Thursday, January 18, 2007

REPORT: Test Fest 2006… Uncensored!

Story by Russ Bond
Photos courtesy AJAC

Yes, I got in trouble at the Automobile Journalists’ Association of Canada (AJAC) Test Fest… I knew I would – trouble just seems to follow me around sometimes, and when you put that many cars in one place with a “racetrack” at my disposal, there’s going to be problems.

To be honest, we journalists have – for the most part – driven the majority of vehicles that are in our groups before we ever get to Test Fest, as part of our regular road tests, so we sort of know what they are like. The difference at Test Fest is that we drive them back to back on the local roads and highways, and on a track.

Ah yes, the track.

This year, the ‘track’ was three runways at the Niagara Airport that were littered with cones, which formed the track layout. The first day we had to stop “testing” so Dalton McGuinty could land and then take off again in his private jet, one that we probably pay for. Right about now he’s pissed off at losing his ‘red carpet.’ You see, when he boarded to leave, they left the carpet on the ground. Once the engines were started, said carpet was last seen at about 100 feet and climbing.

McGuinty wasn’t our only aircraft experience this year. On the second day, a funny looking jet fighter came by, and then landed. “Hmm, what flag is that on the tail?” I wondered. Then, not too long later, two American F-18 fighters show up and do a couple of passes.

I’m thinking, this might be a good time to take a car, and leave the airport before all hell breaks loose. Turns out, the old fighter belongs to a private pilot, and the F-18s were ‘practicing’ – for what, I’m not sure.

All these planes at an airport meant a delay in our track time.

After they’d finished with the runways, I got my first experience on the track, which went fairly well. It was a great layout, and it was fast. I think it was far faster than the previous location, Shannonville Motorsports Park, and didn’t have any of those annoying first-gear chicanes that they normally put in. The cars could be put through their paces in relative safety, as there was nothing to hit.

We all go out on the track, and even though the memo we receive from AJAC read, “The track is for dynamic testing, not to display your racing prowess,” or something to that effect, I’m guessing I’m not the only one paying little or no attention to that. Just standing at the side of the track you can hear the tires squealing and engines racing, bouncing off rev limiters. Maybe that’s what ‘dynamic testing’ sounds like.

You see, what happens is some of us – the others will remain nameless – play a little cat-and-mouse game amongst ourselves. They let us out on the track together, but spaced apart – after all it’s not a race. What we do – and we all do it, regardless of what the others say – is try to catch the car ahead of us. The object is, if you are leading, don’t get caught, and if you are ‘chasing,’ try to catch the guy ahead. While ‘dynamically testing’ your car, of course.

I noticed that another journalist was constantly lining up behind me as we waited for our turn on the track. I figured I would get used to the track, by doing one of my other groups first before I get to the ‘rockets’ – Sports/Performance over $50,000.

By the third time I line up with one of my convertible group, I can’t help but notice that my ‘competition’ is taking faster and faster cars each time. This time I am in a Volkswagen Eos 2.0T, and he’s in a Shelby GT500.

He hasn’t been able to catch me yet, but this will be close. The Eos was actually pretty good, aided by its DSG transmission. I finished my ‘test’ with ease – no Shelby in sight.

Test Fest is more than just wailing around the track. I find its always good fun to stop at a convenience store while you are out on the road portion of the test. You stop, in one car, then are back an hour later in something different, then again in something else. The look on the clerk’s face is always priceless, you can see it going through his mind, “Wasn’t that guy here earlier in an Audi, then a BMW, and now a Shelby?”

Sometimes they will ask, sometimes they won’t. I just look at them like there is nothing wrong. One guy asked me how long I’ve had the Shelby. “About a half hour,” I said, with a perfect poker face.

My groups this year were diverse to say the least. I had Sports/Performance over $50,000; the SUV/CUV over 60k and the Convertibles.

Here’s something I can’t quite wrap my head around. In the Convertible group, I had an Audi A4 Cabriolet 2.0T, and in my SUV’s over 60K I had a Ford Expedition Eddie Bauer MAX.

Now, I know that someone who is in the market for one is miles away from looking at the other, but hear me out. The Audi A4 Cabriolet came in at $65,350, while the monster Ford came in at $63,424 – (I had to go back and look at the sticker on the Ford again as I thought it must have been $93, not $63).

The Audi is very nice, is well equipped and is a leader in that segment. The Ford has enough seating for a soccer team, with more entertainment systems than your local bar, heated and cooled seats, navigation and a power liftgate.

My question is how can Ford offer all it does in that model for 60k?

I heard from another journalist it was like Walmart buying stock for its stores, versus your local corner store. Walmart pays much less based on sheer volume. Whether this is true or not, I don’t know.

What I do know is ‘stuff’ costs money, so the more stuff you have, the more expensive it should be, right? If you do the math, (taking the weight and dividing it by the cost) based on mass, the Audi is $36.71/kg, while the Ford is $22.71/kg.

I guess you could argue the Audi is a ‘premium’ brand, while Ford is more mainstream, but I really, really liked the Ford in its group, as I did the Audi in its. And I’m not pitting one against the other, I just don’t understand how you can get that much ‘stuff’ for that price?

The reason I got in trouble this year was for giving rides in the test cars to manufacturer reps that were on site. Apparently there is a time for this, and it wasn’t time yet when I was out there. Before I found out I couldn’t give rides, the guy from Dodge was the best. He got a call while we were wailing around the track, and he managed to finish the call – all the time talking a few octaves higher…

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