Heavy Lies the Head That Wears The Crown – Hits and Misses in The Car Of The Year Award

I couldn’t help notice that it’s that time of year again – Motor Trend has awarded the Car Of The Year trophy to the new for ’12, made in the USA VW Passat. Since the Passat is screwed together over in the next county (at the new VW plant in Chattanooga), naturally I feel some local pride. But still, there is that nagging sense that giving a major award to a car that hasn’t made its chops yet is something of a risk for both the recipient and grantor. Any number of things could begin breaking,  burning or falling off the car and making both the giver and the taker look foolish. Here’s hoping that this doesn’t happen to the Passat. But before we crack open that champagne, let’s take a look at some of the past COTY recipients to remind ourselves just how fickle fame can be.

First, a little background. Motor Trend has been awarding the coveted calipers since 1949 (full list here). Cadillac won that year on the strength of its new high compression OHV V-8 egine. MT for many years had an American-cars only criteria for the award. That morphed into a bifurcated arrangement in the early 70’s to recognize an “Import Car Of The Year” and finally, one car, one trophy became the norm in 2000.

The award is like money in the bank: frequently featured in a company’s advertising, winning a COTY trophy can put a car on many shoppers lists where they would otherwise not look twice. And strangely, for all of the innovative models churned out by the independents during their years, only one independent ever won the award (the 1963 Rambler). Motor Trend’s one time near monopoly on model recognition has spawned all sorts of imitators over the years and while still potent, it’s not nearly the force that it was. But it is a part of our automotive history that bears more than just cursory review.

There have been good Car OF The Year selections and some real head scratchers. Today, we’ll take a little sampling of both, and I hope you’ll chime in down there in the comments.


Chevy Vega1971

The 70’s were a decade when dangerous, potent, hallucinogenic drugs tore at the very fabric of our society. How else to explain giving the industry’s top award to this rattletrap lemon from GM? The Vega PR team must have consisted of hypnotists to convince MT that this was even an adequate subcompact, much less a praiseworthy class leader. No matter. MT extolled the virtues of the Vega to all and sundry. Our own Paul Niedermeyer even gave this car a coveted single digit GM “Deadly Sin” designation. Of course, after a few thousand non ringer Vegas hit the streets, it became obvious that GM had sold the gullible press and the public the tartest lemon in their basket. The Vega soon found itself on a lot of other lists (of cars to avoid) and is today on just about everybody’s top 5 worst cars of all time. Motor Trend must have been pretty stubborn – they doubled their fun by giving the Chevrolet Monza (substantially the same car underneath) the award for 1975.

Good COTY:

Infiniti G35-2003

Infiniti introduced a great handling, smooth and eerily quiet luxury car for 2003 that utilized the excellent 3.5 litre mill that had made the 350Z a blast to drive. Nissan had produced a car that was serious competition for the BMW 3 series and customers took notice. The company got its due when Motor Trend awarded the G35 COTY. Sales promptly spurted upward and the series lives with us still (with the requisite sheetmetal and detail changes) as the G37.


Ford Mustang II-1974

The ultimate love it / hate it machine. The Mustang II was a triumph of good timing when it replaced the original ponycar in 1974. Heavily based on the execrable Pinto, the Mustang II kind of distilled all of the disco/malaise shortcomings of small cars in that era into one mushy, insipid package. Also sired by Lee Iacocca, the  II tried to be too many things at once (economical, sporty, luxurious)  and never really mastered any of them.

One big shortcoming that MT failed to address in its laudatory profile on the car was the lack of a decently powerful engine.  The deuce was the first of many iterations of this car that attempted to get back to the original formula that made the brand popular to begin with. Car watchers will note that that process continues to this day.

Good COTY:

Chevrolet Corvette-1984

This was an obvious (but inspired) choice. The ‘vette had become a rolling cliché after a 15 year run of the 1969 generation. The ’84 was a like falling in love all over again for most sports car enthusiasts. Chevy had finally taken the car out of the late 60’s idiom and given it a look and feel that were up to date and fresh. Of course, not every one agrees that the C4 was an improvement, but for this twenty-something car watcher, it was goodbye and good riddance to the overpriced, flaccid  Mako Shark inspired disco wagon that it replaced.


Renault Alliance – 1983

This was the car that proved conclusively that given an even playing field and the freedom to innovate and tap into its true strength, the American worker can build a car every bit as bad as the French. As we have seen,  the “Appliance” enjoyed a season of popularity when it debuted for 1983. But alas, the second Gallic COTY recipient looks like it will be the last (Citroen won the prize in 1972 with its SM). The Alliance went from a sensible, in demand economy car to disposable back lot dog quicker than you can say “quality control issues”. Unquestionably, the COTY award gave this car more attention than it could have ever gotten on its own, and probably a lot more than it deserved. By 1988, the Alliance was out of production.

Good COTY:

Chevrolet Caprice-1977

GM handled the downsizing of this car with enough aplomb that it was a blindingly obvious choice. Enough so that MT almost made up for the previous years idiotic choice of the Volare/Aspen stinkbombs. The Chevy full sizer was the bread and butter profit machine in those years and showed that GM could still do a good job when it wanted to. The ’77 line was the breakpoint for a lot of car buyers that truly signaled the end of an era of cheap oil and automotive excess. Henceforth, there would be no giant car/giant engine combinations on offer from the world’s largest car company. Ford and Chrysler saw the success that GM had with its downsized full size cars and quickly took a meat axe to their family tanks. Within a couple of years, (mostly) sensible cars were the order of the day.

Worst COTY:

Chevrolet Citation-1980

This award did as much damage to Motor Trend’s reputation as it did to GM’s. Almost before the COY issue got into the mailboxes of subscribers, Citations (and their badge engineered clone linemates) started self destructing and sending a lot of unhappy owners running for their lawyers. Locking brakes, shift linkage issues  and third world assembly standards made a lot of ex-GM owners of its early adopters. It was later revealed that GM had carefully hand picked and massaged the cars that MT tested and thus hoodwinked the very people that should have known better. The Citation became an epic flameout for GM and by 1986 was gone completely (this for a car that retailed over 800K units the first year). The Citation was later stretched and pulled to form the basis of the A body Chevy Celebrity, but MT must have gotten wiser because no A body ever got within a mile of any kind of award from the magazine.

So another year is in the books and no doubt the Passat will bask in the reflected glory of this award and pull in some serious coin for the mothership back in the fatherland. Or maybe not. Only with the passage of time will we know if this car is worthy of its new lofty status. But for the moment, the Passat is the king of the hill. Long live the king.