The road to recovery in Detroit is so long and pitted that General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler might not all make it. Billions in federal aid will help. But the government doesn't build cars, and without top products in the most important segments, the Detroit Three will continue to flounder while the Japanese and Europeans surge ahead. Here are some of the cars that are key to the revival of the domestic automakers:
GM famously spent $1 billion trying to build this electric-powered two-seater in the '90s, only to scrap the project because of range limitations and other shortfalls. Critics dubbed the EV-1 a huge flop. But hold on: One of GM's top priorities right now is the Chevy Volt electric plug-in, due in 2010. And much of the technology comes straight from the EV-1. If electric cars catch on and GM ends up a leader, it will be largely due to lessons learned from this failed experiment.
Unlike the EV-1, the Volt has a gas engine that kicks in once the battery runs down, so you can't get stranded away from a recharging outlet. Since it's a sedan, the Volt will appeal to families, too. Initial sales will probably be low, thanks to a high price tag and wariness over the technology. And it could be years before GM recoups its investment. But if the Volt succeeds, it will help re-establish GM as a technology leader and provide some badly needed environmental cred. The technology will also get cheaper over time, and it could spread to many other GM models.
All three domestic automakers need to recapture small-car buyers who have fled to imports like the Honda Civic that offer better quality and cachet. The European-built Fiesta, due in the U.S. in 2010, will make the case with crisp styling and gas mileage in the mid-30s. Ford could also import the C-Max and Kuga into the U.S. from Europe. If they succeed, "the impact of all three of these Euro Ford vehicles will be huge," says James Bell of Intellichoice.com.
If this subcompact debuts as planned in 2010, it will be a spirited and welcome replacement for the middling Cobalt. A small turbocharged engine could produce high mileage and a bit of excitement, a combo that's been missing from GM's lineup. That might help grab a bit of turf from hot newcomers like the Honda Fit and Nissan Versa.
That's right, there's still a market for huge, gawdy SUVs, and even with sales down, the Escalade remains one of GM's most profitable vehicles. GM became far too reliant on big SUVs, and it's begun the arduous process of retooling assembly lines to build fewer SUVs and more passenger cars. But the Escalade and its downmarket cousins, the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon, still appeal to families with gear to haul, boats to tow, and little fear of gas prices.
This work truck has been Ford's bedrock vehicle, and a perennial bestseller. The housing bust has torpedoed sales, since contractors are prime buyers. But once there's a recovery and building activity picks up, the F-150 will help lift Ford, too.
Part of Chrysler's problem is a stable of indistinct vehicles that can't get traction in the marketplace. But not the Wrangler. This iconic Jeep remains popular when other off-roaders seem excessive and unnecessary. Some analysts think that deeply troubled Chrysler, which owns Jeep, should rally around its strongest brand, and maybe even rechristen itself as "Jeep Corp."
This crossover has been a hit since debuting last year, and GM has covered all its bases by rolling out a Saturn, Buick, and Chevy version. Drivers like the carlike ride and SUV-style amenities, plus it carries 7, which makes it a minivan alternative. Once the economy rebounds and sales pick up, the Acadia could help GM reclaim a lot of turf seized by competitors like the Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot.
With gas prices falling, the timing could be just right for this revived muscle car, due in 2009. A new Ford Mustang is coming, too, which could offer car buffs a bit of excitement to balance all the bad news out of Detroit. "A good ol' pony car battle will bring smiles," says Bell.
There's no model by this name, but one of the mysteries in Detroit is what Chrysler has planned for the future. The company has talked about electric cars and imports from China, but there are few official announcements. And a new hybrid version of the Dodge Durango hybrid was canceled just weeks after it debuted this summer. That's a bad sign. With the company hoarding cash and seeking a buyer, Chrysler's future is more uncertain than the price of gas in a year.