15 Cars Fueling the Auto Recovery

Some thrifty models—and a few hot rods—are already taking off.

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As comebacks go, it's an awfully weak one. Annual car sales in 2009 are likely to end up at the lowest level in years, down more than 40 percent from their peak in 2005. The worst months came in the spring, punctuated by the bankruptcy filings of General Motors and Chrysler. The cash-for-clunkers program provided a nice summer boost, but that was followed by a steep dropoff once the giveaway ended and doubts that the subsidies would lead to any net gain at all.

[Slide Show: 15 Cars Fueling the Auto Recovery.]

But sales finally seem to have stabilized, with forecasting firms like CSM Worldwide predicting steady improvement through the end of the year into 2010. And a few models have already started to take off. Data from J.D. Power & Associates shows that cars offering strong value, with a good reputation for quality and a generous set of standard features, have performed well despite the dismal downturn. Buyers continue to shun big vehicles in favor of those getting good mileage. And excitement still sells, with some hot new sports cars sprinting out of the gate. Here are 15 cars that have been hot in a cold market:

Chevrolet Camaro. There may be no better case for the GM bailout than this overdue muscle car, a hit by almost every standard. The raucous styling enlivens the road, a pair of available engines both pack punch, and the starting price of about $23,000 puts the Camaro within reach of the masses. It's a welcome arrival in a dreary year, and enthusiastic buyers have rewarded Chevy by purchasing nearly 50,000 Camaros since the car debuted over the summer.

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Dodge Challenger. Very little has been going right at Chrysler, which unlike GM has had few new products to help buyers forget about its ignominious bankruptcy filing. The Challenger from Chrysler's Dodge division is an exception, offering retro muscle-car styling to match the Camaro and Ford Mustang, along with two optional V-8 engines for drag-race fantasizers. Sales of about 21,000 units this year make the Challenger just about the only Chrysler product showing signs of life.

Ford Fusion. This nimble, mid-sized sedan has been a hit since it debuted five years ago, and instead of coasting, Ford has consistently improved the Fusion and added new features. The latest model earns high marks for an upgraded interior and practical features like the Sync hands-free multimedia system. And a hybrid model arrived this year, offering mileage in the high 30s with minimal tradeoffs and a reasonable starting price of about $28,000. Continuous improvement has made the Fusion one of America's most popular passenger cars, with sales of the entire lineup rising 15 percent this year.

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Honda Insight. Honda's latest hybrid undercuts the standard-setting Toyota Prius by about $2,500, the right formula for people looking to save gas and money both. City mileage of 40 mpg falls below the Prius's 51 mpg, but it still beats almost every other car on the road. Honda has sold about 18,000 Insights since the car went on sale in the spring, which has helped the Japanese automaker do better than the industry overall.

Hyundai Accent. It's bland, slow, and uninspiring, but apparently those are welcome utilitarian virtues these days. There's a bare-bones model (without air conditioning or a radio) for about $10,000, and a better-equipped version starting at about $13,000. But all trim lines offer side-curtain air bags and better reliability than used cars in the same price range. Sales are up 29 percent, the best performance of any small "B car."

Hyundai Genesis. The first luxury car from this Korean automaker has earned deep praise, helping it reach No. 2 in U.S. News's rankings of upscale midsize cars—behind only the BMW 3 series. And with a starting price of about $33,000, it's considerably cheaper than the Bimmers, Audis, Lexuses, and other luxury makes it competes against. Sales of 18,000 units so far this year have added volume in a category where Hyundai didn't even compete two years ago.

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Kia Forte. This modest compact may not turn heads on the highway, but it does in the showroom thanks to a generous set of standard features at a surprisingly low starting price of about $14,000. The Forte, new this year, comes standard with steering wheel audio controls, an auxiliary audio jack, side-curtain air bags, stability control, auto-off headlights and many other features not found on competitors. The thrifty packaging has helped Kia sell about 17,000 units since the car debuted in the spring, positioning the Forte as a strong rival to top sellers like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.

Kia Soul. Either you love it or you hate it, and enough buyers have embraced this boxy new hatchback to make it one of the more popular small crossovers since it went on sale earlier this year. Like other offerings from Kia and sister company Hyundai, the $15,000 Soul comes with impressive standard features for its price range, such as automatic headlights, side air bags, stability control, and a tire-pressure monitoring system. Options like pulsating lights in the speakers create cachet with young buyers. The funky upstart is outselling rivals like the Scion xB, Saturn Vue, and Nissan Cube.

Lexus RX 350. The luxury crossover segment is getting crowded, but the RX got here early and still maintains a commanding lead, vastly outselling competitors like the Mercedes M Class, Acura MDX, and BMW X5. The RX is so popular that when Lexus redesigned the model this year, it barely made noticeable changes, limiting improvements to a slightly more spacious cabin, a minor bump in horsepower and other tweaks. The RX is also the only model in its category with a hybrid variant, which has helped boost sales by 8 percent this year.

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Mercedes GLK. Mid-sized premium crossovers are one of the few segments where sales have increased this year, thanks to new models like the GLK—which is one of the lowest-priced Mercedes in any category, with a starting price of about $37,000. Mercedes has sold about 18,000 GLKs since the crossover debuted earlier this year, trumping challengers like the Audi Q5, BMW X3, and Acura RDX.

Nissan Maxima. The third-largest Japanese automaker competes with Toyota and Honda by building a bit more excitement into its offerings, and the Maxima is a roomy family sedan that fulfills the formula with sporty handling and a brisk V-6 engine. A redesigned model that arrived last year has helped goose sales by about 5 percent in 2009, making the Maxima one of only three large sedans to see a year-over-year sales increase.

Pontiac G8. This speedy sedan arrived too late to save Pontiac, one of the four divisions GM plans to close down. But its blend of scorching speed, track-worthy handling and family-sized interior space has made it a favorite of reviewers nonetheless; in U.S. News's car rankings, it even beats pure muscle cars like the Chevy Camaro and Ford Mustang, which have puny back seats by comparison. With Pontiac in the midst of a closeout sale, the G8 has become a short-lived hot seller among those looking for BMW performance, for about $10,000 less.

Subaru Legacy. Only two automakers, Hyundai and Subaru, have increased their sales this year. Hyundai has done it with an aggressive rollout of new models and cheaper prices than competitors. Subaru has stuck with the basics—practical, all-wheel-drive vehicles for people who value fun and activity. The Legacy, Subaru's mainstay sedan, isn't a grand slam, but it's more stylish than competitors like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, with strong performance for the price. A new redesign this year has helped boost sales by 15 percent.

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Toyota Venza. This quirky hatchback is half-sedan, half SUV, with better road manners than utilities built for off-road use. The Venza doesn't have a third-row seat, but apparently plenty of families are content with a spacious, five-passenger hauler loaded with innovative storage features. The Venza's starting price of about $27,000 and mileage in the low 20s compares favorably to competitors like the Ford Edge and MazdaCX-7, helping Toyota sell about 45,000 units in the Venza's debut year.

Volkswagen CC. Despite a price that can climb out of VW territory and into Audiland, the CC is popular with buyers looking for the comfort of a sedan with a bit of panache and excitement. The CC is the sleeper in VW’s lineup, sandwiched against the upscale Passat, but it’s one of few near-luxury sedans showing any moxie this year. While overall sales of premium mid-sized cars are down about 24 percent in 2009, VW has sold about 18,000 CCs since introducing it late last year, gaining sales at the expense of other brands. In a shrinking market, that’s often the only way to succeed.

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  • Rick Newman

    Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback to Success and the co-author of two other books. Follow him on Twitter or e-mail him at rnewman@usnews.com.

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