Thanks to celebrity endorsements and relatively little competition, Toyota's got a lock on the domestic hybrid market with its Prius, the popular five-seater hatchback that gets 48 miles per gallon in city driving and 45 on the highway. Its recently announced a third-generation model should help it retain its ranking at the top of the hybrid heap.
But that's not stopping Ford Motor from trying to dethrone the Japanese automaker.
This spring, Ford will try to gain more traction in the hybrid space with two new models, the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan hybrids. Both family-sized sedans promise 41 miles per gallon in city driving and 36 on the highway.
They are just two of a handful of new drives set to debut in the U.S. over the next two years. Others include the Chevrolet Camaro, the Ford Fiesta and the Chevy Cruze. Some, including many being unveiled at the North American International Auto Show this week, are set to hit domestic showrooms this year; others may not reach production until the 2011 model year.
Though the worldwide car market has been saddled with poor sales -- domestic sales in recent months fell to their lowest per-capita levels in 50 years, and last year, Asian manufacturers lost 12.5% of their sales in the U.S., while their European counterparts lost 11.1% -- the home team has been busy investing in new products.
General Motors is making an ambitious effort to take back the mantle of technological leadership with its Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid. This vehicle differs from today's hybrids in that drivers will be able to recharge the batteries with an electrical outlet.
Another difference: The Volt's gasoline motor does not power the drive wheels. Instead, after the vehicle exceeds its 40-mile range on batteries only, the gasoline motor turns a generator to recharge the batteries that feed the electric drive. The lithium ion batteries for this vehicle still remain a challenge in cost and volume manufacturing, but GM is promising it can make first deliveries, in limited numbers, by November 2010.
And Ford Motor is pushing "Ecoboost," its name for small but efficient and powerful motors. Within five years, Ford promises it will build half a million Ecoboost-equipped vehicles a year in North America.
The wild card in all this is Chrysler, which has said little about its future product plans, beyond some publicity about plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles. But Chrysler, too, has programs to update its core franchise vehicles.
The U.S. will probably see a version of General Motors' new Opel Insignia sedan, a striking model now on sale in Europe, and named car of the year by European journalists. GM once intended to sell the Insignia in the U.S. as a Saturn, but this car now might end up in one of its other divisions.
Cadillac is trying to make a business case for a rear-wheel-drive vehicle smaller than its current CTS. Later this year, Ford will bring in a small commercial van made in Turkey, while the next-generation Ford Explorer SUV will be a lighter, more efficient crossover.
The drastic business and financial downturn in 2008 forced automakers to move back the timelines of some of their new product plans.
GM's Camaro convertible, for example, will likely arrive later than the company's earlier promise of spring 2010. With the downturn in sales last year and expectations for another poor year in 2009, car companies will continue to face tough choices about capital spending vs. cash flow.
The challenge, however, is that Detroit's foreign rivals, with a few exceptions, have not stopped their new vehicle programs. The American cars and trucks that come to market in the next few years must finally put to rest the notion that the U.S. lags the rest of the world in designing, engineering and building great cars.
This could be Detroit's last chance to remain competitive in what has truly become a global business.
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