by Frank A. Aukofer

Genesis, the five-year-old luxury brand from South Korea’s Hyundai, scored two finalist positions in the 2021 Car, Truck and Utility of the Year awards, voted by an independent panel of automotive journalists from the US and Canada.

The Genesis G80 sedan was one of three finalists for Car of the Year. Also named were the new Hyundai Elantra sedan and the compact Nissan Sentra.

In the Utility of the Year category, the never-before Genesis GV80 joined the Ford Mustang Mach-E electric and the Land Rover Defender, a new luxury rendering of a storied SUV developed in the 1980s from the original 1948 Land Rover. The first Defender was discontinued in 2016.

Finalists for Truck of the Year are the new Ford-F150, the best-selling vehicle in the U.S.; the Jeep Gladiator Mojave, and the Ram 1500 TRX, both designed for high-performance off-roading.

The 50-member jury of automotive journalists, including this reviewer, work or free-lance for independent magazines, newspapers, television and radio stations, and websites. They are required to drive and evaluate the candidates.

The NACTOY — for North American Car of the Year (including trucks and utility vehicles) — awards are intended to honor excellence in innovation, design, safety, performance, value, technology and driver satisfaction.

There are three rounds of voting to winnow a list of eligible vehicles to smaller numbers in each category. This year there were 11 cars, 27 utility vehicles and four trucks. The jurors vote for three finalists and the winners. Ballots are secret and tabulated by the Deloitte & Touche LLP in Detroit. Winners will be announced January 11, 2021 at a location to be determined.

The finalists:

Car of the Year

Genesis G80: This classy full-size luxury sedan behaves more like a capable compact or a scrappy midsize sports sedan. It comes in nine versions, in rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive with a choice of engines: 2.5-liter four-cylinder, 300 horsepower; and 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6, 375 hp. 

Both have eight-speed automatic transmissions. Prices range from $56,475 to $68,675. They have the potential to usurp sales from existing luxury marques.

Hyundai Elantra: An all-new rendering of the South Korean manufacturer’s compact sedan, which competes against the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic and Nissan Sentra. 

Exterior and interior styling are new from the tire treads up, though the standard engine is a repeat: 147-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder with a continuously-variable automatic transmission (CVT).

Also: a new gasoline-electric hybrid with139 hp, a six-speed automatic transmission and 50 miles to the gallon mileage. The performance model is the N-Line, with 201 hp and a six-speed manual gearbox or a seven-speed automatic. 

Sadly, the Elantra GT hatchback has been dropped for 2021, although there might be a few stick-shift 2020 GT N Lines still available.

Nissan Sentra: It was the surprise of the 2021 car crop. Previous models were undistinguished but the new one, as we wrote earlier, stands out as a desirable roomy, well-performing, affordable compact sedan with the bones to attract customers who could buy something more expensive.

It uses a new 149-hp four-cylinder engine with front-wheel drive and a continuously-variable automatic transmission. Base price is $22,355 and a loaded Premium came to $25,325. 

Utility Vehicle of the Year

Ford Mustang Mach-E: It’s got a Mustang badge and fine performance but this is all-electric with a crossover SUV hatchback and body style. There’s midsize 101 cubic feet of room inside for five, along with cargo space of 29 cubic feet under the hatch, plus another five cubic feet in a front trunk.

Rear drive is standard with all-wheel drive optional. The tested AWD Premium pre-production model had two electric motors, an extended range battery and delivered 346 hp. Its zero-to-60 acceleration time, Ford says, is 4.8 seconds. The top-line GT model, introduced later, is said to do it in 3.8 seconds.

The Premium’s range is listed at 270 miles with 300 miles for the GT. But a 19-hour charge on a 240-volt charger yielded 236 miles. The EPA city/highway/combined mpg equivalent is 96/84/90 MPGe. The tester had a starting price of $50,800 and $56,400 with options.

Genesis GV80: This is the crossover SUV version of the Car of the Year finalist G80. The GV80 uses the same motivation as the G80, with a 300-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and a 375-hp 3.5T twin-turbocharged V6. An eight-speed automatic transmission is standard.

Like its sedan garage-mate, the GV80 comes with luxury interiors enhanced by fine materials and craftsmanship, good handling with communicative steering, silent running and long-distance comfort.

The 2.5 and 3.5T each come in three versions: Standard, Advanced and Prestige with rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. Prices start at $49,925 and can climb to $65,375. The GV80s have two rows of seats, though a 3.5T Advanced model can be equipped with a cramped third row.

Land Rover Defender: In some ways, it’s hard to defend the Defender. For many years, the Defender represented the epitome of Land Rovers that could handle hostile terrain anywhere.

The originals, with back-breaking ride, ear-shattering noise and turtle-like acceleration, are sought-after collector vehicles. But Land Rover, with its Range Rover and Evoque models, has transformed itself into a luxury manufacturer, though maintaining capable off-road capabilities.

Trading on that reputation, Land Rover brings the new Defender 110 X, which has the looks and capabilities of an African King of the Serengeti but a luxury personality. It’s a pricey—$85,750 as tested—three-row, four-door SUV. Next comes the smaller two-door Defender 90.

Truck of the Year

Ford F-150: It’s what you’d expect of Ford’s flagship but it is all-new from bumper to bumper. As with any pickup in this modern era, it can be equipped to satisfy almost any buyer.

The beauty of it is that this four-door 4X4 Super Crew pickup has gotten so refined that, except for its size — 20 feet 4 inches long, six feet six inches tall and 4,810 pounds — you’d be convinced you’re driving a much smaller vehicle. It’s quiet, handles capably in traffic and on curving roads, and has plenty of punch from the tester’s 5.0-liter V8 engine, which delivers 400 hp through a 10-speed automatic transmission.
Its attributes came with a base price of $47,985 and, as equipped, a bottom line of $56,990.

Jeep Gladiator Mojave: This new version of the much-anticipated Gladiator pickup truck is tricked out to validate those advertising videos showing Jeeps racing around dirt roads and going airborne off sand dunes. 

For 45 years until 1992, Jeep marketed a variety of trucks, the last of which was the Comanche. The 2020 Gladiator arrived as a traditional off-roader, equipped to handle even the famed Rubicon Trail in California and Nevada, so rugged it is driven mostly at walking speed.

Now comes the Mojave. Though can do some of the same rock crawling as other Jeeps, it can manage higher speeds in races through the rough outback.

The base Gladiator with a six-speed manual gearbox had a base price of $35,040 and, as tested, came to $36,330. The Mojave model came with a starting price of $45,370 and, with many options, climbed to $61,795.

Ram 1500 TRX: This brute starts out as a Ram 1500 pickup but gets a shape-shifting transformation into a mighty dune busting, rock climbing, Baja California racing truck. Its Dodge Hellcat V8 engine snorts out 702 hp through an eight-speed automatic transmission to all four wheels.

Despite its 6,866-pound curb weight, a test by Car and Driver magazine clocked the TRX at 0-to-60-mph acceleration in 3.7 seconds. Nicknamed “T-Rex” by its enablers, the TRX comes with a host off-road goodies that enable it to rocket off hills and sand dunes, and cushion its landings.

With a base price of $71,690 and $87,570 as tested, it has a classy interior with carbon fiber accents. A long list of standard and optional equipment includes full-speed collision warning and emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, and high-performance dampers and brakes.

Photos courtesy OEM.