Everybody knows the auto world has shifted. The trick is divining which brands have got the gumption to last.
Now, with President Obama's new efficiency standards requiring a fleet-wide fuel economy average of 35.5 miles per gallon, automakers have their work cut out for them.
Domestic carmakers in particular are gearing up to battle forthcoming offerings from new-to-the-U.S.Fiat, with its diminutive 55.5-mile-per-gallon Fiat 500, and Chinese newcomer BYD, maker of the staid hybrid-electric F3DM sedan.
Motor City had better get cracking. It takes four years to produce a market-ready vehicle, and a typical lifecycle for one model is seven years. While we wait to see what brands emerge victorious, Honda's mod CR-Z and Ford's "eco-boosted" Euro models point to the types of cars we can expect by 2014.
Just don't get your hopes up for lots of choices when it comes to plug-in cars. Automakers insist there's still much to improve about the humble combustion engine, and they plan to eek out all the improvement they can get.
Tom Plucinsky, a spokesman for BMW, says the company will bring a gasoline-powered and highly efficient X1 compact SUV to market by 2014.
"There's no breakthrough," Plucinsky says. "It's all little things that can add up. We've made big advances over the last five years or so in the efficiency of the gasoline engine, but we think that there's another 10% there."
BMW will find that 10% by using smaller (read: lighter), forced-induction engines that generate more power. (Plucinsky says naturally aspirated engines will be relatively nonexistent by 2014). Ford and Mercedes have also said they'll bring 4-cylinder, turbo-charged engines to the U.S. in the next several years.
Audi has joined the light-engine surge as well, committing to building a next-generation S5 that weighs hundreds of pounds less than the current version. Audi's Bradley Stertz says advances in aluminum construction will lighten its load, making it more fuel-efficient.
In the meantime, Americans can expect a trickle of vehicles from afar. Italian-run Fiat and Alfa Romeo will likely have vehicles in U.S. showrooms by 2014. But the real news lies further east: China.
At the Detroit Auto Show, Chinese automakers Brilliance and BYD ("Build Your Dreams") showed cars that could eventually reach the states, perhaps branded under a different name. Geely and Chery are other Chinese automakers with ideas for expansion outside the East.
Lincoln Merrihew, senior vice president of business solutions for market research firm TNS, says he expects a China-made car to hit in five years or less.
"It'll be a mixture of capabilities and bravado that will determine who comes in under their own flag," Merrihew says.
The Great Technological Unknown
Asia leads the green-power front. Nissan is testing battery-charging networks in Arizona, saying an unnamed electric vehicle will go on sale by late 2010. Toyota says it will sell one million gas-electric hybrids per year during the 2010s; Honda President Takeo Fukui has repeatedly said his company is most-heavily endorsing hydrogen technology.
Still, no one technology has emerged the clear winner. Sara Pines, a spokeswoman for Honda, says the company is experimenting with several possible solutions. Others say the as-yet undetermined carbon-emission standards in California will largely determine how automakers move forward.
That uncertainty has basically created a level playing field. Now it'll come down to whether the upstarts can hang with the big boys.
The Cars You'll Drive in 2014
1. Alfa Romeo Milano
Alfa Romeo Milano
Highlights: Set to debut at the Frankfurt Auto Show in September, the Milano is expected to boast a 120-horsepower 4-cylinder or 265-hp V6 engine. It sold briefly in North America (and was called the 75 elsewhere) in the late 1980s and early 1990s but disappeared when Alfa left the continent.
Why we care: Experts are speculating that the five-door Milano will form the basis for a new Chrysler sedan. It'll go on sale in Europe first, then likely come to the U.S. a few years later.
2. BMW X1
Highlights: BMW designed the X1 to combine the characteristics of its X-line SUV models with those of its smaller sedans in a new, "compact SUV" format.
Why we care: Based on the much-lauded 1-Series, the 6-cylinder X1 promises superb handling in a beefed-up, all-wheel drive format.
3. BYD F3DM
Highlights: This plug-in electric hybrid car went on sale in China late last year. It uses an electric motor and a 67-horsepower, 1-liter gasoline engine (for a combined output of the equivalent of 168 hp). It's tough to get specifics from the Shenzhen-based company, but BYD said at the Detroit Auto Show it'll bring products to the U.S. in 2011. The F3DM or F6DM could follow shortly after.
Why we care: In September 2008, billionaire investor Warren Buffet bought a 10% share of BYD for HKD1.8 billion. He has also reportedly been involved with consulting with the company on how to breech overseas markets--a positive sign for the hybrid's chances in the U.S., where it will face off with GM's Chevrolet Volt.
4. Cadillac Converj
Highlights: This "grand touring coupe" was created to show GM's electric technology (called Voltec) inside a sporty body style. It has a 40-mile electric-only range and can charge in eight hours on a regular, 120-volt outlet. Top speed is 100 miles per hour; top power is 120kW.Why we care: If Cadillac can bring the Converj (or a similar production-ready car) to market, it will show GM can make electric technology both luxurious and practical for daily drives.
5. Ford C-Max
Highlights: The multi-purpose C-Max has been on sale in Europe since 2003; some experts think it will be one of the vehicles Ford plans to eventually bring to North America as part of its multiyear "One Ford" global product plan. Other confirmed new-to-the-U.S. cars are the Focus and Fiesta, due to hit stores next year.
Why we care: Part of Ford's survival goal is to use more, 4- and 6-cylinder engines that use its "ecoboost" technology to produce the same power as a 6- or 8-cylinder, respectively; it will place some of those engines in vehicles it brings over from Europe. The success or failure of that plan could have long- lasting ramifications for the company.
By Hannah Elliott