It’s going to be a pivotal year in the auto business. As 2010 plays out, the industry will be holding its collective breath to determine, first and foremost, whether buyers are going to come back to showrooms in a meaningful way after they abandoned car buying for most of 2009, leaving the auto industry licking its wounds from the worst sales year in more than four decades.
But there’s something else going on this year, too: the beginning of a vast and necessary shift in the kind of cars and trucks we buy — or, more precisely, the kind automakers want us to buy.
Car manufacturers want us to downsize. They need us to downsize. If we don’t start now, the industry won’t deliver the 35-miles-per-gallon fleet average the government says automakers must meet by 2016 and we’re not going to start reducing our vehicles’ energy consumption.
Here’s the potential train wreck: Americans have never liked their vehicles small. A corollary: car makers rarely make a profit on small cars — and with backs to the wall after an awful sales year, most manufacturers would prefer to make money in 2010.
With the downsizing goal in mind, here’s a look at the most important new vehicles coming this year:
— Chevrolet Cruze: In another huge launch for Chevy, the Cruze compact car replaces the old-as-dust Cobalt and goes head-to-head with the industry’s best small cars.
For the Cruze, the downsizing doesn’t come from the car but from its engine: a new, 1.4-liter 4-cylinder is almost 40 percent smaller than the Cobalt’s, but a turbocharger will boost power.
— Ford Fiesta: The 2011 Fiesta is Ford’s first serious run at a subcompact car in a lot of years, and it last sold a Fiesta in the U.S. in 1980.
The new Fiesta is engineered and designed by Ford’s European operations. When it hits showrooms this summer, pricing will start at around $14,000, but high-end models might peek at 20 grand, really testing buyers’ resolve to pay big prices for small cars. Expect about 40 mpg on the highway, the new hot-button number if you want to be able to brag about fuel-efficiency.
— Buick Regal: General Motors desperately wants younger people to like Buick. GM also desperately needs to make money. The company hopes the 2011 Regal will help accomplish both tasks.
The Regal isn’t exactly small, but it will be the smallest Buick in some time. It’s based on the responsive underpinnings of GM’s Opel Insignia from Europe and the Regal’s tight sheet metal and interior reflect that aesthetic. Although we question re-commissioning the Regal name, it indeed could be the first Buick since the 1980s to be at least semi-cool.
— Honda CR-Z: Honda’s Civic used to be the favored nectar of young enthusiast drivers, but Honda’s been drifting and now hopes the two-seat CR-Z, with a mega-angular shape meant to recall its late-1980s enthusiast legend CRX, will win back some mojo.
The CR-Z also is a hybrid, promising more than 30 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway.