Pop quiz. “What do a Chrysler Cirrus, Chevrolet Blazer, Plymouth Acclaim and Ford Expedition have in common?” Did you say “none of them would ever tempt a pistonhead?” True enough, but not correct. “None of them ever dented the US sales charts”? Another good guess, but still incorrect. And the answer is: all of these vehicles have received the “North American Car (or Truck) of the Year” award. Yes, it’s that time of year again. Time for the automotive media to prove that indiscretion is the worst part of valor.
Here they come: the Motor Trend Car of the Year, 10Best, North American Car of the Year, International Car of the Year (Auto, Autocar, Stern, L'Automobile, etc.), World Car of the Year, Family Car of the Year, Urban Wheel Awards Car of the Year, Green Car of the Year and (for all I know) Polydactylic Cat Owners Car of the Year award. Multiply most of these by three (to include truck and SUV awards) then add in various sub-awards, and you’ve got enough gongs to satisfy the world’s monasteries for a decade.
As the list of past winners indicates, the value of these accolades is entirely dubious. Their methodology is usually vague, subjective and debatable. In many cases, the fine print isn’t even available for public (or Michael Karesh’s) scrutiny. One thing is for sure: an award doesn’t mean that a “Car of the Year” (COTY) is the best car on the road that year. Remember: a car only merits COTY consideration if it’s new or substantially changed for that year. How new? Many juries test cars that aren’t even on the market.
The candidates for the 2007 North American Car of the Year and North American Truck of the Year (NACOTY and NATOTY) awards were announced on Wednesday. In addition to sterling examples of automotive engineering and cutting edge design like the Dodge Caliber and Chevrolet Suburban, the awards’ crack team of automotive journalists is busy testing the as-yet-unreleased Ford Edge, GMC Acadia and Chrysler Sebring. This practice of testing pre-production models kills any hope that the panelists are testing “real” cars (i.e. press cars that weren’t carefully prepared by their manufacturers).
You’d be forgiven for thinking COTY awards are little more than a gift to car advertisers, who provide a self-appointed number of “elite” journalists with priority access to press cars, and then co-promote a new product with an old publication. It’s certainly an excellent excuse for carmakers like Renault (Alliance), Chevrolet (Citation), Plymouth (RIP, Volare) and Ford (Probe) to sell cars by touting their COTY award like they’d won the Nobel Prize.
If not pissing off your paymasters is the priority, it is perhaps significant that Car and Driver’s 2006 “10Best” awards considered 52 cars in new categories, including “Best Luxury Sports Car,” “Best Sports Coupe,” “Best Roadster,” “Best Sports Car” and “Best Muscle Car.” Perhaps C&D hopes persnickety pistonheads will spend so much time debating which car belongs in what category they’ll be too tired to dispute the winners.
To their credit, Car and [s]Drivel[/s] Driver pits each year’s contenders against last year’s winners, and names the winner of that contest one of their 10Best. The concept is sound in theory, but flawed in execution. All cars are made to a price. When you’re comparing a vehicle that costs $15k to one costing $45k, proclaiming that one is “better” than the other is an inherently flawed judgment. To muffle accusations of price bias, C&D attempts to spread their selections across the price spectrum. In the process, they make the selection process even more arbitrary and artificial.
Anyway, I believe that any award purporting to name the best of anything for any given year should have stringent selection criteria; at least a bit more than “it’s the new kid on the block and we really like it a lot and we know what we’re talking about because we’re professional car journalists.” In the interests of fairness, and in direct contradiction to The Truth About Cars’ last two Cars of the Year (chosen by RF according to the above methodology), here’s how it should be done:
The judging should include a variety of published factors like performance, engineering, fuel economy, suitability to task for which they were designed, build quality, value for money and ergonomics. To qualify for consideration, a vehicle would have to achieve a minimum score. To win, it would have to be at the top of the ranking. Oh, and the panel should include both car journalists and non-professional pistonheads (that’s you).
I’ve never heard anyone say they bought a car because it received a Car of the Year award. That’s because no media outlet has the cojones (and/or money) to base awards strictly on merit– rather than the intersecting interests of publication and producer. Until then, we’ll keep getting meaningless hyperbole about meaningless awards.
Philbailey on Oct 01, 2006
I just got back from Europe, so I'm late into this debate. But anyone that thinks the Neon is a good car is nuts! I fix 'em so I know that for every owner who has escaped disaster, there's another nine who didn't. I guess these satisfied owners will be the first out of the blocks to buy a Geely. As for the AJAC con-job, don't be misled. AJAC only "tests" this years model introductions. So a really good car from last year, will not be mentioned, while some much less attractive new introduction will get the COTY award. Last year the Mazda3 lost out to the Kia Rio5. Because the former was never in the running. So don't kid yourselves, people, ALL COTY(s) are spin doctor politics at their most dishonest.
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