The automotive world as we know it underwent plenty of shaking last year and it was the result of more than just the tragic earthquake and tsunami that rattled Japan – costing makers like Toyota and Honda perhaps a million units in lost production.
While it's certainly too early to even guess at what the big stories for 2012 will be, we can suggest, with a high level of confidence, that what had long been the industry's established order won't be the same going forward. The playing field has clearly shifted. For some, it might now seem to be level for the first time in decades. For others, it is listing like the Costa Concordia, the doomed Italian cruise ship.
A week after the frantic media days, a less breathless review of the Detroit Auto Show offers some hints as to not only what's in play but who the big players likely will be.
With the striking new Fusion, Ford has shown that the gains it has made over the last few years are not a fluke. If anything, it appears to be ramping up its game. Could it land in the number one spot in the challenging midsize segment for the first time in a quarter century? That's going to be perhaps the most-watched battle of 2012.
Not that the Japanese are going to give up without a fight. The North American International Auto Show brought the debut of the thinly disguised Honda Accord Coupe. A side-by-side glimpse of the show car compared to the model it replaces is quite revealing. There's not all that much that's new. And if the Accord sedan doesn't deliver any surprises, Honda could be in trouble. The maker has been running short of ideas lately, as the much-maligned 2012 Civic – never mind disasters like the Crosstour, Insight and Acura ZDX – underscores.
And Toyota? Even before last year's natural disaster, it was in trouble. As we revealed on TheDetroitBureau.com a few months ago, the original version of the 2012 Camry was roundly rejected by dealers, forcing Toyota to make some last-minute changes. Not enough, if initial reactions are any indication. They may call it a revolution, but it's hard to see how. Significantly, IHS Automotive predicts that Camry will only sell 312,000 copies this year, barely moving the needle from 2011's 308,000 – despite production getting back to normal.
Could the same shift occur in the compact segment? Detroit clearly hopes so – and at least until Honda's rush remake of the Civic reaches the market, and Toyota weighs in with a replacement for the tired Corolla – the domestics have a chance to at least gain ground with models like Cruze, Focus and the all-new Dodge Dart.
The story that many folks missed in 2011 was the surprise performance by Nissan.
That little sedan is all but certain to improve Chrysler's fortunes when compared to the likes of the lamentable Caliber. But Dart will reveal more than just what might happen in the compact segment. As the first product specifically designed to use the all-new Compact Wide U.S. architecture, it is the first real sign of how well the Chrysler/Fiat relationship can come together. It's all well and good to merge back end operations, but CEO Sergio Marchionne knows you can't cost-cut your way to success. It ultimately depends upon product.
And that's what the wild card brands, Hyundai and Kia have delivered in spades. It's easy to forget that, little more than a decade ago, the bigger of the two Korean brands was forced to shutter its first North American assembly plant – and to seriously consider pulling out of the U.S. market. For 2012, Hyundai Motor America CEO John Krafcik told me their biggest problem will be getting enough product to keep the sales momentum building. One of the big stories of 2012 may very well be the announcement that Hyundai will open a second North American assembly plant. And Kia will be happy to get back more of the capacity at its factory in West Point, Georgia.
The story that many folks missed in 2011 was the surprise performance by Nissan, the maker getting its production act back in order months before its fellow Japanese rivals. In fact, Nissan wound up ending the year with a sales record – a remarkable achievement not only because of the March 11 disaster but considering the age of most of its key products, from the Altima to the Titan. We got a glimpse of a new Pathfinder (the concept all but identical to the coming production ute) at the Detroit show. Later this year, we'll see new versions of Altima and Sentra, as well. While Nissan will have to wait to replace its big pickup, it will get the chance to finally stand out among the Japanese Big Three this year.
Volkswagen has finally acknowledged it can't achieve global domination without taking the U.S. market seriously.
Then there's Volkswagen, which has finally acknowledged it can't achieve global domination without taking the U.S. market seriously. The Americanized Passat and Jetta are off to a solid start, but the maker still has to double sales to hit its Stateside target by 2018. The coming months will reveal whether it has staying power.
Meanwhile, VW's little Audi brand is finally starting to show the momentum here that it has achieved in most of the rest of the world. We may soon see if it can truly jump into the first tier of luxury brands here.
But it will have a tough battle. Expect Lexus to fight hard to regain the top spot it lost in 2011 due to production shortages. As with the mainstream Toyota brand, Lexus has had trouble winning over young buyers, but the new GS – and the award-winning LF-LC Concept on display at Detroit's Cobo Hall – suggest it is serious about putting some real passion in the brand. It will need it as the rest of the luxury makers zero in.
There'll likely continue to be debates over who really won the 2011 luxury sales battle, though BMW has firmly grasped the crown for now. The Europeans are flooding the market with new offerings, filling every inch of available white space.
But, yet again, there are several players intent on upsetting the established order, including Cadillac and Lincoln, both rolling out striking products in Detroit, such as the former's ATS and the latter's distinctive MKZ. And Hyundai, with the Equus and second-generation Genesis, clearly has its eyes set on moving upmarket. So far, it has resisted the temptation to add an independent luxury marque. Maybe 2012 will bring a different approach.
One thing is certain, the coming year could bring some of the most significant changes in the industry's established order that we've seen in decades.