In a year disrupted by unprecedented technological change and a global pandemic, 50 respected jurors from print, online, radio and broadcast media in the U.S. and Canada managed to test drive dozens of the latest vehicles and pick the Hyundai Elantra, Ford F-150 and the Mustang Mach-E as the North American Car, Truck and Utility of the Year.
These awards are unique and among the most prestigious in the industry because they are chosen by a large panel of jurors coming from diverse media outlets and backgrounds, and the fact that NACTOY is an independent, non-profit organization, with dues-paying journalist members led by elected officers.
I have been a NACTOY juror for two decades, and like my fellow jurors I vote on winners based on segment leadership, innovation, design, safety, handling, driver satisfaction and value for the dollar. I can offer these insights.
Car of the Year
All over the world, consumers are shifting away from traditional cars to various types of crossovers, trucks and utility vehicles because they usually are more practical. Many automakers are giving up on cars altogether to focus on these more popular – and profitable – vehicles.
But the automakers still choosing to compete in the car segment, mostly Asian brands, are doubling down on design, quality and features to offer truly outstanding products.
All three of the NACTOY car finalists are beautifully designed inside and out and have features and build quality that are shockingly good for their affordable prices.
The base prices of the 2021 Hyundai Elantra (pictured above) and Nissan Sentra are about $20,000, putting them well below the average $38,000 for a U.S. family vehicle. I rated the Elantra slightly higher than the Sentra for interior and exterior styling and a more advanced approach to the overall user experience.
Truck of the Year
The choice for North American Truck of the Year was easier. The Ford F-150 pickup has been the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. for decades, and the new model offers superbly engineered and designed versions ranging in price from $30,000 to almost $100,000.
All versions have compelling features and capabilities. Advanced driver-assist features can be downloaded with an over-the-air update like Tesla does; the meaty shift lever can fold into the center console, which then can be turned into a workstation or lunch table. The hybrid version has enough juice to run power tools or charge an electric car.
The other truck contenders, the Ram TRX and a new version of the Jeep Gladiator pickup, are unique in their own right and a blast to drive, but they are niche vehicles worthy of finalist status but not the top award.
Utility of the Year
The utility vehicle segment is huge and complex, and the three finalists represented significant sub-segments.
The Land Rover Defender is a traditional SUV with class-leading off-road capabilities that include the ability to wade through waist-deep water. The Genesis GV80 represents the popular and extremely profitable luxury utility segment with gorgeous styling inside and out and a stunning value proposition that is thousands less than the nearest competitor.
However, the Mustang Mach-E (pictured below) signals the future: A reasonably priced electric crossover that is roomy, practical and breathtakingly fast. What’s more, it has styling and branding that makes it instantly appealing to mainstream North America. To me, those qualities made it the top choice.