Thursday, January 18, 2007

REPORT: Test Fest 2006

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy AJAC

For the umpteenth year now, AJAC has held its annual Canadian Car of the Year Award evaluation called Test Fest, and Inside Track was invited to the party. Between Russ Bond (see page 54) and I spread out over six of the 13 categories, we were certainly prepared to cover an incredible spread in machinery.

This year, the entire Test Fest action was moved from its traditional home of Belleville, ON and Shannonville Motorsport Park to Niagara-on-the-Lake and a temporary track facility at the Niagara Regional Airport. As Russ has already mentioned, the new track certainly was fast and challenging, and quite a change of pace compared to the two tracks at SMP.

Fair warning: by the time you read this, the AJAC CCOY category winners will already have been announced, but for fun, I’m going to put forward my predictions on the three classes I was a part of anyway. Talk about a wide range of classes; I was tasked with evaluating SUV/CUV Under $35,000; Sports/Performance Under $50,000 and Prestige Over $75,000. While I don’t have the room to go into detail on every single vehicle, I will give you a brief run-down on each of the competitors.

Whereas in past years, the SUV and Crossover categories were split based on off-road capability (i.e. the Crossover contenders never went mudding), this year the split was (correctly) based on price range and market realities. A miniscule percentage of people actually take their vehicles off road, and the awards should reflect that.

Given that it was the lowest-priced SUV/CUV category, it was interesting to see how each of the manufacturers (eight in all) ‘packaged’ their various vehicles (nine in total) to slip under the price limit. Some genuinely did it on value, like the absolutely loaded Hyundai Santa Fe ($34,295) and the Jeep Compass ($26,135) and Wrangler Unlimited ($29,750), while others offered mid-priced versions of their mid-class vehicles, like the base front-wheel-drive Ford Edge ($33,919) and mid-level Dodge Nitro SLT ($32,830).

The others rounding out the group included the Honda CR-V ($29,700), Mazda CX-7 ($34,185), Saturn Vue Green Line ($31,690) and the Toyota RAV4 V6 Sport ($34,980).

First off, to answer your first question, yes the Jeep Compass drives exactly like its Dodge Caliber sibling, which didn’t bode well for the cheapest member of the group. The Nitro feels like what it is: a stretched and reworked Jeep Liberty with some neat touches, but an unrefined engine and body control kept it from garnering top scores.

The Vue Green Line is an old SUV in desperate need of replacement, while the RAV4 is a rocket of a small SUV (and I believe Toyota’s fastest vehicle) but the rest of the package just doesn’t live up to expectations.

The Wrangler Unlimited is big, rough, noisy, uncouth, jarring and, well, perfect for its intended purpose, which is to go over big, sharp rocks, ford streams, climb mountains and hit the beach. The only problem is that off-road ability is only a relatively small portion of the overall score, and the noise, vibration and rough ride that make it a true Wrangler mean it won’t be the category winner.

If the Edge we had were equipped with all-wheel-drive, it would have been a top contender, but the only two-wheel-drive model was at a disadvantage here. The CX-7 was the enthusiasts’ choice, but its so-so fuel consumption will mar its shot.

The new CR-V is really only an evolution of the models before it, but I predict it strikes the right price/value/performance balance to win out in this group. We’ll see if I’m right.

On to the exciting stuff. In Sports/Performance Under $50,000 it was like the old Sesame Street song: ‘One of these things is not like the others; one of these things just doesn’t belong.’ The challengers? The Acura CSX Type-S (a Honda Civic Si sedan in North of the Border clothing), the Volkswagen GTI, the Mazdaspeed3… and the Saturn Sky Red Line.

Hmm… three small front-wheel-drive compact cars vs. the low-slung, gorgeous, turbocharged roadster? Yeah – that’s fair.

The Type-S/GTI/MS3 fight was a worthy one. All three were hotted-up versions of their pedestrian siblings. Hot hatches (and sedan) personified.

The Sky, which I wasn’t a fan of before, now makes more sense with a turbocharger; 260 horsepower in a light car is nothing to sneeze at. Better shoes than I figured you could quite easily keep up with some of the Over $50K siblings if you were working hard. So, great track car then? Yes, but you still get all the ergonomic nightmares I’d written about a couple issues ago, and just because you have an intercooler doesn’t mean the roof goes down any easier…

The CSX Type-S was actually underwhelming compared to the Civic Si coupe from last year. The addition of not as supportive leather seating, a navigation system and other luxury touches have taken the purity away from the normally aspirated screamer. It’s still very predictable on-track with great brakes and steering feel, but you wonder why you wouldn’t either get the Si for performance, or step up to the not-much-larger TSX for more luxury.

I’m intimately familiar with the GTI, having spent quite a few weeks behind the wheel in various guises. It was at Test Fest in four-door format for the first time, and I was very surprised that Volkswagen decided to leave the car’s trump card at home. The awesome DSG transmission that we’ve raved about in the past was nowhere to be seen, and while VW’s manual is still a pleasure to drive, it’s no DSG. The GTI was a good middle-packer, but not tops in this group.

The brute of the bunch was the Mazdasspeed3; 263 horsepower and 280 lb-ft through the front wheels sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Mazda has certainly done their homework. Equal-length half-shafts, a limited-slip differential, retuned suspension, traction control and torque-control management means all those horses make their way to the pavement. Passing is stupid-easy with all that torque, and the turbo lag is really unnoticeable.

Wonderful seats, a reworked interior, and a price tag equal to its lower-powered rivals, and the MS3 comes out as my pick of the bunch.

In the Prestige category, the $75k price limit really was arbitrary as none of the four contenders even remotely approached that price. The ‘cheapest’ was the stunning Jaguar XK Convertible at $122,450, through the Lexus LS460L ($122,700), the Mercedes-Benz S550 4Matic ($132,400) and finally the Audi S8 ($150,250; the highest MSRP at the event.)

Like S/P<$50k, the XK8 really was the odd car out in a sea of performance luxury sedans. The while the convertible isn’t as sexy as the coupe, the Jag still imbues any driver with a sense of style, regardless of whether they deserve it or not. Some might whine that it’s an Aston body-double for half the price, and I say, ‘Hey! It’s an Aston body-double for half the price! What’s the problem?’ Some people…

The rest of the three were – excuse the old cliché – like the three bears. The Lexus LS460L is a huge improvement style-wise compared to the last generation, and the new 4.6-litre V8 and world-first eight-speed automatic transmission are trick pieces. However, given that the stretched LS’ most comfortable seat is the passenger-side rear, a major cush factor was applied. Sporty? Not at all. Complete Mama Bear.

On the other side of the scale is the hardcore, V10-powered Audi S8; all grunty noises and taught handling, the S8 was the best balanced on track, and could really be hustled for such a large sedan. At part-throttle, the 450-horsepower engine makes your spine tingle, and the glorious $7,800 Bang & Olufsen sounds system took over after that.

Not a luxury car in the traditional sense of the word as the S8’s interior is starting to date a little, especially compared to the new top-shelf offerings from Lexus and Mercedes-Benz, but absolutely the sporting choice. Papa Bear all the way.

I’m not sure Mercedes-Benz would appreciate me calling their new S Class ‘Baby Bear’, but that’s what it ends up as. The company has done a great job of blending the sporting with the indulgent, and jamming it full of the usual techno-stuff that takes you months to realize is already there. Although on paper, the new V8 is down on power to Audi’s Lamborghini-derived V10, on the track they’re neck and neck for acceleration.

And the Benz does an admirable job of hanging on in the corners as well. It would be interesting to see how an AMG version did around the track.

M-B’s take on the 7-series cabin really is quite nice, and it certainly isn’t as shocking as when BMW introduced it five years ago. Still, it’ll help propel the S Class to the category crown this fall.

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