Given the poor shape of the domestic auto industry, is there anything on the horizon that might offer hope to the beleaguered Big Three? A string of model introductions and redesigns could bring them back to solvency (and beyond) if done well — or mean disaster if they don't win over consumers. Here's a look, automaker by automaker, at the big releases coming our way.
Ford Motor Co.
Ford Fiesta: A feisty import from Europe could erase memories of the last U.S. version of the Fiesta. Those of us old enough to remember it recall an econobox with a festive name, but poor reliability. Ford's new version claims to get around 40 mpg, and the Euro version that we drove has a great interior to boot. Its price starts just north of $13,000, which sure helps in the current economy; it could build a new generation of Ford fans from teens to 20-somethings.
Ford Taurus: While the Fiesta could make a big splash with its quality and high mileage, in reality, Ford needs a car like this to appeal to baby boomers looking to downgrade from expensive luxury makers and still generate profits. The Fiesta's dirt cheap price likely means a narrower profit margin. The Taurus, though, has a name with equity and enough extra features that could make it a big moneymaker for Ford. Despite its sharp looks, the Taurus' cramped cockpit may put off some family shoppers, although Ford's ridiculously powerful EcoBoost engine could make dads overlook the tight fit. Boomers will appreciate the huge trunk that can store more golf bags than the car can carry passengers. Could the Taurus be the once and maybe future king of sedans? Ford sure hopes so.
Ford Explorer: Speaking of nameplate equity, the Explorer practically invented and owned the SUV segment during the 1990s. It's moving to a unibody platform, which should help it drive more like a car and get more carlike mileage. Although the SUV category has slumped, a new Explorer could help cement Ford in the family car business, where it has seen modest success with the Flex and the Edge. It'll go head-to-head with Jeep's revamped Grand Cherokee.
What's Missing: Ford hasn't given the Escape compact SUV a full redesign since it debuted in 2000, and it doesn't hold up well to new entries like the Hyundai Tucson and Chevy Equinox. Yet it's one of the best- selling vehicles in the country. Ford better not drop the ball on this like it did with the Taurus two generations ago.
Jeep Grand Cherokee: Chrysler is wise to kick off its rebirth with a unibody family hauler that has an advanced off-road system to satisfy the broadest swath of consumers. But given its recent history, the Cherokee's mileage is likely to lag its competitors despite an estimated 11 percent gain in mileage — and Chrysler desperately needs to solve the reliability problem that has dogged the Grand Cherokee for years. Still, the Cherokee is one of only two new models for Chrysler next year. It needs to sell well to help get Chrysler to the rest of its recovery plan. However, even well-executed redesigns or new models like the Nissan Murano and Ford Edge have not been huge successes.
Fiat 500: Chrysler today doesn't have a single model that gets better than 31 mpg; will this small car, already popular in Europe, give the company enough cache to get young buyers into the shop? Once there, will those shoppers even look at anything else on the showroom floor? The company plans to start selling the 500 in January 2011 at "salons" in select urban dealerships. While it could become as successful as the Mini Cooper, that level of sales volume won't be enough to help Chrysler pay off its government debt, much less reach profitability.
Chrysler 300: Whereas the Fiat 500 might not pave the road to cash flow, the 300 may. This style-centric rear-wheel-drive sedan helped revive Chrysler in the early 2000s, and it's getting a redesign for the 2011 model year. Like the Taurus for Ford, the 300 could provide plenty of profit margin, along with a huge cabin. Mileage could be a concern, but with an improved interior expected and lots of space, the 300 could win back fans of flashy looks while the masses focus on value.
What's Missing: The Fiat 500 may make a splash in the subcompact market, but Chrysler needs a successful compact car that the Dodge Caliber never was. The company also can't figure out the vital compact SUV market with various entries that are either too small — Jeep Patriot — or too big — Dodge Nitro.
Chevy Equinox/Traverse: OK, so these are two cars masquerading as one entry on our list, but these models are already in production, have sold well and made the brand a true innovative player in the family car market. The Traverse is now the top large crossover, beating out Toyota's Highlander and Honda's Pilot for a few months now. The Equinox sports a top-class cabin and class-leading gas mileage. Yes, a Chevy has the best mileage of its class.
Chevy Cruze: Like Ford with the Fiesta, the Cruze is GM's effort to get a 40-mpg small car on the market, although the Cruze is more a competitor for Toyota's Corolla or the Honda Civic, where the Fiesta goes up against the subcompact Toyota Yaris and the Honda Fit, among others. For GM, there's a PR move behind this car as well. Now owned in part by U.S. taxpayers, GM sees the Cruze as a shot at making its case that it can build a desirable, fuel-efficient car, proving that the federal bailout was worth the money and effort. The company's current compact, the Cobalt, has the best fuel mileage in the class and has not been a success.
Chevy Volt: Speaking of symbolic moves, a lot rests on the Volt. Could the electric-gas hybrid be GM's opening shot in the electric-car wars, or will it be outmoded the moment it arrives? It's reasonable to ask why consumers would pay upward of $40,000 for a car that gets great mileage when they can buy another car that gets great mileage for closer to $20,000, say the Toyota Prius or Honda Insight. Of course, there's a halo effect that GM will expect from having the Volt in its lineup, and federal tax credits should chop a hefty $7,500 off the Volt's MSRP. Pro-U.S. green types could rally around the Volt. The next question for GM: How long till your plug-ins make it to market?
What's Missing: There are plans for a new Chevy Aveo subcompact, but the current generation shouldn't even be in the consideration set of shoppers who can pick up a new Toyota Yaris or Nissan Versa. Chevy needs to get a new Aveo on the market quickly or lose domestic shoppers to Ford's Fiesta.