2007 Detroit Auto Show: International Car Of The Year Awards

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By Martha Hindes
Detroit Bureau

Drum roll, please. Enter stage right the woman with the catchy name and well-toned frame, clad in white trimmed black chiffon and impossibly high heeled shoes who manages in one quick verbal jab to devastate the often stuffy atmosphere of awards ceremony. If that gives the idea this is not just your snoozer's list of honors presentations, well you get the idea.

Courtney Caldwell, the woman behind the flashing eyes, pointed delivery of auto industry-toned one liners and occasional naughtily raised eyebrow and shaded witticism, undoubtedly wouldn't have it any other way. A somewhat diminutive blond, as head of a major international auto publication, she hides a suggestion of the proverbial steel fist in the velvet glove behind a quick witted demeanor. Necessary stuff when you're a woman dealing with the iron-clad old boy network that still permeates much more of the atmosphere of the "Motor City" than many other metropolitan centers. A long-time Californian, Caldwell noted the change in atmosphere instantly upon moving her ROAD & TRAVEL Magazine publication from printed format to Detroit, Michigan-based internet nearly a decade ago. And maybe it's not so surprising really, since -- as one foreign auto executive once commented -- "We design our vehicles for men, and women are welcome to buy them."

The presence of Caldwell's International Car of the Year Awards (usually abbreviated as ICOTY) presented by RTM at the beginning of Detroit's wildly fantastic international motor show press days each year has become a show tradition. In its 11th consecutive year, it's now known as the unofficial kick-off for the collective insanity of relentless vehicle unveilings spiked with most imaginative trappings -- snowstorms of paper confetti exploded from theater stages, vehicles driven through plate glass windows, laser light shows of extra terrestrial intensity, and even vehicles dropped from ceilings -- that ensues in Detroit's Cobo convention center for the subsequent three days. It's a signal to those among the 6000 or so visiting journalists and dignitaries in town who stop by for ICOTY's black tie show launch that the basis for buying, owning, treasuring a vehicle -- any vehicle -- is usually a mix of love, passion, enchantment, bravado, unbridled excitement, lust, and even stubborn preferences for sometimes inscrutable reasons. The ICOTY awards ceremony blatantly plays on those emotions.

Take pickup trucks for example. ICOTY doesn't refer to them as simply trucks. Besides an "International Truck of the Year" winner (which in this year's contest was a pickup -- Chevy's redesigned Silverado), there's a Pickup Truck "Most Athletic," with Silverado again this year's category winner. (Picture those macho vehicle washboard abs and try not to get hot and bothered is the inference.) Switch to International "Car of the Year" winner, and again there are double duty top honors as the Lexus LS 460 -- a vehicle so refined that, amazingly, it can park itself -- takes top car and also the "Most Respected" Luxury Car prizes.

Mundane isn't allowed in ICOTY terms. Minivans, those often maligned super duty carriers of families, gain respect as "Most Compatible" (Hyundai's new Entourage the 2007 winner). Crossovers and their wagon counterparts -- the fastest growing vehicle segment around -- are "Most Versatile. Mazda's sassy CX-7 it is. SUVs (no surprise here) are "Most Resourceful." GMC's Yukon and Yukon XL get the nod for 2007. The Sedan category's "Most Dependable" honors go to Toyota's redesigned Camry. Mazda's high "zoom" factor MAZDASPEED3, takes "Most Spirited" honors in the Entry Level category. And sports cars exude their "Most Sex Appeal," as Jaguar's "sultry, intimidating" revival of the XK flashes to the forefront as category winner.

While those vehicles took top honors, runners-up were noted as well, with the Audi A8 and Dodge Caliber winning honorable mentions for International Car of the Year and Toyota Tundra and Mercedes-Benz GL sharing honorable mentions on the International Truck of the Year side. Those winning similar honors in specific categories were: Ford Edge and Dodge Caliber (Crossover/Wagon), Acura MDX and Jeep Wrangler Unlimited (SUV), Mini Cooper and Nissan Versa (Entry Level), BMW 335i Coupe and Audi A8 (Luxury), Toyota Tundra and Ford Harley-Davidson F150 (Pickup Truck), Nissan Altima and Mercedes-Benz E Class BLUETEC Diesel (Sedan), Mazda MX-5 "Miata" Power Retractable Hardtop and Saturn Sky Red Line (Sports Car) and Kia Sedona and Nissan Quest (Minivan).

In expected tradition, the 2007 black tie affair with an air of a celebrity awards ceremony began as usual with roving spotlights, some of those proverbial drum rat-a-tats and cymbal clangs, as the punchy sounds of the Jerry Ross Band faded and RTM Editor-in-Chief Caldwell assumed her spot on stage.

One after one the contenders for each vehicle category were touted with -- at times -- tongue-twisting or occasionally irreverent musings by Caldwell and her co-host of the moment, usually other seasoned, and sometimes jaded auto journalist judges sharing in the revelations. All participants played with double entendres, alliteration and just plain humor in the process. Luxury autos were preened for their exquisite precision, while appealing to a need for gratification. SUVs became wanderlust dominators. Entry level autos kicked over the traces, while irresistibly sultry sports cars dominated with a thundering undercurrent of raw power. Caldwell, herself, refers to the entire annual production as "emotionally compelling." Vehicles aren't simply cold steel cutouts from a designer's idea turned production output. Rather, they "reflect our lifestyles and self-image, an attitude most consumers can identify with," she noted.

Even veteran industry legends weren't exempt from wisecracking spoofs and accolades -- more informally viewed as a roast. For 2007, it was Jim Dunne, an industry writer/photographer insider with many publications including Popular Mechanics, known for witty quips and taking a spy photo at almost any cost. Dunne went so far as to buy land next to a top secret auto test track to get his clandestine photos of secret vehicles under development. He's even been known to perch hidden in trees for hours to catch a quick shot of some future car or truck before the manufacturer wanted it known. Dunne won RTM's fourth annual Lifetime Achievement Award.

A "car guy" dynasty in the making was spoofed in Ford Motor Company's "Father & Son" Bold Moves ad by the J. Walter Thompson ad agency that won the third annual "HEART STRING" Award for most compelling vehicle commercial.

An international "Who's Who" of auto names was evident among event sponsors, including DaimlerChrysler, Ford, GM, Subaru, Suzuki, Honda, BMW, Hyundai, Mazda, and Nissan. Other industry aspects were represented by Bose, GM's OnStar, Bridgestone/Firestone, Automotive Women's Alliance,

Women's Automotive Association International, AutoTrader.com, Car Crazy Central and U-Haul International. On the media side, Edmunds.com, MSN Autos, and Popular Mechanics joined in. And the Detroit affiliate of CBS-TV filmed the show for a special half-hour airing during Detroit's prestigious North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) week that draws show goers from hundreds of miles away.

Judging for the awards began months before with seasoned, syndicated auto reviewers (including several women) who write for such outlets as MSN Autos, Playboy, edmunds.com, The New York Times, Auto Week and television's Autoline Detroit, joining RTM in putting vehicle after vehicle through grueling paces to determine which would pass muster as the best of the best. Standards ranked from outright brute capability (pickups) to pampering potential (luxury cars) for both female and male drivers.

Michigan's woman Secretary of State, Terri Lynn Land, a local female mayor and other dignitarties at the head table didn't seem to mind the event's play on words. The presence of top women officials pointed out the importance women have in making automotive decisions, something Caldwell has known for years. The importance of a woman's perception of the nuances of auto ownership is confirmed by dealers themselves who say that men tend to go along with what women want.

"If a man and wife are shopping together, they tell us to forget about the man and concentrate on the woman," said a Detroit-area Ford salesman. "They are 73 percent of making the decision."

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