by Tony Whitney

As has become a firm tradition in recent years, the recent Detroit auto show featured a much-awaited announcement after the initial opening ceremonies – the awards for North American Car and Truck of the Year (NACTOY). Not to be confused with the respected Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) awards, NACTOY involves media people on both sides of the border and operates in a very independent fashion, with no support from the auto industry.

There are close to 50 media types across North America who form the judging panel (I’m one of them) and they cover all kinds of outlets from national U.S. newspapers to network TV shows in both Canada and the US. The jurors represent an interesting cross-section of journalists serving all kinds of readerships and audiences. Some judges are involved with specialist magazines serving auto buffs while others handle auto industry coverage chores at major regional daily newspapers. Others host TV shows with huge audiences, so whichever automaker wins out can boast of being judged by a group of men and women with very extensive knowledge of the auto industry and its products. Automakers covet these awards like no other and victories are proudly trumpeted at auto shows across the world.

2005 Chrysler 300C
2005 Chrysler 300C, North American Car of the Year. Photo: DaimlerChrysler. Click image to enlarge

Despite the status of these awards, the organization behind NACTOY is a very modest operation run by a small but dedicated group of individuals in the U.S. and Canada. NACTOY judges are given a shortlist of products in Car and Truck categories which is put together by a subcommittee. Usually, this amounts to a roster of the very best and most innovative cars, SUVs minivans and pickups launched in North America over the months prior to final voting in December.

Just about every vehicle category imaginable is covered in every price range, size and country of origin. This year, after much deliberation, the jurors came up with three finalists for each category and these were displayed at the “announcement of winners” press conference at Detroit’s Cobo Hall in early January. In the Car of the Year category, it was the Ford Mustang, Chrysler 300C and Chevrolet Corvette. In Truck of the Year, the three finalists that edged out their rivals were the Ford Freestyle, the Ford Escape Hybrid and the Land Rover LR3.

This model year has produced some truly outstanding vehicles and many landmark products didn’t make it into the final trio. The new Ford Mustang, for example, is a beautifully rendered re-creation on the Mustang theme and is certainly the best Mustang ever from a dynamic standpoint. The new ‘Vette is confirmation – if ever that was needed – that there’s no better value on the planet when it comes to “performance for the buck.” Chrysler’s 300C has already garnered many awards for its bold looks, excellent fit and finish and superb performance with its Hemi powerplant.

Ford had a lock on the truck category and couldn’t lose whichever vehicle topped the polls (Land Rover is a part of Ford’s Premier Automotive Group). The Escape Hybrid cements the notion that hybrids are now a part of the automotive mainstream and the new LR3 is a superbly stylish and luxurious replacement for the old Discovery model. The Freestyle is an innovative crossover vehicle that’s likely to reinforce the feeling that “Ford is back” with exciting new products and lots of original thinking.

2005 Ford Escape Hybrid
2005 Ford Escape Hybrid. Photo: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

When the votes were counted it was the Chrysler 300C that came out on top in the car category while the Ford Escape Hybrid took truck accolades. Fans of domestic vehicles were celebrating the fact that North American-built products dominated the voting this year, though there were certainly some very fine import and import nameplate vehicles up for consideration. Last year, incidentally, the Toyota Prius took Car of the Year and Ford’s F-150 won the truck category. As a fascinating aside, the Prius recently won European Car of the Year, bucking a trend that has favoured European products in that competition for decades.

Tomorrow, AJAC will announce its picks for Car of the Year and Truck of the Year at the Toronto auto show, and don’t be a bit surprised if the NACTOY results are duplicated. Both the Chrysler 300C and Ford Escape Hybrid won their AJAC categories, so both could be big winners in Canada.

There’s yet another award to be handed out – that for World Car of the Year. I suppose it had to come, because no organization has ever tried to stage such an event, what with the differing model ranges offered in various countries. According to what I’ve been told, the winning vehicle in World Car of the Year has to be sold in all the countries in which the judging panel resides, which should narrow the field quite a bit. I’ll report on this fascinating concept in a future column.

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