7 American Cars Worth Bailing Out

Some things Detroit still does very well.

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Yeah, Detroit’s got problems. But most critics agree with executives at General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford who say they’ve been building much better cars lately. Some are even tops in their class. With GM and Chrysler needing billions in federal loans to avert bankruptcy, and Ford trying to get back on its feet without a bailout, here are some of the cars that will help the Detroit automakers reestablish themselves—if they stay in business:

Chevrolet Camaro (starting price, $22,995). Going, going…. The only thing that could rob GM of a home run on this reincarnation of the classic muscle car is a prolonged recession that completely stifles pent-up car buyers. The low-slung dragsonslayer design stops traffic, and sturdy underpinnings make this a real sports car, not just a show pony. Prior Camaro lineups lost their luster thanks to cheap interiors, dated styling, and anemic low-end versions that were about as muscular as a go-cart. This time around, the entry-level Camaro is a racer with a 304-horsepower V-6 and six-speed transmission—and it also gets decent mileage in the mid-20s. The ferocious SS model evokes the Corvettte—for almost $20,000 less. Purists will quibble over tacky gadgets in the cockpit and certain compromises, like limited rear visibility. Who cares. The Camaro offers looks to linger over and affordable thrills that couldn’t be more timely.

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Cadillac CTS ($36,560). It’s not quite the world’s best sports sedan, but the CTS has seized and held some important turf, offering a sassy, proven alternative to luxemobiles from Europe and engineering marvels from Japan. Handling isn’t quite as sublime as in the BMW 3 series, and rockets like the Infiniti G-37 are a bit faster, but the CTS is a well-wrapped package of luxury, comfort, and performance. And the angular styling has become an unmistakable badge of distinction for Cadillac. The CTS is now in its third generation, and it’s gotten better each time. That’s the kind of longevity that turns a decent brand into a marquis franchise. Similar performance from other Cadillac models—like the SRX crossover and DTS large sedan—could solidify GM’s luxury brand as one of the world’s best.

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Ford Fusion hybrid ($27,270). Most of the notable hybrids over the last 10 years have belonged to Toyota and Honda. And Ford’s Escape hybrid, while popular, is based on an aging SUV that’s not considered as up-to-date as some competitors. With the Fusion hybrid, Ford finally has a green machine derived from one of the most acclaimed vehicles in its category. The Fusion has been popular because of its handsome looks, taut maneuverability, and businesslike cabin. The hybrid model, averaging 38 MPG, adds a high-mileage variant to the lineup and takes on the Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima hybrids. Ford has said that unlike GM and Chrysler, it hopes to avoid asking for federal bailout money; claiming a share of the growing demand for high-mileage family sedans would certainly help.

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Dodge Challenger ($22,220). A painfully slow rollout last year means you may not have spotted many of these monsters on the road just yet. You’ll know when you do. Like the Camaro, Ford Mustang, and Dodge Charger, the Challenger’s neo-retro design grabs your attention like a wolf in a petting zoo. A lackluster interior and spotty performance on lower trim lines have disappointed some critics, yet the styling alone grants the Challenger a rightful place on any highway. Chrysler, Dodge’s parent, is the most threatened of the three Detroit automakers—so the Challenger’s revival could turn out to be a limited engagement.

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Chevy Equinox ($23,185). With the Chevy Malibu sedan, GM proved it can match the best produced by Toyota and Honda. It needs to do the same with a mid-sized crossover, which means the Equinox, due this summer, must meet high expectations. GM has been its usual boastful self, promising that new direct-injection technology will give the Equinox the power of a V-6, with four-cylinder fuel economy as high as 30 MPG on the highway. That would beat the top mileage rating for the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. If handling, build quality, and reliability are just as good, the Equinox could lure buyers away from other top brands. The next step for GM: Instead of just catching up to Toyota and Honda, surpass them.

[See 5 reasons to shun American cars.]

Ford Taurus ($25,995). The Taurus sedan, introduced in the mid-1980s, was one of Ford’s most successful vehicles ever, yet over the years the company neglected the nameplate, retired it, then slapped the Taurus label on an otherwise mediocre sedan. This summer, Ford tries to restore some dignity to the Taurus, by introducing an all-new and hopefully much improved version of this American stalwart. Muscular styling and a large cabin will distinguish the Taurus as a comfort car, and Ford is promising affordable luxuries that will make a price in the upper 20s seem like a bargain. If it’s a hit, the Taurus and Fusion together could once again give Ford one of the top lineups of family vehicles in the industry.

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Chevy Volt (as much as $40,000). The hype is overwrought, since this electric plug-in will be a low-volume seller if it actually debuts on time in late 2010. But the Volt is also one of the most exciting vehicles under development by any automaker, and if it succeeds, it has the potential to change the industry. GM is betting that a huge, rechargeable lithium-ion battery—the first of its kind—will be powerful and reliable enough to drive the car for 40 miles and last for 10 years. If it works, GM could gain a key technological edge on electric vehicles, which some experts think represent the future or driving. If the Volt’s a flop, GM will fall farther behind competitors betting on other technologies. Aside from the whole saga of GM and Chrysler’s downfall, the Volt may be the most dramatic story in the auto industry over the next couple of years. For that reason alone, let’s hope it survives.