Next to 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 andVenza); small cars (Kia Spectra and Soul and Cube); sporty passenger cars (Audi A4, 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 count on to win the votes of consumers.
, Hope Fullsize Pickups Surge in Polls
All eyes will be onMotor Co. and LLC to see if either can regain ground in the weakened 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” 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 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 will add a turbocharged direct-injection gasoline V-6 EcoBoost option to the F-150 lineup, as well as a diesel mill.
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, MI, auto maker.
Meanwhile, 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 offers highway mileage 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 Ram to increase its 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.
The Ram's designers want 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.
Working in the Ram's favor is its improved ride quality — thanks to a revolutionary coil-spring rear suspension. Whether fullsize pickup buyers can forego traditional leaf-spring rear suspensions may be the biggest factor weighing on the Ram's success.
, 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 newInsight 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 new Insight, debuting in concept form at October's Paris auto show, are scarce at press time. But Honda promises an affordable HEV, thanks to a smaller version of its Integrated Motor Assist mild hybrid system.
Honda has set an annual sales target for the Insight of 200,000 units globally, including 100,000 in North America.
Toyota 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 fuel-economy rating of 100 mpg (2.3 L/100-km).
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.
But Toyota must not take for granted its owner base, which will have a flurry of new hybrids to choose from in 2009.
Two Big Brands, Two Big CUVs
Not ready yet to launch its Chevy Volt electric vehicle (arriving in 2010),Corp. sets its sights on boosting volumes in the large CUV segment, which it already dominates with the GMC Acadia, Buick Enclave and Saturn Outlook.
The fourth Lambda platform 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.
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 hurting mileage.
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.
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 other Toyota CUVs.
Buyers will choose between a 2.7L I-4 or a 3.5L V-6, both mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission.
Toyota is quiet about the Venza's new 4-cyl. 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) and can tow 3,500 lbs. (1,587 kg).
The Venza features near-lux touches, such as 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. 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 August, 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 wants the Soul to woo younger, hipper buyers to the brand, as Scion did for Toyota, and also help it break out from sister-brandin 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.
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.
North American Operations' next-generation Mazda6 is reaching showrooms 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.
Hyundai Motor America will debut a coupe version of its Genesis large car in first-quarter 2009, following the sedan's summer 2008 rollout. Hyundai says the coupe could account for more than half of the projected 50,000 Genesis sales.
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.
VW says it hopes the Routan will break the Honda Odyssey's hold on the premium minivan sales crown.
Domestics Bring On Fuel Sippers
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.
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
Vehicles Already Available
- Acura TSX
- Acura TL
- Audi A4
- Chevrolet Traverse
- Dodge Ram
- Ford Flex
- Honda Fit
- Honda Pilot
- Hyundai Genesis Sedan
- Infiniti FX
- Kia Borrego
- Lincoln MKS
- Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart
- Nissan GT-R
- Nissan Maxima
- Pontiac G8
- Subaru Forester
- Toyota Corolla
- VW Jetta TDI
- 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 hybrid
- Lexus RX CUV series
- Lincoln MKT
- Nissan 370Z
- Suzuki Equator
- Suzuki midsize sedan
- Toyota Prius
- Toyota Venza
- VW CC
- Volvo XC60
Undetermined Arrival Date
- Toyota 4Runner
- Scion tC
Refined Ram Seeks Growth in Shrinking Segment
Carter Confirms Prius Detroit Debut
New Mazda6 Addresses Shortcomings of Predecessor