AUTO

Are the Ford Mustang and Ford F-150 shoo-ins as the best of 2014?

The Ford Mustang and Ford F-150 would seem to be deserving shoo-ins for the 2015 North American Car and Truck of the Year (NACTOY) awards. Yet based on Consumer Reports’ test results, there are strong arguments to be made for other NACTOY finalists—the Hyundai Genesis sedanVolkswagen Golf hatchback, Chevrolet Colorado midsized pickup, and Lincoln MKC crossover SUV.

Consumer Reports participated in the NACTOY awards, which are voted on by a jury of 57 automotive journalists, for the first time this year.

We knew going in that the NACTOY process—a major part of which involves week-long vehicle loans, as well as several days of driving cars on public roads around Hell, Mich.—is less rigorous than our months-long program of more than 50 tests conducted at Consumer Reports' 327-acre Auto Test Center in Connecticut.

But our being engaged in the NACTOY awards is important because what many journalists feel makes a great car or truck can be quite different from how the average car shopper looks at cars—and how Consumer Reports performs its evaluations.

Some NACTOY jurors prefer the fastest, flashiest car even if it’s impractical, or a truck that hauls the most stuff even if it rattles and jounces down the road. Others will vote for a car that's a huge step forward in build quality for a struggling automaker, even if its new car isn’t the best in the segment. Still others vote for vehicles that make the largest technological leap even if the their market impact is small.

Consumer Reports brings a reality check to the NACTOY awards as well as a strong voice that's informed by our millions of subscribers through extensive surveys and our authoritative, independent auto-est program.

Here are the 2015 NACTOY candidates. Winners will be announced at the Detroit auto show on Jan. 12.

—Mark Rechtin

Ford Mustang

Many jurors are ready to give the award to the Mustang, for its interior form and function refinement; the 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that delivers both fuel economy and performance; the optional 5.0-liter engine’s sound, fury and burnout frenzy; and its newfound cornering, handling and body control. But Ford’s pony car has its detractors and contrarians.

“Welcome to the 1960s,” snark those scribes who feel Ford’s PR department is masking being decades late in replacing an aged solid-axle rear suspension for a routine independent-suspension design. Those who consider a vehicle’s sales impact also wonder why a car that sells so many units to rental fleets should be in consideration for the industry’s highest honor. But, the Mustang forces a smile to both drivers and passersby; its appeal is ingrained in American culture, and this latest example appears to be the best Mustang to date.

Hyundai Genesis

The second generation of Hyundai’s large luxury sedan saw improvements in both ride comfort and interior refinement. Either the base 311-hp V6 or optional 420-hp V8 will satisfy anyone’s leaden right foot, and available all-wheel drive will keep denizens of northern climes out of the snow bank in winter.

But while the Genesis has autobahn pretentions—it doesn’t look like an Audi for nothing—its reflexes aren’t as quick as the German luxury sedans it emulates. Then again, for $8,000 less, its value equation is strong.

Volkswagen Golf

There was some jury debate as to whether this nomination was for the standard Golf, the excellent TDI diesel, or the sporty GTI. The response: “All of them!” From that perspective, the Golf’s many variations make a strong statement as a versatile family hatchback for a hatchback-loving family. The GTI recently won our sporty-compact shootout—its combination of punchy power, athletic handling and refined interior winning over our testers.

For all the Golf’s strong points, however, NACTOY jurors have been reluctant to give the top award to a small car. That’s because it rarely is a showcase for new technology or a major advancement in design or driving dynamics. Even if elegantly done, simple functionality is often insufficient to woo the jury.

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Ford F-150

This full-sized pickup has metallurgists’ hearts pounding with its transformation from a steel body to one made from aluminum, saving 500-700 pounds—depending on trim level—in the process. With a slew of powerful, fuel-sipping EcoBoost engines, the new F-150 can haul more, go faster, and travel further on a tank of gas. Dare say, this is a pickup that is actually fun to drive.

And yet, there are those that worry that the press may rush to judgment in prematurely giving the F-150 the Truck of the Year honors.

Aluminum is a fickle metal on the stamping line, requiring exceedingly precise metal-bending to avoid the inconsistent rebounding flex after it has been stamped. When sheet metal isn’t formed properly, it can lead to squeaks, rattles and leaks. Also, there are doubts that body shops will be able to properly mimic the Ford assembly process to fix bashed-up trucks. And history shows that aluminum can be a finicky surface for paint.

The F-150 will scarcely have gone on sale when the winners are announced, which means jurors will have only driven hand-built prototypes, not retail-ready mass-produced models. Is that enough to hand Ford the prize? To earn accolades at Consumer Reports, a vehicle must test well, have strong crash-test performance, and proven reliability. This jury decision will precede all of that.

Chevrolet Colorado

Another truck that is arriving late in the year, and not yet fully tested at the Consumer Reports test track. It feels a bit like Oscar season, when movie directors perform a limited release in late December to qualify under the wire.

The Colorado sparked curiosity when Motor Trend gave its truck of the year award to the Chevy over the F-150. They called it “the perfect-sized truck” and lauded its domination of the small-truck competition. Then again, the other compact trucks entrants—the Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma—are decade-old designs and hardly competitive. As for Motor Trend calling the Colorado “a considerable value,” the big-money incentives on full-sized Silverados can take their transaction prices very close to the more modest Colorado.

Lincoln MKC

This selection surprised the entire Consumer Reports testing staff. Although the MKC has a huge (oft-parodied) advertising push with Matthew McConaughey, the luxury crossover was hardly "alright-alright-alright" in our tests, scoring a mediocre 71. Dragging it down was poor fuel economy, low cruising range, fussy controls, uncomfortable ride, a lack of handling agility, and a driver’s seat of debatable comfort. We feel the MKC is unworthy of even a consolation prize.

Instead, we’d favor the fast, fun, and engaging Porsche Macan, an all-new model that we feel dominates this class. But Porsche did not provide test vehicles to many journalists, hamstringing their chances. Also, for the first time since 2009, there are no Japanese-brand vehicles among this year’s finalists—even though there were three cars and four trucks among the nominees, including a couple that scored highly in our tests. That includes redesigns of the Subaru Outback wagon and Toyota Highlander SUV, both of which we recommend. These differing opinions are what make the NACTOY awards so egalitarian in nature.

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