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Car or truck-of-year award doesn't guarantee success

Some victors soar, some just languish


Hyundai's Elantra is the winner of the Car of the Year award at the North American International Auto Show. Land Rover's Range Rover Evoque is Truck of the Year.


DETROIT -- And the NACTOY goes to …

The acronym for the North American Car and Truck of the Year award doesn't roll off the tongue like 'Oscar.' And it's hardly a household name.

For the award's annual winners in Detroit, though, it offers the same opportunity to strut. Here's the problem: Like with the Academy Awards, the bragging rights don't guarantee a sales boost.

This year's winners, announced Monday as Detroit's annual auto show opened to the media, are the Hyundai Elantra and Land Rover Range Rover Evoque.

The sleek and sculpted Elantra starts at $16,445. The compact car gets an estimated 33 mpg. The Evoque, a small, angular SUV, which starts at $43,995, gets an estimated 18 miles per gallon in city driving and 28 mpg on the highway.

Reporters rushed the stage after the announcement to interview the assembled auto bosses, contorting themselves to get a camera or audio recorder in position and creating the first of many scrums to come during the show's two-day media preview.

Each of the winning vehicles' production teams hopes it has built an auto-version of Slumdog Millionaire, the 2009 film that the Oscar helped turn into a sensation, and not 2010's The Hurt Locker, the lowest-grossing best picture winner since accurate records have been kept.

The performances of some past winners offer a mixed record. Honda's double-barreled 2006 wins -- the Civic compact and Ridgeline pickup -- resulted in higher sales in the year. General Motors nabbed both honors in 2007, but saw a split decision in the next 12 months: The Saturn Aura got a big jump from the prior year, but sales of the Chevrolet Silverado fell.

The choices represent a desire to validate the vehicles' overall quality: The judges -- about 50 automotive journalists -- evaluate finalists on value, innovation, handling, performance, safety, and driver satisfaction.

But a happily-ever-after is up to fickle consumers and a volatile industry.

Witness Chrysler's PT Cruiser. The 2001 winner enjoyed wild success but ended production in 2010, a victim of plummeting popularity after Chrysler failed to invest in updates or broaden the Cruiser's appeal with new versions.

Then there's the Aura, which ended two years after it won Car of the Year when GM killed the Saturn brand.

Rebecca Lindland, research director for IHS Automotive, says it's difficult to know what compels consumers. An independent award could get a car shopper's attention when he or she sees a commercial, but she doubts most people would remember which vehicles won from one year to the next.

Jaguar Land Rover North America President Andy Goss will gladly take the prize for the Evoque, Monday's truck winner, which he calls the "David in a world of Goliaths." Its competition was the BMW X3 and Honda CR-V.

Mr. Goss says it's humbling for the company, which has had finalists but never been a winner in the 19 years the award has been given.

John Krafcik, Hyundai's North American CEO, says this year's car award won't help the Elantra's sales, mostly because the company already is selling as many as it can make. But the award should help solidify the brand's image in the eyes of the American public, especially in the highly competitive small-car market.

Land Rover's Mr. Goss cut to the chase Monday in his acceptance speech: "We're going to market the hell out of this."

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