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2022 Honda CivicJeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

Awards season is well underway for the automotive press, but do awards really help buyers choose their best vehicle, or makers to sell them?

Many manufacturers believe awards build awareness and they might validate the decision a person’s already made to buy that vehicle. An award does not automatically mean the vehicle is better than all other choices, however. After all, many award programs do not consider every vehicle available and the methods of selecting winners vary widely.

There are plenty of awards to be won from different associations and publications, each claiming to be the most respected and trustworthy in the business. On Monday evening, the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) named the Honda Civic as Car of the Year and the Hyundai Tucson as Utility Vehicle of the Year. In January, the prestigious North American Car, Utility and Truck of the Year (NACTOY) awards also named the Honda Civic as North American Car of the Year, while the Ford Bronco was best SUV, and the Ford Maverick was best pickup truck.

The processes for selection could not be more different.

2022 Hyundai TucsonJeremy Au Yeung/The Globe and Mail

For the NACTOY awards, 50 automotive journalists from the U.S. and Canada suggest vehicles that should be eligible for recognition, but only vehicles that are either new to the market or substantially changed are considered. Those suggestions are short-listed in the fall by popularity to about 10 in each of the three categories, and then again to three in each. Jurors have 10 points to allocate anonymously among the vehicles, and the highest final point tally wins.

It’s a similar process for “The Car of the Year” in Europe, where on Monday, 59 journalist jurors allocated points publicly between seven finalists and chose the Kia EV6 as the ultimate winner.

In Canada, AJAC recently changed its eligibility criteria to include all vehicles available for sale, whether new for the year or not.

“Newest doesn’t always equal best,” says AJAC President Stephanie Wallcraft. “By choosing to have vehicles that carry over between model years compete against those that are recently redesigned, we ensure the vehicles we’re recommending to Canadians are the best options on the market for their lifestyles, full stop.”

However, AJAC only considers vehicles to be eligible if they’re sold by manufacturers that pay its $4,000 annual corporate membership fee. Currently, the Volkswagen Group, which includes Audi and Porsche, is not a member, so none of its vehicles were able to win the title.

(AJAC plans to remove its membership fee for OEMs in future years, making all vehicles eligible, but has not done so yet.)

The AJAC selection process is more rigorous, however. Anonymous votes are cast by 57 automotive journalist jurors for every vehicle they’ve driven of that model year, rating the vehicle from one to 10 on more than 20 points of evaluation, including factors like comfort, response, and economy. There were 13 category winners for 2022 and this number varies each year, contingent on having enough entries and judges in each category for competitive comparison.

“Every ballot cast in our program is based on a real-world evaluation performed on the same Canadian roads and in the same weather conditions Canadians encounter every single day,” says Wallcraft. “There’s no other awards program on the planet that can give Canadians as comprehensive an evaluation of which vehicles will best fit their daily lives.”

There are also highly publicized awards from automotive publications. Some of them seem to be dependent on advertising, while others claim total independence. In Canada, for example, AutoTrader considers every new vehicle as eligible with no membership or payment required, and 22 journalists assess those vehicles based on 12 different criteria, including technology, design and safety. Some 20 different vehicles win awards in their categories, with three of those named as overall winners.

But do manufacturers, or buyers, really care?

President of the Car of The Year jury Frank Janssen stands next to a Kia EV6 electric car awarded European Car of the Year during a virtual ceremony in Geneva on Feb. 28, 2022. The Kia EV6 electric car was named European Car of the Year by specialist journalists.MAXIME SCHMID/AFP/Getty Images

Some makers are keen to use the AJAC logo in their marketing. It’s available at no charge to be associated with winning vehicles, and is prominent in the advertising of makers like Mazda, Subaru and Hyundai.

“I think it may put us on the consideration list (for consumers),” says Sandra Lemaitre, director of corporate public relations for Mazda Canada, “but more importantly, if they’re already thinking about buying a Mazda, it validates their choice.

“True story: Before I started at Mazda, I was in the car with my husband and I saw the first-ever Mazda3 on the road, and I said to him, “Wow, I really like that car – I like how it looks!” He said, “That’s the new Mazda3. It just won Canadian Car of the Year” And I was in the dealership the next week.”

In Canada, however, BMW says that if one of its vehicles won an AJAC award, it is doubtful it would include this information in its marketing, because it does not see a value in doing so. “We do not participate in or campaign for the AJAC Canadian Car of the Year Awards program,” says Director of Communications Marc Belcourt.

Similarly, Mercedes-Benz has a worldwide mandate that it will not pay to enter any awards, though it will accept awards that do not come with any costs or strings attached.

One such award is the World Car of the Year, which will be announced and presented in April at the New York International Auto Show. The awards were founded in 2003 by Canadians Beth Rhind and Gerry Malloy and are intended to complement, not compete with, national and regional award programs.

More than 100 automotive journalists from around the world vote on dozens of vehicles to choose the winners in six different categories, giving points from one to 10 in each of eight different evaluations, including market significance, performance and value.

“A car maker can take the award and say thank you, and we’re happy with that,” says Jens Meiners, the chair of the jury. “If they decide the award is useful for their advertising, they can come to us and we will license the use of our logo and they can put it in their brochures or on their websites.”

The vehicle must be new or significantly updated for the year, and sold on at least two continents. Even if you can’t buy it in Canada, such an award is valuable for all drivers, says vice-chair Siddharth Patankar.

“As a consumer, it tells you what the industry is capable of in terms of design, technology and innovation. It talks to the prowess that each of these manufacturers bring to the table and for the consumer, it helps them to demand more – more of everything.”

(Mark Richardson is a voting jury member for both the AJAC and World Car of the Year awards.)

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