North American Car of the Year is... from South Korea
The victory is particularly important for Hyundai, which has seen its sales slide over the last several years due to a lack of utility vehicles.
Brian Smith, left, Chief Operating Officer, Hyundai Motor America and Yong-woo William Lee, President and CEO of Hyundai Motor North America hold the North American SUV of the Year trophy next to the Hyundai Kona award during media previews for the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Jan. 14, 2019.Paul Sancya / AP
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Two South Korean carmakers overwhelmed the competition as they snapped up trophies in the North American Car, Truck and Utility Vehicle of the Year awards, joining a small and elite group of brands to ever pull off a double-win.
The Hyundai Kona was named Utility Vehicle of the Year, with the upstart Genesis brand’s new G70 sedan taking honors as the North American Car of the Year. It marked just the third win in any category for Hyundai and the fourth for South Koreans, overall, in the 25 years since the awards were founded.
“These are like the Oscars,” declared Erwin Raphael, the president of the Genesis brand, which was spun off by Hyundai just three years ago. And, at least among car buyers, a victory is just as important, echoed his colleague Manfred Fitzgerald, suggesting the award will prove a “game-changer,” building awareness for an otherwise little-known brand.
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The awards are handed out at a ceremony marking, this year, the 30th anniversary of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
The NACTOY awards have evolved to reflect changing trends within the North American automotive market, last year adding a new category for utility vehicles. This year’s finalists were the new, all-electric Jaguar I-Pace, the hot-selling Acura RDX, and the Kona, which is offered with both gas and long-range electric options.
The victory was particularly important for Hyundai, which has seen its sales slide over the last several years — after a decade of significant growth — due to a lack of utility vehicles. The Kona is the first in a wave of new models that will include the three-row Palisade, set to reach showrooms later this year.
Kona’s victory “will help us create momentum,” said William Lee, the head of Hyundai Motor America, adding that even though the overall U.S. new vehicle market is expected to decline this year, Hyundai forecasts it will gain sales thanks to its expanded SUV line-up.
At the beginning of the 2019 model-year, Genesis seemed an even bigger long shot to win any award. The brand was spun off from Hyundai in 2019 and given a mandate to go up against some of the most vaunted names in the luxury market, including Audi, BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz. Sales have been modest, at best, with consumer surveys showing little brand awareness.
The G70, in particular, was designed to target one of the most respected products in the business, the BMW 3-Series, but when the NACTOY results were tallied, it scored nearly four times the votes for the other finalists, the Honda Insight hybrid and the Volvo S60/V60.
Fiat Chrysler’s Ram brand wrapped up the ceremonies by scoring a win in the Truck of the Year category. Its Ram 1500 hammered competitors Chevrolet Silverado 1500 and GMC Sierra 1500 even more effectively, collecting almost seven times more votes.
That said, “What matters most is the consumer, the ultimate judge,” said Ram boss Reid Bigland, noting sales have grown by strong double-digit numbers every month since the 2019 Ram 1500 was launched last autumn.
Paul A. Eisenstein
Paul A. Eisenstein is an NBC News contributor who covers the auto industry.