Cars of 2008: A Sneak Peek

What will you be driving in 2008? A look ahead at the cars and trucks coming in the future

If there’s one constant question in the auto industry, it’s “what’s next?” Every new model year creeps further and further onto the previous one’s turf, with new vehicles now slated for introduction to the public up and down the calendar.

Automakers certainly haven’t been shy about showing long-off product way ahead of time for numerous reasons: to ward off competition, to reassure investors, and to generate buzz. What’s more, with a growing number of concept models being shown in nearly production-ready stages, getting a preview of what’ll be on the road a year or so out has never been easier.

Now, in late 2006, as the bulk of 2007 models are just becoming available to consumers across the country, the industry already knows quite a bit about what 2008 has in store. Even a brief survey of some of that model year’s announced vehicles confirms that various of this year’s trends are likely to continue.

Emphasis on Efficiency

So, given the details that have already been tipped, what do we know about 2008? Look for an industry that continues to focus on: fuel efficiency and clean energy, excitement-generating low-volume vehicles, innovative new models aimed at new markets, and workhorse vehicles aimed to maintain financial momentum.

The explosion in popularity of gas-electric hybrids has not gone unnoticed, even if many industry veterans still harbor questions about the vehicles’ true efficiency. What’s certain is that the market leader, Toyota (TM), isn’t happy to sit still. It will continue pouring hybrid drive systems into new vehicles. Meanwhile, General Motors (GM), the world’s largest automaker, will no longer sit out the hybrid craze as of 2008.

Lexus, Toyota’s successful luxury division, is finally going after the granddaddy of large luxury sedans, DaimlerChrysler’s (DCX) Mercedes-Benz S Class (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/10/06, “The New S550: Sportier, Sexier, More Expensive”). The LS 600h L (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/14/06, “Lexus’ New Luxury V8 Hybrid”) is intended as the company’s new flagship, with more technological bells and whistles than imaginable.

Of course, the banner technology is a hybrid drive system like the one found in comparably plebian Prius cars. The LS should feature an engine that pumps out more than 400 horses as well as a plethora of techy gadgets to keep drivers and passengers occupied and safe.

Energy Trailblazers

GM is getting ready to bring on its own pack of hybrids.It’s even putting its new two-mode system into huge SUVs like the GMC Yukon.

No word yet on the exact gas mileage this 2008 will get, but the company says to expect a 25% increase. If that’s the case, it would mean the availability of a gigantic vehicle earning fuel economy of over 20 miles per gallon combined—quite a feat for such heavy vehicles that required thirsty V8 engines.

Some are even thinking beyond gasoline. Honda (HMC) has always been a trailblazer in clean energy. After all, it—not Toyota—was the first Asian manufacturer to sell a fuel-sipping gas-electric hybrid to American consumers.

The Honda FCX, which debuted at the recent Los Angeles Auto Show (see BusinessWeek.com, 11/29/06, “L.A. Auto Show Thinks Green”), is the next big thing, or so Honda hopes. It is powered by a hydrogen fuel.

The company wowed green energy fans when it announced that it would begin selling a market-ready version of the model next year to Japanese customers.

Like the second-generation Prius, the FCX’s exterior adopts a futuristic look that suggests the advanced technology underhood.

Crazy for Convertibles

Other manufactures have deployed 2008s to generate excitement for variants available on the market right now. And there’s nothing better to get the heart racing than a sexy drop top.

Chrysler’s aging Sebring sedan, for one, was in desperate need of a refresh, which is exactly what it got earlier this year. But even the updated model drew one question from the lips of on-lookers: what about the convertible?

At the L.A. Auto Show, Chrysler answered those questions with a substantive sneak peek at the 2008 Chrysler Sebring Convertible. The car will be available with an optional hard top, the newest de rigueur feature in convertibles weighing in around $30,000.

Audi’s TT sports car, meanwhile, was a stunner when it came out and a sales winner for the company. Now the brand has re-penned the car, giving it more aggressive lines in hopes of helping it compete with fare from the likes of Porsche. The 2008 model year roadster will be available with Audi’s 3.2 liter V6 that pumps out a growling 250 horses.

Staying With Strong Markets

Another important trend in the 2008s already revealed is sustaining momentum. Notably, domestic manufacturers are hoping to predominate in markets that have traditionally been strong for them or ones in which their fortunes may be improving.

Ford (F) built its brand on tough trucks, primarily the F-Series (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/19/06, “America’s Favorite Pickup “). And though Asian manufacturers like Honda, Toyota, and Nissan (NSANY) are trying to make incursions into the embattled domestic’s territory, Ford is still the market leader for pickups. For now.

The company will introduce new version of the Super Duty series, an upsized and up-powered line, partly to maintain its edge and to further hone its rep. One model is slated to pack a torque-laden 6.4 liter, 350 horsepower diesel engine as well.

Saturn is on a roll. The company, long known for dowdy, plastic cars, is reshaping itself with the help of some striking new models, including a roadster, mainstream sedan, and large SUV-type crossover. For 2008, Saturn will launch a redesign of the smaller Vue SUV. Both the exterior and interior will be entirely redesigned to mesh with new models that sport aggressive and sexy styling.

Finding Customers

Perhaps the biggest trend in the 2008s the industry already knows about is prepping vehicles to acquire new segment customers. Manufacturers both foreign and domestic are banking on new models to help drive sales.

Buick’s Enclave crossover, due as a 2008 model, will be based on General Motors’ new Lambda platform and, therefore, will closely resemble sibling vehicles like the Saturn Outlook (see BusinessWeek.com, 11/30/06, “Saturn’s Great New Outlook”), GMC Acadia, and possibly a future Chevrolet product. The new product will reportedly take the place of the Rainier SUV and Terraza minivan, its seating, cargo capacity, and fuel economy making it a bridge between those two types of vehicles. Expect V6 and V8 engine options as well.

Land Rover is recasting its former Freelander small SUV as the LR2 to sell to Americans as a 2008. The new model adopts the geometric look of its larger siblings, the LR3 series (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/18/06, “Grand Rover”) and BusinessWeek.com, 12/28/05, “2006 Land Rover Range Rover Supercharged”). The model should carry a base price of around $35,000 and is intended to bring younger, less affluent buyers into the Land Rover fold.

Unlike previous incarnations, this model has improved ground clearance and is expected to provide better off-road capability, partially as a result. It will reportedly share its inline-6 engine with the newly unveiled Volvo S80.

Even with the gas crunch letting up a little and driving season winding down, small is in. The big news is that small is no longer the sole purview of economy cars. Audi made a big splash with its diminutive A3 (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/13/06, “Rowdy Audi”) at hatch that can be optioned up to cost more than $40,000. Volvo isn’t happy to let Audi have all the turf. It’s introducing the C30 hatchback in the U.S. as a 2008. Although it’s small, the car sports a host of safety features that make it worthy to wear the Volvo brand name.

Click here to see what you might be driving in 2008.

Vella is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s