Images: Brenda Priddy
Every year as the New England environ begins its slow descent into winter I manage to snare some time out in the great southwest as a panel member and judge (who would ever have imagined that) for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year Awards, held in toasty Arizona. This event is a competition between major automotive brands judged by automotive journalists and what is termed “elite” athletes. Representatives from Audi, Chrysler, Mazda, Toyota, Volkswagen, Mercedes Benz, Kia and GM were all available for us to query and abuse. The whole shebang is put on by carspondent.com and hosted by Local Motors, a maufacturer of radical vehicles that utilizes an online comunity of 30,000 designers to inspire and shape its products.
Those of you who are familiar with my passion for all things automotive won’t find this surprising, but some of the folks who gathered for the event were curious to learn that I wasn’t a rock-climber or triathlete. Sure, I’ve raced bicycles and run in competition, but that was long ago. I still consider myself active—especially when behind the wheel. While the athletes were sizing up the assembled vehicles for kayak tie-downs, water-bottle storage and measuring for bicycle stowage, I was mentally fitting guitar cases and amps. For me, the ability to secretly transport musical gear or video equipment determines my automotive purchase.
Being able to compare a wide range of vehicles in a small timeframe really can be educational. I found a parallel to the guitar industry in that the bar for what is considered an entry-level car has been raised significantly. In terms of bullet-point features, even the lowly Kia and Toyota cars actually outdid my ten year old Audi. As you ratchet up the price-point the laundry list of knobs, buttons and do-dads got longer, but the basic utility was quite similar. Of course the fit and finish of the high-dollar Mercedes and Audi was noticeably superior to lesser brands, but in general it’s hard to buy a bad car today, which is why focus groups like this one are important to car makers. With vehicles, like guitars, it really comes down to what you will use it for.
My personal favorite was the Audi Q5S, but only because the Mercedes E-Class wagon was too big for my taste—and garage. They both featured insane power, braking and cabin features. On the road the Q5S demonstrated agility that is mind-bending considering its bulk, and when you step on the fast pedal the sound is like a Van Halen power chord. It fits in the garage too.
Still, I would have preferred the wagon. You can fill it with guitars and amps easily with its low load height. I also love the idea of the old-lady car with a killer attitude lurking under its skin. Additionally, it probably flies under the police-prowler’s attention too. I know—juvenile thinking. So, sue me.
In the end, the athletes voted, and surprisingly, I tended to agree.
Here are the category winners:
•Luxury Family (three rows of seating, over $40,000) – 2014 Acura MDX
•Best Value Family (three rows of seating, MSRP at or below $40,000) – 2013 Mazda CX-9
•Luxury Off-Road (MSRP over $35,000 with true off-road capability) – 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee
•Luxury On-Road (MSRP over $35,000) – 2014 Audi SQ5
•Green (Alternative fuel and hybrid powertrains) – Jeep Grand Cherokee Diesel
•Best Value Off-Road (MSRP at or below $35,000 with true off-road capability) – 2014 Toyota 4Runner
•Best Value On-Road (MSRP at or below $35,000) – 2014 Jeep Cherokee
•Urban (MSRP at or below $20,000) – 2014 Kia Soul
The high point of my time in Arizona came late on Saturday afternoon when I got to drive the Local Motors Rally Fighter, a crazy-cool V-8 powered offroad vehicle that is straight out of Mad Max.
I’d bugged them for two years to allow me a chance to whip one around their offroad test track—I guess I finally wore them down. My time behind the wheel was probably a lot more timid than I needed to be but it felt like we were just flying over the whoops. I managed to get a little sideways on the dirt, but generally I was taking it fairly easy. Later they told me that I couldn’t have flipped it, but not being an offroad guy it was hard for me to judge any limits. Next time I’ll try harder to scare myself.
The Rally Fighter is the flagship design, and it can be outfitted in too many ways to number here, but the one I drove was a Generation 1 car, now surpassed by Generation 2, which I intend to drive next year.
Many thanks to Nina Russin at ALV, and all of the manufacturers who take us seriously enough to endure two days of critique and the thrashing of their vehicles. Hopefully our input helps.