"North America's Favorite Car and Truck?"

"North America's Favorite Car and Truck?"

During the 2005 Detroit Auto Show, as I was listening to Autoline Detroit's John McElroy announce the North American Car and Truck of the Year to a crowd of journalists and industry representatives, I was confident I already knew who'd won.

Though my vote was only one of 48 journalists' from dozens of different automotive publications, the winners seemed quite obvious. On the truck side, the finalists were the Ford Escape Hybrid, the Ford Freestyle and the Land Rover LR3. On the car side, it was the Chevrolet Corvette, Chrysler 300 and Ford Mustang. With the Chrysler 300 winning the Edmunds.com Most Significant Vehicle of the Year award (along with a host of other awards from other publications), it seemed the obvious choice, as I asserted in my column a few months back. This is an amazing statement when you consider that two icons of the American automobile industry (Corvette and Mustang) were also on the list.

The truck choice seemed equally clear to me. While the Freestyle is an all-new Ford station wagon, it doesn't really break any new ground in terms of design or performance. Three rows of seats, six-cylinder engine, elevated ride height, all-wheel drive — all popular features these days. But between the Chrysler Pacifica, Toyota Highlander and Volvo XC90 (to name just three), it's all been done before. The Ford Escape Hybrid happily leads the charge into fuel-efficient SUVs, but the Escape has been around since 2001, and the hybrid component is lifted directly from the Prius. I love the Escape and Prius, so bringing them together is a great idea. But neither vehicle is all-new for 2005.

The words "Land Rover LR3" were what I expected to hear from Mr. McElroy when he announced the North American Truck of the Year. It is an all-new design that thoroughly improves on the outgoing Discovery model with refined on-road manners, superior interior space utilization, more horsepower and heightened off-road prowess. I didn't know what to expect from Ford's redesign of the Discovery. BMW had done a masterful job of transforming the Range Rover into a modern luxury SUV before the German automaker sold Land Rover to Ford. But Ford matched the Germans with its all-new LR3. It is truly a first-class conveyance that will appeal to both traditional Land Rover fans as well as SUV shoppers who expect both modern-day luxury and extreme off-road capability in one package.

"The North American Truck of the Year is the Ford Escape Hybrid," John reported in his ever-polished TV voice.

"Wow" was all I could say as I glanced around the assembled crowd of journalists and industry representatives. I noted a similar sense of surprise from several other attendees, but after a moment of consideration it all made sense. You can question the hybrid movement from a pure cost/benefit ratio, as the increased cost of hybrid vehicles is difficult, if not impossible, to make up with the benefit of greater gas mileage and lower fuel bills. But Americans are buying these vehicles faster than the manufacturers can produce them. It's obvious we are ready to support this fuel-saving technology that reduces our dependency on oil, regardless of the bottom-line numbers. As the first SUV to address this desire, kudos and congratulations to Ford on its win!

While the truck winner caught me off guard, the car winner was exactly what I expected, though I had lost a bit of confidence after being wrong about the Land Rover LR3. Of course the Chrysler 300 won it, somewhat reestablishing my faith in my understanding of the U.S. car market (and the journalists who report on it). Here's a car that continues to be a winner with everyone from traditional luxury sedan buyers to MTV and Speed Channel viewers, cutting an unusually wide swath across the buying public and shooting holes all through the 300's original "target demographic."

Between our Most Significant Award write-up and my previous column devoted to the 300, there's not much left to report on this vehicle. Suffice it to say it's cool. The styling, performance and value of the vehicle have set new standards for this segment. If you can afford one, and if it fits your needs, you should at least put it on your short list to test-drive.

Thus ends the 2005 North American Car and Truck of the Year awards program. Next year will mark the 12th year of the award, and the lineup looks to be as interesting as ever. Early standouts already include the 2006 Honda Ridgeline, 2006 Mitsubishi Eclipse, 2007 Saturn Sky and 2006 Subaru B9 Tribeca.

But I'm playing it safe this year and holding off on any predictions…at least for now.

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