Handicapping the finalists for North American Car, Truck of Year

You never see the people who most appreciate the yearly awards handed out to automakers for best car, best truck, best engine, best this and best that.

Automakers love winning these awards. Most would dispatch an executive to Nome, Alaska, in February to pick up some shiny hardware for the company’s trophy case. One reason automakers covet these awards, of course, is so they can tout them in ads.

Another reason awards are important is because they acknowledge the work of engineers hunched over computers from dawn to dusk, designers shaping clay models on quiet weekends, writers slinging computer code to make the hardware work, and countless others who toil away in the machine shops and dyno labs far away from the klieg lights of auto shows and sound bites and headlines.

Those people almost never get any outside recognition for their work. Awards boost their morale.

When I worked at Ford, I was amazed to see the awards for engines passing through the various powertrain departments being treated with the same reverie as hockey players do the Stanley Cup.

Having had that experience, I view my role as a juror on the panel that decides the North American Car and Truck of the Year perhaps a bit differently than some of the other jurors.

Billions of man-hours went into the creation of this year’s six finalists -- cars: Ford Mustang, Volkswagen Golf and Hyundai Genesis; trucks: Ford F-150, Chevrolet Colorado, and Lincoln MKC.

Though none is perfect, a case can be made for each that it deserves to win. But only two will. The winners will be revealed Jan. 12 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

My votes are not yet cast. I have test driven most versions of the finalists, and I have a lot of thinking to do. I welcome your comments. Here are some notes on the six finalists.

Cars

Ford Mustang: No gripes with its handling performance thanks to an independent rear suspension and a newly redesigned front suspension. The four-cylinder turbo engine is capable, and the fuel economy can be decent if driven with a light foot. The V-8 powered GT is the real star here, but, wow, America’s sports car has gotten expensive. The V-6 starts at $24,425 including shipping, the turbo is priced from $25,995, and the GT starts at $32,925. Most GT buyers won’t get out the door for less than $40,000. That’s a ton of coin. Weight is up, too. And to my eyes, the Mustang’s styling is unresolved in some areas.

Volkswagen Golf: This was the biggest surprise of the year. VW has nailed the chassis, giving its perennial hatchback sports car-like handling along with a quiet, comfortable and compliant ride. The interior is best in class in looks, equipment, layout and materials. The starting price of $18,815 with shipping is accessible to the masses. Buyers can opt for a diesel engine that gives a cruising range of more than 700 miles per tank. I can find nothing about the Golf to dislike -- except, perhaps, VW’s lingering quality issues. We don’t know yet if this car finally solves them.

Hyundai Genesis: This car wasn’t a surprise so much as it was a shock. The Genesis is precisely the kind of high-quality, rear-wheel-drive luxury car Lincoln should be building. It is handsome and generously equipped with a long list of safety and creature-comfort features. A pair of pleasingly powerful engines, V-6 or V-8, and a user-friendly infotainment system give the big luxury sedan the chops to compete with the segment leaders. All other automakers could go to school on the car’s easy-to-read head-up display system, which projects speed, safety and other info on the lower left of the windshield. The nearly $55,000 Genesis V-8 is the luxury bargain of the decade.

Trucks

Ford F-150: Turns out the F-150 is more of a manufacturing story than it is a product story. The redesign is conservative. The aluminum-bodied 2015 doesn’t look markedly different than the steel-bodied 2014. The transmission and three of the four available engines are basically the same as last year, and the EPA fuel economy ratings were a disappointment. Steering, handling and braking, as well as overall refinement, however, are dramatically improved. The truck is filled with smart features and loads of segment-first technologies. The interior design is very classy, though it is marred with too much hard plastic. The F-150’s price has ballooned accordingly. It was a strong favorite to bring home the hardware but has faded down the stretch as it has been discovered that the F-150 is, after all, just a truck.

Chevrolet Colorado: General Motors failed with the first-gen Colorado that ran from 2004-12. It took guts to try it again. Since the original Colorado debuted, the pickup market has changed. Full-sized pickups are now super-sized and super-priced. Today’s pickups are about as big as the heavy-duty versions used to be. The new Colorado has earned strong reviews for its quiet ride, agreeable size, athletic handling and stylish, well-equipped interior. There is some price overlap with the Silverado, but there is a significant gulf in most models. Colorado should be a winner in the showroom. Enthusiasts have been asking for a smaller truck with an available diesel, and Chevrolet is delivering. But this is GM we’re talking about here. GM’s record for snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory -- mostly because of poor marketing -- is unrivaled.

Lincoln MKC: Too bad the F-150 and the Colorado are going to get most of the votes in the truck category. Ford has finally cracked the code and figured out how to create two distinct vehicles from one platform. You sit in an MKC and you have no clue its bones are based on the Ford Escape. The MKC doesn’t look, feel, sound or behave like the Escape. The leather and wood interior shows Ford learned plenty about style, color and texture from its days as parent of England’s Jaguar and Land Rover. MKC’s 2.3-liter turbo four delivers solid performance and good fuel economy. Handling and braking are superb, and the base price of $33,995 with shipping is attractive.

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