North American Car, Utility and Truck of the Year semifinalists named
Forget the presidential debate, let the wrangling over Vehicle of the Year commence.
The 2021 North American Car, Utility and Truck of the Year (NACTOY) Awards announced its 27 semifinalists Wednesday. The list includes eight sedans, 15 SUVs, and four trucks, and tells the tale of the Detroit Three’s move away from cars. One sedan is from Detroit, while five Motown SUVs make the list. All four truck candidates are from Detroit.
Contenders range from icons like the Cadillac Escalade and Ford F-150 to upstarts like the Ford Mustang Mach E, Ford's first electric vehicle. Not only are the nominees dominated by utility vehicles, but they represent the most diversity of drivetrain offerings with everything from V-8 engines to gas-electric hybrids to full electric vehicles.
Early favorites are the Genesis G80 for Car of the Year, Ford Bronco Sport for SUV and Ford F-150 for best truck.
Significantly absent from the list is the Tesla Model Y, the American electric automaker’s latest SUV and the hottest selling SUV EV in the market. However, Tesla did not make its car available for jury testing.
A jury of 50 independent journalists whittled 46 new vehicles for the 2021 model year down to the semifinalist candidates. Each car will be fully vetted in the months ahead and finalists announced in December in Los Angeles. Winners will be announced in January during an event hosted by the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
“The breadth of choices in the SUV category from style to powertrain is really impressive,” said NACTOY Secretary Gary Vasilash, an industry veteran who is editor-in-chief of AutoBeat. “You have everything from a $20,000 Kia Seltos to a $120,000 Escalade.”
The Escalade’s remake – which includes features like a 38-inch touchscreen – sits on top of the Chevy Silverado pickup truck platform that also supports 2021 Chevrolet contenders Tahoe and Suburban.
The full slate of nominees come despite a coronavirus-scarred year that saw auto sales crater in March and April as states shut down dealerships and national unemployment soared. Sales have since rebounded, but many product introductions were pushed back until later this year.
The Bronco Sport is an indication of the increased bandwidth of the SUV market. The so-called “baby Bronco” will have many of the rugged style attributes of the forthcoming Bronco (due in the middle of next year) which Ford has targeted at the Jeep Wrangler. Unlike the truck-chassis Bronco, however, the Bronco Sport will be on the same unibody platform as the Ford Escape. All three vehicles will be available to customers in the compact SUV segment – an unprecedented offering from the brand.
According to IHS Markit, SUVs made up 47.4% of US sales in 2019 with sedans dropping to just 22%. Taken together with pickup trucks – the most profitable vehicles in the Detroit Three lineup – SUVs and trucks now make up nearly 80% of US sales.
Nevertheless, 2021 NACTOY sedan nominees are some of the most stylish models ever conceived as automakers use their inherently sleeker shape and handling dynamics to sell to non-SUV customers. The Acura TLX marks a return to that brand’s sporty vibe. The gorgeous Kia K5 and Genesis G80 are statement cars from Korean automakers determined to go head-to-head with Japanese and European mainstays.
Vasilash is particularly fond of the $20,000 Nissan Sentra which offers upscale looks and a wealth of safety features like adaptive cruise-control and blind-spot assist not found on luxury cars costing thousands of dollars more.
“It’s a car that regular people car afford to buy,” said Vasilash. “It’s significant because it is aimed at a customer that wants a vehicle with more style and dynamics than their neighbor’s SUV.”
The 2021 contenders also include a wealth of battery-powered vehicles as automakers try to replicate Tesla’s success in the market as well as meet California’s draconian sales goals. California’s governor has announced the state will prohibit the sale of new, gas-powered cars by 2035.
Models include the Polestar 2, the first sedan from Volvo’s electric car brand, as well as the Toyota RAV4 Prime, a gas-hybrid plugin variant of America’s’ best-selling SUV.
2021 NACTOY Semifinalists
Car of the Year
Mercedes-Benz E Class Sedan, All-Terrain, Coupe, Cabriolet
Utility of the Year
Ford Bronco Sport
Ford Mustang Mach E
Hyundai Santa Fe
Land Rover Defender
Toyota RAV4 Prime
Volvo XC40 P8 Recharge
Truck of the Year
Ford Super Duty
Ram 1500 TRX
Jeep Gladiator Mojave
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.