NACTOTY Test Drive Day - Autoline on Autoblog with John McElroy

An hour ago, as I write this, I was just completing two days of driving all kinds of cars and trucks for the 2008 North American Car and Truck of the Year Awards. This is where a bunch of us automotive journalist jurors gather to do back-to-back driving comparisons of the cars and trucks that have come out so far this year. Except that the cars we just drove are the ones that made it through our winnowing process to qualify for our short list.
This year, like last, our center of operations were based in Hell, Michigan which offers a surprisingly good selection of twisty, undulating, and heaving roads that are liberally sprinkled with patches of rough pavement and impact strips. Ideal for finding out what a car is really like.

By driving all the vehicles over the same roads, at the same speeds, and using the same places for steering, acceleration and braking, you can quickly get good comparisons of one car to another.

I can't tell you everything I learned at this year's NACTOTY driving session. For one thing, Chevy made me sign a form promising I wouldn't publish any driving impressions of the new Malibu until November 2. (I wonder if they'll able to keep a lid on this one, because I think everyone came away extremely impressed with this car.)

But the other reason I can't tell you everything I have learned is that I just don't have the time! We had 28 different vehicles at our disposal, plus a couple of competitive models for comparison purposes. So here are some of the highlights as I saw them:

Big surprise was the Infiniti EX35, a five-passenger, luxury crossover. To be perfectly honest I didn't even know this thing existed. But my notes show it feels nice and tight, has an excellent interior, offers very car-like ride and handling, and has plenty of power that you can put down with effect because it also has all-wheel drive. The power comes from, what else? The ubiquitous 3.5L V6 that Nissan puts in everything. But the real importance of this car is that it offers a really interesting nuance on what the crossover segment can become, an interesting blend of passenger car with the look of utility.

Another surprise for me was the smart fortwo. A lot of people are attracted to this car, but wait 'till they drive one. Whoooo doggie, this little car sure got a whole lot shake, rattle and roll goin' on! Worse, every bump is jarring, leaving you to dread "the feel of the road." On the plus side it turns quick and has an extremely short turning radius. But the automatic gearbox is enough to make you blow your brains out. There is a huge lag between every shift, with the car momentarily bogging down until the next gear engages. Ugh, a most unpleasant feeling.

A quick glance around the parking lot showed the unremitting growth of the crossovers. Besides the aforementioned EX35, we drove the Nissan Rogue,
Toyota Highlander, Saturn Vue, Buick Enclave, Hyundai Veracruz, Mazda CX9 and Kia Rondo. Whew! All of this new product ensures the crossover segment will continue to surge forward.

GM's product resurgence was also in full display since it has more finalists this year than any other automaker. The list includes the Cadillac CTS, Chevrolet Malibu and Tahoe Hybrid, Buick Enclave, and Saturn Vue.

This just skims the surface of what went on during two very productive days of driving. I'll have more to write about what I learned in the future and I'm sure you'll see plenty more detailed reviews of these cars from my fellow jurors.

Soon we'll be starting the voting process to winnow the short list down to the three finalists for the car category and three for the trucks. That vote takes place in early December. Then we announce the winners at the 2008 North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January. I'd tell you my favorites, but I haven't decided yet!


Autoline Detroit
Airs every Sunday at 7:00AM on Speed and 10:30AM on Detroit Public Television

Synopsis of next week's show - "The Best In far"
At the halfway point of 2007, the auto companies have released a spate of new products from performance cars to heavy duty trucks to everybody's vehicle of the moment, "the crossover." For the next two shows John McElroy and a couple fellow NACTOY (North American Car and Truck of the Year) jurors evaluate the latest offerings from the OEMs so far to see what may make the finals come the end of the year.

Starting with cars, this week John along with Natalie Neff from AutoWeek and Gary Witzenburg from look at vehicles like the new MINI Cooper, the Chrysler Sebring Convertible, the Volvo S80 and everything in-between. Then next week they all take a turn with the trucks, SUVs and CUVs.

Last week's show - "Middle Ground"

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