December 30, 2011

Confession #35: Whose Car of the Year is it, anyway?

I remember the holiday season for some notable things. Among them are consuming far too much food that your pants no longer fit, broken Christmas presents littering your living room floor and car commercials that are sillier than normal. Lexus has become synonymous for its “December to Remember” sales event advertisements that prominently showcase a car wrapped in a bow in the driveway as the surprised couple moves in slow motion towards their new RX-GS-IS-or whatever. Corny, I know.

This year, Acura’s gone to a different level of ridiculousness. Their “Season of Reason” campaign shows you that by hiring Bette Midler to come caroling with you or getting Gordon Ramsey to cook Christmas dinner is going over the top. What is reasonable is buying a new MDX, TSX or one of their other anonymously named cars at a low, low interest rate. 

Former Motor Trend editor Angus MacKenzie (center) with
VW execs announcing the award at the 2011 LA Auto Show
Volkswagen, known for its brilliant advertising, went a bit soft with its Sign then Drive campaign this year. The whole “forgetting you’re still on a test drive and you take the car home with you” routine is kind of stale. Still, the message is clear that VW’s desperate for you to come in and take a new Passat home with you because all you need is a signature and approval you can assume payments of $279 per month for the next three years. And you think it sounds good, maybe because the voiceover says the Passat is Motor Trend’s 2012 Car of the Year.

Car of the Year? The Passat? I’m surprised as you are. It’s not that the Passat has ever been a bad car, and this one is no exception. It’s just that this Passat is largely devoid of the details that made previous iterations so good. Most Surprising Car of the Year, maybe. This so-called “American” Passat isn’t fitted with the same cruddy interior the “American” Jetta is, but that’s hardly worthy of the golden calipers.

This is the time of the great debate among those of us reading what automotive writers think is the best new car launched for 2012. Clearly the editors of Motor Trend were overwhelmed by the sheer pragmatism of the Passat. After all, at between $20,000 and $30,000-ish for a large family sedan with either five or six-cylinder gas engines or a four-pot turbodiesel, it’s a good choice in its segment. But don’t forget, this year includes new models such as Ford’s new Focus and Audi’s impressive A6.

That could be why Automobile Magazine went with the A6’s svelte sibling, the A7, as their Automobile of the Year. Sure, it costs about twice as much the Passat and isn’t quite as economical. As a technical exercise and as a showcase of how good Audi can make a car, it’s a fine pick. The A7 is stunning to look at. I never tire of seeing one go by on the street. And behind that beguiling exterior, it has a hatchback mated to a coupe-like roofline. The A7 has “award-winning” written all over it. Suddenly, the Passat sounds like a stupid choice.

Of course, this might be why Car and Driver picks 10 cars every year. That’s how the Ford Focus and Audi A6 get recognition, as well as the A7. Of course, their 10Best is also the reason the Honda Accord can still call itself “an award-winner” year after year, even if its design and execution is being surpassed by a number of classmates.

All of this bickering over which cars deserve which awards every year is pointless because in a few years’ time, who’s going to remember a given car for winning a certain honor. Remember the '97 Chevy Malibu? Car of the Year that year. The Mazda MPV was a 10Best winner – twice. The Chrysler Cirrus was the 1995 North American Car of the Year, Motor Trend's Car of the Year and a three-time Car and Driver 10 Best-er. The Nissan 350Z was an Automobile of the Year. (Really? That was the best new car of 2003?) And the Renault Alliance? That made several “ … of the Year” lists in 1983. But it’ll best be remembered for that sales video with the mimes in it.