Why North American Car, Truck and Utility of the Year champs won big
The North American Car, Truck and Utility of the Year awards were announced Monday, on the same day as the Academy Awards nominees. Which is appropriate, because NACTOY is often referred to as the auto industry’s Oscars.
I’m one of 50 jurors for NACTOY, and I also thought the NACTOY/Oscar coincidence appropriate because they both got it right. Unlike last year.
“Green Book” won best picture last year over “A Star is Born” and “Black Panther”? Really? I was equally perplexed that the sensational Mazda 6 sedan and Jeep Wrangler didn’t get nominations for 2019 car and SUV of the year. The Wrangler (240,000 in sales) was passed over for the Jaguar i-Pace EV (2,500 sold)? Huh?
But this year, all is right with the world. “Ford v Ferrari” is nominated for Best Picture, and my fellow jurors and I are aligned on best car (Chevrolet Corvette), sport utility (Kia Telluride) and truck (Jeep Gladiator). In fact, each won their class comfortably.
The only thing that really stood between the Corvette and the trophy was whether it would be eligible in 2020. The first mid-engine Corvette – unlike its 2020 peers – won’t go on sale until late in the first quarter of this year due to a lengthy UAW strike that froze manufacturing at GM’s Bowling Green, Kentucky plant.
After a quick huddle, the jury agreed this was Corvette’s year.
It lapped the field, garnering 332 points to runner-up Hyundai Sonata (133) and Toyota Supra (35). (Each of the 50 members of the automotive press on the jury had 10 points to distribute in each category.) Indeed, the biggest surprise this year was that the Supra edged the Mazda 3 hatchback as a finalist. The Toyota, after all, is a low-volume $50,000 sports car, whereas the Mazda rocked the high-volume compact car class with premium exterior and interior design.
No doubt, some of my fellow jurors were drugged by Supra’s addictive handling and goosebump-inducing, BMW-developed inline six-cylinder. The Hyundai, too, brought premium touches to $30,000 mid-size sedans — check out its Tesla-like summon feature and wicked wardrobe.
But there was no denying the eighth-generation Corvette.
Chevy took a huge risk by tearing up tradition and rendering its icon as a mid-engine sports car. The Corvette team nailed it. The C8 offers stunning styling, interior and performance for a quarter the cost of comparable European exotics.
For example, the rear-wheel-drive Corvette (when equipped with Z51 performance package for a sticker price of $65,000) will sprint from zero-60 in 2.9 seconds — the same time as a $270,000 AWD Lamborghini Huracan. I’ll wait while you pick up your jaw from the floor.
The SUV category was never really in doubt either, though the Telluride (240 points) got a good run from its sister Hyundai Palisade (147). The Koreans share architectures and clever features (USB ports in the seatbacks, third-row speaker for driver-to-rugrats communication). Indeed, I found the Palisade’s clever console superior to the Telluride for daily livability.
But jurors were blown away by the Telluride’s good looks and rugged vibe.
There was jury buzz that the Koreans might split the vote — allowing the luxurious Aviator to cruise by into first place. But that would have been a shame. The Telluride is a luxury-worthy, mainstream SUV that costs an incredible $20,000 less than the Lincoln.
Making up for the Wrangler snub of a year ago, the Jeep Gladiator walked away with Truck of the Year honors with 273 points. It was never in doubt.
The runner-up Ram Heavy Duty (122 points) — like 2019 truck champ Ram 1500 — has redefined heavy-duty luxury with its tablet screen and luscious interior materials. But HD’s are hardly mainstream tools. Ford’s Ranger made a jubilant return to the midsize pickup fray after taking an off-ramp in 2012.
But the Ranger’s common interior paled next to the Gladiator’s signature offering of aviator vents and off-road grab handle. Jurors were also impressed that the Jeep boys didn’t just mail in a Wrangler-with-a-bed offering. The Gladiator is all new from the B-pillar rearward, offering upgraded tricks like sub rear-seat storage and a sophisticated multi-link rear suspension adopted from cousin Ram.
Armed with a second transfer-case shifter, removable doors and rock-tested skid plates, the Jeep takes the middie-segment to places — off-roading in the Rubicon, anyone? — that pickup trucks haven’t dreamed of going before.
That armor will cost you a $2,500 premium over similarly equipped pickups, but the Gladiator’s hot sales are proof of the jury’s good taste.
And so we soldier on into the 2020s. Hotly anticipated trucks and utes will continue to roll. Look for the new Chevy Tahoe and Suburban, Ram Dakota, Ford Bronco, Land Rover Defender and Chevy Trailblazer.
But with the market due for a flood of electric vehicles including the Rivian R1T pickup/R1S SUV, and the Ford Mustang Mach-E and Tesla Model Y crossovers, I’ll go out on a limb and predict NACTOY will get its first-ever electric truck and SUV Oscar winners.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.