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If it's possible to crystallize a discussion about the best cars and trucks of 2003 into one thought, consider this: Two of them are made by Karmann in Osnabruck, Germany, and Magna Steyr in Graz, Austria.

Don't fret if these "brands" aren't familiar names. And, no, you won't find Karmann and Magna Steyr dealers opening soon at an auto mall near you.

Karmann is building the Crossfire coupe, a sporty two-seater from Chrysler that gets some parts from Mercedes-Benz models. And Magna Steyr is assembling the X3 sport-utility for BMW. (It also makes the 9-3 convertible for Saab and the G-Class SUV for Mercedes-Benz.)

Farming out vehicle production and other significant trends affecting the auto industry over the past decade fully reveal themselves in the 2003 car of the year competition.

The increasing globalization of the industry, consolidation of major players and the move toward more environmentally sensitive vehicles all are put front and center by this year's choices.

Some of my favorite cars this year include one with a gas-electric hybrid power train (Toyota Prius), another that's built in Australia despite its legendary American muscle-car name (Pontiac GTO) and the Chrysler-Mercedes-Karmann Crossfire.

My other top choices include Nissan's first full-size pickup (Titan), a ferocious entry into a segment where others have feared to tread. I also liked the first vehicle from General Motors to share a platform with the Corvette in its 50-year history (Cadillac XLR) and even a car that's only been sold in California so far (Scion xB).

Strange? Certainly. What the auto industry will look like in the future? Without a doubt.

My pick for the North American Car of the Year is the Toyota Prius, a revolutionary second-generation hybrid sedan that gets bigger and better for 2004 with improved mileage - 60 mpg in city driving, according to the EPA - that sells for about $20,000.

It beat out the Scion xB, another Toyota product, and one that's only available in California - although folks in 27 other states have bought them so far. The rest of the nation gets the chance to buy Scions in 2004. They'll find the boxy xB sedan - as well as the diminutive xA wagon - are a great mix of packaging and price, marketing and motoring.

The Acura TSX sedan, Cadillac XLR roadster, Chrysler Crossfire coupe, Pontiac GTO coupe and Volkswagen Phaeton luxury sedan also got some of my votes.

My pick for the North American Truck of the Year is the Nissan Titan, an all-new big truck that offers plenty of muscle and lots of neat features. On my ballot it narrowly topped the Cadillac SRX wagon, Ford F-150 truck and VW Touareg SUV. I also gave two big SUVs, the Dodge Durango and Nissan Pathfinder Armada, some points.

I'm just one of 50 voters. The winners will be announced in January in Detroit.

Here's how it works:

The 50-member North American Car of the Year jury is comprised of working auto journalists from media outlets such as the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Car and Driver magazine, PBS' "MotorWeek" as well as the San Jose Mercury News (me).

A long list of eligible vehicles - they must be all new or substantially revised, be expected to sell 5,000 units a year (2,000 for trucks) and be priced and-or on sale by Jan. 1 - was pared down to around a dozen cars and trucks earlier this fall.

Then, in early December, we conducted a second round of voting. The winners will be crowned at the start of the North American International Auto Show press-preview days in Detroit in early January.

Each juror has 25 points to distribute but can give no more than 10 points to any one vehicle. And only one vehicle can get 10 points. So, you could pick three cars and give them 10, 8, and 7 points, or you could pick six cars and give them 9, 7, 5, 2, 1 and 1, and so on. The accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche tabulates the votes, and only the vice chairman knows the results until they are announced in Detroit.

The jury is asked to select vehicles that set new benchmarks in the classes in which they compete. Writers and broadcasters evaluate the vehicles on factors including value for the dollar, innovation, handling, performance, safety and driver satisfaction.

Last year's winners were the Mini Cooper (car) and Volvo XC90 sport-utility (truck).

Now in their 11th year, the North American Car of the Year awards were inspired by the revered European Car of the Year awards.

Besides the ones that got my votes, other eligible car of the year candidates included the Acura TL, Audi A8L, BMW 5-Series, Chevrolet Malibu, Chrysler Pacifica, Jaguar XJ8-XJR, Mazda RX-8, Nissan Maxima, Nissan Quest and Toyota Sienna.

Eligible trucks that didn't get my vote included the BMW X3, Chevrolet Colorado, Chevrolet SSR, GMC Canyon, Infiniti FX35-45, Lexus RX 330 and Porsche Cayenne S-Turbo.

Motor Trend's Car of the Year award - the magazine's editors also name a SUV and a truck of the year - continues to be a significant milestone. However, it reflects the combined opinion of a small group of writers and editors. The North American Car and Truck of the Year awards avoids groupthink, as our panel tests, writes and votes independently.

Choosing cars of the year is something of an international pastime. Here are some other winners for 2003.

-Europe: The Fiat Panda took top honors in this year's European Car of the Year judging. In all, 58 auto writers from 22 countries picked it over BMW's 5-Series, the Mazda3, the Toyota Avensis, the Nissan Micra, the Vauxhall Meriva and the VW Golf.

The small Panda was praised for its agility, comfort, fuel economy and price. It's not sold in the United States.

-Japan: Subaru won Japanese Car of the Year for the first time with its new all-wheel-drive Legacy model. Sold as a sedan and wagon, the Legacy beat out the Toyota Prius, Mazda RX-8 and Honda Odyssey. The award is based on votes from 48 auto journalists and analysts.

It arrives at U.S. dealers next year as a 2005 model.

-North America: The North American Car and Truck of the Year will be announced in Detroit in January. Motor Trend magazine has picked the Toyota Prius as its car of the year and the VW Touareg as its sport-utility of the year.

-Australia: The Mazda RX-8 took top honors in an annual contest sponsored by the Courier-Mail newspaper in Queensland, Australia.,1413,246~25895~1860063,00.html
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