NIAGARA FALLS, ONT -- Well, that was quick.
For an event that I look forward to attending every year, TestFest always seems to pass me by like a C7 Corvette whistles past a road course marker.
Last week, I spent five days driving 41 different vehicles (a few of them twice) in 12 different categories as part of the Automotive Journalists of Canada's annual effort to determine the best new vehicles for sale in Canada for 2014.
Unlike previous years, AJAC members went home without knowing the winners in each category -- this year, the announcements won't be made until December 3 in Toronto. Even though I've cast my ballots in five different categories, I don't know which vehicles will end up on top. But that won't stop me from making some fearless predictions based on what I saw last week.
First, let's take a step back and look at the venue for this year's event. After five years in Niagara-on-the-Lake, our event moved about 25 km south to Niagara Falls -- more specifically, the Legends on the Niagara golf complex. The Legends turned out to be an excellent venue, with sufficient space to park all of this year's entries (most of which were present in triplicate) and a slick private road that served as a quasi-high-speed closed-course for the higher-performing vehicles in the competition.
Being right next to the Niagara Parkway also permitted countless photo ops near the water and among the thick autumn foliage of the region.
Now, back to the vehicles.
I was assigned three categories initially, but I managed to make it through five of the 12 groups during team testing in the first three days. The groups and my impressions follow.
FAMILY CAR OVER $30K
Chevrolet Impala LTZ
Ford C-Max Energi
Honda Accord Hybrid
VW Jetta Turbocharged Hybrid
This category brought with it a varied group of entrants ranging from the full-sized Chevy Impala to the Ford C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid. And while we drove these cars back-to-back, it was immediately clear that most of these were going after different customers.
Most impressive to me was the Mazda6, for its capable dynamic traits combined with stingy fuel consumption. Close behind was Honda's new Accord Hybrid, one of the most drivable hybrids on the market and based on one of the best mid-sized sedans out there. The Impala impressed with its size and smoothness, clearly the most traditional of the bunch.
I would have welcomed more seat time in the C-Max Energi. This plug-in hybrid didn't get a fair shake because it wasn't plugged in between drivers. What that meant was that it tested more like a conventional hybrid, negating its ability to cruise around on pure electric power for significant distances and so making it seem like just a really overpriced hybrid.
LUXURY CAR OVER $50K
Infiniti Q50 Hybrid
Jaguar XF AWD
Mercedes-Benz E250 BlueTec 4Matic
I mentioned last week before TestFest that Hyundai was poised to play with the big boys in this class. I didn't realize that the Equus would prove to be the most luxurious entry in this class. From the effortless waves of power provided by its 429-hp V-8, to its 17-speaker audio system, to four heated and ventilated seats, the Hyundai really impressed.
Perhaps the most shocking feature of this luxury liner was its lane-departure warning system, which starts with an audible warning when the vehicle detects that it's wandering out of its lane. If that doesn't do the trick, what follows is a rather violent tug on the driver's seat belt, presumably to wake up said errant driver. A unique approach, to be sure.
The MKZ is quite a looker, but its powertrain is simply outclassed by the other contenders. The most disappointing entry in the group, however, was the Infiniti Q50 hybrid, which has replaced the successful and appealing G37. It seems Infiniti is more interested in moving toward producing an autonomous car than it is in moving its customers. Shame.
On the other end of the spectrum was the Cadillac CTS, equipped for TestFest in V-Sport trim complete with a 420-hp twin-turbo V-6. Sure, it's a $75,000 CTS, but Cadillac has nearly perfected the balance between sport and luxury with this new car. Funny, that's something Infiniti used to be good at.
SUV/CUV OVER $60K
Mercedes-Benz GL 350 BlueTec 4Matic
Porsche Cayenne Diesel
Range Rover Sport V6
This category isn't normally one I'd lean toward, but I found the entries in this class piqued my interest. I mean, who couldn't resist the idea of a Range Rover that has just undergone an 800-lb. diet? Actually, that's not too difficult considering the last Sport weighed in at 5,500 lb. It's a great utility vehicle nonetheless, not giving up its off-road heritage but improved in every way from the old truck.
The MDX is also a joy to drive -- too bad about the company's obsession with jamming as many lights as it can fit into the Acura's headlight clusters.
My pick, depending on my mood, would likely be Porsche's diesel Cayenne, which looks great, drives even better and manages to consume just 9.0 L/100 km in combined city/highway driving, according to official ratings.
And BMW's new X5 makes a strong case for itself, particularly in 445-hp xDrive 50i trim. That's really about 150 more horses than this trucklet really needs but, what the heck, it's fabulous.