Tuesday, November 7, 2017
Canadian Car of the Year TestFest offers great first driving impressions
By Jim Bray
Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, Ontario: Some of the best or most interesting new or substantially-changed vehicles for 2018 turned out at this vintage Ontario racing facility for a two day marathon driving session designed to choose the top candidates for AJAC's annual Canadian Car of the Year Awards.
This is the place, as noted in historic pictures around the facility, where guys like Gilles Villeneuve, Jackie Stewart, Stirling Moss, Mario Andretti and A. J. Foyt plied their trade. The track owners were smart enough not to let us anywhere near that track (damn their wisdom!), but we did get to take some of the coolest sets of wheels onto the Driver Development Track, a fun series of innumerable turns designed more to teach you mettle than test your metal.
I took the first Alfa Romeo I've ever even sat in onto that track, and it was a hoot. The Guilia is a very nice sport sedan that's gorgeous inside and out, and which made me appear to be a better driver on the DDT than I am in reality. If this is what Alfa has done all along - legendary reliability issues notwithstanding - then I can see why so many car nuts wax long and eloquently about the marque.
I had issues with its huge, column-mounted paddles (which block the stalks behind them) and the centre stack screen's interfaces, but Alfa is by no means alone in offering interface angst.
Take the new Porsche Panamera, for example. I think the only disparaging word I've ever said about a Porsche was whining about them not having sent any examples to our region for what's approaching several years now. I've driven the original Panamera several times, and love it, and I love its newly sculpted bum, which caps off a redesign that leaves the car looking pretty much like a familiar Panamera (a very good thing) but without the steep hatch that had some folks referring to the car (rather unfairly, in my never humble opinion) as the "Buttster." The new roofline is graceful and more 911-like than before.
Inside, however, Porsche's traditionally intuitive interfaces via the central LCD screen, knobs etc., has been replaced with a really cool-looking but intimidating wide screen whose interface was such that I had trouble changing radio stations. It undoubtedly wouldn't take long for me to get on to it - and as a tech-kind of guy I'd probably have a ball doing it - but in an only half hour test drive there were other things on which to concentrate with this grand sport cruiser, so the interfaces shouldn't be on one's mind.
Since we only had a half hour in each vehicle (20 minutes for the EV's, which was enough, sometimes), our drives really only amount to a first impression - kind of a "JD Power Initial Quality" kind of thing rather than a long term look, or even the week we get to spend with "press cars" usually. But you do what you can and, since we drive vehicles in the same category back to back, it does give a nice look at what the competition is like in each niche that's competing at the event.
I managed to slide my prodigious posterior into 26 different vehicles ranging in class from small car and/or EV to Premium Sport, leavened by a healthy mix of Utility Vehicles and Sports/Performance offerings. The downside to this flitting about is a tendency for vehicles to run together in my mind, but we had ballot worksheets with us on which we could make notes.
The biggest surprise drive for me, though I guess it shouldn't have been given last year's exciting debut of the luxury marque), was the Genesis G80 sport sedan. I didn't take it on the DDT, but I flew through some nice curves on some secluded back roads in an atmosphere more like real life - and I loved the G80. I took it on the same roads on which I drove the mighty Panamera and though the Genesis is no Panamera, I was amazed at just how good it is! Acceleration from the 3.3 litre twin turbo V6 is heady, it handles as it should, and is comfortable and chock full of technology I could actually figure out. All for $62,000 CAD. The surprising Genesis is my "Car of the TestFest" winner and I'd love to spend a week with one.
Genesis is to Hyundai as Lexus is to Toyota and Audi is to Volkswagen, so it should be interesting to see the South Korean automaker going after those other brands in much the same way Lexus (and to a lesser extent Infiniti) took the traditional European and North American luxury makers to the woodshed nearly three decades ago.
Speaking of Lexus, I drove the stunning new LC coupe and, other than current Lexus stuff like the stupid TrackPad, it's quite amazing. They had the V8 and the hybrid there. I took one out and was taken by the fantastic-sounding engine and monster drive. It was fast, loud, in your face, glorious! I couldn't wait to try the hybrid, though I figured it'd be a pale shadow of the experience one gets from a hot V8.
Then, when I got the LC back to the parking area, I walked around to the back to check out the trunk space and was gobsmacked: according to the badging, it was the hybrid I'd been driving! How's that for a hybrid that eschews "hybridness?" Now I can't wait to try the V8!
In the Sports/Performance realm, I got to take the new Honda Civic Type R onto the track, as well as two iterations of Subaru's WRX, including the STI. There was no comparison between them, the Civic being a lot more fun despite being only front wheel drive (both Subarus are AWD). The Civic Type R did get a bit loose during hard cornering (my driving instructor smiled and called it "playful" when I mentioned it), but its six speed manual transmission was a joy to shift whereas in the Subarus it was easy to miss third gear and hit fifth when upshifting, which is definitely not something you want to happen when you're trying to blow someone's doors off, or just impress an instructor on the DDT.
The Subarus - well, except for the STI's big, ugly spoiler - are definitely easier on the eyes than the Civic, which to me is one of the ugliest cars on the road today. The Type R takes an already painful styling exercise and makes it worse with an ugly wing and some aero skirts. It also comes with the Hondaisms that drive me nuts these days, stuff like no knobs for the audio system and nannies that holler at you if you dare (for example) undo your seat belt before the car has stopped completely.
On the other hand, the Type R will match engine revs on downshifts, making even an idiot look like an expert at heel and toeing your downshifts. And it did! That was pretty cool!
I drove a couple of Volvos, now a Chinese Swedish brand, and didn't really care for either of them. The S90 sedan and XC60 utility vehicle are both stylish, luxurious, and decent to drive, but their interfaces are very weird though, as with the Panamera, I'm pretty sure one would make peace with them fairly quickly if one were to own one - but why should you have to? Designers need to learn to make stuff simple again.
This isn't just a Volvo thing; it's right through the industry. In their competitive zeal to give more stuff to consumers, they're in danger of making the vehicles so complex that using them gets in the way of the vehicles being vehicles, rather than high tech driving pods.
Which brings me to the Porsche Macan, still my favourite SUV and - so far at least - still sporting Porsche's old interfaces that are models of logic and convenience. Maybe Porsche is planning to inflict the new Panamara-style stuff on the next generation, but I sure hope not. I'd rather see the Panamera lose the gadgetry instead. I'll hold my breath.
Anyway, the Macan (It was the Turbo with the Performance Package), which carried an MSRP of $110,300 - though you can get into a base Macan for the mid-fifties - is still a delight to drive and in my opinion beat out its competitors easily. Its potential nemeses included the abovementioned XC60 and Range Rover's nice new Velour, er Velar.
I go into these things expecting the Porsche to be the best, so the competitors have their work out for them - though, as with the Genesis/Panamera shootout, it isn't impossible.
It wouldn't be a TestFest without taking a couple of Porsches onto the track, and this year it was the 911 Carrera 4 GTS and the newly-named 718 (nee Boxster) that were offered for sacrifice. The 911 had Porsche's fantastic seven speed PDK automatic transmission, while the 718 had the six speed stick, so it was a pretty good test of which transmission I'd buy if I were ever lucky enough to have the opportunity (a lottery win and a divorce, undoubtedly…).
And as much as I love a good stick, I'd opt for the PDK. Heck, I never even took it out of automatic mode while on the DDT in "Sport Plus" mode and it not only kept the engine revs just where they should be, it was quicker on the draw than a human can be. This isn't news any more, but it's truly remarkable.
We were encouraged to drive as many of the supposedly Green cars as we could, so I deigned to drive a few, my favourite of which (not surprisingly) was the Volkswagen e-Golf. I'm a fan of Golfs anyway, and this one (it wore the Comfortline trim level with the Tech & Leatherette Packages) carried a price of $38,660, which isn't chicken feed but which is in line with the other electric cars there - other than the Chevy Bolt EV ($49,430). The Bolt can't justify its extra 10 grand, especially since its interior looks and feels cheap and my butt didn't fit in the driver's seat properly, leading to my left leg falling asleep even on a short, 20 minute jaunt.
But the electric Golf is really something! It's an electric car that drives like a Golf, but with intoxicating, instant torque. For $38 grand I’d still get a GTI, though. An associate of mine at TestFest told me the e-Golf had the worst range of the electric vehicles that took part in AJAC's Eco-Run earlier this year, so that could make it a tad less attractive to consumers who need the range.
My other favourite among the EV's was the Hyundai Ioniq, the hybrid of which I drove several months ago. The electric version feels pretty much the same to drive (I like the Ioniq, though I don't know why Hyundai didn't just make an electric Elantra and be done with it), and it has laughably simple "transmission" controls. Toyota's Prius/Prime electric car is as ugly as the regular Prius - and that's pretty darn ugly - but it drove quite nicely. Alas, it has a big, Tesla-like LCD as a centre stack and I didn't think much of it; the more stuff you put on the LCD the more concentration it takes to use it while driving.
The new Kia Rio (Small Car category) is a very nice little beastie, and I also liked the new Niro (Small Utility Vehicle), which is a nice little hybrid SUV that starts at a reasonable $25K. Kia's designers have really upped their ante over the past several years until now the company (again, in my never humble opinion) is making some of the best-looking cars in their niches. They also have interiors that are attractive, seem to be of excellent quality, and which are easy to fathom without cracking the owner's manual. They're much like Hyundai in this manner, though I think they're a tad nicer looking than their stablemates right now.
Kia appears to be on a bit of a roll currently, not only by offering great looking vehicles that offer good value, but they've also topped the JD Power initial quality ratings for the past two years running.
AJAC members now have a few weeks to get all our ballots marked and submitted, and then the hard work of separating the science from the opinion begins and the results are tabulated. The process will culminate early next year when the Canadian Car of the Year for 2018 is announced at the Centre of the Universe Auto Show in Toronto.
I'd give the award to the Genesis G80 Sport but, since it's rare for my choice to prevail, I've probably given it the kiss of death by writing that. My prediction for the eventual winner? Though I didn't have time to drive it, if I were a betting person I'd wager on the new Honda Accord, which seemed to be received very well and which also seems often to be a default position for many such awards. I'm not saying it doesn't deserve it - despite my angst about current Hondas - but there weren't that many "mainstream" vehicles this year that really jumped out at me.
Of course I've probably jinxed the Accord now, too.