It takes a lot of impressive qualities to earn a North American Car, Utility and Truck of the Year (NACTOY) Award. After all, winners are chosen by a jury of about 60 longtime automotive journalists from across the continent, and those experts are looking for new vehicles with outstanding “innovation, design, safety, performance, technology, driver satisfaction and value.” That’s helped the NACTOY program become one of the industry’s most important independent honors.
Of course, while the annual trophy is reserved for new vehicles, their winning characteristics don’t just disappear a few years later, when that car or truck is ready for the pre-owned marketplace. They just become available to a different group of customers. As a result, even if some previous NACTOY winners have lost their luster, many remain strong choices for used-car shoppers.
2008 Chevrolet Malibu
The 2008 Chevrolet Malibu has the distinction of winning a NACTOY award two years in a row — or at least the platform it rides on did. In 2007, the Saturn Aura was the North American Car of the Year, with many of the same features as the Malibu, but its own styling and design cues. This strategy still is used by automakers today with new vehicles, and for used-car shoppers, it means the Malibu has earned an extra measure of critical respect.
Now, as a 2008 model, what the car doesn’t have are many of the bells and whistles of more modern vehicles. Yet the Malibu’s award-winning platform ensures a relatively smooth and comfortable ride, and its standard four-cylinder, 169-horsepower engine is fuel-efficient for its class. With EPA ratings of 22/30 mpg city/highway and a four-speed automatic transmission, that unit is 10 percent more efficient in city driving than a comparable 2008 Ford Fusion. Key options for the 2008 Malibu are a 252-horsepower V6, a six-speed automatic transmission, an eight-speaker audio system and leather and two-tone cabin themes.
2009 Hyundai Genesis
The 2009 Hyundai Genesis was the first Korean vehicle to receive a NACTOY award, and its legacy lives on in the name of the Hyundai Motor Company’s Genesis luxury division, which launched as a standalone brand in 2015.
Pre-owned Genesis sedans continue to offer the same combination of value and premium content that earned the new models their praise. That includes the usual luxe features, such as heated leather seats and a heated and leather-wrapped steering wheel. But the Genesis then goes a little further with an available leather-wrapped dash. Also, despite the car’s 2009 birthday, it supplies standard tech content such as Bluetooth connectivity and an iPod-compatible USB port; a 375-horsepower V8, navigation with an 8-inch display, adaptive high-intensity-discharge headlights and a heated and cooled driver’s seat are optional.
Additionally, according to Hyundai, the Genesis was one of just two cars to offer a Lexicon audio system for the 2009 model year, the other being the Rolls-Royce Phantom.
2013 Ram 1500
Showing just how competitive the full-size pickup segment can be, the big three domestic entries each won a NACTOY trophy during the three-year span from 2013 to 2015. And while each raised the bar for what customers can expect in a modern-day pickup, it was the 2013 Ram 1500 that set that bar in the first place.
For example, the 2013 Ram 1500 showcases robust hauling capabilities, with a standard 3.6-liter V6 that can tow up to 6,500 pounds, and an available 5.7-liter HEMI V8 that delivers 395 horsepower, 407 pound-feet of torque and a maximum tow rating of 10,450 pounds. It also provides the handy Rambox storage system, which allows owners to fit cargo into lockable compartments built into the walls of the pickup bed. Where the truck really sets itself apart, however, is in a long list of next-gen advances, including a standard eight-speed automatic transmission, LED exterior lighting, a Uconnect infotainment system with an 8.4-inch touch screen and a rearview camera.
2015 Volkswagen Golf
Offering a truly unique proposition is the 2015 Volkswagen Golf, which was named car of the year not only in North America, but in Europe and Japan, too. In fact, VW’s compact hatch made history by becoming the first imported car to win that latter award.
For U.S. drivers, the 2015 Golf marks a significant upgrade over previous generations, starting with a standard 1.8-liter, four-cylinder turbocharged powerplant. Capable of producing 170 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque, the engine supplies the same horsepower as the unit it replaces, then adds an extra 23 pound-feet of torque. Standard EPA ratings rise as well, up to 25/36 mpg city/highway. The 2015 Golf also is roomier inside and furnishes more cargo space than the 2014 model. In terms of notable technology, the car provides a standard touchscreen-based infotainment system and options that extend to a rearview camera, forward-collision warning and a Fender audio system.
Enthusiasts can be happy in knowing that the 2015 GTI — backed by a 210-horsepower turbocharged engine — was explicitly included as part of the Golf’s NACOTY-winning lineup.
2015 Ford F-150
Meanwhile, on the truck side of the program, the Ford F-150 received its fourth NACTOY honor in 2015, after previously winning in 1996, 2004 and 2009. This time, though, Ford moved the segment into a whole new direction. As folks may recall, the 2015 F-150 was the first full-size pickup to use aluminum body panels for weight savings. Needless to say, with certain 2015 models weighing up to 700 pounds less than their 2014 counterparts, the impact on performance and efficiency was immediate. Making another difference in that regard is a powertrain lineup that offers four engines. Among them are two turbocharged, direct-injected EcoBoost engines, one with EPA ratings of up to 19/26 mpg city/highway and the other serving up 365 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque — enough output for a 12,200-pound tow rating.
The 2015 F-150 also brings new levels of driver-assistance technology to the segment, thanks to available equipment. These features include a 360-degree camera system with trail-hitch guidance, a blind-spot monitor, adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning and an automatic parallel-parking system that can find and steer the truck into an appropriate spot.