Hyundai, Ford win 2021 North American Car, Truck and Utility of the Year Awards
Ford's F-150 pickup and Mustang Mach-E electric SUV, and Hyundai's Elantra sedan are the big winners of this year's NACTOY awards.
Chris PaukertFormer executive editor / Cars
Following stints in TV news production and as a record company publicist, Chris spent most of his career in automotive publishing. Mentored by Automobile Magazine founder David E. Davis Jr., Paukert succeeded Davis as editor-in-chief of Winding Road, a pioneering e-mag, before serving as Autoblog's executive editor from 2008 to 2015.
Chris is a Webby and Telly award-winning video producer and has served on the jury of the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards. He joined the CNET team in 2015, bringing a small cache of odd, underappreciated cars with him.
For most of NACTOY's history, the Car of the Year has been the headliner category -- indeed, "Car" still comes first in the awards' name. But with the dramatic shift in the consumer marketplace towards SUVs and crossovers, the capstone award these days is arguably the Utility Vehicle of the Year category, if not Truck of the Year, so we'll start there.
North American Utility of the Year: 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E
Appropriately, the 2021 North American Utility of the Year was arguably this year's most hotly contested category, with the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E emerging victorious over the largest number of eligible models in any particular category. The Mach-E electric SUV bested the Genesis GV80, an accomplished and very posh midsizer that's the first SUV for Hyundai's young luxury brand, as well as the reborn Land Rover Defender, which pairs genuine off-road prowess and an upright, utilitarian design with surprising on-road refinement.
The nonprofit organization's jury of 50 professional automotive journalists from print, online, television and radio media outlets were won over by the Mustang Mach-E's groundbreaking all-electric powertrain, next-generation Sync 4 infotainment and useful size.
The battery-powered SUV is being seen as being among the first credible mainstream shots across the bow of Tesla, arguably the only automaker to have real success selling EVs so far. The new model is also seen as a particularly bold bet by Ford in that it risked the name and some design elements of one of the brand's most iconic nameplates, the Mustang sports car. The unusual move is showing signs of paying off.
2021 North American Car of the Year: Hyundai Elantra
The 2021 Hyundai Elantra compact four-door beat out the impressive new Genesis G80 luxury sedan and the value-packed Nissan Sentra to become the 2021 North American Car of the Year. The Elantra makes a particularly bold style statement and is available with many safety and convenience tech features that are hard to come by even in cars in higher price classes. There's also a new dedicated hybrid model that delivers up to 54 miles per gallon.
The 2021 Elantra is priced from $20,645 (including $995 for delivery), proving you don't have to be expensive to win one of the auto industry's most sought-after awards.
2021 North American Truck of the Year: Ford F-150
If there were any category this year that had a winner that was easy to predict, it's this one. The 2021 Ford F-150 full-size pickup squared off against the Jeep Gladiator Mojave and the Ram 1500 TRX and has taken the crown as the 2021 North American Truck of the Year. It's not that those two aforementioned extreme off-roaders from FCA aren't worthy vehicles -- they're both excellent examples of over-the-top trucks designed to excel in the rough stuff. It's just that those two vehicles are more incremental improvements on existing models, whereas Ford's 2021 F-150 is a wholly new generation of product. In fact, the Wrangler-based Gladiator pickup won this category in 2020, alongside the mid-engined C8 Chevrolet Corvette and the Kia Telluride SUV.
The 2021 Ford F-150 may look similar to last year's truck, but under the skin, it's a different beast altogether, one with an available PowerBoost hybrid drivetrain, updated cabin tech and a game-changing new option called Pro Power Onboard, a built-in generator that figures to be a boon to commercial workers and home-improvement enthusiasts alike. The light-duty F-150 has long been America's best-selling vehicle of any type, and with major updates to the F-150's cabin quality, safety gear and overall capability, this latest F-Series appears unlikely to relinquish its sales crown any time soon.
2021 Ford F-150 King Ranch PowerBoost matches hybrid smarts with Western flair
The NACTOY Awards have historically been announced as part of the North American International Auto Show (better known as the Detroit Auto Show). That event tie-in actually changed last year, prepandemic, when the show's planners decided to move their yearly expo to the summer instead of its traditional January timeframe. While NACTOY still maintains a relationship with the show -- indeed, the virtual show was opened by Rod Alberts, executive director of the auto show -- the organization has always been a wholly independent entity. Its awards are not presented by the auto show, nor any particular media outlet. This is the first year NACTOY has moved to an all-online award ceremony.
Disclosure: The author is a longtime member of the NACTOY jury.