On Jan. 9, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the Hyundai Elantra and Land Rover's Range Rover Evoque were voted North American Car and Truck of the Year (NACOTY). Fifty automotive journalists reduced 17 cars and seven trucks to three finalists in each category, and voted for the winners.
Now the stopwatch is running. At some point, Jay Leno will wonder on national TV: "What were they thinking?"
Consider last year's winners: the Chevrolet Volt and the Ford Explorer. New technology abounded in both. The Volt cunningly reinvented the hybrid diesel locomotive, where an internal combustion engine shares the work with batteries to power the vehicle. But the price tag was an electric shock, and only 6,142 were sold in the first 11 months of 2011, far below the goal of 10,000. The Volt's credibility also took a hit after its batteries caught on fire in the weeks following three government crash tests. Though federal safety regulators gave the Volt an all-clear last month, concluding that the car does not pose any unusual risk of fire, and GM acted quickly to make modifications to the car that would fix the issue, it remains to be seen how consumers will respond.
Meanwhile Ford included a complicated, glitch-prone electronic application in the Explorer, and while the car was widely praised in the press for other features, owners and journalists found MyFord Touch to be very frustrating. Still, with 121,832 sold as of Dec. 1, the Blue Oval will resolve its teething troubles, possibly with the free major software upgrade it is offering owners this year.
Car and Driver's Tony Swan was editor-in-chief at Motor Trend in the early 1980s and is now on the NACOTY organizing committee. He remembers the Renault Alliance being named Motor Trend's Car of the Year in 1983, and also to Car and Driver's 10 Best.
"The problem for any new car magazine is that it's impossible to forecast what the car's durability/reliability performance will be," Swan said.
Also on the NACOTY panel is Scott Oldham, editor-in-chief at Edmunds.com. "You could come up with a piece of junk, but if others are junkier, your piece of junk wins car of the year. Still, sometimes your editorial compass is off," he sighed, noting that Edmunds picked the Pontiac Solstice as one of the most significant new cars in 2006. Last month, it made Edmunds' Top 100 Worst Cars Ever. "We got a 'long-termer' (test car)," he said.
Manufacturers are glad to have their cars included on any list that might bring public attention. "Buyers who have already made an emotional decision are looking for a third party endorsement," said Scott Brown of Chrysler Communications.
Tony Quiroga of Car and Driver thinks tying awards to brand new cars is risky, and the magazine includes previous winners in the contest, or losers if they have major changes. "We end up with a list of about 60-70 cars and vote on each car on a 0-100 scale," he said. "The highest and lowest votes are thrown out, the numbers are averaged and we have our 10 Best list," he said. "The Honda Accord has been on the list 26 or 27 times. The BMW 3 Series has the longest consecutive run – on the list through three generations, and since 1992."
Let's look at some decisions from past years. Prior to 1994 there was no overall Car of the Year choice, with multiple judges. Motor Trend started its single award in 1949, while other publications favored "best" lists.
Top 5 questionable Car of the Year winners1972 Citroen SM
French Rubik's cube had fragile Maserati V-6 motor, and 2,200 psi hydraulic system prone to heart attacks. No long-term test, for sure. When Peugeot took over Citroen in 1976, it scrapped unsold survivors.
1971 Chevrolet Vega
Aluminum block, steel-liner emulsion engine had about 20,000-mile lifespan and body had chronic rust issues. "Do you hear what they're saying about Vega?" said the ads. Indeed …
1958 Ford Thunderbird
Cynical replacement for '55-'57 two-seater was 4,000-pound, boxy four-seater pig that outsold handsome predecessor two-to-one. Now worth half as much as the two-seaters.
1981 Chrysler K-cars
Sentimental award for Lee Iacocca and a sigh of relief that Chrysler would continue. A rare case of aiming low and connecting: dogged survivors standbys for rural mailmen.
1983 AMC/Renault Alliance
Kenosha-built Renault 9 was doomed by quality control, or lack of it, poor dealer support, and the fact that America is really BIG compared to Europe. Owners of British cars already knew that. The last AMC car sold to many people.
Top 5 cars that should have won Car of the Year1964½ Mustang
Ford won an "overall accomplishment" award in 1964, but that's like a Lifetime Achievement Oscar before you die. The Mustang won a Tiffany Award for Design, but who remembers that? Still, it paced the Indy 500, and Ford sold 1 million Mustangs in two years.
1963 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray
Larry Shinoda's razor-sharp, split-window coupe still draws crowds, and the five Grand Sports command $5 million and up. This got many awards later, but the 1963 COTY went to American Motors. Really.
1984 Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager
Chrysler's lunch pail-on-wheels rendered station wagons obsolete, and 13 million have been sold in 80 countries. But it didn't win COTY until 1996 redesign. The 1984 winner was restyled (but troublesome) C4 Corvette.
1987 Buick Grand National
Last version of the turbo-charged, V-6, rear-wheel drive holdout was fastest 0-60 car in the U.S. Rare GNX version could do 0-60 in 4.7 seconds. 1987 COTY winner was the Ford Thunderbird Turbo coupe, and when did you last see one?
1967 Chevrolet Camaro
Handsome, late answer to Ford Mustang sold 220,937 examples at launch but established a lasting franchise, with the '69s a high point and with hot COPO variations. COTY winner in '67 was Mercury Cougar, the "Mustang for the middle-aged".