Looking at last year's sales numbers, you might assume that cars have fallen out of favor with American consumers.
For the first time in U.S. auto sales history, shoppers took home more light trucks -- pickups, sports utility vehicles (SUVs), vans, minivans and crossover utility vehicles (CUVs) -- than they did sport coupes, station wagons and sedans.
According to final tallies by Automotive News, a Detroit-based industry trade journal, the nation's auto dealers sold 8.5 million light trucks, beating out car sales by more than 200,000 units. Put another way, trucks accounted for 50.6 percent of all new vehicles sold in the United States in 2002.
But all is not lost for car lovers. The evidence from the current run of auto shows in the United States and Canada is that cars are poised to make a comeback -- or to at least make a fight of it in a North American market gone four-wheel-drive.
Even economy cars are ready to make a run. Witness the introduction of models such as the 2004 Chevrolet Aveo and Mitsubishi's Lancer Ralliart at the Chicago Auto Show, now in progress.
Inspired by the sales success of the smallest car sold in this country, the Mini Cooper, auto companies have reexamined the notion that small cars can't be sold profitably in a market still awash in cheap gasoline. So, the car makers plan to bring out more little rides with an edge.
But truck-driven companies, such as General Motors Corp., are covering their bets in this endeavor. To reduce financial risks, largely through cutting production costs, GM is teaming up with South Korean automaker Daewoo to bring forth the Aveo. It is going to be a sport-nosed little car, available as a five-door hatchback or four-door sedan. GM says the Aveo will compete directly against the Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio, which means its sticker prices should range from $9,500 to $12,000.
In addition to a small dose of snazzy styling, the Aveo promises to offer something approaching decent small-car muscle -- 105 horsepower derived from a 1.6-liter, 16-valve, inline four-cylinder engine. Fuel economy is expected to come in at about 38 miles per gallon. Chevrolet executives believe they can sell 70,000 Aveo hatchbacks and sedans annually. With the way things are going in the Middle East--and the threat to oil supplies sending gas prices sharply higher--they might be right.
Mitsubishi is taking another approach. For the past three years, the Japan-based automaker has been struggling to remake itself, trying to overcome a spate of bad publicity about the quality of its products sold at home and abroad. Thanks to its new line of Lancer cars, Mitsubishi's comeback has exceeded its own expectations as well as those of its former doubters.
Mitsubishi is selling high-performance economy cars--a seeming product contradiction that nonetheless has found a sweet spot in the marketplace. With the 160-horsepower Ralliart edition of its Lancer, Mitsubishi is pushing that strategy a step farther. The company's executives say the Ralliart Lancer sedan will fit nicely between the Lancer O-Z Rally sedan and the Lancer Evolution -- for about $18,000.
Big-money cars will be rolling into the market, too. Make that big-money and big-horsepower cars, such as the proposed (gulp!) 1,000-horsepower, 16-cylinder Cadillac Sixteen and the more realistic, ready-for-showroom, 215-horsepower 2004 Chrysler Crossfire coupe.
I will drive the Crossfire in California next week and get back to you with an On Wheels report in The Washington Post. But here is a preview. The sample I saw at the recent North American International Auto Show in Detroit has breathtaking, breakaway styling. It is a rear-wheel-drive two-seater that will polarize opinion -- people will either love it or hate it. That's fine with me. Part of the reason why sales of passenger cars hit the skids is that so many of them were insufferably boring and unremarkable. Models such as the Crossfire should put an end to the School of Ho-hum Design.
There are more cars coming, including a wonderfully reworked Ford Mustang and the re-introduction of one of my favorites, the Chevrolet Impala SS. They have their work cut out for them, especially because all major car companies are introducing another round of pickups and SUVs.
For example, on the truck front, Nissan will introduce its new, full-size, truck-based sport-utility vehicle at the New York Auto Show in April. The new Nissan SUV will be based on the Nissan Titan pickup truck platform. Appropriately, the SUV will be called (drum roll, please) the Pathfinder Armada.