$5 for 3 months. Save 83%.
$5 for 3 months. Save 83%.

Payne: Why I voted for Golf and F-150

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

The Volkswagen Golf stole 2015 Car of the Year honors from the Ford Mustang at the North American International Auto Show on Monday, derailing a Ford sweep of the awards after the shoo-in F-150 pickup captured Truck of the Year.

Along with a majority of my NACTOY jury colleagues, I too voted for the Golf. Before my Motown muscle-car friends pelt me with eggs and tomatoes, let me explain.

With a trifecta of performance, price and functionality, the seventh-generation hatchback Golf — especially the GTI performance model — is my car benchmark. By contrast, the other Car of the Year finalists are benchmarks for their class.

The $38,000 Hyundai Genesis redefined affordable luxury against German competitors that start $10 grand north.

Mustang set a new standard for muscle cars with its reworked front and rear suspension, and sleek, sports car good looks. But its appeal is still as a summer cruiser.

The $30k Golf GTI, by contrast, will comfortably carry a double date or a pile of luggage, and still attack twisty roads.

When the GTI debuted on these shores in 1983, it invented the hot hatch segment. It has been the standard against which all compacts in the U.S. have been judged since. When we jurors gathered in Hell, Mich., in October, the new Golf GTI quickly established itself as the most versatile, affordable sedan.

But I am still stunned that it won. It’s hard to deny an icon like the Mustang.

Icons are supercharged with emotion. A year ago, the jury gave Chevy a NACTOY sweep with their 2014 Corvette C7 and Chevy Silverado. Like the Mustang, the sexy, nimble Stingray had set a new standard for an affordable supercar. Some said the ’Vette wasn’t mainstream enough, practical enough. But how do you deny an icon?

That was then, this is now. In 2015 practicality prevailed. And as the jury winnowed the field to three, the mass-selling Golf seemed the smart pick.

On the truck side, I never doubted the F-150 would win. The Big Three of Ram, Chevy and Ford play a perennial game of one-upmanship. With each redesign, one pickup leapfrogs the last. In 2013, the all-new Ram 1500 won NACTOY honors. In 2014, it was the Chevy Silverado. This year... you get the picture. Except the F-150 didn’t just play leapfrog — it pole-vaulted.

Ford’s massive, multibillion investment in aluminum and Ecoboost engines bets on a new era of lightweight trucks with better fuel economy and bigger payloads. Like any bet, it comes with ginormous risks. Will aluminum lead to higher insurance costs? Can turbos compete with diesels? Ford’s roll of the dice is one of autodom’s great stories.

Other nominees for best truck were superb vehicles. The Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon are the best small trucks in years. The Lincoln MKC compact ute has breathed new life into a lifeless brand. Both Chevy and Lincoln had good auditions. The F-150 blew the roof off the stage and set the curtains on fire.

As I mulled my choices, my pals at Motor Trend gave Colorado and GTI their top honors. Ditto Autoweek. But those were a few, horsepower-addled guys at car mags. Would a larger, more diverse NACTOY jury agree? And with the Detroit Auto Show fast approaching, wouldn’t a Ford sweep wow the home crowd?

By Monday morning, a number of my juror friends had convinced themselves that a Ford sweep was inevitable. So when VW won, the conventional wisdom was that we had witnessed a major upset. Even though the GTI had been our consensus choice all along.

OK, you can throw your eggs and tomatoes now.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. He joined the NACTOY jury in 2014.