The calendar says half a year remains for 2004, but it's already 2005 in the global auto industry.
Car companies worldwide are introducing next year's models this summer. In fact, some 2005-model cars have been on the road for months.
The tradition of waiting until Oct. 1 to kick off the new-model season has been dying for years. It's the victim of intense global competition, new technologies that have cut vehicle development and production times, computer-assisted engineering and design techniques that allow automakers to produce discernibly different cars and trucks using the same basic platforms, and increasingly segmented and ever-changing consumer demands.
The result is that new models now are introduced whenever they are ready. Also, in the manner of movie releases, many new car and truck introductions are timed for specific seasons -- four-wheel-drive sport-utility vehicles in the winter, sports cars and convertibles in the spring and summer.
What remains of the Oct. 1 tradition is the excitement that new models bring regardless of when or where they are introduced.
In Europe, the hoopla is over the 2005 BMW 120i hatchback, another one of those "premium compact" cars aimed at the pockets of the young and the affluent, generally meaning people in the 20- to 35-year-old range who are professionals or entrepreneurs earning good salaries but who still fall far short of "rich."
The little rear-wheel-drive, 150-horsepower, four-cylinder BMW 120i -- priced at about $25,000 in U.S. currency -- won't be coming to America soon. It is a hatchback, and big-name European car companies such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz have embraced the myth that all Americans hate all hatchback cars -- the kind with tailgates that lift toward the sky. So the BMW 120i will go on sale in September all over the world, except the United States.
But Mercedes-Benz believes it has what Americans want in the "premium compact" segment. They want speed, pizzazz and prestige with four doors and a traditional notchback -- as opposed to hatchback -- trunk lid. Based on that thinking, Mercedes-Benz has updated its fleet of compact C-class cars for 2005, the hottest of which will be the new C55 AMG.
Jim Resnick, East Coast spokesman for Mercedes-Benz USA, said the C55 AMG will cost "less than $40,000." That means it is a car for affluent people who are making measurable progress toward real wealth. For their money, they'll get a really nice-looking sedan equipped with a hand-built, 5.5-liter, 362-horsepower V-8 engine that can move from 0 to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds.
But I'm betting most of my money on American car companies in 2005. That is neither a matter of exuberant optimism, nor of unrestrained nationalism. It's just that I like what I see coming from General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and the Chrysler Group of DaimlerChrysler Corp. (Yeah, I know that Chrysler is now German. But Chrysler still says "America" to me.) GM is the one to look at. The company's Cadillac division is on a roll with its new CTS and CTS-V sports sedans, its SRX "crossover" sport-utility wagon and its XLR luxury roadster. For 2005, Cadillac is introducing a completely revised STS sedan, with a 320-horsepower V-8 engine that already is being hailed in the automotive media as a worthy competitor to Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s Acura RL and to Nissan Motor Co.'s Infiniti M45.
That may seem like a trifle to people who do not follow the car industry closely. But it has been decades since Cadillac has received that kind of approbation from the car-enthusiast media.
On the lower-cost end, GM is introducing the Chevrolet Cobalt as a replacement for the quite serviceable but much-maligned economy compact. It is a front-engine, front-wheel-drive two-door coupe with three engine offerings, the best of which (in terms of performance) is a 2.2-liter, supercharged, 205-horsepower, four-cylinder model. Cobalt base prices will range from $15,000 to $20,000.
Ford is bringing forth its full-size Audi-like front-wheel-drive Five Hundred passenger car to replace the Ford Taurus. The exterior isn't stunning, but the Five Hundred's passenger cabin is one of the best Ford, or anyone else, has developed for a family sedan.
Ford also is introducing its seven-passenger Freestyle sport-utility wagon for 2005. It's available with front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive. It looks good, but it's a latecomer to the sport-utility-wagon party.
And of Chrysler, what can I say? This company has Hemi-ed its way back to stardom with its high-powered, hemispheric combustion chamber engines in models such as its 300-Series sedans and Dodge Magnum station wagon. For 2005, Chrysler has launched the Chrysler Crossfire and PT Cruiser convertibles, already at dealerships.
People who want to buy the first Chrysler automobile priced in the $50,000 range will get that chance in 2005 with the Chrysler Crossfire SRT-6 convertible. No, it doesn't have a Hemi in it. It comes with a supercharged 330-horsepower V-6 from Mercedes-Benz AMG.
* Next week: The rumors of the death of the electric car are greatly exaggerated.