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Who will be lucky in 2013?

New Chevy Malibu is Willy's fave -- so far

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This time around at the Canadian Car of the Year awards program, I took one for the team. And that team is you.

While every ounce of my being was longing to flog the new ZL1 Camaro around the test track or wrap my butt in the latest uber-expensive luxury cars, this year, at the last minute, I opted to test some new technology and check out a fleet of daily drivers.

A funny thing happened along the way, though -- I actually found a couple of cars that I really liked. For 2013, even when it comes to family-oriented vehicles and electric-powered grocery-haulers, there really are no bad cars, just varying degrees of goodness.

Known in the automotive industry as TestFest, the five-day event that kicked off on Monday and ends today is held annually at the Niagara District Airport near Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ont. Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) members from across the country have been evaluating and grading 2013 models that are either all-new or significantly redesigned.

The purpose of these evaluations is to select the best new vehicles in various categories as well as an overall Car of the Year and Utility Vehicle of the Year. This year, a total of 60 new models in 11 categories are eligible for the awards.

By press time I'd already tested two vehicle classes. First up was the quest for best new city car, a new category this year with only two contenders -- the Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Ford Focus EV. Both are pure electric vehicles that run on rechargeable batteries, and both have garnered considerable attention.

The Mitsubishi is perhaps the oddest car at TestFest, with an egg-shaped body and a miniscule profile that offers a funky look into the future. On the test track the i-MiEV actually made me laugh out loud, and not in a bad way. With an eerily quiet motor that delivers a space-age whirring sound, it rocked and rolled its way around the course like a golf cart on steroids at speeds in excess of 100 km/h.

Despite the chuckles from my fellow AJAC members, the electric experience was a total riot. The i-MiEV is so distinctive-looking that it will surely one day define the early days of electric vehicles the way the Prius has defined hybrids.

The Ford Focus EV, on the other hand, seems to go in an entirely different direction. Save for the emblems denoting its electric status, the Focus EV looks almost identical to its gasoline-powered sibling.

I've been a Focus fan in the past and this all-electric version also impressed me. With capable handling and a 107-kilowatt motor, the Focus EV is the best-driving all-electric vehicle I've ever tested and makes a bold statement about Ford's commitment to meet our collective desire for a decreased dependence on gasoline.

Both vehicles are pricey. The i-MiEV that we tested rings the register at $35,998 while the Focus EV was a whopping $42,689. But with rebates in Ontario, Quebec and B.C. that can reduce the sticker price by as much as $8,000, EV cars are finally getting closer to reality. The challenge now is to lobby the Manitoba government to offer similar incentives.

Both vehicles offer a fairly small range of less than 100 kilometres when fully charged, but that's more than adequate for many city-dwellers. I suspect this category will grow exponentially in the not-too-distant future.

My other category was for best new family car over $30,000. The players are the Mercedes-Benz B-250, the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, the Ford Fusion Hybrid and the Chevrolet Malibu.

The Fusion Hybrid might be the best looker in the bunch, with a stylish front grill reminiscent of a Jaguar or maybe even an Aston Martin. The interior is also plush with comfortable seats and a long list of creature comforts. To me, this car has the Prius beat from every angle. The well-appointed model we tested had a sticker price of $33,399.

The Prius does, however, have technology on its side. Despite looking very much like the standard hybrid model, the new Prius Plug-in Hybrid can use an electrical outlet like the Chevrolet Volt and rely exclusively on the electric motor for short trips. Still, with a hefty price tag of $35,700 it felt a bit cheap inside. It's pretty clear that Toyota is going to have to offer more in the Prius very soon if it wants to maintain its firm grip on the hybrid market.

With an as-tested price of $39,390, the Mercedes-Benz B-250 was the most expensive model in this category. But, even though it's a small car, it still possesses all the high-end attributes of its more expensive siblings. The B-250 was fun to drive on the test track and surprisingly spirited both in handling and acceleration. While the navigation system on our tester looked a bit like an afterthought, protruding up and out of the centre of the dash, the new B-250 seems poised to prove that even small cars can be both stylish and luxurious.

The car that most intrigued me was the all-new Chevrolet Malibu. Our tester was blinged out to the max and cost a healthy $36,115, but this is without question (1970 excluded) the nicest Malibu ever. It offers not only a refined and potent 2.0-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that makes 259 horsepower, but also crisp handling and a fresh look that was obviously inspired by the new Camaro.

So, as much as I'd like to embrace hybrid technology, electric vehicles and the continued luxury of a Mercedes-Benz, the new Malibu is already my new favourite. As a lifelong lover of GM products, it was tough to see them wallow in obscurity in recent years while other big brands like Ford and Toyota moved ahead. If the new Malibu is any indication, it looks like Chevrolet is back. Only time will reveal if my fellow AJAC members concur.

The TestFest category winners will be announced at a press conference today and will be available at www.ajac.ca Look for a full recap of TestFest with all the winners and an inside look at the latest SUV-CUV models under $35,000 in next week's AUTOS.

If time permits, I'll also offer a quick glimpse into what it's like to rip around the test course in a new Camaro ZL1 or a ferocious Ford Shelby Mustang. I'll gladly pilot either of them -- for the team, of course.

willy@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2012 F5

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