YPSILANTI, Michigan – Again this year, automotive journalists flocked to Michigan from all parts of the continent in order to drive confirmed contenders for the 26th edition of what has evolved, over the years, into the prestigious North American Car, Utility and Truck of the Year awards program, better known and recognized by its snappy, NACTOY acronym.
Coming from as far east as New York City, as far west as Los Angeles, as far south as Miami and from both Montreal and Toronto, up north, most of the 57 current members of the jury made it to this 3-day affair. All eight Canadian jurors, save one, were in attendance for the long-standing drive event, headquartered at the Marriott Eagle Crest hotel in Ypsilanti for the second year.
In the first chapter of its two-year term, the second elected NACTOY executive was also successful in organizing and holding the program’s first-ever annual general meeting. A wide range of subjects, issues and projects were discussed, including reactions to the bold decision of moving the North American International Auto Show from January to June, starting in the year 2020. Winners of the NACTOY awards have traditionally been announced at the opening of media days in Detroit from their inception, back in 1994. New strategies will be forthcoming.
Making most of local roads
Announced plans to move the NACTOY drive event to the American Center for Mobility (ACM), located nearby, had to be scrapped after a change in management and policies at this ‘non-profit testing and product development facility for future mobility’. This test center for autonomous and connected vehicles is built on a 335-acre lot, in Willow Run, where B-24 Liberator bombers were built during WW II and GM later had an assembly plant.
Access to a closed facility, a high-speed track and such will thus have to come later for NACTOY jurors, if at all. Consequently, the people at DriveShop Detroit, who handle vehicle logistics for the event, scouted and mapped three suggested evaluation loops traced over the web of streets, roads and highways in and around Ypsilanti. Detroit-based juror Henry Payne then ran these routes and suggested tweaks and changes.
The core DriveShop team of Robin Karides, Jennifer Applebee and Tracie Bock managed the constant flow of machines and, more importantly, of the keys needed to make them run, while jurors skipped from one model to the next on their list. A total of 70 individual vehicles were available, including variants of several of the 30 vehicles vying for the top honours.
Tight competition across the boards
As always, a first vote was held among jurors, in the last days of August, to bring down the number of eligible model year 2019 vehicles and come up with three sets of semi-finalists. The original lists of possible contenders carried 23 cars and 20 utility vehicles. With only three full-size pickups entered, there was no need for a first-round vote to select rivals for the Truck of the year award, quite obviously.
The target was to have 12 names on each list but, after compilation, 14 cars and 13 utility vehicles remained, because of direct ties. All semi-finalists are presented below. Notable entries, in the cars category, include a full electric (the second-generation Nissan Leaf) and two hybrids (the third Honda Insight and one of two versions of the Toyota Avalon sedan).
Six contenders are from Japanese carmakers, four from European brands, three have Korean passports and the gorgeous Buick Regal Tour X wagon – which is not currently in GM Canada’s plans, alas – is the only North-American entry. The only rival missing, at the drive event in Ypsilanti, was the Mercedes-Benz A-Class luxury compact.
American brands are better represented in the Utility Vehicle category, with three semi-finalists, but Japanese models are again the most prevalent, with five entries. Three European contenders and two from Korea complete the list of thirteen. The sleek, all-electric Jaguar I-Pace definitely stands out, with its two electric motors, all-wheel drive, 394 hp and 386 km range.
That said, the Hyundai Kona EV subcompact promises a range of more than 400 km, albeit with front-wheel-drive only, at a much lower price. It certainly is a strong entry, combined with its more conventional siblings. Much the same can be said of the newest Toyota RAV4, Hybrid version included. The only no-show in Michigan, for this category, was the all-new BMW X5.
Finally, the Trucks category is exclusively American, a new Ram 1500 facing off against the latest versions of GM’s Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra full-size, half-ton pickups.
NACTOY jurors will vote again, on November 17, to pick the three finalists in the Cars and Utility Vehicles categories. These trios will be announced on November 29, at the AutoMobility show in Los Angeles. Jury members will then have until the first days of January 2019 to deliver their final ballot. Winners will then be announced in Detroit, for the last time in January, during the first press day at the North American International Auto Show, on January 14.
The semi-finalists for the 2019 NACTOY Cars award are the Audi A6, Buick Regal Tour X, Genesis G70, Honda Insight, Hyundai Veloster, Kia Forte, Mazda6, Mercedes-Benz A-Class, Nissan Altima, Nissan Leaf, Toyota Avalon / Avalon Hybrid, Toyota Corolla Hatchback, Volkswagen Jetta, and Volvo S60/V60.
The Utility Vehicle semi-finalists are the Acura RDX, BMW X5, Cadillac XT4, Hyundai Kona, Hyundai Santa Fe, Infiniti QX50, Jaguar I-Pace, Jeep Wrangler, Lincoln Nautilus, Nissan Kicks, Subaru Ascent, Toyota RAV4, and Volvo XC40.
The Chevrolet Silverado 1500, GMC Sierra and Ram 1500 will vie for the Truck award.