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North American Car of the Year: Why Such a Blowout?

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2011 Chevrolet Volt

2011 Chevrolet Volt

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The North American Car and Truck of the Year winners for 2011 are officially set in the history books, but for the 2011 Chevrolet Volt and the 2011 Ford Explorer, the surprise from this morning's awards may be the margin of victory earned by both.

On the car side, the Volt scored 233 out of a possible 490 points. The 2011 Hyundai Sonata drew 163 points, and the Nissan Leaf trailed far behind at 94 points. According to the NACOTY organizing committee, it's the first time a car propelled by electricity for a meaningful distance has ever won the award.

In the truck competition, the Explorer far outdistanced its Chrysler competition at 253 points, with the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee amassing 138 points and the 2011 Dodge Durango, 99 points.

Why such a blowout for the Volt and Explorer? It's likely on the truck side, that the two strong Chrysler SUVs simply split votes. Both the Grand Cherokee and the Durango have earned strong reviews: High Gear Media's editors have given particular praise to the off-road capability of the Jeep and the Dodge. That the vehicles were completed during Chrysler's bankruptcy makes them all the more impressive an achievement.

At the end of the day, the Explorer's even longer backstory probably beat out the Chryslers' tug at the heartstrings. The Explorer nameplate withered after the 2000 Firestone recall debacle, and sales dropped off even further during the gas-price crunches of 2005 and 2008. The new Explorer hits several marks spot-on: it's more a crossover now, with car-based underpinnings and all-weather capability as much by electronic aids as by hardware. With its superior packaging, steering and dazzling infotainment options, the Explorer's 115-point win over the Grand Cherokee makes sense in rankings, even if the final scores don't quite seem as close.

The Volt's win is more striking. Two electric cars competed for this year's award, along with a new strong-selling vehicle in an important market niche. Many of the NACOTY jurors have spoken about "Volt exhaustion," since the car world has been writing and reporting on the series hybrid car since 2006. GM's efforts to keep the Volt front and center during its own bankruptcy clearly shows up in the tallies--as does the other undercurrent, some observations by some jurors that with its roughly 100-mile power range, the Nissan Leaf may "not be ready for prime time." It also seems that Chevrolet and GM may be well past the hurdle of explaining exactly what the Volt is to consumers--while Nissan may need to start telegraphing more why it's not as flexible as the Volt.

The Sonata's second-place finish, in the midst of all the fuss about electric cars and series hybrid cars, underscores how important the new sedan has become to the brand. By any measure it's a standard family sedan--with attractive turbo and hybrid options--and its 163 points wedged between two truly historic, milestone machines is the best evidence of how swiftly Hyundai's moved into the top tier of automakers.

Worth noting: the NACOTY jury, which has been comprised of journalists from across the U.S. and Canada since its inception, has named domestic cars and trucks as its North American Car and Truck of the Year a total of 22 times. All other auto-producing countries and regions--Europe, Japan and South Korea--have taken home top honors just 14 times.

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