Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The ABC's of the 2011 Cars

It's the autumnal equinox, so that means it's the traditional time for the new model cars to come out. Of course, it's been years and years since all the car makers released all their new cars at the same time. Competition is so tough these days that you pretty much have to release a car as soon as it's ready. So 2011 model year cars have been coming out in drips and drabs since the beginning of the year. I thought I'd take this time to summarize the significant new vehicles of the 2011 model year. I'll focus on cars, because, to be honest, I'm just not that into trucks and SUVs.

Among the early stars of the year were the 2011 Ford Mustang and the 2011 Hyundai Sonata. The 2011 Ford Mustang wowed the press with a 300+ horsepower standard engine that still delivers a 31 MPG highway rating. The V8 powered Mustang GT performs like a BMW M3 at a fraction of the price. The 2011 Hyundai Sonata debuted with a swoopy new body, a new 199 horsepower direct-injected engine and a six-speed automatic transmission. The result is a large car that earned an EPA rating of 26 MPG combined and 35 highway. The new Sonata is selling twice what it's predecessor did, and it just displaced the Nissan Altima for the third best selling car model. As a matter of fact, if the factory wasn't operating at capacity, the Sonata would have passed the Honda Accord for the number two position. Later this year Hyundai will come out with a turbocharged version of the Sonata with about 260 horsepower and 34 MPG. If that weren't enough, a hybrid version is on the way as well.

Late last year, Buick came out with the 2010 Lacrosse. This spring, Buick followed up with the 2011 Regal. The Lacrosse breaks new ground by being the first mainstream large car in a couple generations to come standard with 4-cylinder power. The upside is fuel economy. The Lacrosse tested at 37 MPG on Consumer Reports' highway test. The Buick Regal is imported from Germany now, but they are planning on building it in the United States. It features a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine. Both of the Buicks have been praised for improved fit and finish and materials quality that rank with the leaders in their market segments.

The big news in the SUV/CUV category is the redesigned 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Personally, spending $40 to $50 thousand for a station wagon on stilts isn't my thing. Ford gave the Edge it's first significant refreshening, tuning up the interor and making the engine more powerful and more economical. We're still waiting on the Ecoboost engine that's supposed to make this vehicle a segment killer.

Notwithstanding all of the above, the real action this year comes in the A,B and C classes. These are the classes that stretch from "mini" to compact cars. In the smallest class, the A class, the Fiat 500 is supposed to make it to "select" Chrysler dealers about the end of the year. The models we get will be made in Mexico. Also made in Mexico is the much-hyped This vehicle has gotten good reviews, but some reviewers griped that the hundred-odd pounds that it gained to be USA complaint took the edge off its European zippiness. The new, a kissing cousin of the Fiesta is slightly smailler lighter and less powerful, but it reportedly delivers the fun-to-drive factor that has been dimmed on the Fiesta. Although it will probably be badged a 2012 model, within the next year, Chevrolet will introduce the second generation of its Aveo model. Still engineered by Daewoo in Korea, the new model will be built in a rehabbed plant in Michigan. (That's your tax dollars at work, boys and girls.) There may be other new entries into the b class. There is

The big news for fall in the C-class is the Chevrolet Cruze, the replacement for the Cobalt. The Cruze has gotten mostly good reviews. Chevrolet is marketing the 40-mpg figure, but the version that earned this rating couples a manual transmission with the 1.4 liter turbo engine that won't be available at launch. The other models get competitive but lower mpg ratings. Still, if you are looking for an economical car to drive to work, the Cruze should be on your list. It is assembled in Lordstown, Ohio, a UAW plant. The Cruze will have some stiff competiton next year. The redesigned Ford Focus with an Ecoboost engine and a dual-clutch automatic transmission is supposed to come out early next year. The Focus will be assembled in Michigan in a UAW plant. Another direct competitor to the Cruz will be the redesigned Hyundai Elantra which looks like a junior Sonata and will be built in Hyundai's (nonunion) Alabama plant. To give you an idea how tough the competition in the C-class is getting to be: Honda had originally programmed a redesigned Civic to debut this fall. Honda perceived the model that it was planning to introduce to be too big and too expensive for the market. Volkswagen came out with a redesigned Golf and Jetta that have been criticized for being too decontented to be competitive.

Electric vehicles will finally come to your neighborhood showrooms this year. GM still says the Chevrolet Volt will be on sale by the end of the year. Nissan's electric small car, the Leaf is on its way this year as well. Toyota is expected to bring out a version of its Prius that you can plug in and drive in pure-electric mode thanks to its new lithium-ion battery pack. The Tesla model S and the Fisker Karma are still not ready, though both carmakers received stimulus package loans.

Now to summarize a few miscellaneous 2011 happenings. Honda's redesigned Odyssey minivan takes on the Toyota Sienna which was freshened earlier this year. Chrysler is trying to put its finishing touches on a freshened Town and Country minivan. Based on what I've seen of the Honda and Toyota, Chrysler should be able to hold on to its sales lead if only because the Toyta and Honda are expensive enough (when well equipped) to leave plenty of room for Chrysler to sell on price. Chrysler is rushing to get its 200 model on sale to replace the misbegotten and maligned Sebring. Chrysler is also trying to get updated versions of the 300 and Charger on sale as well. I wouldn't expect either to be on sale until sometime in 2011, perhaps as 2012 models. Ford is trying to get ecoboost turbocharged engines into most of its models. We've been hearing about Ecoboost for years now, with just a few expensive, low-volume models ao-equipped at present. They will have to bring the price down to make it a relevant technology.

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