The winners were revealed Monday morning at a news conference at the North American International Auto Show.
While hybrid vehicles have won four times in the 18 years that the awards have been given this was the first win for a vehicle that can move a meaningful distance on electric power alone.
The winners were chosen by a jury of 49 automotive journalists from the United States and Canada.
The awards are unique in the United States because instead of being given by a single media outlet they are awarded by a coalition of automotive journalists from the United States and Canada who represent magazines, television, radio, newspapers and Web sites.
The awards are designed to recognize the most outstanding new vehicles of the year. These vehicles are benchmarks in their segments based on factors including innovation, design, safety, handling, driver satisfaction and value for the dollar.
It is the fourth time General Motors has won the North American Car of the Year. Most recently, the Chevrolet Malibu was the 2008 North American Car of the Year.
It was the second year in a row that a Ford was named the North American Truck of the Year. Last year the winner was the Transit Connect. It is also the seventh time a Ford has been the "North American Truck of the Year," a category it has dominated.
The Volt won with 233 points followed by the Hyundai Sonata with 163 and the Nissan Leaf electric with 94.
The Explorer won with 253 points while the Jeep had 138 and the Durango 99.
"The Volt seamlessly bridges the gulf between today's liquid fueling infrastructure and the plugged-in electric future," comments juror Lindsay Brooke of Automotive Engineering International.
Mark Phelan, the auto critic of The Detroit Free Press said the Explorer offers "class-leading fuel economy and technology and features you can't get in luxury crossovers that cost twice as much."
To be eligible a vehicle must be all new or "substantially changed."
During the 18 years of the awards:
Last year the North American Car of the Year was the Ford Fusion Hybrid and the North American Truck of the Year was the Ford Transit Connect.