6 Finalists for Best Car and Truck of 2013

DETROIT ( TheStreet) -- The U.S. auto industry is wrapping up a year that included strong sales of innovative, well-built cars and trucks as well as an election victory by a president who listed Detroit bailouts as a primary achievement.

Several 2013 introductions provided signs of a resurgent industry finally able to anticipate customers' preferences and to deliver on them.

As the Detroit Auto Show approaches, the Automotive Press Association jury, composed of 50 automotive journalists, has rolled out its list of the top six finalists for the 2013 North American Car and Truck of the Year awards. Winners will be announced Jan. 14 on the media day at the car show.

To be eligible, a vehicle must have been substantially changed from the previous model, must be available for purchase shortly after the award is announced and must be likely to reach minimum sales levels of 5,000 for cars and 2,000 for trucks.

Last year's winning car was the Hyundai Elantra. The winning truck was the Range Rover Evoque.

TheStreet spoke with Karl Brauer, CEO and editor of Total Car Score and a member of the jury, about the entries and the likely winners.

Cadillac ATS

We might as well say it up front, the Cadillac ATS looks like a winner in the car category.

"This is the first time anybody has eclipsed the BMW 3 Series" in ride and handling, Brauer said. "No one would ever have imagined that a GM ( GM) car could overcome a BMW car."

In 2010, GM introduced the Cruze and showed it can compete in the compact-car market. This year, Cruze is the ninth-best-selling U.S. car.

The Cadillac ATS is a rear-wheel-drive vehicle that weighs less than 3,400 pounds, one of the lowest curb weights in the segment. GM calls it "the most agile and lightweight Cadillac." The latest news on the car is that, despite being one of the lightest vehicles in its class thanks to the use of metals such as martensitic alloys and ultra-high-strength steel, it earned a five-star crash-test rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The ATS was unveiled in January 2012 on the eve of the Detroit Auto Show media day. This year that spot has been turned over to the new Corvette.

Ford Fusion

The 2013 Ford Fusion was among the most eagerly anticipated cars of 2012, and Ford succeeded in bringing upgraded styling, improved aerodynamics and fuel efficiency to the hotly contested midsize-sedan category.

"Until a month ago, I though Fusion had it locked up" to be car of the year, Brauer said. But a few things altered his perception. For one, he said, he took a more careful look at all the criticism of the Ford Sync in-vehicle communications and entertainment system. "It is messed up, not as good as it should be," he concluded. "The voice recognition is not there." He said GM's CUE and Chrysler's UConnect are better systems.

Additionally, Brauer said that after driving the Honda Accord, he reckoned it is better, even though it "is not quite as nimble as Fusion."

Also, Ford has two Fusion recalls this month, one to fix a headlight problem and one because of problems that could cause engine fires. "Fusion will be a fabulous car for Ford and it will be selling like hotcakes," Brauer said. "But Ford has got to get its launches down."

Honda Accord

Already the fourth-best-selling vehicle and the second-best-selling car in the U.S., the Honda Accord made gains with the 2013 model.

Accord competes in the midsize-sedan segment, the most popular for cars, with leader Toyota Camry as well as Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu and Nissan Altima.

After driving the 2013 Accord, Brauer said "the quality seeps through the car. It's got the feel of a Mercedes -- you know you're in a Mercedes if you feel like you're in a bank vault. Accord is not quite as nimble as a Fusion, but I think it is a better car."

Ford C-Max

Built on the Ford Focus platform, the C-Max is a compact multi-purpose world vehicle. Only the hybrid version is sold in the U.S., where it was introduced in September.

"C-Max is very impressive," Brauer said. "It drives as well or better than any other hybrid, and it is inexpensive."

C-Max is likely to give the successful Toyota Prius a run for its money. "It competes directly with Prius, and it's a hot new car, while Prius is old," Brauer said. "Ford buyers might go running out to buy it."

Unfortunately, while Prius gets 50 miles per gallon, questions have arisen about Ford's claims of 47 mpg combined highway and city for the C-Max. Testing by Consumer Reports has shown 37 mpg overall -- good but not close to Ford's claims.

Mazda CX-5

Mazda CX-5, a compact SUV first produced in 2012 for the 2013 model year, has been praised by the automotive press for its excellent handling and performance.

"It's the best-driving compact SUV out there," Brauer said. "It handles well. But when I drove it, I had 'head toss,' (because) if you stiffen the suspension to prevent the car from rolling, the car stays stiff. So the ride is not quite as it should be for the target audience: women and parents."

He added that the Hyundai Santa Fe and the Ford Escape, both competitors, have nicer interiors than the Mazda CX-5.

Ram 1500

Brauer picks the Ram 1500 truck as the winner in the truck/utility category. He says it poses a threat to the reigning pickup truck leaders, the Ford F150 and the Chevrolet Silverado.

"The new Ram is awesome," he said. "If I were Ford and GM, I would be worried. Truck customers are loyal, so people aren't going to run from Ford and GM trucks, but Dodge is getting better all the time, and they are making inroads."

The new Ram has independent rear suspension, which vastly enhances the ride, he said. The height of the truck can be altered based on the load, which improves the ride. The mileage is good, and the truck has Chrysler's UConnect, "the best interface right now."

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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