Payne: Ford F-150, Vehicle of the Year

Henry Payne
The Detroit News
  • Nominees: Genesis, 200, GTI, F-150
  • GTI is car benchmark
  • F-150 lives up to hype

If this was the "2014 Sexiest Car Alive" column, I would pick the BMW i8. Like People magazine's choice of Chris Hemsworth as the "Sexiest Man Alive," the i8 is ripped, powerful as Thor, and attracts chicks like, well, Chris Hemsworth.

But when it comes to Vehicle of the Year, I'm a populist.

The rare $140,000 i8 will ship just 500 units anually and reportedly has a six-year waiting list at Detroit dealerships. Instead of never, how about a chariot you could drive forever? From 15-grand compacts to $50K sedans, what new vehicle raised the bar on performance, technology and livability without breaking the bank?

There were 45 new vehicles in the U.S. market and I wouldn't kick any of them out of my garage (not even the Lexus RC-F Coupe which one legendary designer called a "fright pig." When I heard its V-8 wail, I was in love). This year was an automotive cornucopia. We got updates on icons like the Ford Mustang, the return of the iconic Alfa Romeo, and more SUVs from sports car icon Porsche. Carmakers introduced electronic gizmos that check your blind spot and stop you before you hurt something (wow, isn't that what the precogs did in Spielberg's futuristic "Minority Report"?). M4 BMWs. Three-holer compacts. Not one, but two Hellcats.

I caressed, ogled and flogged nearly every one. Vehicle of the Year? The nominees, please.

Hyundai Genesis

There were lots of new lux toys in Santa's workshop this year — Acura TLX with OMG AWD; Audi A3 that dances like Barishnikov, a Mercedes C-Class that makes Aphrodite look homely, BMW supermodels, and a Cadillac ATS that out-Bimmered the Bimmers in handling. But Hyundai whipped up a treat that was exgravaffordable. If that's a word, it's certainly one you rarely encounter in this segment. Yet Hyundai pulls it off. The Korean manufacturer carried its dress-for-success-for-less formula in the midsize market — see the curvy, 2011 Hyundai Sonata — into the luxe sedan segment.

Works for the Genesis, too.

The gorgeous Genesis does Audi style, BMW 5-series handling, Mercedes bends, and Lincoln livability — all in an irresistible, $38,950 base package. You read that right: $38.9K. That's mid-size luxury for $10k less than a Lexus GS. Pair AWD with the 3.8L V-6 for $2,000 more and you get the torque of a V-8 and the grip of mountain lion.

Chrysler 200

The perennial ugly duckling of the mid-size sedan class, Chrysler produced a swan with the 200. Like the Aston Martin — er, Ford — Fusion, the 200 raised the bar for the common four-door sedan. And when optioned with AWD and a best-in-class, 292 horsepower V-6, the 200 (also like an AWD Fusion) pushed the volume sedan frontier. In a blind taste test with similarly priced luxury offerings from BMW and Audi, the 200 is the better buy.

But where the 200 really shines is inside the cockpit. In a digital age when hydraulic lines have given way to drive by wire and center consoles that have become entertainment centers, the 200 breaks new ground.

Not an inch of the 200's console is wasted. Queen Elizabeth's interior designers aren't this fussy about detail. The dash is elegant. The screen is as intuitive as your smart phone. And the shift knob is reduced to a dial, turning the center console in to a piece of furniture full of drawers, cupholders, sliding doors, and a sub-zero refrigerator (just kidding about that last one). The ladies love it. I might protest the 200's rather numb relationship with the road when driven hard — if my smitten wife would ever let me behind the wheel.

Volkswagen Golf GTI

In 1984, the GTI pioneered a hot hatch segment that now includes cyborgs like the Subaru WRX, Honda Civic SI, and those naughty Ford ST twins, Focus and Fiesta. Thirty years on, the seventh generation German pocket rocket is still the standard.

Indeed, the GTI is my automotive benchmark. It is autodom's decathlete. At about $30K — nicely garnished — its sticker is the average price of new cars sold. Like an SUV, its hatchback design offers comfortable seating for four and configurable cargo space. Unlike an SUV, its low center of gravity and compact size make for better handling, city maneuverability, and fuel economy.

All that — and it's more fun than a Waverunner on Lake Michigan. The GTI's styling won't wow like the Focus ST, but its timeless, clean lines wear well. It doesn't have AWD like a WRX, but its hushed interior spoils you even as you flog it like a go-kart.

But my 2015 Vehicle of the Year is the over-dog. The pre-game favorite. The blockbuster that lived up to the hype. Yes, the ...

Ford F-150

Like the 2014 Chevy Silverado and the 2012 RAM before that, it's the F-150's turn to be the new standard in pickups. More capable, more comfortable, more fuel efficient. Blah blah blah.

Yet it's so much more than the Truck Wars top dog du jour. This pickup is a daring innovation on a new American frontier.

The Big Pickup market is evidence that Big Government is back. Washington's demands are as important an engineering challenge as consumer needs. EPA bureaucrats have decided that the carbon dioxide they exhale is a threat to the planet. And while D.C.'s deacons exempt respiration from their list of human sins, autos get no such pass. Fuel efficiency must double by 2025. Which means Detroit engineers have to serve vehicles that meet both the dietary needs of tree-hugging, bark-chewing bureaucrats and stump-pulling, red meat-eating Neanderthals like you and me.

Ford bet the farm on an aluminum truck. It delivers. The F-150 makes no excuses for federal regulation, no moral appeal, no compromise. This is a pickup owner's pickup. Beginning at just $26K, the F has a hammer's power and a pocket knife's dexterity with shrewd details like side mirror spotlights.

Ford's federal strategy varies dramatically from the General which downsized into mid-size trucks with the credible Colorado-Canyon combo. Yet the F-150's new, 2.7-liter Ecoboost equals the smaller trucks' fuel efficiency. True, steel Fs were heavier than GM armor. Despite weight savings of 700 pounds from previous generations, the Ford beer can tips the scales just 200 pounds lighter than the Silverado according to Car&Driver.

Critics also quibble about Ecoboost's inflated EPA numbers — but isn't satisfying EPA the point? The feds get what they want; customers get what they want. And in the long run Ford's aluminum revolution promises benefits across its vehicle lineup.

Ford may not be the sexiest vehicle alive, but when Chris Hemsworth does a rugged, remote photo shoot for People magazine on top of a windswept rock, he'll drive a new F-150 to get there.

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

2015 Ford F-150

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear or four-wheel-drive, six-passenger pickup

Price: $26,615 (base model) - $60,705 (King Ranch)

Power plant: 3.5-liter V-6; 2.7-liter turbo "Ecoboost" V-6; 5.0-liter V-8; 3.5-liter turbo "Ecoboost" V-6

Power: 283 horsepower, 255 pound-feet of torque (3.5L V-6); 325 horsepower, 375 pound-feet of torque (2.7L Ecoboost V-6); 385 horsepower, 387 pound-feet of torque (V-8); 365 horsepower, 420 pound-feet of torque (3.5L Ecoboost)

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Performance: Towing capacity (4x4): 7,500 pounds (3.5L V-6; 8,400 (2.7L Ecoboost); 11,100 (V-8); 12,000 (3.5L Ecoboost)

Weight: 4,050 - 5,142 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA mpg: 18 city/25 highway/20 combined (3.5L V-6); EPA mpg: 18 city/26 highway/22 combined (2.7L Ecoboost); EPA mpg: 15 city/22 highway/18 combined (5.0L V-8); EPA mpg: 18 city/24 highway/20 combined (3.5L Ecoboost)

Report card

Highs: User-friendly details; aluminum's better power-to-weight ratio

Lows: Turbos may not deliver expected fuel economy; aluminum's insurance cost questions

Overall: ★★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★