- The Washington Times - Friday, January 30, 2009

Not many of them are pickup trucks or sport utility vehicles. Thanks to ducking and weaving gas prices, increasing environmental consciousness and grenaded 401(k)s, America no longer is enamored with big trucks, big SUVs and big engines. Add in the auto industry’s own economic turmoil — some 2.8 million fewer new vehicles were sold in the United States last year — and you have a new model year rife with transition.

Scan the following lineup of new vehicles coming this year, and you’ll see none are pickups or genuine SUVs. Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC’s Dodge division already launched new, redesigned versions of their F-150 and Ram pickups in showrooms.

And SUVs? The traditional SUV — one that rides on the rugged frame of a pickup truck — is DOA. Everything now is going to be of the so-called “crossover” ilk, utility vehicles that may have some of the styling cues of SUVs but are built on less-bulky car structures.

The domestic automakers are on perhaps the shakiest financial ground, as we all know, but that doesn’t mean General Motors Corp., Ford or Chrysler can or should stop the flow of new products. Ford and GM, in particular, have several key new models coming in 2009 that - it’s hoped - can help reignite buyer interest.

GM’s Chevrolet division has two key new models coming this year: the 2010 Equinox compact crossover and the new-age reincarnation of the Camaro muscle car.

The Equinox is injected with a new dose of refinement and crisper styling, along with two stout new engines that both feature sophisticated direct fuel injection. All should help the Equinox’s chances in this popular segment that’s ruled by Honda’s CR-V and Ford’s Escape. Equinox is coming in the middle of the year.

Chevy’s been a little quiet about the 2010 Camaro — at the moment, its not the most politically correct model to be unveiling. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that the Camaro looks magnificent. Also, Chevy will emphasize performance available from the Camaro’s stout 3.6-liter V-6, we’re told, rather than shout about the car’s optional V-8.

GM’s Buick will release an all-new version of its LaCrosse midsize sedan this summer. The 2010 LaCrosse is much sleeker than Buicks that have come before, and it, too, features sophisticated new engines, not to mention an all-wheel-drive option and an interior with some unusual luxury touches.

Summer also sees the release of Cadillac’s new SRX crossover, a reinvention of the original SRX that didn’t quite click with customers. The 2010 SRX looks more like an SUV and less like a station wagon. Expect loads of interesting technofeatures, too.

At Ford, 2009 ushers in yet another reinvention of the Taurus sedan. The latest styling for the Taurus is decidedly more expressive, borrowing elements from some of Ford’s best recent concept cars to reinstate the Taurus as flagship of the Ford lineup. There’s a classier interior and a stout 3.5-liter V-6, while all-wheel drive remains an option. Look for the 2010 Taurus in June.

Also, don’t overlook Ford’s redesign of the Mustang, which this year means virtually all-new sheet metal for an even tauter shape and an interior redesign that features a welcome upgrade of materials. There’s a little more horsepower for the Mustang’s delightfully vocal 4.6-liter V-8, too.

Replacing all those trucks and SUVs is an ongoing fascination with fuel-sipping hybrid-electric vehicles, and 2009 will see the launch of two important entrants.

Toyota Motor Corp. just unveiled the new, third generation of its Prius, the car that put hybrids on the map. Coming to showrooms in April or May, the 2010 Prius flaunts a combined fuel-economy rating of a plump 50 miles per gallon. Toyota also claims the revision to the Prius’ familiar shape makes it the world’s most aerodynamic production car, and it will include gee-whiz options such as solar panels integrated into the sunroof.

Toyota’s premium Lexus division is getting its own version of the Prius. Called the HS 250h, it arrives this summer with some upscale features that include eco-friendly plastic trim and a sophisticated navigation system.

Not to be outdone, Honda Motor Co. Ltd. this year will sell a totally new hybrid of its own, but one that recalls a prior name: Insight. The 2010 Insight definitely is not the tight, two-seat configuration of the original. Instead, its wedgy hatchback bodywork is reminiscent of the Prius. There’s room for five inside and Honda says the new Insight is good for 40 mpg in the city, yet will cost a couple thousand less than its chief rival, the Prius.

If it’s not hybrid, the other way to hike fuel economy is to go small, and there will be several significant new small cars coming this year.

One of the most interesting compacts is the Kia Soul, which just rolled into Kia showrooms. The Soul, with its funky shape and kicky upholstery choices, is aimed at the young buyer, but its overall uplifting presence and reasonable prices (starting at $13,300) may appeal beyond that audience.

Later this year, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. will launch its rather bizarre Cube, a blocky subcompact that brings yet more Tokyo feel to the economy-car segment, like what we’ve seen from Toyota’s sometimes-strange Scion models, Honda’s Element and Kia’s new Soul. Shaped like half an urban delivery van, the Cube should be pretty inexpensive.

You’ll have trouble finding anybody who doesn’t like the Mini Cooper, and 2009 brings a new convertible model. Only devoted Mini-watchers know that while the current hardtop Mini is effectively an all-new car, the convertible version stayed with the “old” Mini platform and styling, so now the Mini convertible is up-to-date and still looks pretty fine.

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