The winner of the coveted North American Car and Truck of the Year Award will be announced Monday morning at the North American International Auto Show.
The awards are unique in the United States because -- instead of being given by a single media outlet -- they are awarded by a coalition of automotive journalists from the United States and Canada who represent magazines, television, radio, newspapers and web sites.
The finalists for North American Car of the Year are:
- the Chevrolet Volt
- the Nissan Leaf
- and the Hyundai Sonata
The Chevrolet Volt is GM's extended range electric car. The vehicle is unique, able to run in electric mode only, using a large T-shaped battery, for 25 to 50 miles, depending on driving conditions. Since most people have a commute under 40 miles per day, the vehicle could operate primarily as an electric vehicle, most of the time.
But the Volt also has a small gasoline-powered engine which kicks in once the battery's charge has been partially depleted. So, unlike a pure electric vehicle, the Volt can be driven for long distances, like a regular car.
The major drawback of the vehicle is its cost. Including a $7,500 federal tax credit, the vehicle costs about $33,000. To lease, the Volt costs $350 per month.
The Nissan Leaf is the first all-electric passenger car intended for the mass market in North America. The car has a significantly longer range than the Volt - up to 100 miles, again, depending on driving conditions. The Leaf must be re-charged overnight once the battery is depleted. The vehicle's primary drawback is "range anxiety" - the ever-present knowledge that the car can only go so far, possibly leaving the driver stranded if he or she miscalculates how much charge is left in the battery. The Leaf is also more affordable than the Volt. Including the $7,500 tax credit, the Leaf costs about $26,000.
The Hyundai Sonata comes in three versions - a sedan, a sport sedan, and a hybrid. The Sonata quickly became one of the top-selling sedans in North America, praised for its fuel economy, styling, safety, and affordability, and bolstering a successful effort by Hyundai to shed a reputation for cars known for their low cost and not much else. Hyundai gained more market share in the U.S. in the past two years than any other automaker, and the company is single-handedly pushing the entire industry to launch products more swiftly than ever before. (A Chrysler executive recently said his company was trying to emulate "Hyundai speed.")
The finalists for North American Truck of the Year are the Dodge Durango, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, and the Ford Explorer.
Dodge and Jeep are both divisions of the still-struggling Chrysler Corporation. It would be a much-needed victory for the company should either the Durango or Grand Cherokee win the award. The interiors, ride and handling for both trucks have been praised by critics as much-improved over predecessors.
The Durango, Grand Cherokee, and Explorer all have been redesigned so they use a unibody car platform rather than a body-on-frame truck platform. This improves the ride, handling and fuel efficiency of the trucks.