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2016 International Car of the Year Awards Celebrated its 20th Anniversary Honoring the 2016 Kia Optima for 2016 International Car of the Year, 2016 Hyundai Tucson for International Family Vehicle of the Year and 2016 Kia Sedona as International Truck/Utility of the Year presented by Road & Travel Magazine
2016 International Car of the Year Awards

Most Emotionally Compelling Vehicles for 2016

Celebrating ICOTY's 20th Anniversary

Through thick and thin, fire and ice, highs and lows, recession and rebirth, LA to Detroit and back, sunshine and snow, cynicism to celebration, good days and bad, in sickness and in health, the annual International Car of the Year Awards have certainly driven a weird and wild circuitous route to reach its 20th anniversary, to say the least. And hell yeah, we're proud to have made it in spite of all the challenges and naysayers, and have the scars to prove it. Challenge is a delicious driving force. We celebrate this milestone as a unique and interesting journey of twists and turns but by no means as a final destination. We thank all those along the way who cheered us on and had our back. We wouldn't have made the finish line without you.

Kia K900 Named 2015 International Car of the Year by Road & Travel MagazineWe've seen so much come and go over these past 20 years. Pontiac and Saturn gone. Tesla and Prius' arrival. Hybrids, electric and self-driving cars. Start-ups fueled by passion but lacking performance to stay up. Those who made it to the finish line, those who drove off a cliff. Well-known brands, models and VIP rock stars put out to pasture or sent to the junkyard for the final blow. Some who climbed the ladder of success, some falling off, and a few landing in a landmine of controversy. Respected worldwide automakers crashing head-on with Congress over shady and shifty dealings. Good cars turned bad. Bad cars turned great. A once male-dominated industry finally adding women to the good ole' boys club. Print pooping out. Social media becoming the lead story. Well-educated and experienced journalists replaced by well-meaning kids who write about cars on their Facebook page because they saw it in on YouTube. Many we loved, then lost. My, my, the world has changed in these short twenty years.

We've also seen automakers start at the bottom and fight their way to the top, rebels that like ICOTY fought through thick and thin, in the face of adversity and criticism, to build a brand and a name that would earn respect and critical acclaim.

One of those companies is Kia Motors. As a company that arrived on American soil only some 20 years ago itself, it initially became most notable for small, fuel efficient but crush-worthy entry models, and given little hope of survival. Today, Kia's rise has put the brand inline and online with some of the most well-known and respected automakers in the world.

People have noticed the rise of this rebel and if they haven't they should. Kia has continued to garner attention for its increasingly sophisticated and technically-advanced cars and SUVS, adding many honors along the way including J.D. Power awards for safety and initial quality as well as the International Car of the Year Award three years in a row (ICOTY). Not too shabby.

2016 is no different. It is the fourth straight year that Kia has coveted top honors, this time for ICOTY's 20th Annual International Car of the Year and the International Truck/Utility of the Year. (SUV)
“There are many firsts for ICOTY’s 20th Anniversary,” says founder Courtney Caldwell. This is the first time in ICOTY's history that the same automaker has won four years in a row. This is the first time that the same model has won twice. And it's the first time that the same automaker took home both International Car and Truck/Utility of the Year, ICOTY's two highest honors. This speaks volumes about Kia’s continuous growth and new model introductions of exceptional new products, safety and technology.”

Let's start with the 2016 Kia Optima, ICOTY's 2016 International Car of the Year presented by Road & Travel Magazine, and what turned it into a two-time winner. We love its new iterations which have grown from a slick family sedan in its infancy to a full-blown turbo-charged tomboy. The Optima today is a sleek fusion of bold style, heart-pounding performance, and advanced technology, confidently pushing the boundaries of the midsize sedan, with plenty of attitude to spare. And it's an attitude of gratitude from we the people as pricing for this remarkable rebel starts below $25K. Look who's styling and profiling now. [Read review]

"One of the reasons we started ICOTY 20 years ago was to address why automakers weren't making vehicles that looked cool but were still affordable so consumers could 'feel good' about driving them. One doesn't need to make a vehicle look inexpensive because it is inexpensive. No one wants to drive a car that looks like junk and then feel like they have to make excuses to everyone as to why they're driving it. The public sees us more in our cars than they do in our homes so it's a natural reaction to want be seen in a vehicle that reflects who we are on the inside, not what's inside our wallet, unless you're a one percenter. But, 99% of us are not, which doesn't change the fact that people of all income levels prefer driving a car they consider cool and reflective of their self-image, real or imagined. It's about that emotional connection and pride of ownership," says Caldwell.

"Kia is like the James Dean of automakers, a rebel (but with a cause) that never seems to follow the crowd, driven by their own fast and furious path to success, and is very much a people pleaser. It's one of best underdog 'rags to riches' stories we've witnessed in the auto industry," she adds. And yet, as a company, they remain humble.

Winning top honor wasn't a given, however. The Kia Optima had plenty of stiff competition for 2016. It came down to five finalists that gripped our hearts and minds as they did with people on the street. Duking it out for the 2016 award and giving Kia a run for the money were the Chevrolet Malibu, Nissan Maxima, Honda Civic and Toyota Prius, all exceptional stars in their own right. And, although it was a hard-fought battle with emotions running high, in the end, the Kia Optima with its numerous new iterations, power train, slick style, performance, design, and affordability took home top prize. But, more importantly, it achieved what the ICOTY awards are all about, how well and how much the Optima appealed to people on the street, the emotional connection, the gravitational pull of obsessively wanting to know more, more wows, more smiles. What a way to make more friends!

Accepting the 20th Anniversary ICOTY Awards for the 2016 Kia Optima and Kia Sorento is Michael Sprague, chief operating officer and
Executive Vice President, KMA.
Photo credit: Yunsoo Kim

“At Kia, everything we do is passionately designed and obsessively crafted to exceed expectations, and we are extremely proud that the all-new 2016 Optima has earned our brand the ‘International Car of the Year’ award for the fourth straight year, and the Sorento has been recognized as the ‘International SUV of the Year,’” said Michael Sprague, chief operating officer and EVP of Kia Motors America. “While each of these vehicles have their own personalities, collectively they represent the world-class design, quality, safety, technology and value Kia brings to every segment it competes in, from subcompact to luxury.”

Those qualities have defined ICOTY since its inception in 1996. “These awards are not about camshafts and chrome, which distinguishes ICOTY from the pack of me-too awards that are presented each year,” said Caldwell. "They're about the emotional connection; how our cars mirror our personalities and lifestyles;” she adds.

That said, consumer reaction to, and feedback on, each vehicle carries a great deal of weight in the final decision. In the end, ICOTY is as much a ‘people’s choice award’ as it is a Road & Travel Magazine award. The visceral reaction consumers have to cars alerts automakers that their products are on the right path to igniting passion and pride, emotions that are the driving force from which people purchase a new car.

Pioneering the “emotional connection” theme as it relates to cars and consumers was partly designed to raise awareness that buyer's develop a strong emotional bond with their vehicles throughout the purchasing process and during ownership. Since cars hit the streets a century ago, people have included their cars in wedding ceremonies, named their car, talk to their car, decorate their car, sometimes treat their vehicle better than their partner, fought and got divorced over a car, lived in their cars, some even getting buried with their car. Those are real emotional attachments. Almost everyone has a story about a car in their life, just ask them. And when asked, most usually begin their love story with a big smile. They may not remember their anniversary or a birthday, but they always remember their first car or first emotional experience in a car, whatever that may have been!
2016 Kia Sorento Named 2016 International Truck/Utility of the Year by Road & Travel Magazine

This brings us to the 2016 Kia Sorento SUV named ICOTY's 20th Anniversary International SUV of the Year (truck/utility category). There's a lot to love about the solid, safe and sumptuous Sorento, the perfect getaway vehicle especially considering the fact that the base model starts under $25K. Who knew? This much luxury and refinement, safety features and off-road capability starting under $25K? Whaaaaaat? [Read Review]

The Sorento not only earned RTM's 2016 International SUV of the Year Award, it also garnered one of the industries' biggest prizes, the J.D. Power and Associates "Highest Ranked Midsize SUV in Initial Quality." Not bad for a little unknown rebel whose roots took hold in the face of stiff competition from higher-ranked, long time muckity-mucks such as Honda, Toyota and Nissan only a generation ago.

In fact, the Kia Sorento stood bumper to bumper with the top 5 finalists in this category, all of which are worthy of consumer consideration. Those to beat were the likes of the 2016 Ford Edge, Hyundai Tucson, Mazda CX-3 and the Volvo XC90, the king of safety. Talk about fight night! But again, in the end, it was consumer appeal that sealed the deal. The wow factor. The show me more, tell me more loads of looky-loos that loomed in shopping mall parking lots, gas stations, and restaurants. "There were times when I thought I might have to get a restraining order because people would walk up to Sorento before I even got out," laughs Caldwell. "I felt stalked and surrounded at times." Turns out it was just pure fascination and interest, inquisition and surprise, at the elegance and quality of the all-new Sorento. Some even making comparisons with higher-end models.

That said, we've taken note as of late that people are beginning to differentiate Kia from competitors in the same category. It's no longer "What is that?" It's more like "Wow, that's a Kia?" It's clear from facial expressions that folks are delightfully impressed, and even more so that having a cool car or SUV is finally within their budget.

Kia seems to have accomplished one of the greatest strategies to success... remain the humble underdog, fly under the radar, then deliver the goods! No doubt the competition has been caught off guard and is scrambling to figure out why no one had eyes on the rise of this rebel leader.

2016 International Family Vehicle of the Year presented by Road & Travel Magazine. This is ICOTY's 20th AnniversaryAnd last but certainly not least, the return of RTM's International Family Vehicle of the Year Award. Talk about competition. Cars in this category have a very high standard to live up to in order to compete, from CUVs to compact cars, from sedans to SUVs, whatever keeps the family happy, healthy and safe.

After months of testing, reviewing, consideration, process of elimination, longs lists to short lists, the cream of the crop rose to the top as the most family-friendly vehicle; the 2016 Hyundai Tucson CUV. It won this category because it not only met ICOTY's criteria, it exceeded it with personality and exceptional style inside and out, head room, leg room and play room; and just the right utility. The Tucson offered the most family-friendly cabin and comfort creatures, safety features, ease of handling, and most of all, it reflected ICOTY's most important criteria, the depth in which it resonated with families.

2016 Hyundai Tucson Named 2016 International Family Vehicle of the Year by Road & Travel Magaine
Accepting the award for 2016 International Family Vehicle of the Year is Mike O'Brien, VP Corporate & Product Planning (c), HMA. Flanking O'Brien (l), ICOTY founder and (r) Rick Cotta, Consumer Guide.
Photo Credit: Mike Parris

“Our commitment to customer safety and satisfaction is paramount at Hyundai and the all-new 2016 Tucson winning this award is further evidence these important qualities are resonating with consumers,” said Mike O’Brien, vice president, corporate and product planning, Hyundai Motor America. “We’re thrilled that this distinguished group of jurors recognized the Tucson over a tough group of competitors.”

In addition to consumer reaction and editor's choice, we also take into consideration how well automakers market their vehicles to consumers to establish an emotional connection through lifestyle ad campaigns. How consumers feel about their vehicles and how their vehicles make them feel are important elements in our final decision. The Tucson led the pack of contenders in this category due to overall family sensory reaction.

"It's a vehicle that adults and parents enjoy driving and one that kids are proud of when in it with their parents. And, for parents of all ages, it's a family vehicle that doesn't make them feel like an old fart when out and about on the town or even running errands," said Caldwell. Parents, especially young mothers, have come to dislike the minivan-mom persona. Being a mom does not relegate a woman of any age to the 'old hag' box. Women today remain active, vibrant, youthful and career-oriented individuals well through motherhood and beyond. They too want a vehicle that reflects their youthful attitude and style, not one that stigmatizes them as a pooped-out parent with problematic pubescent's.

Most kids today, especially teens, often ask their parents to park around the corner when picking them up at school to avoid embarrassment as well as to assert their independence. It should be no surprise to anyone that the family vehicle also reflects on a teen's self-esteem. Even during the tender times of being a teen, kids struggle with pride, identity and embarrassment in what their parents drive.

And, when the time comes to get their own license and to finagle the keys away from mom or dad for that first date, they want to show up at their date's door in a vehicle they feel proud to be seen in. Dressed to impress means more than just the clothes on your back. Likewise, parents don't want to send their new driver's off in a shabby or unsafe vehicle nor do the datee's parents want to allow their most precious cargo to ride in a vehicle in which they lack confidence or deem less than adequate. After all, we now live in a world of top-shelf technology that ensures a safer journey to and from more often than not, and which also mitigates the hundreds of fictitious excuses of why they were late. The 2016 Tucson quelled those fears in those whom inquired. [Read Review]

The affordability factor was also a huge plus for everyday families. Flying in under the $24K radar to start, the all-new Tucson CUV was without a doubt the most family-friendly choice for 2016.

When we started ICOTY 20 years ago, industry leaders and fellow journalists used to ask us all the time why we started auto awards based on the emotional connection between car and consumer. After all, auto awards back then were all about the gearhead, the car buff, the grease monkey, mine is bigger than yours competition. Some even laughed and thought it was silly. But no one's laughing now. In fact, mission accomplished.

Today, most automakers market and advertise their vehicles, especially in television commercials and online, with a very heavy emphasis on how people feel about their cars. Other auto magazines and website's have even gone so far as to create new awards that clearly focus on the emotional connection between car and consumer, not because ICOTY led the charge, but because awareness finally reached the tipping point that cars represent the biggest love-hate relationship most people have with an inanimate object, though many treat their car as if it were human; their best friend or a member of the family. There's a real emotional bond and relationship. Just this week, a new award was announced by a competitor called the "Most Loved Car" award. As they say, imitation is the best form of flattery.

Kia and Hyundai won ICOTY's top three honors for 2016 not because they were the most expensive, not because they have the biggest engine, not because they they have the strongest power train and not because of 'theirs in bigger than yours' syndrome. They won because they listen to consumer feedback, understand their needs and as such develop products that reflect the majority of everyday consumer lifestyles, budgets, personalities, and pride of ownership, which in our book, is exactly what the ICOTY awards have always been about, still are, and always will be. Go Rebels! [Award's Archive