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Joann Muller in the battery-electric Hyundai Ionic 5, which has a futuristic interior. Photo: Miles Johnson for Axios

This week, I spent two glorious fall days evaluating dozens of cars, trucks and SUVs on the roads near Ann Arbor, Michigan, to determine the best of the best.

Why it matters: The annual comparison drive brings together 50 professional automotive journalists from the U.S. and Canada who are jurors for the independent North American Car, Truck and Utility Vehicle of the Year awards.

  • I test drive new cars all year long, but the opportunity to compare vehicles back to back, on the same routes — and to share impressions with my fellow jurors — is invaluable.
  • It's also a great opportunity to talk to the engineers who designed them, to learn more about what makes each model unique.

How it works: There are three rounds of voting to winnow down the list of new or substantially changed vehicles each year.

  • This week we compared the 23 semifinalists — eight cars, six trucks and nine utility vehicles (many with multiple powertrains or trim levels) — to pick the finalists. These will be announced Nov. 17 at Automobility LA, the preview event for the Los Angeles Auto Show.
  • Winners in each category will be announced in January.

I'm still weighing my picks, but here are some key takeaways after two days of comparison driving:

  • Touchscreens are getting bigger and more distracting.
  • Knobs are actually useful — please put them back!
  • Battery electric models are becoming mainstream.
  • Assisted driving systems are getting more intuitive.
  • Luxury models are really just like your family room on wheels.
  • More to come on all these trends soon.

I'll leave you with two surprise contenders from the week:

  • Rivian's R1T electric pickup truck. At $73,000, the first vehicle from the EV startup surprised many journalists for its quality and attention to detail. It's still early, though, and the question is whether this newcomer can master mass production.
  • Ford's Maverick hybrid pickup. There's a ton of value in this little pickup, which starts under $20,000 and gets 42 miles per gallon in city driving. It's the answer for climate-conscious drivers on a budget who want a truck but have been priced out of the market.

The catch: Only one can be truck of the year.

Go deeper

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Dec 7, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Red and purple state growth of green car factories

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Toyota's plan to build a manufacturing plant in North Carolina for EV batteries is the latest move by auto giants, startups and suppliers to set up shop in conservative or swing-y states.

Driving the news: On Monday, the company said it's building a $1.3 billion plant in the Greensboro area to produce batteries for hybrid and electric vehicles.

Toyota to build $1.3 billion U.S. battery plant in North Carolina

The all-electric Toyota bZ4X, the company's first battery-electric vehicle, at the Los Angeles Auto Show in Los Angeles, California on Nov. 17. Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Toyota announced Monday it's investing $1.3 billion to construct an electric vehicle battery "megasite" near Greensboro, North Carolina, set to open in 2025.

Why it matters: The Greensboro-Randolph Megasite will employ 1,750 people and have four production lines, each capable of delivering enough lithium-ion batteries for 200,000 vehicles when it opens, per a Toyota statement.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Dec 7, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Power industry teams up on highway EV charging

A vehicle at a Tesla Supercharger station in Vallejo, California, on Oct. 19. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The big trade group for investor-owned power companies is set to unveil Tuesday a new coalition aimed at making electric vehicle charging more accessible along the nations' highways.

Driving the news: The Edison Electric Institute is rolling out the National Electric Highway Coalition. It merges two existing efforts — Electric Highway Coalition and the Midwest Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure Collaboration — and brings in new companies.