With Detroit’s auto show just around the corner, the buzz regarding the North American Car (and Truck) of the Year announcement is building, as that announcement is made – typically – in the opening minutes of the show itself. And lending support to that buzz is the posting of the North American Car of the Year (NACOTY) finalists. With 50+ members of the automotive media voting, a long list of semifinalists is whittled down to three, from which a winner is determined by an additional round of voting in December. And with this year’s list of finalists I’m once again left to ask: Which one, again, is a Car of the Year?
In asking the question, know that I’ve been paying attention to someone’s Car of the Year (Motor Trend’s COTY and, in most years, that award decided by Europe’s automotive press) for most of the last three decades. And while not on the North American jury (and with few prospects of being asked to join), I still enjoy paying attention to those cars and trucks which are receiving the attention. This year’s NACOTY finalists – Hyundai’s all-new Genesis sedan, Ford’s all-new Mustang and VW’s all-new GTI – certainly check most of the automotive boxes: RWD/AWD Luxury, RWD Performance and FWD Performance/Efficiency, along with 4-door sedan, 2-door coupe/convertible and 4-door hatch, respectively.
In short, in the list of finalists there’s a little something for everyone; except, regrettably, an element of surprise. Or failing that, the listing lacks a nominee that – as an automotive and engineering exercise – truly moves the automotive needle. And while I’d admit that those cars ‘moving the needle’ (such as Tesla, or the BMW i8) are often at price points the average American – and automotive journalists – would find out of reach, the sheer predictability of this year’s finalists argues for a new set of considerations, or hitting the reset button on this group of jurors.
We’ll start with this year’s cover boy and/or poster child, the all-new Mustang. The newest Mustang, of course, debuts on the 50th anniversary of the Mustang intro. And in April of 1964 you’d have absolutely no argument from me – although only 10 at the time – that the then-new Mustang constituted Car of the Year (or Car of the Decade) material. While knowing the Corvair Monza had achieved something similarly ‘sporty’ on a very pedestrian platform, Ford’s Mustang represented a giant leap of faith in the postwar boomer as consumer. And despite its Falcon/McNamara underpinnings, you didn’t need to be Carroll Shelby to recognize its performance upside. At its debut the American public was smitten, and Ford Motor Company took that success all the way to the bank.
Fifty years later, today’s Mustang remains attractive, offers a range of performance options Lee Iacocca could not have possibly envisioned, and remains equally attractive among both the secretary set (OK, the admins) and Senior VPs. But despite the advent of independent rear suspension (insert audible sigh here…) and an available EcoBoost four, the car doesn’t deviate all that much from the formula laid out by Iacocca and Don Frey over fifty years ago. And while it certainly moves a needle, that needle is on a scale; the car pushes 4,000 pounds despite a governmental mandate for improved efficiency.
Much of the same could be said for Volkswagen’s GTI. As the most attractive iteration of VW’s Golf, there’s a lot to like about the 7th generation hatch. On an all-new platform providing enhanced structural stiffness and more interior volume within roughly the same footprint, the new GTI remains compellingly competitive in the growing hot hatch segment. Like the Mustang, however, the VW fails to move any needles in the automotive marketplace. Its performance envelope is essentially the same as the last three iterations, and despite the financial benefits of moving production to Mexico, we won’t see those production savings reflected in its window sticker. Finally, the one Golf model which might have moved the needle – a GTI with a diesel powertrain – is once again denied the American consumer. In short, it’s a car you could take home to mom, but we continue to think ‘Car of the Year’ as one your mom and dad might not understand.
In my mind, the best argument for its inclusion in the Car of the Year consideration is the hallowed Hyundai Genesis, now in its second generation. Hyundai has already taken one NACOTY nod (in 2012) for its compact Elantra. With that, we think the new Genesis is much more deserving, as it seems to advance the luxury segment in much the same way Lexus and – to a lesser extent – Infiniti did in 1990. Its sheetmetal is quietly distinctive, and successfully sheds the M-B inspirations seen on its immediate predecessor. And with either a 3.8 liter V6 or 5.0 liter V8 the Genesis arrives in showrooms at price points that make the window stickers of BMW’s 5-Series and Audi A6/A7 look positively laughable.
Regrettably, despite its overall goodness and (almost) accessible pricing, the Genesis remains a new take on an old idea, instead of constituting an all-new idea. As Korea’s Car of the Year it’s a no-brainer, and as someone’s Import Car of the Year it would deserve serious consideration. If, however, it were to be the North American Car of the Year, its selection suggests the very real need for an aggressively refreshed North American car market.
Time and space don’t allow for a dissection of this year’s nominees for Truck/Utility of the Year, except to say that Lincoln’s MKC isn’t a truck. And in that it isn’t a truck, why would it compete with Chevy’s new Colorado and Ford’s F-Series pickup? Better, I think, to put truck-based SUVs with trucks (Escalade, Navigator, etc.), and car-based SUVs (i.e., Crossovers) with cars. In 2014 Chevy’s Silverado won against the new Cherokee and Acura’s MDX, while in ’13 the Ram won against Mazda’s CX-5 and Ford’s C-Max. In an apples and oranges contest, what red-blooded North American juror is gonna’ pick an orange?