Payne: Why Miata and Pilot shoulda’ won

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

The results are in and the Honda Civic and Volvo XC90 are North American Car and Truck of the Year, respectively. I’m on the jury. I got the same list of candidates. I drove all the cars at our jurors retreat in Hell, Michigan. I chose ... neither.

I’m like the Miss Universe judge holding up the Miss Guyana placard while everyone else voted Miss Sweden. I chose the Mazda MX-5 Miata and Honda Pilot.

Funny, I got along so well last year with my fellow scribes when I voted for both winners, the VW Golf and Ford F-150. This year I’m on Planet Payne. Let me explain.

First to Car of the Year:

My NACTOY colleague and host of ceremonies, Tony Swan, likes to say that “there aren’t any bad cars anymore.” That was especially true in this year’s competition. The 53 jurors winnowed eligible 2016 model candidates to three: The Civic, Miata, and Chevy Malibu. Jurors got 10 points to distribute to their favorites. The vote came down to the wire with the Civic getting 203 votes; the Malibu, 181, and Miata, 146.

Civic deserves to win. It sets a new segment benchmark. Honda’s engineers – embarrassed that the previous generation got shrugs from critics – worked 28-hour days and benchmarked the new car to the all-world Audi A3, for goodness sake. The result is a compact car that leads its segment in fuel economy, rear seat room, smartphone connectivity and handling. Heck, the only thing the Civic doesn’t do is shine your shoes. It’s terrific. It’ll sell a zillion copies.

The Chevy was deserving, too, in that it was the first Malibu I’ve driven that I remembered. The old ones were all so ... vanilla. This one has lots of tasty bits to gnaw on. Its interior is so ergonomically correct, GM’s engineers must have lived with their customers. Apple Car Play and Android Auto. Check. Center console storage. Check. Rear seat legroom. Check. And the rear end looks like it rolled off the Audi A7 assembly line. The front end looks like a 6-year old’s Mr. Potatohead project, but it’s a minor quibble. Best Malibu ever.

Civic and Malibu. Both mainstream cars accessible to everyman. But both take a backseat to my Miata even though the little sports car doesn’t even have a backseat. Indeed, I barely fit in the thing.

But I am still grinning after driving it last year.

A popular journalism meme these days is that America’s love affair with the car is over. We are sick of traffic, fearful of global warming, ready for self-driving cars so we can concentrate on our smartphones, yada yada.

The Miata is proof that we’re still auto romantics. After 26 years, the Miata is still the same toss-able toy we fell in love with a quarter century ago. It’s topless fun, and it’s not the only one. It represents a whole toy chest of cars – Mustang, Golf GTI, Scion FR-S, Corvette – that still makes us smile. Long live Miata.

On the truck front, the vote wasn’t even close. The Swedish bombshell steamrolled the competition with 310 points. The Honda Pilot (111) and Nissan Titan XD (109) were left in the dust. I’m a Pilot fan.

Sure, the gorgeous XC90 looks like it should be in a furniture museum. Its lush interior woods, iPad-like console and leather seats are rivaled only by the big Scandinavian’s chiseled exterior, including LED headlights shaped like Thor’s hammer. And even though upper-trim models cost 70 grand, the Volvo has an underdog’s story to tell.

Left for dead after its split from Ford, Volvo was rescued from the animal shelter by the Chinese. Now, it’s producing stars like the XC90. “They didn’t produce a new car for eight years,” explains my NACTOY colleague, Jon McElroy. “To see what they have achieved in the XC90 as a small player is remarkable.”

But a small player it is. In a small luxury segment. The nicely restyled Pilot, meanwhile, plays in one of the toughest, high-volume segments in the market. The mid-size SUV has set a new standard for interior family convenience. Its purse-friendly, sliding-center console is ingenious and should be copied by every manufacturer. And its one-button, third-row seat access (ahem, pay attention, Volvo) means kids can easily let themselves in and out of the car.

Put a Miata and a Pilot in your garage and you won’t break the budget. But you’ll break into plenty of smiles.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne.