The Pivotal Vehicles of 2009

If you surf the Net or read the papers, I don’t have to tell you that 2009 will be a challenging year for the world’s automakers. Not only are the famous American car companies on the brink of possible extinction, but as I write this, Toyota has just announced that it is shutting down every one of its Japanese factories for a period of 11 days. That unprecedented move by the company that most experts feel is the strongest in the global industry indicates how dire the past several months have been -- and how critical 2009 will be to car manufacturers and the auto industry as a whole. One of the biggest engines driving the world’s economy -- vehicle sales -- is sputtering, and if it doesn’t regain a healthy purr quickly, some mighty big companies could fall in its wake.

This is why 2009 might be the most interesting year in American automotive history. The Big Three automakers are at a crossroads that many are hoping is not a dead end, while many other giants of the global car industry are quaking as consumers around the world suddenly refuse to buy new vehicles. And if that is not enough, the industry is growing more complicated. For nearly 100 years, the typical car sold in America was powered by an engine fueled by gasoline, but now the engine bay is up for grabs. Clean diesels, plug-in hybrids, electrically driven vehicles, bio-fueled vehicles, even hydrogen fuel cells -- all are vying for their place in the sun, and consumers are left to do their best to sort it all out even as they try to figure out how to pay for their next chariot.

Against this backdrop, 2009 will be filled with important vehicle introductions, many of which raise as many questions as they provide answers. So here, without further ado, is Driving Today’s list of the most pivotal vehicles of 2009. (Some are 2009 models, some 2010, but all will be available for your purchase this year.)
Ford Flex Can Ford Motor Co. find high volume out of this much-touted model, or will it be another Ford model, like the Edge, that showed a great deal of promise only to gain lukewarm response in the market? We like many things about the Flex, but some consumers seem put off by its distinctive, squared-off styling and its price.

Hyundai Genesis Can Korea-based Hyundai really establish itself as a player in the luxury-car market? This attractive vehicle has the goods because it does its very best to channel top German sedans, but one wonders how luxury and near-luxury buyers will respond to a prestige car bearing the Hyundai brand.

Honda Insight Honda hates to lose market share in any category to any car company, but it especially hates to lose potential sales to Toyota. Thus, it has created the new incarnation of the hybrid Insight as an unapologetic Prius fighter, and it has very aggressive sales targets for the model. The potential difficulty is that Toyota has a new Prius waiting in the wings that promises even better fuel efficiency.

Kia Soul Can a Korean brand sell sizzle instead of price? The intriguingly designed Soul has a lot of people excited, and it seems like an excellent time to launch such a vehicle. If it can develop a Scion-like following, Kia will have hit a big home run.

Mercedes-Benz GL320 BLUE TEC To those of us who revel in fine engineering, BLUE TEC “clean diesel” strikes us as an excellent solution to fuel economy issues without the expensive complications presented by hybrid power trains. But the big question is, Will Americans accept diesels?

Volkswagen Jetta TDI Clean diesel at an affordable price, the VW Jetta TDI offers big advantages. Drivability is excellent, and the technology is straightforward, but broad consumer acceptance is far from guaranteed. Some Americans just plain won’t consider diesels, no matter how good they are.