Commentary

Nothing ever is certain in the world of autos, but 2010 already is almost too much to bear: Nothing but surprises and unanswered questions – and we’re just getting started.

Surprise: The fall of Toyota. How will it end? Toyota will survive, but my guess is a loss of two or three points of market share in the U.S. Some think this is too much. We’ll see.

Whatever the sales losses, the cost of Toyota’s recalls and safety issues will be enormous. I estimate $1,000 on the nose of every U.S. sale in the guise of various incentives and promotions, or around $2 billion.

Add another $500 million for recall costs, maybe more, plus lawsuits for years to come. Toyota also will be No.3 in sales in the U.S. this year, not No.2. The Honda Accord could nudge the Camry out of its position as best-selling car, too.

Surprise: There is never a dull day at General Motors anymore. Is GM really back? No, but Mark Reuss being named president is terrific news. At last, someone at the top of GM who knows what a car is. The product certainly is better, but then there is less of it. Pontiac, Saturn, Hummer and Saab are gone, and we have yet to feel the effects of so many dealer terminations.

Surprise: More regulation is coming from Washington. How can the industry cope with even more rules when coming fuel-economy standards already are creating a crisis?

Start fighting back. It’s about time auto makers stopped begging forgiveness for mistakes they didn’t make.

Surprise: Honda is beginning to look like it has lost its mojo. Sales are sagging. What’s wrong? Too much worry about everything green and not enough about the vehicles, themselves. Honda needs to get back into racing and build some cars that “go” for a change.

Surprise: Suzuki and Mitsubishi are still alive in the U.S. For how long? Not forever. Their product is good but they just can’t compete with Toyota, Honda and Nissan. Time is running out. Suzuki and Mitsubishi must risk it all with truly radical vehicles or just give up. They really have given the U.S. their best shot.

Surprise: Just about every auto maker in the world is planning to sell an electric vehicle. Nissan even promises to put one into high-volume production. Are they mad? Yes. EVs still don’t make sense. Battery cost, range and recharging still are big problems.

Auto makers should keep EVs as experiments but avoid mass-market efforts. They should concentrate on lightening cars and improving the mileage of internal-combustion engines instead.

Surprise: Ray LaHood, the U.S. secretary of transportation, has a mouth like a cannon but knows little about automobiles. Can we get rid of him? No, not for a couple years.

Surprise: Ford isn’t the No.1 seller in the U.S., despite all the favorable publicity and sales up 40% in February. Will Ford dethrone GM?

Ford may win the sales battle for a few months, but it won’t win the title this year. It will be close, however.

Jerry Flint is a columnist for, and former senior editor of, Forbes magazine.