Fiat Chrysler steals show at MotorTrend Car of the Year Awards

2 of automaker's products, Marchionne win big

By PETER VALDES-DAPENA, CNN BUSINESS
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2019 Ram 1500

(CNN) - Fiat Chrysler Automobiles stole the show at this year's MotorTrend Car, Truck and SUV of the Year Awards ceremony in Los Angeles.

Sergio Marchionne, the former head of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles who died earlier this year, was honored as Person of the Year while two of Fiat Chrysler's products — the Ram 1500 pickup and the Jeep Wrangler — earned Truck of the Year and SUV of the Year Awards at the event.

The Car of the Year Award was given to the new Genesis G70, a compact luxury performance sedan from Hyundai's newly created luxury division.

The magazine's writers lauded Marchionne's leadership of both Fiat and Chrysler, noting how he turned each company around as they approached the brink and combined them to create a new industry powerhouse. He was also remembered for his keen and demanding eye for products. The magazine noted Marchionne's reputation for making designers and engineers rework their designs over and over until he felt they were right.

His demanding approach was evidenced in the two products that won awards this year, as well as in the Alfa Romeo Giulia which was named Car of the Year Last Year, according to the magazine.

Only vehicles that are completely or substantially redesigned for the model year are eligible for these awards. The vehicles are tested side-by-side, then judged based on six criteria: safety, efficiency, value, advancement in design, engineering excellence, and performance of intended function.

The Ram Truck was tested at Fiat Chrysler's own Arizona proving grounds where temperatures regularly reached "well into triple digits," according to the magazine. MotorTrend's editors were impressed with the truck's ride quality, thanks to its sophisticated suspension, as well as its nicely appointed interior with tools and storage bins for a variety of uses. Also, its unique mild-hybrid system aids both fuel economy and performance, the magazine noted.

The Ram beat General Motors' new Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra trucks, both of which were finalists, for the award. Trucks are huge profit makers for these companies and the fight for buyers can be fierce. A head-to-head win against GM's best new trucks gives the Ram pickup real bragging rights that will doubtless be put to good marketing use.

"It's huge for Ram to win, but when you drive the product and test it like we did, it wasn't close at all," said MotorTrend editor-in-chief Ed Loh.

The Jeep Wrangler, while also a completely new design, retains the unmistakable Wrangler look dating back 70 years to the original military Jeeps. The new Wrangler provides a better on- and off-road ride and steering characteristics, the magazine noted, without sacrificing any capability. Like the Ram, it's also available with a new mild hybrid system that uses batteries to store excess power that can be used to assist with acceleration.

The Wrangler is the most famous product from what is generally regarded as Fiat Chrysler's most valuable brand by far — especially after Ferrari was spun off as a separate company. The Wrangler is central to Jeep's image for rugged off-road performance. Engineers and designers were faced with the challenge of staying true to that while making the new Wrangler as palatable as possible for those who drive it regularly on paved roads and highways.

The new Wrangler is good enough that it actually makes a perfectly viable daily-use alternative to a more car-like crossover SUV, said Loh.

Hyundai's winner, the Genesis G70, is intended to compete directly against compact luxury performance cars like the BMW 3-series and Audi A4. It marks the first time a Korean brand has won the Car of the Year award.

Hyundai and its corporate sibling Kia have made great strides in recent years in improving the driving enjoyment of their cars. Now, they can credibly take on the best German brands, said Loh.

"It hits all the right notes: Punchy powertrains and an agile chassis that's a ton of fun, sporty exterior styling with strong graphics, and a well-appointed interior," said MotorTrend international bureau chief Angus MacKenzie.

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