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Car and Truck... and SUV of the Year Awards

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Recognizing an altered automotive landscape where SUVs have become the vehicle of choice among consumers, the U.S.’s longest-running, independently judged auto award will honor the year’s best sport utility in its own, separate category.

Volvo Car US President and CEO Lex Kerssemakers talks to the media about the Volvo XC90, winner of Truck of The Year.

The North American Car and Truck of the Year Award will henceforth be known as The North American Car and Truck/Utility of the Year (NACTOY). The 2017 prizes for outstanding car, truck and SUV will be announced Jan. 9 at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show.

Previously, SUVs had been lumped together with pickups for truck of the year. But as utes have expanded well beyond their body-on-frame origins, their definition has morphed to include everything from giant, pickup-based Cadillac Escalades to sporty subcompacts like the Mazda CX-3 and Mercedes GLA.

“SUVs’ booming popularity is changing the auto industry,” said Mark Phelan, NACTOY president. “Customers use SUVs for everything from work to family transportation to off-road recreation. The NACTOY jury recognizes that with the new award.”

Some SUVs have also become known as “crossovers” — since they share the high-riding position of trucks, yet are built on unibody platforms like sedans. Discussion among NACTOY’s 60 jurors — an independent group of journalists representing newspapers, magazines, television, radio and websites across North America — had intensified in recent years as the definition of truck did not seem to adequately represent the diversity of vehicles. The author of this article, Henry Payne, is a jury member.

In 2016, for example, the playful, 101-inch wheelbase, 2.0-liter Mazda CX-3 was pitted against the stump-pulling, diesel-powered, 152-inch wheelbase Nissan Titan HD pickup — as well as the soccer mom-friendly Honda Pilot and luxurious Volvo XC-90 — for best “truck.”

It was awkward. In the end, the Volvo took the award.

NACTOY’s award expansion coincides with a change in its stewardship. Founded in 1994, the awards were overseen by an organizing committee until this year, when that structure was replaced with officers: president, vice president and secretary-treasurer.

The officers are: president Phelan, vice president Matt DeLorenzo (managing editor-news, Kelley Blue Book), and secretary-treasurer Lauren Fix (auto critic for multiple television and radio outlets). Former organizing committee members Chris Jensen, Tony Swan and Lindsay Brooke make up a temporary advisory committee.

The jury kicks off its awards deliberations for 2017 models this month by identifying eligible vehicles. The list will be whittled to three finalists by Dec. 6.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.