2011 NA Car of the Year Semifinalists Announced
By Charles Krome
In a sure sign that the auto show season is just around the corner, the 10 semifinalists for the annual North American Car of the Year award have been announced. It’s one of the more interesting honors in the industry, since the judges are automotive journalists from across the U.S. and Canada, not just the editorial (and advertising?) team of a single media outlet. In other words, you don’t have to worry about a car like the Suzuki Kizashi taking home high honors just because its automaker has a friendly relationship with a given magazine. That being said, it’s also worth pointing out that this doesn’t guarantee a better class of winners. Just consider that three of the last four COTY vehicles—the Ford Fusion hybrid, Hyundai Genesis and Saturn Aura—have been essentially non-starters with customers, and the fourth, the Chevrolet Malibu, is a badge-engineered Aura.
Will the 2011 honoree be any different? Well, let’s take a look at the 14 cars that COTY jurors selected as semifinalists, drawn from the 27 new or “substantially changed” models that were eligible for the 2011 prize.
The list naturally includes the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan LEAF, two cars that could help truly revolutionize the industry. But I’m thinking they’ll also split the “electric vehicle” vote, with each preventing the other from being Car of the Year. The Volt and LEAF also face another obstacle. The final ballots go out in December and I’m expecting a fair number of complaints about these vehicles’ ranges to come in at the same time. The culprit here is the decision to launch these vehicles in late 2010, i.e., during the winter. Cold weather is widely known to significantly cut down on the power of these cars’ batteries, and I’m predicting a serious backlash when that really starts sinking in among owners and the media.
Then there are some 3.5 luxury vehicles on the COTY short list, including the Audi A8, Jaguar XJ, Inifiniti M series and Buick Regal. From a practical standpoint, high price tags alone are enough to keep the Audi and Jag from winning—the awards have historically gone to more mundane entries—and the Infiniti simply doesn’t raise ye olde bar in any notable way. That leaves the Regal, a car that hasn’t had nearly the impact of the 2010 Buick LaCrosse, which lost out to the Fusion hybrid in last year’s voting. I’m tempted to say that if the LaCrosse didn’t win, there’s no way the Regal can. After all, the two vehicles are priced within $250 of each other, yet the Regal offers customers a smaller, less attractive package without any benefits over its bigger brother. On the other hand, the debut of the hi-po Regal GS at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November may change some people’s opinions, making the Regal a bit of a dark-horse possibility in the race.
The Hyundia-Kia duo have a pair of COTY semifinalists in the Hyundai Sonata family (including the turbo and hybrid versions) and the Kia Optima. But the recent recall of about 140,000 Sonatas, on top of recalls for the Kia Soul and Sorento, give me a sudden bad feeling here.
The Nissan Juke is too ugly to live win, and the Volvo S60 too irrelevant—and let’s not even mention the latter company’s recent difficulties with crash-avoidance technologies that don’t live up to their name. The 2011 VW Jetta? Similar to the Buick deal, if the better Volkswagen entry (the 2009 Jetta TDI) didn’t win in the past, I don’t see how this year’s watered-down model stands a chance.
That brings us to the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Fiesta and Mazda MAZDA2, which basically means a choice between the Bowtie and the Blue Oval: The Mazda has been completely out-hyped by its Fiesta cousin and is viewed by many as only a slightly more athletic version of the same.
As a result, we’re left with two high-profile small cars, sold by two high-profile U.S. automakers, featuring both content and MSRPs that are at the premium end of their segments. And my gut instinct here is that the Fiesta will be the 2011 Car of the Year. The Cruze’s ability to match the smaller Fiesta’s 40 mpg highway mark is worth a mention, and its blander styling and bigger size will likely mean bigger sales, too. But the Fiesta is a more dynamic vehicle in just about every way, and there will certainly remain some anti-GM bias in the voting as well.
Besides, I hear the Fiesta is a pretty big deal.