Handicapping the Truck of the Year awards
Later this month, some of the nation's top automotive journalists will gather in Hell, Mich., 60 miles west of Detroit, for their annual three-day shakedown of the best of the year's new car and trucks.
The back-to-back comparison tests are part of the work that goes into the selection of the North American Car and Truck/Utility of the Year award, now in its 20th year, which will be announced at the Detroit auto show in January.
Winnowing the 10 contenders for the truck award has been simpler than on the car side because the original list contained only 15 vehicles. Oddly, three of the five vehicles that didn't make the cut were from Mercedes: The G, GL, and GLK. They are fine vehicles all, but they didn't clear the bar for innovation and value that are among the qualities on which the writers grade the entries.
While the jurors (of whom I am one) won't be voting until December, it is possible to make some informed guesses about which way they are leaning. Last week, I broke down the list of nominees for the car award. This week, I will try my luck with trucks, sport utilities, and crossovers.
Domestics dominate the truck-of-the-year voting, and Ford dominates the domestics, winning five of the past 19 awards. The hybrid C-Max has already been positioned as Ford's Prius fighter, which makes it a patriotic vote in the battle for better fuel economy (the EPA says up 47 miles per gallon, city/47 mpg, highway). The C-Max also benefits from a new name (borrowed from a European model) and gives jurors a chance to show they are enthusiastic about more than horsepower.
Full-size pickups are uniquely American, and jurors love them, voting five of them tops in the truck category in the past 19 years. A Dodge Ram was the winner in the award's first year, 1994. This year's Ram, shorn of the Dodge brand, is the only entry among nominees with a traditional bed in the back, which makes it a guaranteed attention-getter, though it will suffer because its mechanical improvements are seen as incremental rather than transformational, and its design is little-changed. Jurors may be saving their votes for GM's new pickup trucks that come out next year.
This is my dark-horse favorite. The CX-5 launched early in the year and thus is no longer top of mind. But it has won rapturous reviews for its drivability, and Mazdas are popular with enthusiasts because of their originality and the company's willingness to explore new roads. Mazda has had a winner in this category before -- the CX-9 took the crown in 2007 -- so keep an eye on it.
BMWs always command a lot of attention, and the X1 enters a brand-new segment for the automaker. Some of its praise has been faint -- one reviewer called it a "1-series five-door hatchback" -- and it ranks low on the value scale, but you can't dismiss the stature of the brand. If gas prices continue to rise, the X1's profile could go up as well.
Hyundai Santa Fe Sport
Hyundai is still a fast-riser in the automotive world, and the popularity of the Santa Fe has caused it to clone the nameplate: the two-row Santa Fe Sport and the three-row Santa Fe. The Sport is the first one out, but the imminent arrival of the longer one is likely to leave unanswered questions in voters' minds. No Korean automaker has ever won the truck-of-the-year award.
Japan's Big Three automakers have only won truck of the year three times, and the RDX isn't likely to reverse that trend. Another subject of faint praise from reviewers -- one called it "pleasant" -- overall competence isn't a discriminating characteristic here. The entire Acura line has been in eclipse lately, and the RDX isn't likely to change that.
The Pathfinder will get a more thorough examination than usual as it moves from old body-on-frame to unibody construction. It is lighter and gets better mileage, although it won't be hauling many horse trailers. But going up against the Ford Explorer and the Toyota Highlander, the Pathfinder is no market leader, and this year it must share contest attention with the Altima on the car side.
Infiniti JX 35
Bad luck for the JX 35 to be competing in the same year as the Pathfinder because reviewers say only a few hundred pounds and different suspension and engine tuning differentiate the two cars from the same automaker. Examining how manufacturers erect two brands -- one upscale -- on a single platform might make a good master's thesis but isn't going to help the JX35 with jurors. A somewhat controversial design and lackluster performance won't help its chances either.
The startlingly redesigned Escape would have been this year's odds-on favorite, were it not for a series of embarrassing recalls for engine, gas line, and pedal placement problems. It has been a hit with reviewers and customers, but jurors pay close attention to recalls and value the integrity of the award too much to vote for a vehicle whose reputation is suspect. Memories can be short, but there have been too many headlines with "Escape" and "engine fire" in them.
When automakers mark up the price of an existing model by adding new trim and making other tweaks and then renaming the result, auto writers delight in pointing out what they regard as deceptive marketing. The otherwise admirable Subaru XV Crosstrek didn't make the list of finalists this year because it was perceived to be a tarted-up Impreza with a higher suspension and more plastic body trim. The allroad is viewed as a fancy and more expensive A4 Avant, and even Audi's soaring reputation won't be enough to rescue it from last place in this year's voting.