Finalists announced for North American Car of the Year

Every year, a group of automotive journalists select the 2011 North American Car of the Year, an award given to the vehicle that jurors feel exemplifies the best that the car industry has to offer. To be eligible for consideration, a car must be either entirely new or "substantially changed" in the eyes of the 49 journalists who vote on the award.

While the official winner has yet to be announced, the Automotive Press Association has revealed that the field has been narrowed down to three models in both the car and truck categories.

It appears the press favors green initiatives, as the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt make up two of the three finalists. These two vehicles are the first electric autos to hit the mass market, something that will certainly work in their favor in the voting process. However, the cars are far from identical. The Leaf is fully electric, never requiring gas, but pays for it with a limited range. The Volt uses a gas generator to power an electric motor, extending its range but also technically making it a series hybrid.

The third finalist is the redesigned Hyundai Sonata. The jurors have already indicated their respect for the changes Hyundai has made to its brand, as the Genesis was the 2009 Car of the Year – the only win in history for the South Korean automaker. All three of the Sonata's versions – the base model, hybrid and 2.0T turbo – are considered in the voting.

Cars weren't the only models competing for an award. The same group also names the North American Truck of the Year. Historically, Ford has dominated the category, with seven wins for the automaker over the history of the award. Last year, the automaker won for the Ford Transit Connect, in addition to the Ford Fusion Hybrid winning the 2010 Car of the Year.

This year, the new Ford Explorer goes up against two redesigned offerings from Chrysler: the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango. The Grand Cherokee has actually won the award once, back in 1999. It's worth noting that all three vehicles were once wildly popular during the nation's SUV craze, but have since been redesigned to be more fuel efficient and eco-friendly.

Drivers in the market for a vehicle don't need to pay new car prices in order to own a Car or Truck of the Year. By searching the used car market, they can likely find deals on acclaimed models from years past.