2011 Ford Fiesta
Why it's important: With fuel economy standards increasing quickly under the Obama administration, we're likely to see many more small cars. Since automakers are going to have to make money off them, they're likely to be loaded up with features, unlike small econoboxes of yesteryear.
Audi e-tron Concept
Why it's important: It's just a concept, but it shows that Audi will be serious about electric cars going forward (currently the company has no hybrid electric car for sale, but they do sell diesels).
2011 Toyota Sienna
The third generation Sienna seen here is Toyota's latest and we think it's a daring effort: a bold design takes cues from there crossover Venza wagon/SUV combo and looks quite good. Inside we love the configurations and the incredibly nice 16-inch LCD display for dual in-vehicle entertainment.
Why it's important: Design matters, even for something like a minivan. Notice how the Sienna's scowling front end mimics something from a sports car, while the 19-inch wheels on the SE model are something out of street culture, not the Curves parking lot you'd expect from a minivan owner. Minivans are maturing in interesting ways and the Sienna is one example of that.
2011 Hyundai Sonata
The Sonata is clear evidence that Hyundai is moving in design directions that it's never been before. Unlike Acura, however, these design chances seem to be paying off and the Sonata slots nicely next to its big brother, the Genesis.
Because Hyundai wants to point to its focus on efficiency, the Sonata will debut with a four-cylinder engine only (bigger engines will likely come later). But this isn't any four-cylinder: it's a direct-injection model (this burns fuel much more efficiently). It will also have a six-speed transmission, giving the vehicle a 35 MPG highway rating.
Why it's important: Hyundai might be the car company with the best growth story in the industry right now. With fresh product, innovative marketing and a CEO who knows what he's doing, they appear to be firing on all cylinders. The Sonata is the volume sedan that will really get things going for them and surprise and delight the new customers that give them the opportunity.
2011 Chevrolet Cruze
The four door is larger than the outgoing Cobalt, comes with a much more refined set of powertrains (a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder and a naturally-aspirated 1.8-cylinder four-cylinder, plus a manual gearbox or a six-speed transmission). The company claims 40 MPG is possible with the turbo and a manual transmission for highway driving -- something that makes the Cruze hybrid competition for many buyers.
Why it's important: GM needs quality small cars that can compete with some great new products from Ford and others. The Cruze seems up to the task. 40 MPG ain't bad, either.
Volkswagen Up! Lite Concept
Why it's important: VW wants to reclaim the spirit of the original Beetle, a car that embodied value and efficiency like no other. Can the Up! Lite do it? Not now, but perhaps in another form it will.
Honda P-NUT concept
This is possible in part because the engine is made to be mounted in the rear, under the floor. Honda says the vehicle could accommodate a small gas engine, hybrid or pure electric.The entire "footprint of the vehicle is very small: it's just 69 inches wide and 133 inches long.
Why it's important: Honda is loosely testing shapes and design treatments for future small cars that you might see in a few years. Squint (hard) and you'll see what's likely the design direction for the next Honda Fit.
2011 Buick Regal
Like the LaCrosse, the Regal shares a similar platform but is about 7 inches shorter overall. It will become Buick's least expensive car when it goes on sale in the first half of next year, launching with a four-cylinder and adding a turbocharged four-cylinder later in the year.
Why it's important: A beautiful Buick? Now we really have seen it all.