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Two dozen 1998 marques from 15 manufacturers competed under the year's toughest scrutiny.

1998 Best Bets
German models in majority at AJAC's 1998 Car of the Year competition

By Bill Roebuck

The Mercedes-Benz ML32O sport utility vehicle has been named the 1998 Car of the Year by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).

Every fall about 50 of the top automotive journalists from all across Canada gather at Shannonville Motorsport Park near Belleville, Ont., for a four-day automotive test fest based on real-world, back-to-back testing. Their purpose? To select the best new vehicles in 10 major categories as well as an overall Car of the Year. Also this year, two additional categories were introduced for best new design and best new technology. A total of 49 vehicles were entered in the 1998 competition. Only category winners were eligible for the overall Car of the Year vote.

Models from German manufacturers took top honours in six of the 10 test categories, as well as the overall Car of the Year. In fact, there was only one category containing a German car that wasn't won by one of that country's nameplates -- Best New Wagon. While North American manufacturers were shut out as category winners, each of the Big Three had several vehicles that placed as Finalists. Four of the category winners were built in North America (the Volvo V70, Mercedes-Benz ML320, Toyota Sienna and Mazda B-Series).

The AJAC Car of the Year Awards are unique in that they are not a popularity contest. The competition is based on an unbiased and scientific evaluation process. Numerical data derived from a rigorous testing program backs up the results. That data includes: Acceleration, braking , vehicle dynamics, manoeuvrability, and off-road capability, where applicable. Other factors scored by the automobile writers include styling and appearance (interior and exterior); quality; occupant environment factors including space and access, ergonomics, visibility, comfort and convenience; NVH (noise/vibration/harshness), fuel economy; ride comfort; safety features and market significance.

Most importantly, the testing program includes real-world driving on public roads -- where consumers drive. Every member of a test team compares every vehicle in its class, back-to-back, on the same roads, under the same conditions. Details, from safety features to cargo capacity, are thoroughly scrutinized, discussed and individually rated by secret ballot. The results are weighted by a price factor to ensure a fair rating for lower-priced vehicles. The ballots are tabulated by the international accounting firm KPMG.

With the tight competition from several truly innovative new models and the very close scoring seen in the results, potential buyers can consider all the top contenders as winning vehicles.

AJAC's 1998 best of the year

The winners, finalists and contenders are as follows (vehicle price as tested is in brackets).

1998 Car of the Year
(Selected from category winners below)
Winner: Mercedes-Benz ML320 ($49,290). Finalists: Porsche Boxster ($64,713), Audi A6 ($56,275).

Best New Family Sedan
Winner: Volkswagen Passat ($32,330). Finalists: Nissan Altima ($25,958), Honda Accord ($26,800). Other entries: Toyota Corolla ($16,665), Chrysler Intrepid ($32,180), Mazda 626 ($24,744), Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique ($25,408), and Chevrolet Malibu ($23,825).

Best New Luxury Sedan
Winner: Audi A6 ($56,275). Finalists: Volvo S-70 ($43,695), Lincoln Continental ($53,325). Other entries: Buick Regal ($33,970), Lincoln Town Car ($53,482).

Best New Luxury Coupe
Winner: Mercedes-Benz CLK32O ($60,910). Finalists: BMW 323is ($44,795), Volvo C-70 ($60,240). Other entries: n/a

Best New Sports Sedan
Winner: Audi A4 1.8T ($33,294). Finalists: Ford Contour SVT ($28,928), Lexus GS 400($70,325). Other entries: Mercedes Benz C280 Sport ($53,250), Oldsmobile Intrigue ($32,888).

Best New Sports Coupe
Winner: Acura Integra Type R ($30,500). Finalist: Subaru Impreza 2.5 RS ($27,395). Other entries: Honda Accord Coupe ($26,395), Ford Escort ZX-2 ($20,250).

Best New Sports Car
Winner: Porsche Boxster ($64,713). Finalists: Corvette Hatchback Coupe ($55,070), Mercedes-Benz SLK 230 ($56,335). Other entries: BMW Z3.8 Roadster ($51,900), Acura NSX-T ($135,000), Plymouth Prowler ($53,500).

Best New Wagon
Winner: Volvo V-70 ($38,325). Finalist: Mercedes-Benz E320 ($70,750). Other entries: Volvo Cross Country ($51,090), Suzuki Esteem ($17,595).

Best New Van
Winner: Toyota Sienna ($31,738). Finalists: Ford Windstar ($31,799), Oldsmobile Silhouette ($34,165). Other entries: n/a.

Best New Sport Utility
Winner: Mercedes-Benz ML320 ($49,290). Finalists: Subaru Forester ($31,695), Dodge Durango ($41,200). Other entries: Honda CR-V ($26,945), Lincoln Navigator ($62,769), Isuzu Rodeo ($37,275).

Best New Pickup
Winner: Mazda B-Series ($22,485). Finalists: Ford Ranger ($27,502), Nissan Frontier ($20,098). Other entries: Isuzu Hombre ($26,778), Dodge Ram Quad Cab ($42,210).

Best New Design Award
Winner: Porsche Boxster ($64,713). Finalists: Chrysler Intrepid ($32,180), Plymouth Prowler ($53,500).

Best New Technology Award
Winner: Goodyear Extended Mobility (EMT) Tire.
Finalist: n/a.

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