By Alex Taylor III
October 2, 2012

Handicapping the Car of the Year awards

It isn’t quite like being an Oscar nominee, but the North American Car and Truck of the Year organization has announced the finalists for its car and truck of the year awards. The eventual winners will be voted from those lists and their identity will be revealed at the Detroit auto show in January.

Endorsements by third parties like the journalists on the NACTOY panel are increasingly important in the car business, and the awards, now in their 20th year, have been growing in visibility. (Full disclosure: I am one of the 50 jurors). So it is not too soon to start handicapping the contest to see who the early favorites are.

Jurors are asked to drive and evaluate cars for factors like innovation, handling, performance, safety, and value for dollar. And like the members of the motion picture Academy, they are subject to their own predilections and interests. Critics have decried a hometown tilt by jurors, many of whom are based in Detroit. Executives at Toyota are still angry that the revolutionary hybrid Prius was passed over in 2001 for the cute but inconsequential Plymouth PT Cruiser for Car of the Year. (The snub was partly corrected when the next-generation Prius won the award in 2004).

In recent years, Car of the Year voting has shifted to a more international outlook (Volkswagen and Range Rover were winners in 2012), but it still favors the domestics. Detroit has won 10 awards, Asian automakers but four. Toyota’s Camry, perennially the best-selling car in the U.S., has never won and has been a finalist only once.

This year, the short list is balanced — five American cars, five Japanese, one European — but the betting here is that hometown pride will once again be the deciding factor in who wins North American Car of the Year.

Cadillac ATS

For years, General Motors has been trying, and failing, to build a car that could compete with BMW’s 3-series. The ATS is this year’s fighter and has been scoring very well in road tests. Unlike other automakers, GM tends to get judged against itself — how much better a new model is vs. the one it replaces — rather than the competition. With all that in mind, the ATS is clearly “the best Cadillac ever.”

Odds of winning: 3-1

Ford Fusion

The sophisticated design of the Fusion has made it a popular favorite since it was uncovered at the Detroit auto show last January. Ford CEO Alan Mulally is now a Motown legend, and the Fusion is considered the pinnacle of his One Ford strategy. All the reviews aren’t in yet, but picking Fusion would be seen as a valedictory for Mulally’s tenure at Ford.

Odds of winning: 3-1

Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S

Enthusiasts at heart, Car of the Year jurors like to flaunt their inner boy racer by giving a boost to sports cars. The Chevrolet Corvette was a winner in 1998, and both the Pontiac Solstice and Nissan 350Z were voted finalists in the past. The Subaru and the Scion have received glowing reviews, but since they were jointly developed and are essentially the same car under the skin, they will likely split the vote.

Odds of winning: 6-1

BMW 3-series

Year after year, BMWs populate more “Best Car” lists than any other manufacturer, and the 3-series is the gold standard of compact sport sedans. But this year’s version has received only faint praise for its lack of breakthrough innovation, and jurors will be looking for other manufacturers to elevate to the pantheon.

Odds of winning: 9-1

Honda Accord

The last few years have been difficult for Honda, and industry observers are watching for signs of a turnaround. The Accord has never made it to the winner’s circle, but jurors do like Hondas. This year’s iteration, however, is more evolutionary than revolutionary, so it may be too soon to return Honda to its former stature.

Odds of winning: 12-1

Nissan Altima

Usually a dark horse in Car of the Year competitions, the Altima was a winner in 2002, and this year Nissan has produced its strongest entry in a decade. If gas prices stay high, Altima’s 37 mpg highway rating could be a deciding factor, but the could also be it failing. The car gets downgraded by hot-shoe jurors who find its fuel-sipping CVT transmission, which contributes to its high gas mileage, too lazy for driving pleasure.

Odds of winning: 12-1

Dodge Dart

A vote for the Dart is a vote for Sergio Marchionne and his ongoing revival of Chrysler, but aside from its Alfa-Romeo heritage, the Dart doesn’t strike many other resonant notes, and its execution has been judged less than outstanding. Chrysler may yet get its day in the sun, but not this year.

Odds of winning: 25-1

Lincoln MKZ

A landmark for Ford’s surviving luxury brand, the MKZ is the first product of Lincoln’s latest renaissance. Its design and underpinning are widely praised, yet voters will be reluctant to add to the MKZ’s accolades without seeing widespread market acceptance — difficult to gauge for this late-in-the-year launch.

Odds of winning: 25-1

Toyota Avalon

Another late-year rollout, the Avalon also suffers under the twin handicaps of being a Toyota, which is unpopular with jurors, and the Avalon name, which is associated with cars for old people. The slick new design may hasten the day when the “Japanese Buick” appeals to a wider audience, but it won’t be this year.

Odds of winning: 50-1

Chevrolet Malibu

The Malibu has been taking its lumps in both the business and enthusiast press, criticized for inadequate fuel economy, a cramped interior, and poor value. Surprisingly, it beat out an Acura, a BMW, a Cadillac, a Lexus, and two electric vehicles for a spot on the short list. Don’t expect to see it go any further.

Odds of winning: None

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