Chrysler 300 and Ford Escape hybrid top North American vehicles

Monday, January 10th 2005, 8:47 am

By: News On 6

DETROIT (AP) _ The Chrysler 300 _ America's ``in'' sedan _ and Ford's new Escape hybrid SUV were named North America's top vehicles at the North American International Auto Show.

The 300 _ which becomes the 300C when it's equipped with Chrysler's powerful Hemi V-8 engine _ won 2004 North American Car of the Year. Ford Motor Co.'s Escape won for 2004 North American Truck of the Year.

The last time entries from Detroit's Big Three won both car and truck of the year was 1996.

The awards were announced Sunday during the first day of media previews at the auto show, one of the industry's most prestigious stages and home to 6,600 journalists from more than 60 countries for the next few days.

To be eligible, a vehicle must be substantially changed from the previous model or a completely new vehicle.

The 300, whose unique look has captured buyers from the hip-hop set to Baby Boomers, already had claimed Motor Trend's 2005 Car of the Year Award, among other honors. It's emerged as one of America's hottest new cars since hitting showrooms in April.

``Chrysler has single-handedly reinvented the large, V-8-powered American sedan,'' said Matt DeLorenzo, Detroit editor of Road & Track magazine.

Dubbed ``baby Bentley'' by some because of its likeness to versions of the luxury English brand, the 300 beat out the Chevrolet Corvette and Ford Mustang.

Analysts, owners and dealers say one of the 300's biggest attractions is its price tag _ $23,000 to $38,000 depending on options _ which most consider reasonable given its styling and content.

The car features a large, distinctive grill _ similar to a Bentley _ and a long nose and short rear that gives it a bold stance.

Chrysler sold about 107,000 300s in 2004 _ 90,000 more than the model it replaced. It was a big factor in Chrysler's 3.4 percent rise in U.S. sales in 2004 _ the only one of Detroit's Big Three to post a year-over-year gain.

Chrysler Group, whose other brands are Dodge and Jeep, is the Auburn Hills-based division of German-American automaker DaimlerChrysler AG.

All three of the truck finalists were Ford products _ the Escape hybrid; Ford's new crossover vehicle, the Freestyle; and the Land Rover LR3 SUV.

Ford has said the gas-electric hybrid system in the front-wheel-drive Escape allows the vehicle to get 35 to 40 miles per gallon in city driving, compared with 20 miles per gallon in a 2005 Escape with a V-6.

Because of the relatively new technology, the hybrid version of the Escape is more expensive than the standard version. Its base price of $27,000 is about $3,300 more than a 2005 Escape powered by a V-6 engine.

``The Escape hybrid means consumers with some extra disposable income can help the environment without having to sacrifice either performance or capability,'' said Chris Jensen, automotive editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

Ford announced Sunday that it was adding four vehicles to its hybrid line over the next three years.

The North American honors have been given annually since 1994 by a group of about 50 full-time automotive journalists from the U.S. and Canada. Last year's car of the year was the Toyota Prius and the truck of the year was the Ford F-150.

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