I spent a couple of days last week with two dozen of my fellow North American Car and Truck/Utility of the Yearj (NACTUOY) judges driving the vehicles vying to be finalists.
I feel like I know less than when I began.
Actually, I learned a lot, but none of it gets me any closer to casting my votes for the three finalists for each award.
More cars, not fewer, are on my list of strong contenders for the awards.
Jurors get together in October every year to compare the contenders, drive them back to back, and in my case, ask everybody in sight, "Whadja like? I can't narrow it down to three."
I'm more glad than ever that we added the word "utility" to reflect the huge variety of vehicles sold as trucks, though.
The short list consists of 20 to 25 cars and trucks we think are the best and most significant that hit the market this year. Jurors narrowed the field from dozens of new vehicles to these semifinalists a few weeks ago. (Some vehicles haven't gone on sale yet, but they will before 2012 ends. If we think one's likely to be a contender, we'll put it on the short list to make sure the jury gives it a look. The Lincoln MKZ sedan, for instance.)
The jurors will noodle this until early December. Then we each vote for three finalists. Those vehicles will be announced to the Automotive Press Association at the Detroit Athletic Club on Dec. 15. We'll get another look at the finalists, then vote in a secret ballot. The winners will be announced at the opening news conference of the North American International Auto Show in Cobo Center, Detroit, on Jan. 14.
I have no idea which vehicles will win. After the comparison-drive this week, I couldn't even guess what the finalists will be.
Here's what I do know:
-- The universe of vehicles called trucks and utilities is expanding at the speed of light, from traditional pickups such as the Ram 1500 to crossover utilities such as the Mazda CX-5 and the hybrid minivan Ford C-Max.
-- Fuel economy is improving faster than any of us expected. The fact a 47-miles-per-gallon (5 litres per 100 kilometres) hybrid crossover wagon (C-Max), a fast and roomy 39-mpg (6L/100km) compact (Dodge Dart) and a 38-mpg (6.2L/100km) midsize sedan (Altima) all hit the market this year is a tribute to auto engineers' inventiveness. The sky's the limit.
FAVORITE NEW FEATURE
Like a horse headed for the stable at the end of the day, Ford's C-Max hybrid knows when it's going home and stretches its legs to get there.
The C-Max was a revelation to me at the judges' comparison drive last week. I hadn't driven the compact hybrid yet, though I liked a gasoline-powered version of the compact vehicle I tested in Europe a couple of years ago.
A compact wagon or minivan, the C-Max hybrid rates an impressive 47 mpg (5L/100km) in city, highway and combined testing by the EPA, but the feature that caught my eye is called EV+.
The car's navigation system figures out what your frequent destinations are and pushes its batteries to stay in all-electric mode longer when you get close to one. By the afternoon of the first day of NACTUOY testing, the EV+ sign lit every time the C-Max approached home base.
The result is that the upcoming C-Max plug-in hybrid will dig deeper into its battery reserves to stay in electric mode and reduce emissions further when the vehicle is close to home or other frequent destinations where you may be able to plug it in and recharge its batteries without burning any gasoline.
THE SHORT LIST
Candidates for 2013 North American Car and Truck/Utility of the Year
BMW 3 Series
Trucks and utility vehicles
Hyundai Santa Fe
Infiniti JX 35
--Detroit Free Press