Following the race between Barack Obama and John McCain, the most closely watched battle this fall may be the one shaping up at dealerships, as new-car buyers choose between fuel efficiency and brute force with the debut of several high-profile hybrid-electric passenger cars and fullsize pickups.

If the call for change among the presidential contenders should affect consumer vehicle preferences, then the fuel sippers may prevail.

The next year or so also will reveal a hodge-podge of new vehicles in disparate sectors, including cross/utility vehicles (Chevrolet Traverse and Toyota Venza); small cars (Kia Spectra and Soul and Nissan Cube); sporty passenger cars (Audi A4, Hyundai Genesis and Mazda6); and even a minivan (Volkswagen Routan).

Auto makers are banking on these vehicles to shake them from their 2008 nightmare, when consumers finally hit their breaking point as a gallon of regular unleaded reached $4, credit tightened and sales of vehicles in nearly every segment plummeted in lockstep.

Through August, Ward’s data shows all but the Small Car group losing sales, with SUVs down the most, 34.4%. Total light-vehicle sales ran 11.2% behind year-ago in the first eight months and are forecast by Ward’s to finish calendar year 2008 between 14.3 million and 14.6 million units, a low not seen since 1993.

Here’s a bipartisan look at the key new vehicles auto makers are counting on to win the votes of consumers.

Ford, Chrysler Hope Fullsize Pickups Surge in Polls

All eyes will be on Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC to see if either can regain ground in the anemic fullsize-truck segment with the arrival of the ’09 Ford F-150 and ’09 Dodge Ram.

The F-150, the best-selling pickup in the U.S. despite a 25.3% sales plunge through August, hits dealer showrooms this fall after its planned summer launch was pushed back to clear out stocks of ’08s.

The new F-150 boasts fresh sheet metal and upgraded cabins, which Ford says will “redefine” the standard for truck interiors.

The pickup will be offered with three cab styles, four box options and seven unique trim levels, resulting in 35 different configurations. New this model year is the upscale Platinum edition, which effectively takes the place of the discontinued (and slow-selling) Lincoln Mark LT fullsize pickup.

Engine choices for the ’09 F-150 include a 3-valve 5.4L Triton V-8, a 2-valve 4.6L V-8 and a new 3-valve 4.6L V-8. All engines can run on E85 ethanol.

As the rollout progresses, Ford may add a turbocharged direct-injection gasoline V-6 EcoBoost option to the F-150 lineup, as well as a diesel mill, although the auto maker is mum on details.

The carryover engines could hurt the F-150’s chances for success, but it is a high-profit margin vehicle for Ford, so any bump in deliveries would be welcome news for the struggling Dearborn auto maker.

While Ford offers few powertrain upgrades at launch on the F-150, crosstown-rival Chrysler delivers the all-new Ram with a significantly more powerful version of the iconic 5.7L Hemi V-8.

The 390-hp engine boasts a highway fuel-economy rating that tops out at 19 mpg (12.4 L/100 km) thanks to variable valve timing and Chrysler’s cylinder-deactivation Multiple Displacement System.

Chrysler is counting on the redesigned Ram to increase the auto maker’s share of the fullsize-pickup segment, which stood at 15.5% through August – down from 16.8% in like-2007, according to Ward’s data.

A key goal for the new Ram’s designers was to reach pickup drivers where they live: the interior. For the first time, Dodge offers a crew-cab model with a more comfortable back seat and more rear-passenger legroom.

In addition, the Ram offers four significant interior firsts in the segment: in-floor storage bins with removable liners; heated and ventilated front seats; Sirius satellite TV; and surround-sound audio.

Working in the Ram’s favor is its improved ride quality – thanks to a revolutionary coil-spring rear suspension – and innovative storage solutions. Whether fullsize pickup buyers can forego traditional leaf-spring rear suspensions is the biggest factor weighing on the Ram’s success.

Honda, Toyota Square Off With New Versions of Old Hybrids

So far, sales of hybrids in the U.S. haven’t matched the hoopla, with the fuel sippers representing just 2.4% of all light vehicles sold in 2007, Ward’s data shows.

The star of the pack has been the Toyota Prius, which in recent years has gone beyond a niche product, selling 181,221 units last year, making it the eighth best-selling passenger car in the U.S.

Bearing this in mind, the spring launch of the new Honda Insight and expected 2009 debut of the third-generation Prius recaps a similar product race from a decade ago.

Honda was first to market in the U.S. with an HEV, the Insight, in December 1999.

But it was Toyota that scored big with its Prius, which debuted stateside in June 2000 and continued its ascent when the second generation launched in 2004.

As U.S. Insight sales dwindled, Honda pulled the plug on the first generation in 2006.

Details on the second generation, set to debut in concept form at October’s Paris auto show, are scarce at press time. But Honda promises a more affordable HEV, thanks to a smaller, lightweight version of its Integrated Motor Assist mild hybrid system.

What Honda hasn’t been shy about is its tentative sales expectations for the Insight, targeting 200,000 units globally, including 100,000 to be sold annually in North America.

Toyota, on the other hand, has kept a tight lid on information about the next-generation Prius. For most of the year, the auto maker would not even admit the dedicated Toyota-brand hybrid TMC President Katsuaki Watanabe promises will debut at the 2009 Detroit auto show is the next Prius.

Rumors have ranged from a bigger engine (1.8L vs. 1.5L) and dimensions to an eye-popping 100-mpg (2.3 L/100-km) fuel economy.

Working in the Insight’s favor is Honda’s no-brainer move to a 5-seat passenger car from a 2-seater and a sub-$20,000 starting price.

Working against the Insight is Toyota’s overflowing advertising coffers, capable of funding a marketing campaign to drown out whatever Honda can muster.

Toyota must not take for granted its owner base, which will have more hybrids to choose from (including a flurry from domestic OEMs) than ever in 2009.

Two Big Brands Launching Two Big CUVs

General Motors Corp. is getting plenty of coverage of its extended-range Chevy Volt electric vehicle, which launches in 2010.

But this year, GM sets its sights on boosting volumes in the large CUV segment, which it already dominates with three Lambda platform siblings, the GMC Acadia, Buick Enclave and Saturn Outlook.

The fourth variant, the Chevrolet Traverse, arrived at dealers in August and benefits from optimized aerodynamics and a new powertrain combination that mates a gasoline 3.6L V-6 with direct injection to a 6-speed automatic transmission.

On range-topping LTZ models with dual exhaust, the combination improves output by 33 ponies to 288 hp and torque from 251 lb.-ft. (340 Nm) to 270 lb.-ft. (366 Nm) without sacrificing fuel economy.

The Traverse also launches the CUV quartet’s first backup camera integrated into the rearview mirror. GM expects the large CUV to leverage the brand’s massive dealer network and become the volume seller of the Lambda family.

Vehicles Already Available

  • Acura TSX
  • Acura TL
  • Audi A4
  • BMW X6
  • Chevrolet Traverse
  • Dodge Journey
  • Dodge Ram
  • Ford Flex
  • Honda Fit
  • Honda Pilot
  • Hyundai Genesis sedan
  • Infiniti FX
  • Jaguar XF
  • Kia Borrego
  • Lincoln MKS
  • Mazda6
  • Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart
  • Nissan GT-R
  • Nissan Maxima
  • Pontiac G8
  • Subaru Forester
  • Toyota Corolla
  • Volkswagen Tiguan

Vehicles Still to Come

  • Ford F-150
  • GM 2-mode hybrid pickups/SUVs
  • Honda Insight
  • Hyundai Elantra Touring
  • Hyundai Genesis coupe
  • Kia Soul
  • Kia Spectra
  • Lexus dedicated hybrid
  • Lexus RX CUV series
  • Lincoln MKT
  • Nissan 370Z
  • Suzuki Equator
  • Suzuki midsize sedan
  • Toyota Prius
  • Toyota Venza
  • Volkswagen Jetta TDI
  • Volkswagen Passat CC
  • Volvo XC60

Undetermined Arrival Date

  • Mazda3
  • Toyota 4Runner
  • Scion tC

The Traverse represents GM’s boldest appeal to families. But with the large CUV segment losing steam, GM’s projected sales of 100,000-plus Traverses annually could prove elusive.

Toyota also brings another CUV to market with the sleek Venza, debuting later in the year. (Ward’s will decide by the end of October whether to classify the Venza as a midsize or large CUV.)

The unibody-based Venza is dubbed by critics as Toyota’s Buick Enclave, no doubt in part due to the bronze-shaded metallic paint it wore in early photographs.

The Venza is based on the same platform that underpins the Camry. It builds on Toyota’s best-selling 4-door sedan by adding a fifth door but nixes a third-row seat, available in all Toyota CUVs currently on the market.

Buyers will choose from one of two powertrains – a 2.7L I-4 or a 3.5L V-6, both mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission.

Toyota is keeping details of the Venza’s new I-4 under wraps. The same engine in the ’09 Highlander makes 187 hp and 186 lb.-ft. (252 Nm) of torque. The V-6 will deliver 268 hp and 246 lb.-ft. (334 Nm) of torque, boasting a towing capacity of 3,500 lbs. (1,587 kg).

The Venza features near-lux touches, such as a rear spoiler stop lamp (with LEDs) and an optional panoramic glass roof that tilts and slides.

The Venza primarily targets Baby Boomers who have fallen out of love with minivans and SUVs, says chief designer Kevin Hunter in a preview video posted on YouTube. Toyota expects to sell 75,000-80,000 Venzas annually.

Like Chevy, Toyota will enter a segment with flagging sales as buyers have discovered unibody-based utilities have fuel economy only marginally better than the body-on-frame SUVs Americans embraced in the 1990s.

Through the first eight months, CUV sales in the U.S. are down 4.5% compared with like-2007, according to Ward’s data.

But don’t discount the power of the Toyota brand to pull buyers into the showroom, as the gas-guzzling and all-new Seqouia and Land Cruiser SUVs have been among the rare Toyota models that have seen sales skyrocket this year.

The Rest of the Field

Kia Motors America will introduce two C-segment models next year with the all-new Soul and redesigned Spectra.

The compact Spectra has been Kia’s best-selling model in the U.S. this year, with 55,037 units sold through August.

Expect the Spectra to borrow heavily from its Korean-market cousin the Forte, which is the first Kia model designed under the auspices of Senior Vice President Peter Schreyer, whom Kia plucked from Volkswagen AG in 2006.

A 2-door Spectra is anticipated, as is the departure of the hatchback.

The boxy Soul finally arrives in showrooms, two years after the concept debuted at the 2007 Detroit auto show. Kia’s counting on the Soul to woo younger, hipper buyers to the brand, as Scion did for Toyota, and also helping it break out from sister-brand Hyundai in crafting an edgier identity.

Details are few regarding U.S. versions of the two models, but overseas the Soul and Forte offer a variety of 4-cyl. engines, including diesels. However, Kia has said its first U.S. diesel will come in the just-launched Borrego midsize SUV.

Nissan North America Inc. will challenge the Soul with its own equally boxy Cube. A smaller, B-segment model, the current Cube has brought great success to Nissan in Japan, debuting there in 2002. The Cube, due next spring in the U.S., will be the third generation and is expected to be unveiled at November’s Los Angeles auto show.

Mazda North American Operations’ next-generation Mazda6 is reaching dealers en masse right now, with a bigger body and sexy new look buyers have come to expect from the “zoom-zoom” brand. All body styles, save for the sedan, have been eliminated to reduce production complexity and improve quality.

The auto maker expects about 30% of Mazda6 buyers to choose the 272-hp DOHC 3.7L V-6, which also appears in the Mazda CX-9 CUV. Remaining customers will get the all-new 170-hp DOHC 2.5L I-4 base powerplant, mated to a 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic transmission.

Hyundai Motor America will debut a coupe version of its Genesis large car in first-quarter 2009, following the sedan’s summer 2008 rollout.

John Krafcik, vice president-product development and strategic planning, says the coupe could account for more than half of the projected 50,000 annual Genesis cars HMA wants to sell.

The Korean brand’s new halo vehicle comes available with a turbocharged 212-hp 2.0L I-4 with dual continuously variable valve timing or the auto maker’s 306-hp 3.8L V-6.

Volkswagen of America gets into family mode by working over Chrysler’s Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan models to create the Routan.

VW applied unique appointments to the interior and reworked a fair amount of sheet metal but left much of the Chrysler minivan’s running gear intact, including its 3.8L and 4.0L V-6s, which carry over.

VW says it hopes the Routan will break the Honda Odyssey’s hold on the premium minivan sales crown.

Domestics Bring On Fuel-Sipping Technology

On the technology front, Ford’s EcoBoost system bows in 2009, combining turbocharging with direct injection to produce the power and performance of a larger engine with up to a 20% increase in fuel economy and 15% reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions.

The 3.5L twin-turbo EcoBoost V-6 first will be optional on the Lincoln MKS, followed by the Ford Flex CUV and, later in the year, the redesigned Ford Taurus.

Ford also is set to add its hybrid-electric system beyond the Escape CUV to the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan sedans early next year.

GM expects more hybrids as well, including 2-mode versions of the Cadillac Escalade and Saturn Vue, the latter of which offers a 50% improvement in fuel economy over a V-6-powered Vue XR without sacrificing performance, GM promises.

The hybrid Escalade already is on sale, while the Vue arrives in early 2009.

Further up the food chain lies the ’09 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra 2-mode hybrid fullsize pickups. The pickups, arriving in this year’s fourth quarter, deliver a 40% gain in city fuel economy and a 25% improvement overall, GM says.

From Toyota, flex-fuel versions of its 5.7L V-8 are expected in the ’09 Tundra pickup and ’09 Sequoia SUV, marking the first time the auto maker has dipped its toe into E85 waters in the U.S.

Honda also enters a new arena in 2009 with its new clean diesel in an Acura application. Dubbed “i-DTEC,” Honda’s second-generation diesel technology already is available in the European Accord, fitted with a 2.2L I-4.

The U.S. Big Three are set to unleash light-duty diesels in their fullsize pickup trucks, as well.

The standard bearers of the diesel flag, the Europeans, will boast no shortage of products in the coming year, including the Volkswagen Jetta and Touareg, BMW 3-Series and Audi Q7.

And if all these new vehicles should find favor with American consumers, perhaps they will avoid what every elected official dreads: the recall.

– with James Amend, Byron Pope and Eric Mayne