NORTH AMERICA Mini Cooper, Volvo take top awards



The Mini Cooper offers sports-car performance in a cute and practical design, judges say.
DETROIT (AP) -- A born-again version of a British icon and a new Swedish SUV were named North America's top vehicles Sunday at the North American International Auto Show.
The Mini Cooper claimed the honor of 2003 North American Car of the Year and the Volvo XC90 collected its latest award as the 2003 North American Truck of the Year.
The awards were announced during media previews at the auto show, one of the industry's most prestigious stages, which attracted 6,000 journalists from 53 countries.
The tiny four-seat Mini Cooper, a British native that inspired the miniskirt and transported 1960s cinema sleuth Austin Powers, was chosen over two Nissan Motor Co. offerings -- the 350Z and the Infiniti G35.
"Mini Cooper stands out with sports-car performance and handling wrapped up in a cute design that's practical and affordable," said judge Mitch McCullough of the publication New Car Test Drive.
With a starting price below $20,000, the Mini is a lot less expensive than its brethren in the BMW family. That's a key prong in the German automaker's strategy to cultivate customers for its core high-end products.
The original Mini was produced from 1959 to December 2000 but was sold in the United States only during the 1960s. The newest version went on sale in the here early last year.
BMW bought the Mini brand in 1995 and built a new plant near the original one in Oxford, England, to produce the new version of the car.
The winner
Volvo's XC90 beat out the Honda Element, Hummer H2 and Nissan Murano in the truck category, which includes sport utility vehicles.
Built on a car body, the all-wheel drive XC90 has three rows of seating and room for seven adult passengers, though Volvo, a unit of Ford Motor Co., designed some of the seats with children in mind.
The second row includes a middle seat that moves forward so parents can scoot a child closer to them. The third row can be folded into the floor to provide more storage capacity.
"This isn't exactly a truck, but it's a vehicle that successfully answers most of the criticisms aimed at today's upscale SUVs," said judge Dan McCosh, a free-lance journalist from Detroit.
The sticker price starts at $35,100 and climbs to about $40,000 when leather seats, a moonroof and an in-dash CD player are added.
In October, the XC90 was named Motor Trend Magazine's SUV of the Year.
To qualify
To be eligible for the North American honor, a vehicle must be substantially changed from the previous model, or a completely new vehicle.
Last year's winners were the Nissan Altima for car of the year, and the Chevrolet TrailBlazer SUV was truck of the year.
The awards have been given annually since 1994 by a group of about 50 full-time automotive journalists from the United States and Canada. Each judge is given 25 points to divide among the cars and trucks, but no more than 10 points can be awarded to a single vehicle.
They scrutinize each vehicle's design, safety, handling and innovations. The judges also consider driver satisfaction and value.

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