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North American Car of the Year Short List Revealed—And Reviewed

Charles Krome
by Charles Krome
December 19, 2011
3 min. Reading Time

In today’s Internet-fueled media environment, the auto industry produces about as many “vehicle of the year” awards as it does actual vehicles. But there’s just one award with enough clout to be considered the North American Car of the Year honor, and the folks involved have recently released their finalists for the 2012 recognition.

It’s a step up from the typical third-party award—at least theoretically—because of the “independence and the breadth and depth of the jury members’ expertise.” That is, any costs involved come from membership dues, not contributions from potential advertisers, etc., and the 50+ decision makers are all veteran auto journalists drafted from a wide range of different media outlets. The award will be presented on Jan. 9, 2012, in conjunction with the opening of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Only all-new or “substantially changed” vehicles are eligible for the honor, with the caveat that automakers must expect the cars to reach at least 5,000 annual North American sales. Which is something none of the 2012 finalists have had any trouble accomplishing.

Ford Focus

The Focus won this award back in 2000, when Ford introduced the first-generation model, but it’s unlikely to get handed the crown this time around. The car is a fairly dynamic driver, and is offered in a number of body styles and trim levels, but two of its prime differentiators—Ford’s SYNC in-car connectivity system and PowerShift six-speed automatic transmission—have drawn a fair amount of negative press. The Blue Oval has worked diligently to improve matters going forward, but SYNC remains a particularly polarizing feature that is likely to scare away as many customers as it attracts.

It’s a shame, too, since the rest of the car certainly presents a lot to love. Ford’s global design language makes the Focus one of the most sophisticated-looking entries in the compact segment, even in its sedan configuration, and the interior is top notch, quality-wise—although it is a bit on the tight side in some dimensions. As a random factoid, the Focus sedan offers 90.7 cubic feet of passenger volume as compared to the 94.6 cubic feet inside of the Honda Civic, although the latter has the smaller trunk. And the Kia Forte 5-door manages a whopping 97.5 cubic feet, albeit also at the expense of cargo room: the Ford has 23.8 cubic feet behind the second row, the Kia just 19.4.

And remember, Ford does offer the requisite 40-mpg choice in the form of the Focus SFE.

Prices for the Ford Focus start at $16,500.


Hyundai Elantra

Another potential obstacle for the Focus—in terms of winning North American Car of the Year—is the existence of the 2012 Hyundai Elantra. Much like the Focus, the Elantra is an all-new edition of a fairly popular compact; however, the Elantra’s sales have been headed in a different direction from the Focus’ lately. The Focus has now endured five straight months of sinking volume, while the Elantra has been in the black the entire year. The standings through November: Elantra, 173,336 sales, up 45.5 percent; Focus, 161,436 sales, up 1.1 percent.

Yet I’m thinking a substantial chunk of the Elantra advantage in sales is merely Hyundai’s positive inertia, not necessarily anything specific to the Elantra per se. For one thing, the Elantra no longer carries a particularly high-value price tag, with its MSRP opening at $16,455—that undercuts the Focus by exactly five bucks. In addition, there’s no true hatchback model available. The Hyundai Elantra Touring, even though it wears the same name as the sedan, is a wholly different animal that, even with steady incremental improvements, will remain sitting on Hyundai’s previous-generation architecture. So, while the Elantra Touring is more than $2,300 cheaper than the least expensive Focus hatch, it’s a case of you get what you pay for. This also shows up in the Elantra Touring’s noticeably lower EPA ratings, which trail those of even the non-SFE Focus by 5 mpg in combined driving.

And as long as we’re on the topic of fuel economy, that’s turning into something of sore point for the Elantra. The EPA rates the Elantra sedan as capable of up to 40 mpg on the highway, but there’s a growing controversy—spearheaded by Ralph Nader—about the car’s real-world efficiency performance.


Volkswagen Passat

The all-new Passat already took home the 2012 Motor Trend Car of the Year award, and despite the fact that that prize is fraught with the kind of issues the “independent” North American COTY was designed to avoid, VW’s mid-size sedan is my pick to win the latter as well—and for much the same reasons. As a quick gander at MT’s Car of the Year report will tell you, the Passat didn’t exactly blow away the competition with its performance, fuel-efficiency, ergonomics, styling or content; but what it has done is make Volkswagen a relevant player in the mainstream mid-size segment for the first time ever.

Consider: the Americanized Passat sedan debuted in October and immediately put up its best sales month in nearly six years. Its 5,040 deliveries that month made for a whopping 986.2 percent increase over October 2010, when VW sold only 464 Passats. After ringing up another 6,018 sales in November, the new model had surpassed the old one’s entire 2010 total in just two months.

It’s not like the Passat is a bad car, either, especially since the starter Passat can be had with an MSRP of $19,995, giving it the lowest base price of any mainstream mid-sizer except the Hyundai Sonata. Further, while the gasoline version’s EPA numbers are relatively weak—it trails the new Toyota Camry by 3 mpg in combined driving with an automatic transmission—the Passat does offer a TDI clean diesel model that can go 30/40/34 in the EPA ratings.



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