By Marc Lachapelle
WILLOW RUN, MI. – Testing of the 29 vehicles vying for top honours in the annual North American Car, Truck and Utility of the Year (NACTOY) program is now underway.
After several years of vehicle evaluation at Hell Creek ranch, in Pinckney, Michigan, surrounded by roads routinely used by major auto manufacturers for vehicle development, the annual drive event for the NACTOY program has moved slightly eastward.
This year, the 57 automotive journalists that form the jury were invited to Willow Run, Michigan instead. Eight of these voting journalists – including this writer – are from Canada; therest from the U.S.. The program is fully media-independent and was long funded strictly with dues paid by journalist members themselves.
For the past two years, however, NACTOY has also had a ‘presenting sponsor’ in Bridgestone Americas, the U.S. subsidiary of the world’s largest tire manufacturer. Bridgestone’s help has, for instance, made it possible for the group to get gorgeous new trophies that were created by former GM chief designer Ed Welburn and given out for the first time last January for the 2017 awards. The sponsorship has also helped greatly with logistics at the drive event.
In this transition year, using the Marriott hotel in Ypsilanti as program headquarters, attending journalists are using a network of surroundings highways, roads and streets to evaluate and compare models in contention. Some 70 vehicles are available for testing, including multiple variants of several contenders, typically with different powertrains.
Now in its 25th year, in 2018 the NACTOY awards program will be moving to the American Center for Mobility test center, currently still in construction, for its next edition. Among many other things, journalists will have access to numerous test tracks and circuits at this new complex that will be dedicated to the development of autonomous driving technology and vehicles.
For this year’s NACTOY program, American Center for Mobility CEO John Maddox suggested various driving routes in the Ypsilanti and historic Willow Run area. These were translated into proper loops, compatible with Google Maps, by Daniel Petit of Driveshop, who has also long handled the essential task of shuffling dozens of vehicle keys and keeping track. He is again assisted, in his vital mission this year, by his colleague Robin Karides.
Reflection of market trends
While the primary focus is always on the January announcements, the NACTOY program essentially is a year-round process that, for the first time in its history, has been led and managed by an elected executive that is now in the second year of its two-year term. The voting itself started in late June of this year.
Jurors were asked to whittle a list of potential contenders for the Utility of the Year award from twenty to the usual maximum of fifteen all-new or substantially redesigned models. This truly reflects a North-American market that is currently dominated by light utility vehicles that include proper SUVs, crossovers and minivans. It is a powerful trend that is still gathering strength.
Only eleven cars and three trucks were selected in their respective classes, which pre-empted the need to reduce their numbers.
One obvious and prominent potential contender missing is the all-electric Tesla Model 3 sedan. Through a spokesperson, the Palo Alto-based manufacturer declined to provide test vehicles, claiming that it was putting all its energies in solving the current bottleneck on the manufacturing side for its latest model.
Other notable absentees such as the Buick Regal and Lexus LS were not entered because test units could not be made available to jurors in time to vote.
The first ballot, which will determine the finalists in each category, is due on November 17, at the latest. These will be announced on November 29, at the AutoMobility show in Los Angeles. Jury members will have until January 3 to submit their final ballot.
Winners in all three NACTOY categories will be announced, as per tradition, in the opening moments of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, early on the morning of January 15.
Here are the lists of vehicles in contention for the three 2018 NACTOY awards:
Alfa Romeo Giulia
Audi A5 Sportback
Alfa Romeo Stelvio
Land Rover Discovery
Chevrolet Colorado ZR2