It's going to be one crummy year for the auto industry. General Motors and Chrysler are struggling just to survive, and many of their competitors are losing money. Sales in 2009 are likely to be even lower than in 2008—which itself was one of the worst years in decades. Hundreds of dealers will probably go out of business, and weak brands like Saturn, Mercury, and Dodge could shrink dramatically or end up rolled into other divisions.
Yet the tough economy could make 2009 a watershed year for cars. With buyers scarce, slow-selling models—often relegated to rental fleets—could disappear completely. A new spate of hybrids will test whether large numbers of Americans really want to pay extra money upfront to save a few bucks at the pump. Lower gas prices might give SUVs a reprieve. And a few game-changing vehicles could offer consumers even more choices—while forcing other manufacturers to catch up or become obsolete.
Here are some of the most significant vehicles to keep an eye on over the next 12 months:
Honda Insight. (Expected in April, starting price under $20,000) Why should Toyota have all the fun? The new Insight is Honda's hybrid-only answer to the Toyota Prius, which dealers could barely keep in stock last year, as gas prices soared to $4 per gallon. "Honda hates to lose market share to any car company, but it especially hates to lose potential sales to Toyota," says Jack Nerad of car-research site kbb.com. "Thus, it has created this Prius-fighter." Honda hopes to entice buyers with a lower starting price than the Prius and overall mileage in the mid-40s. The Insight will also reveal whether hybrids are becoming mainstream or appeal to buyers only when gas prices are high.
[See what dismal car sales in 2008 mean for 2009.]
Toyota Prius. (Late spring, about $22,000) To keep things lively, Toyota will introduce a brand-new version of the trendsetting Prius around the time the Honda Insight rolls out. Toyota is promising to raise the bar for hybrids, with innovative new features, greater comfort and performance, and mileage that's higher than the 46 mpg of the current Prius. But expect the same pod-shaped styling that has made the Prius instantly recognizable.
Ford Fusion hybrid. (April, about $27,000) Ford knows it can't stand by while Honda and Toyota corner the hybrid market, especially in midsize sedans. The gas-powered Fusion has competed successfully against the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry, and Ford hopes the new Fusion hybrid will solidify its presence in the vital midcar segment. The Fusion is a bit larger than the Prius or Insight, making it more of a family vehicle likely to compete with the Camry hybrid. Its main selling point will be mileage close to 40 mpg, compared with 34 mpg for the Camry hybrid.
Chevrolet Equinox. (June, about $25,000) Compact crossovers are one of the fastest-growing segments, and as usual, the Japanese are in the lead. The current Chevy Equinox is a middling performer compared with the Toyota Rav4, Honda CR-V, and Nissan Rogue. For Chevy to claim more of this important turf, the redesigned Equinox needs to have better fuel economy and an optional third-row seat, according to car-research site Edmunds.com. A bit more pizazz wouldn't hurt, either.
[See the cars that drove Detroit's customers away.]
Mazda5. (Available now, about $18,000) This "microvan," which seats six, comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission, and is actually fun to drive, was an oddity when it debuted a couple of years ago. But young families looking for something cheaper—and cooler—than a full-blown minivan love it. "The Mazda5 has broken out a whole new category," says analyst Tom Libby of J.D. Power & Associates. "We could see that grow." The Mazda5's success means Honda and others could soon be selling similar vehicles—and regular minivans could be on their way out.
Ford Taurus. (Summer, about $25,000) The Taurus, introduced in 1986, was one of Ford's most successful cars of the past 50 years. So for reasons known only in Dearborn, Ford let the car age gracelessly, killed it altogether in 2006, then realized its mistake and attached the Taurus name to another uninspiring sedan. Ford now gets a chance to redeem itself. Early photos of the new model show that "the exterior design looks sharp," according to Edmunds. If that's matched by a crisp ride and handsome interior, Ford may have another winner.
[See 10 cars that sank Detroit.]
Mercedes GLK. (Available now, about $35,000) As the compact crossover segment grows, the luxury niche is going to get more crowded, too. The BMW X3 and Acura RDX were early entries, and the GLK will test whether an ambitious newcomer can muscle them aside. Mercedes also needs to prove it can lure entry-luxe buyers as effectively as BMW and Lexus. The competition will quickly intensify: Audi, Volvo, Lincoln, and Cadillac also have compact crossovers coming soon or in the works.
Honda Fit. (Available now, about $15,000) Just when you thought small, low-budget cars had to be boring, Honda introduced the Fit and proved that a diminutive hatchback can actually be delightful. The Fit drives like a go-cart and has surprising room for cargo, thanks to the rear "MagicSeat" that folds flat into the floor. Fear of costly gas has reintroduced Americans to small cars, and if competitors can't match the Fit's fun and practicality, their customers will simply defect to Honda—and buy even more Civics, Accords, and CR-Vs as they become more prosperous and upgrade.
Ford Flex. (Available now, about $29,000) Ford took a risk on the Flex, creating a cavernous, boxy, and pricey people-hauler that may not connect with consumers in an era of thrift. And Ford needs to sell a lot of them to turn around its money-losing operation and become profitable. Ford's whole restructuring plan is based on the mass-market success of key models like the Flex. If any of them flop, Ford, like GM and Chrysler, could be bailoutbound.
Ford F-150. (Available now, upwards of $22,000) This work truck has been Ford's cash cow for years. But sales plunged as the housing bust, $4 gas, and now the recession have crimped buyers. Worse, the new Toyota Tundra full-size pickup threatens to steal customers. Ford hopes that F-150 sales will bounce back vigorously once a housing recovery starts to materialize and contractor activity picks up. "The F-150 is very important for profitability," says Libby. "Ford needs to remain a leader in full-size pickups. And eliminate any erosion of the market to the Tundra."
Hyundai Genesis. (Available now, about $33,000) It's a luxury sedan from a budget nameplate. And surprise: It delivers. "This car has the goods," says Nerad. "But one wonders what the reaction to its brand will be among luxury buyers." If well-heeled buyers bite, it will put pressure on Lexus, Acura, Infiniti, and other luxury makes to lower prices and offer even more features. And if Hyundai succeeds as a luxury brand, expect even more competition in the crowded entry-luxe territory.
Volkswagen Jetta TDI (Available now, about $23,000) Volkswagen is a small player in the U.S. market, and sales of the TDI—the turbo-diesel version of the Jetta sedan—will be low under any scenario. But the TDI is one of the first affordable cars to offer new "clean diesel" technology in the United States. And it's impressive. The TDI's acceleration is lively, with gas mileage you'd expect from the most miserly econobox. Overall mileage averages a thrifty 33 mpg—with highway mileage of 40 mpg. That's with virtually none of the smoky exhaust that characterized diesels of yore. One catch is that the TDI has to be fueled with new low-sulfur diesel, which is more costly than gas and not always widely available. But if the TDI catches on, look for greater access to the fuel, along with more diesel models—and a possible sneak attack on hybrids.