Why Honda Civic, Volvo XC90 Won Car, Truck Honors

The XC90 isn’t going to sell in huge volumes, but its powertrain, interior design and autonomous-driving features have forced everyone in the industry to take notice.

January 11, 2016

5 Min Read
Why Honda Civic, Volvo XC90 Won Car, Truck Honors

I’ve been a juror for the North American Car and Truck/Utility of the Year for well over a decade, and for many of those years, my choices were not the winners.

As many as 60 automotive journalists from the U.S. and Canada, working for many different types of media, vote on 50 or more new cars every year, so there naturally is a diversity of opinion.

But this year, a large plurality of judges seemed to agree with my thought processes, so I thought I would share them. Let’s start with the North American Truck/Utility of the Year, because the Volvo XC90 CUV was a clear favorite.

I’ve judged a lot of competitions over the years, and for me, determining the winners from a small group of finalists usually boils down to a few things, big and small.

I found the Honda Pilot to be an excellent midsize CUV, with an advanced engine and transmission that delivers better than expected fuel efficiency. Every car that makes it to the finalist list is a great car or truck whether it wins or not.

The Pilot’s exterior design is attractive, although not especially distinctive. Inside, the interior is comfortable and functional, but a bit plain for a CUV that can cost up to $45,000. It also offers lots of sophisticated assisted-driving features that are a definite plus.

But a big minus for me is the innovative shifting mechanism for the new automatic transmission. I’m sure in many ways it is safer and better than a conventional shifter, but I did not find it intuitive. A couple of times I embarrassed myself by not being able to shift it quickly from reverse to forward because it is a different kind of movement. I imagine other new drivers will struggle with it like I did.

I consider the Honda Pilot a great value, but just enough things bothered me to cross it off my list.

Then there is the Nissan Titan XD diesel. The only true truck in the competition, it stands out in a number of ways. It has huge power and torque and a luxurious interior with many practical features. Nissan is trying to fill a new niche between light and heavy-duty fullsize pickups with the truck.

But its main value proposition is that the truck’s torquey diesel will provide better fuel efficiency pulling heavy loads than light-duty pickups with big gasoline V-8s.

It’s a fine truck and a gutsy move on Nissan’s part, but I don’t think it is in the same league as Ford’s aluminum-intensive F-150, which really moved the goalposts last year.

That leaves the Volvo XC90. It’s quite a bit more expensive than the Honda Pilot, out of most families’ reach, but it is a game-changer for the industry. Under the hood is a tiny 2.OL 4-cyl. that is both supercharged and turbocharged, and it makes as much horsepower and torque as a big V-6 or small V-8. It is changing how consumers and engineers look at small engines in big CUVs and SUVs. It also won a 2016 Wards 10 Best Engines award.

Beyond that, the exterior design is interesting and the interior is stunning. The XC90 isn’t going to sell in huge volumes, but its powertrain, interior design and autonomous-driving features have forced everyone in the industry to take notice of a Chinese-owned Swedish automaker that many thought was about to follow Saab into oblivion.

The XC90 got all my points this year, and apparently a lot of the other judges felt the same way. The XC90 received 310 points from the judges; the Pilot and Titan XD only 111 and 109, respectively.

Why Honda Civic Won NA Car of Year

When I first saw the new Honda Civic in the WardsAuto parking lot, I thought it was an Acura or Honda Accord. I could not believe how big and beautiful it was. The added length not only improves ride and handling but also makes for a longer wheelbase and thus more passenger space.

It is available with two very solid and efficient engines, although they are not the most powerful in the segment by a longshot. But the 1.5t-equipped models do offer best-in-class fuel economy.

The ’16 Civic LX sedan is very affordable, beginning at $18,640, which I usually consider a big plus in NACTOY. However, I was somewhat disappointed in the car’s rather drab interior and the human-machine interface.

The HMI offers lots of great features, but the screen is small and the buttons and controls seem dated, especially compared with the Chevy Malibu.

I thought the Malibu was a very strong contender this year with a class-leading HMI and overall user experience. The HMI screen is big, and the user interface is fast and intuitive.

The Malibu also has a gorgeous interior with interesting surfaces, great design lines and high-quality materials. I also think the Malibu has striking sheet metal, especially for a high-volume family car.

But apparently many of my colleagues disagree. Some say all the curvy surfaces make the Malibu look like it is trying too hard to look sexy. Others complain the big Chevy bowtie on the grille makes it look too downmarket.

I disagree with both these criticisms. But even though I think the Malibu user experience is far superior to the Civic’s, the Honda has such a good exterior redesign I could not bring myself to vote against it.

Like many others, I split my points between the two cars.

That leaves the most fun and interesting car of all the finalists, the Mazda MX-5 Miata, out in the cold. Auto enthusiasts adore the Miata, and they should. It is a true sports car that is pure, sleek and affordable.

But it is a low-volume niche car that is impractical for the average car buyer. And it really is not changing the automotive world. Clearly deciding between the practical cars and the sexy Miata was a difficult choice for many. The Civic won with 203 points, followed by the Malibu with 181 and the Miata with 146.

If it makes Mazda folks feel any better, I also voted against the Chevy Corvette Stingray in 2014 because I thought it was too expensive and too impractical for NACTOY. And I love the Corvette.

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