Friday, October 10, 2008

The 2009 model year is going to be a particularly significant — and perhaps confusing — watershed, because buyers’ tastes have rapidly evolved away from thirsty trucks and SUVs, making this year’s crop of good-old-fashioned cars the most important in a long time.

If you’re in the market to buy, there are plenty of places to find an exhaustive list of every new model not mention all the changes to older models.

I’m cutting through the clutter to tell you six important new vehicles for 2009. There is no particular order of significance — I’ve selected pickup trucks, crossover vehicles and hatchbacks. Another time I’ll tell you about the six most important sedans and compacts to enter the 2009 marketplace.

• Dodge Ram: $21,270-$43,240; fuel economy: 14/20 mpg

Nobody said the car business is easy and Chrysler couldn’t have picked a tougher environment - crummy economy, crushing gas prices - in which to launch it’s totally redesigned Ram pickup.

If you can get past all that, you’d almost call the new Ram beautiful. There’s a real artfulness in the new truck’s simplicity of line, and the Dodge engineers have crafted all manner of sweet new storage and cargo-hauling gizmos.

Best of all, the all-conquering Hemi V-8 has undergone a power upgrade, yet delivers better fuel economy.

• Ford Flex $28,295-$36,555; fuel economy: 17/24 mpg

The funky-boxy Flex looks a lot like a pumped-up Mini Cooper. The styling is very polarizing; we find most people reacted positively, however, for this useful station wagon Ford calls a “crossover.”

Thanks to its Volvo-derived structure, you can wager the Flex is safe.

There’s a ton of room inside; six can ride in limo-like comfort. The Flex is available with all-wheel-drive, though fuel economy is not the Flex’s strong suit.

Flex is a versatile package that takes some styling risks, and for that we applaud Ford.

• Ford F-150: price TBA; fuel economy: TBD

Ford’s best-selling model is heavily redesigned for 2009, with sharp new styling, two more powerful, more efficient V-8s and a roomier interior with cozy fittings.

There’s no doubt high gasoline prices mean it’s going to be a tough year to drum up enthusiasm for pickups, unless it’s among drivers who really need them. In answer, Ford engineers present the F-150 SFE (Superior Fuel Economy), an efficiency-optimized version that delivers 15 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway.

Nissan Murano: $26,870-$36,450; fuel economy: 18/23 mpg (AWD)

The Murano is the crossover that virtually defined “cross- over” for the auto industry.

The first-generation Murano was a dead-on bull’s-eye for what most people really want from a utility vehicle and instantly became a benchmark for Nissan’s competitors. The 2009 Murano manages to improve on that already formidable recipe.

Formerly unimpressed with the Murano’s unique and fuel-saving continuously variable transmission (CVT), new programming and other upgrades have turned us into true believers. It doesn’t hurt, either, that the Murano is tugged around by the best V-6 on earth. The Murano’s interior - a little chintzy in its first go-round - has been upgraded to the point it’s running dangerously close competition for Nissan’s premium Infiniti division.

• Honda Fit: $14,550-$18,760; fuel economy: 27/33 mpg

Better get in line now, because the redesigned 2009 Fit is better than the first-generation model that quickly won cult status among Honda lovers and the just plain frugal.

The subcompact Fit astonishes with seemingly vast and useful interior space thanks to clever design. The cargo area can be configured in multiple ways and the “magic” rear seats are a treat in their flip-and-fold ease. Fuel economy of about 30 mpg (combined) means you can thumb your nose at Big Oil.

• Toyota Venza (price TBA); fuel economy: TBA

Okay, here’s a bit of a risk for Toyota (if anything Toyota puts in a showroom is really a risk). The Venza is effectively a Camry station wagon.

Some wonder where the fit is for the 2009 Venza. It’s not quite crossover enough and not quite car enough. And Toyota already has the Highlander for those who want a car with lots of interior space but sits a little higher and has the option of all-wheel-drive. Pricing and marketing might determine whether the Venza is a hit or a miss for Toyota.

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