The world's first commercially mass-produced hybrid car and America's top-selling pickup were named North America's top vehicles Sunday at the North American International Auto Show.
The Toyota Prius claimed the honor of 2004 North American Car of the Year and the Ford F-150 collected its latest award as 2004 North American Truck of the Year.
The awards were announced during the first day of media previews at the auto show, one of the industry's most prestigious stages and home to 6,000 journalists from more than 50 countries for the next few days.
The honors have been given annually since 1994 by a group of about 50 full-time automotive journalists from the U.S. and Canada. They scrutinize each vehicle's design, safety, handling and innovations. The judges also consider driver satisfaction and value.
To be eligible, a vehicle must be substantially changed from the previous model or a completely new vehicle.
The newest version of the Prius, introduced in 1997, was chosen over the Cadillac XLR roadster and the Mazda RX-8 sports car.
A hybrid car switches between a gasoline or diesel engine and an electric motor to deliver the best mileage. The car recharges itself during the drive.
For now, the only versions available in the United States are small cars made by Toyota and Honda Motor Co., but several automakers have models in the works, including trucks and sport utility vehicles.
"Along with the Honda Civic hybrid, (the Prius) is one of the two most important cars (and) technologies of recent years — if only American buyers will grasp it," said judge Royal Ford of The Boston Globe. "The Prius makes me wonder what American car companies are thinking beyond the far off glimmer of hydrogen."
The newly designed Prius hit U.S. showrooms in October. Toyota expects annual sales of the next-generation hybrid to top 35,000. U.S. sales last year were 21,193.
The base price for the car is about $20,000.
The finalists in the truck category were the Cadillac SRX, a midsize crossover vehicle; Ford's redesigned F-150 pickup; and Nissan's Titan, the Japanese automaker's first full-size pickup.
Ford's F-Series pickups are the best-selling vehicles in the United States and account for one-quarter of Ford's sales. Ford executives have said the new F-150, introduced in September, likely is the most important new product for Ford since the Taurus helped the company emerge from a sea of red ink in the late 1980s.
"The most important vehicle for Ford has been thoroughly refined esthetically and mechanically," said judge Denis Duquet of the Canadian automotive publication Le Monde de l'auto. "It has the best interiors of any truck, the new frame is as modern as it can be and it comes in three body styles."
Ford officials said last month dealers have sold more high-end versions of the truck than anticipated since its debut, providing a bigger boost than expected to the company's finances. The trucks also are carrying lower consumer incentives on average than the competition, they said.
The suggested retail price for the 2004 F-150 lineup ranges from $19,125 to $35,570.
Last year's truck of the year was a new crossover vehicle _ the Volvo XC90. The car of the year was the Mini Cooper, the born-again British icon.