Auto industry 'Oscars' don't guarantee car sales

AP
Kim McCullough, Brand Vice President, and Andy Goss, President, Land Rover North America, hold the North American Truck  of the Year trophy for the Land Rover Range Rover Evoque at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Monday, Jan. 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
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DETROIT (AP) — And the NACTOY goes to...

The acronym for The North American Car and Truck of the Year award doesn't roll off the tongue like 'Oscar.' And it's hardly a household name.

For the award's annual winners in Detroit, though, it offers the same opportunity to strut. Here's the problem: Like with the Academy Awards, the bragging rights don't guarantee a sales boost.

This year's winners, announced Monday as Detroit's annual auto show opened to the media, are the Hyundai Elantra and Land Rover Range Rover Evoque.

The sleek and sculpted Elantra starts at $16,445. The compact car gets an estimated 33 mpg (14 kpl). The Evoque, a small, angular SUV which starts at $43,995, gets an estimated 18 miles per gallon (7.6 kpl) in city driving and 28 mpg (12 kpl) on the highway.

Reporters rushed the stage after the announcement to interview the assembled auto bosses, contorting themselves to get a camera or audio recorder in position and creating the first of many media scrums to come during the show's two-day media preview.

Each of the winning vehicles' production teams hopes it has built an auto-version of "Slumdog Millionaire," the 2009 film that the Oscar helped turn into a sensation, and not 2010's "The Hurt Locker," the lowest-grossing best picture winner since accurate records have been kept.

"The Oscar comparison is a fair one — Oscars sometimes help films gross more money, but not always," says Rebecca Lindland, research director for IHS Automotive. "But they are much more about bragging rights and prestige, which may or may not translate into sales."

The performances of some past winners offer a mixed record.

Honda's double-barreled 2006 wins — the Civic compact and Ridgeline pickup — resulted in higher sales in the year following the award. General Motors also nabbed both honors in 2007 but saw a split decision in the next 12 months: The Saturn Aura saw a big jump from the prior year but sales of the Chevrolet Silverado fell.

Then there's the 2011 winner, the Chevrolet Volt. The car that runs on electricity for 40 miles before a backup gas engine kicks in beat the Nissan Leaf, another electric. The Leaf sold 9,674 cars last year, about 2,000 more than the Volt.

"The Volt was pretty well-deserving. ... It's an iconic vehicle." Lindland says. "It represents a sea change, even if the volume isn't there."

The choices represent a desire to validate the vehicles' overall quality: The judges — about 50 automotive journalists — evaluate finalists on value, innovation, handling, performance, safety, and driver satisfaction.

But a happily-ever-after is up to fickle consumers and a volatile industry.

Witness Chrysler's PT Cruiser, a 2001 winner that enjoyed wild success but ended production in 2010, a victim of plummeting popularity when Chrysler failed to invest in updates or broaden the Cruiser's appeal with new versions.

Then there's the Aura, which ended two years after it won Car of the Year when GM killed the Saturn brand.

Lindland says it's difficult to know what compels consumers. An independent award could get a car shopper's attention when he or she sees a commercial, but she doubts most people would remember which vehicles won from one year to the next.

Jaguar Land Rover North America President Andy Goss will gladly take the prize for the Evoque, Monday's truck winner, which he calls the "David in a world of Goliaths." Its competition was the BMW X3 and Honda CR-V.

Goss says it's humbling for the company, which has had finalists but never been a winner in the 19 years that the award's been given.

John Krafcik, Hyundai's North American CEO, says this year's car award won't help the Elantra's sales, mostly because the company already is selling as many as it can make. But the award should help solidify the brand's image in the eyes of the American public, especially in the highly competitive small-car market.

Land Rover's Goss cut to the chase Monday in his acceptance speech: "We're going to market the hell out of this."

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AP Auto Writer Tom Krisher contributed to this report.

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Jeff Karoub can be reached at www.twitter.com/jeffkaroub .

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