Hyundai Elantra
Hyundai Elantra won the 2012 North American Car of the Year honor at the start of the Detroit auto show on Monday. Hyundai

DETROIT -- The North American Car of the Year award has been bestowed -- the Hyundai Elantra is the winner, surprising company officials.

The Elantra beat out competing finalists Volkswagen Passat and the Ford Focus to claim the honor at the open of the 2012 North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center. Media days for the Detroit auto show began Monday morning, before it opens to the public on Jan. 14.

The 2012 Hyundai Elantra isn't a winner because it's a compact car with an available rear camera and heated rear (yes, rear) seats in top-of-the-line Limited trim. It's a winner because even the base GLS provides a capable and fuel-efficient engine, responsive transmission, comfortable ride and quiet cabin at highway speeds -- all for less than $16,000, said Karl Brauer, of, a juror for the 2012 North American Car and Truck of the Year Awards.

The upscale interior, stylish exterior and super-long warranty are just icing on this very cost-effective cake.

The win for another major accomplishment for Hyundai in recent years, the South Korean-based automaker that has a manufacturing plant in the United States and has been gaining traction consistently with its sedans and compact cars in North America.

The Land Rover Range Rover Evoque won the North American Truck of the Year in the awards ceremony Monday morning.

The car and truck of the year awards, in a 19th year, are chosen by 50 automotive journalists. To be eligible, a vehicle must be all new or substantially changed. Finalists for the truck of the year award included the BMW X3, Honda CR-V and the Land Rover Range Rover Evoque.

This year America's Big Three automakers arrived at the auto show in the best shape as a whole in years, yet they didn't claim one of the top honors given out annually. It's the first time since 2006 a U.S. automaker didn't claim one of the honors. In the truck of the year awards, juror Frank Aufoker of Driveways said of the Land Rover Evoque that there's only one totally new vehicle in this class, which should not even be classified as a truck.

But juror Dan Carney of said the Evoque is impressive for its combination of styling fantasy with real-world capability.

The Elantra seemed to have little debate among jurors in claiming the car of the year award.

Said juror Ken Gross of Playboy: Beaucoup bang for the buck, impressive mileage; it feels like a more expensive car.

Still, Hyundai, which builds the Elantra at its Alabama plant, was surprised by the honor. Executives spoke as if they didn't see it coming, just like when the company won the award in 2009 with its Hyundai Genesis.

We're very surprised, Hyundai America CEO John Krafcik said. We're humbled. It's an amazing honor.