• By: Neil Moore

Cars Are the Stars at This Year’s TestFest

All photos except for Genesis on track and Mercedes/Subaru on off-road course were shot by Neil Moore.

It’s late October and the local racing season is kaput.

But despite the chill air, falling leaves and serene country roads on route to Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, there’s a full tarmac here.

Neat rows of shiny new autos – three of each model – organized by size and segment. All are awaiting the arrival of 74 clipboard-carrying journalists, coming here to evaluate everything from styling to steering to “market significance.”

The week is called TestFest. It’s the signature event hosted annually by Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC), and provides all the groundwork for picking the top cars and “utility” vehicles for the coming year.

But TestFest isn’t a popularity contest.

Unlike political campaigns, there’s no lobbying, spin doctoring or “strategic” voting. And no shouting “wrong” when you disagree.

It’s a rigorous process that delivers more than 100,000 data points on new or significantly revised 2017 cars, trucks, SUVs, crossovers and minivans to determine eight category winners. These are winnowed to the final two, which are announced at AJAC’s annual Canadian Car of the Year (CCOTY) awards.

“It is a fantastic tool for Canadian consumers,” said CCOTY co-chair Gary Grant. “This is the only automotive awards program that takes advantage of real-world testing of cars, same roads, same conditions, same day. And combines objective and subjective data – statistics and performance data along with expert opinion and seat-of-the-pants feel.”

The full-size Genesis G90 picks its way through the pylons on the wet TestFest handling course.

You’ve probably seen CCOTY in the news cycle prior to opening day at the Canadian International Auto Show. Last year, Honda Civic got the nod, with the Chevy Volt nabbing Green Car of the Year. Mazda CX-3 was picked for “Best Utility” – both green and not.

I’ve avoided this automotive obligation until now, as it had been tricky to disappear from the office for an entire week. But after 14 years as an automotive journalist (nine as an AJAC member), my time had come.

It all began with a ballot, where I had to score each vehicle on 24 criteria. Not an easy task when you have roughly 40 minutes to take your ride on either an off-road or handling course, and then drive the nearby concession roads and highways of Clarington.

My first category was “Full-Size Premium Car.” I won’t spill the beans on who I think should win, but was impressed, in differing ways, with all contenders: Buick LaCrosse, Cadillac CT6, Mercedes-Benz E300, Volvo S90 and Genesis G90.

Regarding the last one, I haven’t made a typo. It’s no longer the “Hyundai” Genesis, as the automaker finally launched it as a standalone luxury brand.

Piloting these vehicles through the pylons can be tricky, but today’s full-size sedans are surprisingly nimble. We’ll touch upon this later once segment winners have been announced.

The road course was more revealing, as these rides are meant for cruising, not autocross. It was a pleasure motoring alongside the empty farm fields and still colourful woodlands surrounding the raceway.

Next up was the “Small Utility Vehicle” category, which would begin at CTMP’s shortened off-road trail.

“We want to showcase what these vehicles might experience on a rough cottage road,” said Grant. “It gives a bit of articulation for your suspension, so you can see how it performs. You’ll feel the stability control working – it’s really quite neat.”

CTMP’s shortened off-road course put a variety of SUVs and CUVs to the test. Seen here are the Subaru Forester (in front) and Mercedes-Benz GLC 300.

I’ve never tackled any cottage road this mangled, but each of the Ford Escape, Kia Sportage, Toyota RAV4 Hybrid and Subaru Forester showcased their varying degrees of ability on the steep inclines, muddy holes and slippery mat of fallen leaves. None left me stranded.

I was called away mid-week, but returned on Thursday for a full day of high winds, rain and ice pellets. Not so much fun on the handling course, but Canadians are cursed with this is the kind of weather for at least six months.

My task was evaluating a quintet of small cars: Chevy Cruze, Hyundai Elantra, Subaru Impreza and Mini Clubman. And in the afternoon, three full-size utilities – GMC Acadia, Mazda CX-9 and Chrysler Pacifica.

Taking the ‘utes’ on our semi-frozen off-road course was a demonstration of how well today’s all-wheel-drive and traction control systems perform. Even in vehicles that wouldn’t typically leave the asphalt.

What about the Pacifica? It’s a minivan, and no, I didn’t take it through the woods. One journalist did, however, and it came through relatively unscathed – the only casualty being a now-missing skid plate.

With 350 hp and 350 lb/ft of torque, the Ford Focus RS was a favourite on the Driver Development Track.

Thursday also included an executive forum. This mid-day panel of high-ranking industry reps plumbed a variety of topics that included electric vehicles, connectivity and autonomous driving. The last of which was a lively discussion that included both corporate and personal views that varied from an open embrace of this technology to wariness and even mild scorn.

One noted that our computers and smartphones occasionally glitch and need rebooting – would a self-driving car be any different? Another asked, “What happens when you drive through a long tunnel?”

The event changed tone on Friday. Long-form evaluation wrapped up and was replaced by a full day of “open testing.”

Which for me was an opportunity to have fun, starting with a rip in the 350-hp Ford Focus RS, followed by the Fiat 124 Spider on CTMP’s Driver Development Track.

This was followed by some off-the-grid maneuvering in Maserati’s new Levante SUV. You may have heard this legendary sports car manufacturer now has a ride for well-heeled hockey parents. And it won’t disappoint either on or off the asphalt.

The parking lot was full at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park with new vehicles for TestFest. This data-driven event measured 24 criteria across 34 models in eight categories.

TestFest has moved around throughout its history – Shannonville, Niagara Region Airport, Legends Golf Course – and is at CTMP for its second year. Grant hopes this will become a permanent home.

“It’s a world-class facility,” he said. “There’s driving options from the high-speed and low-speed handling courses, and the ability to have stunning drive routes. We can do off-road courses that replicate anything from simple cottage roads to hardcore off-roading, if we needed to push the limits.

“And if we wanted, we could even include a real high-speed element on one of the most iconic grand prix racetracks – right here on site. The flexibility is incredible.”

Category winners will be announced in December. Stay tuned here for updates, and more insights on our top picks.