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Korean vehicles dominate AJAC awards

EACH year, the best and brightest in Canadian automotive journalism gather at Niagara-on-the-Lake for a massive shakedown of the year's newest cars. Did I attend? Well, no.
The BMW 1-Series M Coupe, a car designed to put a smile on your face, won the award for best new sports car more than $50,000.

EACH year, the best and brightest in Canadian automotive journalism gather at Niagara-on-the-Lake for a massive shakedown of the year's newest cars.

Did I attend? Well, no.

Sorry, did you miss the part where I said best and brightest? Should they deign to expand the invite to include most likely to use excessive hyperbole, most likely to use four words where one would do, and/or most likely to drive the AMG Mercedes off the track and directly into the catering van, then maybe I'll make the cut.

Let's wait until next year.

In the meantime, as picked by the various members of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada - nearly all of whom are somewhat bemused to call me a colleague - here are the 11 best cars in Canada for 2012.

Best new small car

Split into two subcategories of more than or less than $21,000, it could be argued that the small-car category has become the most cutthroat competition in the country. After all, Canadians buy small cars as if we're Europeans, eschewing big, thirsty rides in favour of fuel-

efficient hatchbacks and diminutive sedans.

This year, it's a double-win for Hyundai both above and below the $21K mark with, respectively, the Elantra and the Accent taking top honours in highly competitive fields. The Elantra faced off against the Ford Focus and a new, more-efficient Subaru Impreza, but brought home the bacon with stylish design and class-leading fuel economy.

For the Accent, the big win is pipping that perennial bestseller, the Honda Civic. While the larger, more powerful Civic might seem better matched against the Elantra, the Accent's all-new design and gutsy 1.6-litre direct-injection engine gave it the edge.

Perhaps this category sweep might have been a shock five years ago, but the Korean car makers have been keeping the hits coming for several years now: it's about time they started piling up the kudos.

Best new family car

Speaking of category sweeps, the Koreans are at it again, this time with two versions of a single model. Best for less than $30,000 was awarded to the Kia Optima sedan. Best for more than $30K was awarded to the Kia Optima sedan - with a hybrid powertrain.

Having driven both models, I can tell you that the Optima must have been an easy choice for the judges. With top-grade interior materials and a handsome design, Kia's entry in a category which can be a bit humdrum is a breath of fresh air. In fact, I kind of feel like both cars should come with a chisel in the glovebox, so you can knock off the badges and fool your neighbours into thinking you dropped 60 grand on a new Audi.

The Hybrid Optima takes that luxury-brand level of sophisticated design and adds efficiency, particularly for highway driving - not normally a hybrid strong-suit. It's also sportierlooking than the base Optima, with a lower ride-height and styling details lifted from the fire-breathing turbo-charged Optima SX.

Best new luxury car

While the upstarts (but can we really call Korean manufacturers upstarts anymore?) might be sweeping the first categories, it was a much more storied badge that took first place in the Luxury segment: Mercedes-Benz.

Let's get specific, the car that won is the Mercedes-Benz C-Class 350 4matic Sedan. Every word in that name is important, as it identifies a right-sized luxury sedan with an efficient-butpowerful V-6 engine and all-wheel drive for go-anywhere performance.

Best new prestige car

Really an extension of the Luxury category, the Prestige award goes to the best car for more than $75,000. This year, the trophy went to what the smart money would buy: the Mercedes-Benz S350 BlueTECH 4matic.

Like its stablemate C-Class, this top-of-the-range S-Class has a long name that tells a story: it's a full-sized luxury limousine with all-wheel drive and an incredibly efficient diesel engine. Luxury doesn't have to mean big fuel bills.

Best new SUV/CUV

The biggest segment of the market gets three sub-categories. Less than $35,000 went to the workhorse Dodge Journey, $35,000-$60,000 went to the Touareg TDI Clean Diesel and more than $60,000 went to the BMW X3.

Dodge's Journey is a great little truck that has value-for-money written all over it. The BMW wins, not on bang-for-buck, but simply because it's such a hoot to drive and a much more polished SUV than it's predecessor.

However, it's the Touareg that's the real story. Here it is, a Canadian award-winner, and VW hasn't really seen fit to send dealers enough of them. Check with your local Vee-Dub, but expect to wait if you want to order one.

Best new sports/performance car

And now, as John Cleese might put it, for something completely different. According to AJAC members, the best Sports/Performance car you can buy for less than $50,000 is the Hyundai Veloster. Wait. What?

That's right. In a category that included such high-powered luminaries as the Dodge Charger SRT8, top banana went to a hatchback with the same engine as that Hyundai Accent.

Head-scratching to be sure, but when you tot up the Veloster's considerable option list and able chassis, you see that the bang-forbuck needle starts to swing in its favour. However, I would recommend that those looking for the most performance wait for next year's turbo-charged version.

No head-scratching is needed over the winner in the more than $50K category.

It's the BMW 1-Series M Coupe, and despite the overly convoluted name, it's been designed with a simple task: to put a big grin on your face.

BMW makes faster cars - the wonderful-handling V-8-powered M3 springs to mind - but for me, the 1-Series M is the best thing the Bavarians build. It's pugnacious, it's lairy, it's flared-out and plug-ugly and you can get it in orange. It's the direct descendant of that original E30 M3 and I love everything about it except that nobody's going to give me one for free.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at mcaleeronwheels@gmail. com. Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.

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