The three vehicles that earned my NACTOY votes
DETROIT — Last week, most of the 57 jurors who will vote for North American Car, Truck and Utility of the year gathered at a hotel east of Ann Arbor and spent three days test driving about 70 vehicles.
My Automotive News colleague Sharon Silke Carty and I, along with the rest of the jurors will soon whittle that number down to nine. The finalists will be announced next month at the Los Angeles Auto Show, and the winners will be named Jan. 14 during media days at the Detroit auto show.
I have a pretty good idea which contenders have the chops to make the final cut. This year's semifinalists are strong, but there were some surprises — good and bad.
My method for testing NACTOY contenders is to group together the class competitors (cars, trucks and utility vehicles) and drive them back-to-back. This helps me detect the flaws and strengths of the vehicles in an orderly manner.
Here's my take.
I left this year's drive worried about General Motors and Ford. GM has four vehicles in the running: the Cadillac XT4, Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra and Buick Regal TourX wagon. Ford's entry is the Lincoln Nautilus crossover.
GM and Ford are pouring billions into self-driving car technology. There is only so much money to go around, and my fear is that product development at both automakers is suffering because of the huge drain on resources to fund technologies that don't have a business case — yet.
The GM vehicles are all good but not good enough to win. All have some major flaws that put their sales potential at risk. GM's redesigned pickups are clearly designed and built to show the massive depth and breadth of GM as a first-rate engineering and manufacturing organization. They are as smooth and quiet as Cadillacs (well some Cadillacs — more on that later). Despite the fact the rear suspension still uses 200 year-old leafspring technology, the ride is compliant and quiet and the pickup handles bumps and curves well.
But it's too bad the product development budget didn't include enough money for interiors that progressed as dramatically as the pickups' innovative mixed material lightweight body and advanced powertrains. You drive the Silverado and the Sierra and you know you are in a very good pickup. But other companies are moving faster and pushing further.
Take a Ram 1500 Laramie Longhorn for a ride over the same driving course, and you know you are in a great truck, one that makes you feel like you've got something special for the $50,000-plus you just spent. The interior is bedecked with high quality, soft-touch materials that don't just feel good to the touch, but appeal to your eyes as well. The ornate filigree on the bright metal trim is not unlike what you might find on an expensive custom-made saddle.
And the stop-start system in the eTorque hybrid version of the Ram is the best one I've ever tested. It's undetectable. The engine turns on and off with no noticeable noise or vibration. The infotainment system may be the best on the road. It's intuitive and doesn't distract your eyes from the road. The Ram 1500 is the complete package and checks all the boxes. Clearly, the Ram 1500 is going to get my vote for Truck of the Year.
I've heard rumors that GM is already working on major upgrades to the Silverado/Sierra interiors and that could appear in about a year. Failure to do that means treading water for yet another generation of pickups.
Ford's F-150 pickup — the vehicle that traditionally generates much of the company's profits — is now vulnerable being the oldest of the top-selling trucks.
One vehicle I looked forward to driving was the Cadillac XT4 crossover. Now, to my eyes, that vehicle is nicely designed inside and out. I particularly like the instrument panel and its lower row of switches, shaped a bit like the famous Cadillac V used in some classic versions the brand's crest and wreath logo.
I didn't get far before I came to the conclusion that the XT4 doesn't deserve to wear a Cadillac badge.
The snarling 2.0-liter engine has the demeanor of an angry chainsaw running at full throttle. The suspension system was as subtle as a child's birthday party bounce house. Bottom line: Not class competitive, not even close. With the XT4, I wonder if GM ran out of funds to properly render a vehicle befitting the Cadillac badge?
The Buick TourX is a fine vehicle that GM is letting die by failing to promote its unique attributes of SUV-like utility in an easy to drive and park car. I visited a dealer recently, and a salesman there told me he has not sold even one TourX. There are no lease deals and no specific ads for the car. Too bad. TourX with proper promotion and marketing, could be a kind of under-the-radar cult hit.
I have no gripes about the Lincoln Nautilus. Cool name, very competent in all areas, very spiffy and stylish interior. An engineer told me the vehicle uses the thickest carpet ever used in a Ford or Lincoln vehicle.
But Ford has been beaten to the hybrid utility market by Toyota and several other automakers. Ford, you'll recall, was the first automaker with a hybrid crossover, the Escape, which sold well until Ford killed it in 2012. A new version is coming, but it is very late.
Now for some good surprises: There is no doubt in my mind that Hyundai has arrived as one of the world's elite automakers. The Genesis G70 sport sedan is a bona fide threat to BMW, Audi and Mercedes. The 3.3-liter twin-turbo V-6 is a rocket booster of an engine. The chassis is firm. The steering and brakes are dialed in perfectly.
Despite the copycat German influenced interior, the G70 was the best car I have tested this year.
Another Hyundai that I tested is the Kona compact crossover. I drove the battery electric version and came away very impressed with its refinement, range and overall quality.
Acura's RDX, despite having a schnoz inspired by the late comedian Jimmy Durante, is a terrific crossover — quiet, smooth, loaded with safety technology and equipped with a great sounding 2.0-liter turbo engine that is mated to a 10-speed automatic.
But the Jaguar I-Pace gets my vote as the utility of the year. It may have four doors and a higher ride height than a coupe, but it drives like a pure sports car. The torque from the twin electric motors is powerful and instant. The interior is typical Jaguar -- high quality and very stylish. True, the infotainment system can be fussy, but you forget that when you are driving. The I-Pace will get my vote for Utility of the Year.
The NACTOY judges all use different criteria to evaluate vehicles. Some place great emphasis on rear seat room, cargo capacity and equipment.
While those aspects are important to me, nothing is more crucial to me than how a vehicle is engineered and built and how it performs in relation to the sticker price. And for me it was those three traits that elevated the Ram 1500, Genesis G70 and Jaguar I-Pace over the rest of a strong field this year.
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