The new one is better, but that isn't difficult. I drove the smart on the extremely windy and rainy Wednesday and such is its aerodynamic design that out on the open highway it felt as if it would take flight and land in Nova Scotia.
In Family Cars, my favourite - no surprise here - was the Golf Sportwagon, which I had reviewed already here. I love this car and were I in the market right now it'd be very high, if not top, on my list. I'd probably buy the diesel, though, if I could. There are cars I like better, but they're all out of my price range. The Chevy Volt is much nicer than before, though it still comes off as gadgety, and I nearly drained its battery during my half hour or so behind the wheel - which is why it has a gas engine as well. The Hyundai Sonata hybrid is really nice and its CVT is done so well I couldn't even bring myself to hate it. That's quite an achievement. The hybrid sedan is comfortable and appears built very well. It also drives very well.
The Golf R (Sports - Performance under $50K) is sort of an uber-GTI and that's exactly what it feels like. It ups the GTI's already healthy horsepower to 292 (torque of 280) and it goes like the dickens. It's also all-wheel drive, so it sticks to the road like, well, you know the old joke. It's 40 grand, but it'll probably keep you smiling well past the point at which you've paid it off.
In the "over $50K" category, my favourite was the Mercedes-Benz C 63 AMG. What a beast this thing is! Its twin turbocharged four litre V8 puts out just over 500 horses, and even more torque, and it sounds magnificent (a common feature in this category). It drives like a beast, too, and I loved it on the track. I'm not as thrilled with its too-silvery interior but driving it is nothing short of glorious.
The Corvette is still gaudy and vulgar, and I guess that's why people like it. It's also the performance/price leader and if you think the AMG's horsepower's a lot just wait'll you try the 'Vette's 650/650 horsepower/torque. It's four grand less than the AMG's as-tested price, too, but that would be four grand spent well. On the other hand, I loved the visceral thrills of the Shelby GT350. This is one of the original performance muscle cars and the newest version goes like heck, bays like a hound from heck (that's a good thing) and put a large smile on my face. As with my last session with a new Mustang, however, I had difficulty shifting its six speed manual smoothly. Perhaps I don't have enough hair on my chest…
The Cadillac ATS-V is a nice vehicle, a very civilized beast. It felt very much like a smaller version of the Prestige category entrant CTS-V, which is undoubtedly what it's supposed to be. Its engine is smaller than the CTS-V's 6.2 litre V8 and so's its horsepower, but that hardly makes it an eohippus. And it's very luxurious and comfortable, more in the vein of the C 63 AMG than the Shelby. A GM yin to Ford's yang, perhaps?
The least sporty car in this category had the nicest interior. This is the Lexus RC 350 AWD. It's a lovely car to drive and to be in, but it didn't belong on the track; it cornered appreciably worse than the others, which made unleashing it on the track rather pointless. Perhaps it needed someone better behind the wheel, but I had no issues with any of the other entrants. And if you aren't planning to fling it around the track you'll find it's a very nice sports coupe.
This TestFest was my first chance to see, let alone drive, Mercedes' new AMG GT and it was pretty much what I expected: a worthy competitor to Porsche's 911 and Jaguar's lovely F-Type. It was wonderful on the track, has a typically Mercedes-Benz interior (which is generally very good), and looks like an exotic. I think its hood is too long and the car's so wide and low it looks as if the folks at Mercedes-Benz dropped a heavy weight onto a taller and narrower vehicle to flatten it out. Okay, I exaggerate, but only a little.
Is it a 911 killer? I'm the wrong person to ask. I've lusted after the 911 for decades and if the Lotto Gods were to smile upon me I'd buy the Porsche just because I could. I bet the AMG GT gives the glorious 911 a run for your money, though, and deservedly so.
Speaking of Porsches, the Cayman GT4 is fantastic, and in Sport mode its six speed manual rev matches on downshifts, so even an oaf like me could shift like a pro. The racing seats are a real pain for a paunchy middle aged man to get into and out of, and I think I'd prefer the creature comforts available in other Caymans (including real door handles instead of fabric straps) but if you're looking for a machine that's more at home on the track than the street (not that it isn't perfectly capable as a daily driver), the Cayman's combination of performance and mid-engine balance is hard to beat.
I drove the Lexus RC F before the disappointing RC 350 AWD and am glad I did because it's a much better track car. Its five litre V8 pulls really well and the car is much better at handling the curves than its little brother, undoubtedly at least in part thanks to its torque-vectoring differential. Yet it still has that superb, best in class Lexus interior.
On the SUV side, I'd driven the Mazda CX-3 already and I like it a lot. I was looking forward to trying it back to back with Honda's new HR-V (which I hadn't driven previously) and TestFest made that possible. I came away preferring the Mazda, but the new Honda is really nice. It's like an updated, smaller CR-V, and that's undoubtedly exactly what its potential customers want.
Mitsubishi's Outlander was the best off road (the Honda and Mazda were the worst, and bottomed out repeatedly - though I doubt any owners would abuse them off road like we did). The Outlander is a good vehicle, but it kind of gets lost in the crowd of entrants. I was surprised that the Fiat 500X did as well as it did off road (it was very good) but other than that am not a huge fan of it - especially its jerky transmission. The Jeep Renegade seems to be the same basic vehicle under the skin but its designers may have been on acid.
Lincoln's MKX surprised me and was my favourite in the SUV/CUV over $60K category. It looks great, has a nice interior that'll be familiar to anyone who knows recent Fords, and it drives very well. I couldn't take this category off road because of the monsoon, but said monsoon managed to make the drive feel as if it were off road anyway. I was also surprised how much I enjoyed the Volvo XC90. It's high tech, with an easy to fathom interface and it drives very well. And it's undoubtedly so safe you could survive an air strike.
The Porsche Cayenne S E-Hybrid is exactly what I expected, since I've driven the similar version of the Panamera. It's definitely the sports car of this category, hybrid or not; and is easily the best driver's vehicle in this category. Mercedes' GLE-Class is a tall hatchback - like BMW's X6 - and I suppose it's nice enough. Heck, it's a Mercedes so how bad can it be? I don't get the fastback SUV genre, though, and think Mercedes has nicer SUV's in its arsenal already. That said, it's the epitome of luxury performance in this group.
I also drove the Hyundai Tucson fuel cell vehicle, my first chance to drive any fuel cell vehicle. With fuel cells, you fill the tank with hydrogen - good luck finding some - and it only emits water vapour as exhaust. The electric vehicle whispers along the roads and it drives very well. I didn't like the seating position, but people of normal height should have no issues. The downside, besides finding a hydrogen station? A 60 grand retail price.
Fuel cells have been touted as the solution to next generation vehicle emissions and if they can build the infrastructure to refuel them, it could be a pretty practical answer. Who knows, on a gigantic scale, this could solve California's drought, though it would take a heckuva lot of fuel cell Tucsons to do it.
Which will win the Car of the Year title? I have no idea and if the past is any indicator I'd get it wrong anyway. I think the Honda Civic will do well. I'd like to see the Golf Sportwagon win, not only because I love the car but because VW deserves some props for making great vehicles, especially right now.
On the SUV side, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Mazda CX-3 drive off with the award, and the Lincoln deserves to take its category.
There you have it: I've given all of these vehicles the kiss of death as far as their chances to win are concerned.
A lot of people work very hard to pull off TestFest and the change of venue this year was a net positive. And despite one day in which we would have been better served evaluating boats, this year's incar-suv-and-truck-nation was a most worthwhile event.
AJAC will be posting the results online, to help you in your process of choosing your next vehicle, so check out their site periodically. And don't forget to check out the overall award winners when they're announced.
Copyright 2015 Jim Bray
Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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