The Car Awards Group Inc. (CAGI) shifted gears last Saturday, 20 January 2007, as the organization began testing vehicles in the SUV category. CAGI is a non-stock, non-profit organization made up of writers for various motoring, business, and lifestyle publications and broadcast outfits. The Car of the Year award is CAGI's flagship project.

As noted by CAGI President Aida Sevilla Mendoza, the award is unique because it does not solicit sponsorship from any car manufacturer or dealer, and it does not require manufacturers or dealers to pay a fee in order to participate. This ensures the award-giving body's independence in deciding the winners.

Car of the Year is sponsored by: Automobile Association of the Philippines, Manila International Auto Show (organized by Worldbex Services International), North Luzon Tollways, Bridgestone tires, FedEx, Petron Corporation, Sony Ericsson, Standard Insurance, San Miguel Corporation, Rockwell Land, and Forest Hills Golf and Country Club in Antipolo. Forest Hills provided the test venue by closing off several roads of the sprawling exclusive subdivison for the COTY testers.

Entry-level SUVs are fast becoming a modern mobility solution, especially for families, thanks to their space, versatility, and driving performance. The category's popularity is evident in the number of models available in the market. No less than seven entries-either new or revised 2006 entries, plus the defending champion-made up the test fleet for the day.

Instrumented testing consisted of a 0-60 km/h acceleration run followed by full-force braking; results were recorded using a GTech meter supplied by Speed Lab performance car tuning shop.

For the subjective portion, the assembled writers then drove the SUVs along a circuit section of Forest Hills, including long straights, sweeping curves, S-turns and an occasional dip. The journalists then score each of the cars in multiple categories including comfort, ride, handling, and interior space. One of CAGI's twenty-five exhaustive evaluation criteria, ground clearance, was particularly considered for the weekend's test.

Applied Leisure in Sales and Operations group members Raul Asuncion, Joey Lanuza and Barry Ortiz, and outdoorsman Ernie Reyes supervised the testing sessions.

Returning champion Mazda Tribute was still the most powerful SUV in this class. A 3-liter V6 good for 204 hp powered the Tribute to some of the quickest acceleration times for the day. The Suzuki Grand Vitara was the only other six-cylinder in the group. The Grand Vitara's sharp exterior was favored by many of the journalists. The Kia Sportage defined value, providing such features as ABS brakes for a sub-1 million peso price.

On the high end of the category was the Toyota RAV4, growing substantially in size and features. The 2.4-liter RAV4 features front, side, and curtain airbags, protecting all occupants of its large, luxurious cabin. Grippy all-wheel drive and a superb flat-four turbo engine made the Subaru Forester 2.5 XT unique. The Forester provided as much torque as its large-diesel powered rivals for quick acceleration from almost any speed.

Direct rivals in this class, as diesel-powered seven-seaters, were the Isuzu Alterra 4x2 and the Hyundai Santa Fe. The Santa Fe's CRDi engine is paired with a five-speed automatic transmission. The Alterra combines a tough truck-derived chassis with newly appointed leather interior and its trademark in-car entertainment system.

Not all SUVs were created equal. Each of the magnificent seven that took part in the test displayed particular advantages, whether it was in acceleration, handling, price, or sound system. The winner will be declared at the COTY awards night in March 2007, with a public display to follow at the Manila International Auto Show on 29 March-1 April 2007 at the World Trade Center.