Trying to Explain the AJAC Category Winners

The 2017 Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) Canadian Car of the Year category winners have been announced and, as usual, there is plenty to generate debate and controversy among the winners.

Though I am member of AJAC, a judge in CCOTY and a firm believer in the rigorous testing process, I believe it is important to acknowledge and address the parameters and limitations of these awards and try to frame them in a way that provides value to our readers.

We started on this journey with our round-up of the AJAC CCOTY categories immediately after Testfest.

One great benefit of AJAC’s process is its transparency, and while mining through the hundreds of thousands of data points is not something we’d expect every consumer to do – we can. So in this article we’ll try to contextualize the winners within the market – using previous years’ results as a guide, and we’ll also try to highlight the pricing algorithm that often impacts the final result.

With that in mind, here is a breakdown of the results in each category:

2017 Canadian Car of the Year: “Best New” Category Results:

Best New Small Car

1st: 2017 Hyundai Elantra: 682 points, and scoring highest in Value.
2nd: 2017 Chevrolet Cruze: 680 points.
3rd: 2017 Subaru Impreza: 679 points.

Raw Scores Before Price Adjustment (and price):
Subaru Impreza: 746 ($28,095)
Chevrolet Cruze: 742 ($25,775)
Hyundai Elantra: 740 ($23,999)

This category was as tightly contested as you might expect, the three finalists separated by just three points. In the end, it was AJAC’s weighting for pricing that got the Elantra over the line. The Impreza outscored the Elantra in safety features, handling and cargo space, giving it a raw-score victory which was then wiped out by the price difference.
In last year’s scoring, the Honda Civic sedan scored 709 points, so it is fair to say it would have been a likely winner had Honda been allowed to (and then decided to) re-enter it. This was prevented by rules which state only new cars are eligible, but it is a key reason our team awarded the Civic family our 2017 autoTRADER.ca Top Pick award.

The Honda Civic hatch was eligible, but was not entered due to the vehicles arriving in Canada too late.

Best New Large Car

1st: 2017 Volkswagen Golf (Alltrack): 680 points, and scoring highest in Exterior Styling, Throttle and Engine & Transmission Performance.
2nd: 2017 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid: 674 points.
3rd: 2017 Kia Optima HEV: 672 points.

Raw Scores Before Price Adjustment:
Volkswagen Golf (Alltrack): 767 ($38,215)
Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid: 754 ($34,927)
Kia Optima HEV: 742 points ($27,495)

This category could (and probably should) have been labelled “Best New Family Car” given that these models are all mid-size and not in fact, large. In fact, it was labelled thusly last year when the closely-related 2016 Golf Sportwagon took out the title with 693 points.

The 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack was a run-away victor courtesy of usability, interior refinement and driving dynamics long before pricing was applied and so the weightings couldn’t bump it from the spot.

Sales heavyweights the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord were absent due to not being refreshed this year, but when those cars were entered in 2015 and 2014 respectively, the Camry scored 662 points as a gas entry and 664 as a hybrid. The Accord scored 671 as a hybrid model. The Ford Fusion scored 682 back in 2013 as a hybrid model.

Best New Large Premium Car

1st: 2017 Buick LaCrosse: 656 points, and scoring highest in Fuel Efficiency.
2nd: 2017 Volvo S90: 655 points.
3rd: 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class (E 300 4MATIC): 653 points.

Raw Scores Before Price Adjustment:
Mercedes-Benz E-Class (E 300 4MATIC): 786 ($79,550)
Volvo S90: 783 ($73,925)
Buick LaCrosse: 758 ($50,578)

When shopping for any car, value is important and the purpose of price adjustment is to say “well, car X might be better – but is it $20K better?” In this case the Buick LaCrosse was given “yes” as its answer. That is despite the Buick placing dead last in this five-car category on raw scores. The top three were the E-Class, alongside the $85,303 Cadillac CT6 with 785.45 points and the $84,000 Genesis G90 with 785.55. Once pricing was adjusted for though, those two dropped out and the LaCrosse had a path to victory.

It’s a little like losing the popular vote but winning the electoral college.

There was no Premium Car category in 2016, but in 2015 the nod went to the Hyundai Genesis (now G90) with 657 points. In fairness, the LaCrosse should have been axed from this category which would have handed the price-adjusted victory to the Volvo S90. The CT6 is the most worthy forgotten contender here.

Best New Sports / Performance Car

1st: 2017 Hyundai Elantra (Sport): 682 points, and scoring highest in Occupant Environment and Ride.
2nd: 2017 Ford Focus RS: 670 points.
3rd: 2017 Fiat 124 Spider: 637 points.

Raw Scores Before Price Adjustment:
Ford Focus RS: 772 ($49,064)
Hyundai Elantra (Sport): 743 ($24,999)
Fiat 124 Spider: 730 ($45,795)

This will undoubtedly be the category most angrily contested among enthusiasts. The very simple answer here is that the Elantra Sport picked up a lot of points under AJAC’s price weighting tool. At half the price of the RS and the Spider, the Elantra scored the maximum possible multiplication to its raw scores. Without price adjustment, the Focus RS was an absolute run-away victor.

While the Elantra Sport is in and of itself a very good sporty car, it’s not a sports car. Had it been rejected by the CCOTY board this category might have had a very different result – but it also might not have had the three-car minimum needed to make it testable under AJAC’s rules.

It’s hard to imagine what other newly released cars in this sub-$50k price range might be able to compete here though. The Golf R took out the title in 2016 with 700 points. It wasn’t available this year due to rules that exclude older cars, but perhaps a head-to-head shootout with the RS would have warranted an exception.

Best New Premium Sports / Performance Car

1st: 2017 BMW M2: 658 points, and scoring highest in Value.
2nd: 2017 Porsche 911 (Carrera 4S): 656 points.
3rd: 2017 Mercedes-AMG C-Class Coupe (AMG C 63 S): 648 points.

Raw Scores Before Price Adjustment:
Porsche 911 (Carrera 4S): 806 ($150,636)
Mercedes-AMG C-Class Coupe (AMG C 63 S): 794 ($96,420)
BMW M2: 781 ($67,795)

Pricing has handed a narrow win to the BMW M2 in this category and it’s hard to argue with this particular example. While the raw scores show a reversal in these results the M2 lost out mostly in styling, interior comfort and drivetrain scores. These three were much closer elsewhere.

There are a lot of Premium Sports cars on the market these days that each approach the mission differently, many from the same brands represented here.

Last year’s winner, the Mercedes-AMG C 63 S sedan (654 points) is a very close cousin to the C 63 S coupe entered here and both achieved similar scores. The complexity and depth in this category make it hard to define alternatives to the winner, but it’s worth noting that the M2 and 911 both outscored the previous years entries: Shelby Mustang GT350 (640), Lexus RC 350 (634), Cadillac ATS-V (639), Corvette Z06 (633), and the aforementioned 2016 winner the C 63.

Best New Small Utility

1st: 2017 Subaru Forester: 678 points, and scoring highest in Value, Off-Road Capability and Occupant Environment.
2nd: 2017 Ford Escape: 670 points.
3rd: 2017 Kia Sportage: 664 points.

Raw Scores Before Price Adjustment:
Subaru Forester: 756 ($33,295)
Ford Escape: 752 ($35,749)
Kia Sportage: 734 ($29,995)

Even before pricing was taken into consideration the Subaru Forester had this category all sewn up. The roominess, visibility and off-road ability all won over the jurors.

Missing from here was the 2017 Mitsubishi Outlander and 2017 Nissan Rogue – both of which were eligible, and the Mazda CX-5 which has a replacement coming soon. Last year’s winner, the Mazda CX-3 would have seen its 667 points outclassed here, but the SUV segment has seen a revitalisation of pricing categorization.

Where before it was split Under $35K, $35-$60K and Over $60K this year’s only separates mainstream  small, mainstream large, and premium SUVs. That means any SUV of any size is really eligible here if it’s new.

Of all the categories, this is perhaps the least controversial.

Best New Large Utility

1st: 2017 Chrysler Pacifica: 664 points, and scoring highest in Value.
2nd: 2017 Mazda CX-9: 663 points.
3rd: 2017 GMC Acadia: 634 points.

Raw Scores Before Price Adjustment:
Chrysler Pacifica: 769 ($51,155)
Mazda CX-9: 762 ($47,100)
GMC Acadia: 744 ($60,639)

Define “utility”. For this writer, the Pacifica was a deserving winner in this category, and while it’s not an SUV, there is no question that a minivan is a vehicle built for utility. It might be the most utilitarian vehicle outside of a pick-up truck. So it made some sense, if not immediately intuitive sense, to include it here.

The Pacifica got the nod for its value, versatility and technical innovation and while pricing helped close up the gap, it didn’t affect the outcome in this instance. This is a great example of AJAC CCOTY using its process to enhance awareness and give consumers an option they might not have otherwise considered. For around the same price as larger SUVs with three rows but not the storage space nor cabin space you can get a thoroughly equipped minivan.

Missing here is the Hyundai Santa Fe XL (from $32,199) and the Kia Sorento (from $27,695) – the Sorento having taken out last year’s win with 667 points.

Best New Premium Utility Vehicle

1st: 2017 Mercedes-Benz GLC (GLC 300 4MATIC): 658 points, and scoring highest in Interior Styling, Occupant Environnent and Ride Dynamics.
2nd: 2017 Buick Envision: 654 points.
3rd: 2017 Cadillac XT5: 650 points.

Raw Scores Before Price Adjustment:
Mercedes-Benz GLC (GLC 300 4MATIC): 769 points
Buick Envision: 759 points.
Cadillac XT5: 767 points.

I had this result pegged wrong, fully expecting the Buick Envision to get up over the GLC courtesy of its lower price. But the Mercedes-Benz GLC delivered where it counts in interior coddling and luxury. Curiously, the $63,528 Cadillac XT5 and the $69,250 Lexus RX350 would have been second and third before price adjustments. Regardless of price thought, the GLC would have won.

The race might have been tighter with the 2017 Acura RDX, Audi Q5 and BMW X3 thrown into the mix, however, as all three are recently refreshed and worthy of consideration.

In 2016, the breakout winner was the Volvo XC90 which scored 664 points, a 6 point advantage over the GLC 300’s 2017 score and a whopping 32 drubbing of the GLC’s cousin: the GLE. In head-to-head competition the XC90 might have gotten up in this year.

Improving the Awards

As I write this, you can be sure the CCOTY and AJAC board members are working on ways to improve the award process for next year. Flaws are easier to point out then to fix, but we’ve seen here where some tweaks to the edges could improve the result for consumers.

For one, AJAC could be stricter with which cars are allowed into each category. In the case of the Elantra Sport, perhaps AJAC could have said “this car is not in keeping with the spirit of the award” and been nixed. That though, would have resulted in a two-car category which is not enough for AJAC consideration.

The solution there, would be to invite previous winners from the past two years back to defend their crown – something that would also allow the public to see the competitive set better represented, though costs and automaker scepticism have prevented this in the past.

Lastly, perhaps AJAC needs to consider allowing the sales leaders to contend – even if they’re not refreshed.

If you’re curious about AJAC’s Testfest process, or the results for your car, you can visit ajac.ca where scores and data from every car tested in every prior edition are all collated and can be scraped through.

Winning isn't everything. 12/6/2016 3:10:14 PM