The Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) is an association of accredited professional journalists, writers and photographers whose focus is the automobile and the automotive industry.
Each year, AJAC puts on a huge event. It’s called Test Fest. How huge is it? I’ll tell you. No, I’ll show you.
Regarding the significance of some of the pictures I’m including – they’re shots of some of the beautiful Niagara scenery that I drove by each and every day, and the car collages are all vehicles that I drove here. But first, a little bit of history. I’ve been following some amazing Canadian auto journalists and enthusiasts on Twitter and online for a few years, and each year, some of them would tweet pictures and notes from Test Fest.
It looked like a great time – getting to drive a ton of cars over the course of a week. What car guy wouldn’t love this? But there’s much more to Test Fest.
Test Fest is an annual gathering of automobile journalists. Those invited to Test Fest must do regular road testing as part of their work and must be members of AJAC. These folks get together in one location to test drive a large number of new vehicles. New vehicles is a key word here – the models tested need to be new to the market. Though some will seem familiar, they are sometimes revisions with new drivetrains, etc. These new models are further classified into specific categories.
Being an AJAC member, and one who publishes regular road test content, I was lucky enough to garner an invitation to Test Fest this year. Each invitee is assigned a number of categories of vehicles.
One of the rules of Test Fest is that, while completing a category you’ve been assigned, you need to drive those vehicles back-to-back. The theory is that driving similarly-classed vehicles on the same day, under the same conditions, at the same time as the other ones, will highlight the differences between them much more so than, say, driving them a few months apart. I can attest to this as there were vehicles at Test Fest that I had driven during the last year, yet when driven next to their direct competitors, I was quickly able to notice things that set them apart from each other.
I also saw value in this, as the first day in Niagara was over 20 degrees Celsius, with nary a cloud to be seen. The second day? Pouring rain. You can’t honestly say driving cars from the same category on both days would be comparing apples to apples.
Your test drive started with a stroll to one of the three key stations. The 11 categories were distributed amongst the key stations. You would look up your category, and go to the station to request the key for whichever car you wanted to drive. Manufacturers were asked to provide 3 identical cars (color didn’t matter, of course) for evaluation. This was to allow for the 81 journalists driving a massive amount of cars in 11 categories to spend as little time waiting for cars as possible, and as much time as possible testing them.
If your car was available (I only had to wait for a vehicle two times in 5 days), you were given the key. On the key is a bar code, which is scanned. At the same time, your personal bar code is scanned to register your time with the vehicle. This is important, because for your evaluation of the vehicle to count, you had to spend a minimum of 30 minutes driving the vehicle – up to a maximum of 45 minutes. The key is scanned upon return to accurately document the amount of time you spent with the car.
Once you have your key in hand, you stroll out to the parking lot. I use the term “parking lot” loosely, because dang, it’s big. AJAC has been able to lease out the Niagara District Airport for Test Fest for the last few years. This allows for a number of things. It gives the journalists a nice, warm, dry hangar to be in to attend orientation meetings, lunches and the all-important donut breaks. It allows for a massive space to park a large amount of cars, and a nice quiet road off of the highway to get to and from the parking lot. And it allows AJAC to set up a handling course/track on the runways, which lets journalists test aspects of a car’s performance that may otherwise get them into trouble on public roads.
Looking at the sea of cars in the parking lot seems a bit daunting at first, but you start to recognize that the cars are (loosely) arranged into their categories, and you eventually find your ride. Once you get in, get comfortable and set up, you’re rolling. AJAC requires that you follow the same road course through the community for each vehicle in a class. This allows you to evaluate the competing vehicles under the same circumstances, giving you the best way to compare and contrast how they do.
My personal choice took me down the snaky airport road, down a perfectly straight, perfectly paved two-lane country road, through a few intersections and an overpass/junction and onto the highway. A quick sprint down the highway, a cloverleaf off-ramp, and another run down a smooth, two-lane country road. A turn onto a paved, but rough, desolate country road, which allowed me to slam on the binders a few times to test braking, and then a left turn onto a similar country road with a few dips, potholes and road irregularities (past the most idyllic country cottage scene I’ve ever come across).
At the end of that road, I’d take a right onto a major artery road leading back into town, which allowed me to take a nice, quick sweeping curve, and after a traffic light, the last quick cruise down a sub-highway back to the airport road. The entire circuit sticks to the beautiful Niagara wine country.
I thought about changing it up, but somehow I was able to test all the facets of driving on this circuit: acceleration, braking, slow and fast handling, suspension/ride, engine/road/wind noise factors, transmission performance, etc. I ended up getting attached to my route, and ended up driving it a total of 57 times over the course of those five days. I’m guessing the poor people living along those country roads were starting to wonder…
Before, during and/or after your drive, you’re able to spend time looking over the vehicle to evaluate the fit and finish, the quality of the materials, the room for front and rear passengers, the cargo space, the amenities, etc.
Once your evaluation of a vehicle was complete, you would fill out your rating form. There are a total of 17 parameters, comprising all considerations in terms of rating a vehicle. I thought I’d list those parameters to show the depth of evaluation that went into each and every test drive. They are: Exterior Styling/Appearance, Interior Styling/Appearance, Quality, Driver Position, Ergonomics, Visibility, Roominess/Comfort/Accessibility, Convenience/Entertainment Features, Noise/Vibration/Harshness, Throttle Response, Engine Smoothness/Refinement, Transmission/Drivetrain, Ride Comfort, Steering, Handling, Braking Feel/Effectiveness, and Subjective Value. Though you can discuss your findings and thoughts with other journalists, your ratings are secret and are entered in a confidential, password-protected web-based balloting form that requires your AJAC sign-in for access.
All ballots were due by Wednesday noon – at that time, the tabulation process (governed by a third-party, the international accounting firm KPMG) begins. The journalists’ ratings are added to a highly complex formula that also takes into consideration official figures, such as fuel economy ratings, and performance figures (acceleration, braking, etc) that are determined using objective, measurable processes in the days prior to Test Fest. The final tallies of these results are kept a secret (even from AJAC) until the Awards Ceremony/Press Conference – which took place in the evening on Thursday, October 25, 2012. After the category winners were announced, there was an evening of Journalism Awards, showcasing some amazing talent – some of which I even know!
The Categories and The Cars
Here, in an irritating table format I made just for you, are the categories, and the cars that were eligible at this year’s Test Fest – the car in bold/with asterisks under each category was chosen as that category’s winner:
|Ford Focus EV**|
|Small Car (Under $21,000)|
|Kia Rio LX+|
|Mazda3 Skyactiv Sedan**|
|Toyota Prius c|
|Small Car (Over $21,000)|
|Chevrolet Sonic LTZ|
|Ford C-Max Hybrid|
|Hyundai Elantra GT**|
|Mazda3 Sport Skyactiv (hatchback)|
|Volkswagen Beetle TDI|
|Family Car (Under $30,000)|
|Chevrolet Malibu Eco|
|Honda Accord Sedan**|
|Mitsubishi Lancer AWC|
|Family Car (Over $30,000)|
|Ford Fusion Hybrid**|
|Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid|
|Sports/Performance (Under $50,000)|
|Chevrolet Sonic RS|
|Ford Focus ST**|
|Honda Accord Coupe|
|Hyundai Genesis Coupe|
|Hyundai Veloster Turbo|
|Volkswagen Golf R|
|Sports/Performance (Over $50,000)|
|Chevrolet Camaro ZL1|
|Ford Shelby Mustang|
|Mercedes-Benz SLK55 AMG|
|Prestige – Performance (Over $75,000)|
|Chevrolet Corvette 427|
|Porsche 911 Carrera S**|
|SUV/CUV (Under $35,000)|
|Ford Escape 1.6L EcoBoost**|
|Hyundai Santa Fe|
|Subaru XV Crosstrek|
|SUV/CUV (Over $35,000)|
|Ford Escape 2.0 L EcoBoost|
|GMC Terrain Denali|
|Hyundai Santa Fe Sport 2.0T**|
The winner of AJAC’s Canadian Car of the Year (CCOTY) is determined by ensuring every voting journalist drove each of the category winners, and has then completed a second ballot on these cars, rating them again.
The Canadian Car of the Year will be announced at the 2013 Canadian International AutoShow in Toronto in February 2013.
It was a wonderful opportunity to be involved in a process like this. There is a subjective part of this process that no formulas could ever duplicate. And the subjective is combined with the purely objective and the measured to come up with winners. When there are over 80 professional journalists involved, all of whom evaluate this kind of product on a regular basis, you can count on seeing some excellent winners come out of this.
Are the category winners everyone’s pick? Of course not. Are they the best vehicle in the category? Not necessarily. Is the winner that we chose in each category going to be the perfect fit for your needs? Possibly not, but more than likely, you’ll see where AJAC members were coming from when you drive it – regardless of whether it’s the perfect fit for you.
But the winners are spot-on choices out of the new offerings in the category in terms of the criteria they were rated on. And that’s something Canadian consumers can confidently take to the dealerships when they’re shopping for a vehicle.
As much as I appreciated the opportunity to drive a vast amount of vehicles through the beautiful Niagara countryside, and as much as I enjoyed the awesome celebrations that took place in the evenings at a variety of lovely venues in the area, it was the people that made this event what it was. I couldn’t wait to meet many of the Twitter and Facebook friends I’ve made over the last few years, and without exception, it can be said that each of them turned out to be even nicer in person. I’m also happy to say I met new friends, and forged relationships that will hopefully last for a long time. And I saw the Troubadours! An AJAC-member-band that performs only at Test Fest and knocked it out of the park!
As you can see in the pictures, the parking lot was surrounded by RVs. Each manufacturer represented there has their own RV, which is a little home base for them. It gives them a space to meet with you, to discuss things, to build and further affiliations. I really enjoyed meeting many of the folks with whom I’ve only had email or telephone chats with – it was a great opportunity to build these relationships and to meet some of the wonderful people behind the names.
Thanks, AJAC, for putting on a bang-up event. It was organized, slick, professional and truly a joy to be part of. Can’t wait for next year!