2013 North American Car of the Year Nominees:
The 2013 North American Car of the Year award has come down to three high-style sedans, while the companion non-car finalists are scattered all over the newly redefined extremities of the North American Truck/Utility of the Year.
Ford’s Fusion and the Cadillac ATS give the traditionally top two domestic companies each a finalist in the car competition, while Honda’s redesigned Honda Accord represents one of their primary import rivals.
The annual Truck of the Year definition has been revised this year to Truck/Utility in order to accommodate the steadily growing crossover utility segment, and the Mazda CX-5 represents that part of the industry. The Ram 1500 full-size pickup, now preferring to stand alone rather than be listed as a Dodge, gives Chrysler Group LLC, the third domestic company, a strong finalist and one that is sure to capture sentiment as a traditional large truck. The third finalist, meanwhile, is the Ford C-Max, a comparatively tiny van-wagon that can loosely be called a utility vehicle, but with enough high-mileage attributes that Ford compares it mostly to small cars more than trucks.
The awards are given out annually at the North American International Auto Show at Detroit, in mid-January, and differ from major magazine awards by being conducted among 50 independent automotive journalists without the influence of any advertising. Jurors start by voting the lists of all new or newly revised candidates to fome up with a list of 10-12 vehicles in each category. A second vote is conducted to cut the list to the three finalists, and a third and final vote ranks the three finalists 1-2-3 with the winners kept secret until Monday, January 14, the morning of the first press preview days at Cobo Hall.
The voting already has filtered out some exceptional vehicles, which may have been good enough to win in other years. But the finalists all have valid credentials to capture the prestigious honor.
Ford took its very successful Fusion midsize car and totally redid it, with an entirely new look that is destined to become the signature style for all Ford cars going forward. The grille resembles an Aston Martin, and the lines sweep to an efficient rear end that appears more like a German luxury sedan.
Under the skin, Ford decided to follow its trend-setting plan of reducing the number of cylinders and their displacement and using turbocharging to improve any lost power. Tried first in its SUVs and pickup, the EcoBoost V6’s turbochargers created more power than traditional V8s and improved fuel economy because of fewer cylinders. Next came 4-cylinder engines, and Ford has found surprising power out of both the 2.0 and 1.6 EcoBoost engines. The new Fusion offers a standard 2.5-liter 4, or either 1.6 or 2.0 turbos.
Ford also offers a Fusion with all-wheel drive, and two hybrid models, adding a late plug-in hybrid that Ford claims will hit 100 miles per gallon. Altogether, the Fusion nails all the possible high spots, starting with 4-cylinder-only technology to breakthrough Hybrid fuel efficiency, the stability of FWD or the security of AWD. Interior room and amenities and all that technology comes wrapped in what might be the best-looking sedan ever built by an American car-maker.
Honda gambled with the previous generation of the Accord making it the largest midsize car, and found that it had lost some agility and fuel efficiency in the process. The new car is a bit more compact on the outside, still spacious on the inside, and its restyling promises a leaner and more agile car and delivers on the promises.
Unlike the Fusion, the Accord will still offer a V6, although its 2.4-liter 4-cylinder is entirely redone — updated and adding direct injection for more efficient power and fuel economy. In appearance, the new Accord is far more attractive, particularly with its dramatic grille, which takes on a new corporate face. The Accord Coupe comes back as an entirely different car, more like a sports car than a 2-door Accord sedan.
The last generation Accord made us question whether Honda had lost its grip on technology, style, and fun-to-drive performanc. Never mind. Leaner, more agile, and far more stylish, an all-new direct-injected 4-cylinder lifts the Accord back to its pinnacle. Did I mention there’s also a Coupe?
Cadillac’s styling venture with the angular CTS sedan has been successful enough that Caddy is trying again with a smaller version as the compact ATS. While its looks are strikingly similar to the CTS, the ATS is aimed at being a car capable of running with some of Germany’s potent high-performance compact sedans.
Like the CTS, the ATS also starts with front-engine/rear-wheel drive, a nod toward traditionalists who prefer that arrangement. The 3.6-liter V6 definitely has high-performing aspirations, although a little thing like a Northern Minnesota snowstorm also brought back historic tradition of the rear end trying to take a shortcut to catch up to the front while accelerating on ice.
Cadillac did address those circumstances by offering a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine with turbocharging, and offers an all-wheel drive version as well. Snow-belt buyers may bemoan the baby Caddy’s boy-racer rear-wheel-drive, but the hot V6 can be left to those who want to hang the rear end out, the potent turbo-4 with AWD can be for those who don’t.
Mazda takes a giant step toward technological leadership among Japanese manufacturers with the new CX-5. While rivals are refining their existing power-trains to wring out a few more mpg and a few less emissions, Mazda is the first Japanese company committed to a clean-sheet, holistic approach for its future engines.
Called Skyactiv, the technique includes reducing the cylinder bore and extending the stroke, modifying the combustion chamber and upgrading every internal element. Skyactiv was first tried on the Mazda3 compact, and it helped attain 40 mpg, even though the voluminous exhaust manifold had to be cut off. The CX-5 was built as a totally new compact crossover that will replace the longer but less roomy CX-7. With either FWD or AWD, it was designed to Skyactiv standards, including the new direct-injection 2.0-liter, with its full 4-2-1 exhaust manifold.
The result is a fresh, new-look vehicle with an engine boasting 13-to-1 compression ratio, but still able to burn regular, running through two new Mazda=built, wide-ratio 6-speed transmissions, a stick and a unique automatic. Geared for good takeoff, and ratioed to also have low-RPM cruising levels, the CX-5 is capable of hauling five occupants through all weather. Redesigned suspension complements the package. While consumers might be more interested in topping 30 mpg, the CX-5 can beat a Mazda3 Skyactiv around Laguna Seca’s road course by 3 seconds a lap!
Already a standout in heavy-duty work, the Ram 1500 with its legendary V8 has been refined a bit with its effective cylinder-deactivation, which cuts out four cylinders during steady-state cruising. But virtually every part of the Ram interior has been upgraded with soft-touch materials and refined leather and other materials. But that’s not the biggest news about the 2013 Ram.
Chrysler’s outstanding new Pentastar V6, with strong low end and potent cruising power, has been inserted into the Ram, and is accompanied by the new 8-speed automatic transmission, which gives the smaller engine great flexibility and high fuel economy, possibly the best among full-size pickups. A new air-suspension system keeps the Ram flat. The interior is filled with useful features for virtually every work idea in a computerized age. Popular features such as the storage bins inside the bed walls, return, naturally, although the exterior refinements are subtle.
Already an impressive truck with its Hemi V8, the new Ram with the Pentastar V6, and 8-speed automatic and air suspension, it rises to the top level among full-size pickups for versatile power and fuel economy. Interiors are luxurious enough that truck guys might clean off their boots before climbing aboard.
It seems like a stretch to consider the CMax as a truck. It is a blunt, snub-nosed subcompact vehicle that has aspirations of meeting the utility of a small van or large wagon. Powertrains will include all-electric, and a hybrid, which has already stirred up some controversy with its 47 miles-per-gallon highway estimate.
On the day a report circulated nationally that scoffed at how nobody could approach the C-Max Hybrid’s 47 mpg EPA highway estimate, I happened to have one for a weekly test drive. Upon hearing the accusation, I zeroed the computers and headed downtown. Down the hill, along the freeway, through city streets, back on a highway downtown, my 11-mile trip included speed limit stretches of 70 mph, 30 mph, 40 mph, and 50 mph. When I arrived, I checked the computer and noted that I had attained 49.3 mpg in my real-world.
No wonder Ford, which seems to be challenged to find competitors for its amazingly versatile car-wagon-van-utility, most often compares the quirky C-Max to the Toyota Prius.