Lifestyle

The Cream of 2007's Car Crop


It wasn't a great year sales-wise for many automakers, but there's no disputing that 2007 saw the debut of some truly terrific cars

General Motors (GM) is enjoying some success with its new products, including three 2008 models—the Chevrolet Malibu (BusinessWeek.com, 12/10/07), the Cadillac CTS (BusinessWeek.com, 10/22/07), and the Buick Enclave (BusinessWeek.com, 8/24/07)—that have been winning accolades from consumers and the media alike.

Other automotive winners for 2007 include vehicles that are important to their respective brands, even if volumes are small. They include Volkswagen's (VLKAY) Audi R8, a near-exotic sports car that marks a flashy departure for the Audi brand, and the soft-top Rolls-Royce Drophead Coupe, which underscores traditional British-style luxury and power, under German parent BMW (BMWG).

Across the U.S. market, the pendulum is swinging in favor of cars and car-based crossover vehicles, which get better gas mileage and ride better than traditional big trucks. The Enclave is an example of a well-executed crossover.

Kill List

Of course, not every car can be a success. In addition to successful new models, automakers killed some of their mistakes in 2007. Chrysler on Nov. 1 eliminated four models (BusinessWeek.com, 11/2/07) before their time: the Dodge Magnum, the Chrysler Pacifica, the Chrysler Crossfire, and the convertible version of the Chrysler PT Cruiser.

Ford Motor (F) last year killed, and this year revived, the Ford Taurus (BusinessWeek.com, 10/12/07) and Mercury Sable, after their replacements, the Ford 500 and the Mercury Montego, fell flat.

Ironically, given $3-per-gallon gasoline, this was also the year Toyota (TM) introduced the giant Toyota Tundra (BusinessWeek.com, 1/30/07). The 2008 Tundra is Toyota's most credible entry yet, in the red-white-and-blue full-size pickup market. It's even built in Texas.

Realistic Attitude

The Tundra this year has been an exception to the rule that big trucks are out of favor. Its sales are a big improvement over the model it replaced, up almost 60% year-to-date through November, according to AutoData in Woodcliff Lake, N.J. Earlier generations of Toyota pickups were undersized and underpowered, but the Tundra is as powerful and large as anything coming out of Detroit. Toyota is gaining share worldwide, and the Japanese company could soon overtake GM as the world's No. 1 automaker.

GM's finances are a mess—including an eye-watering net loss of $39 billion for the third quarter. GM was obliged to write off the value of tax credits the company had stockpiled to offset future profits. GM acknowledged that those future profits now look as if they're not coming.

But, as noted, several of GM's new entries are getting good press reviews, and GM seems to have adopted a more realistic attitude toward turning around its decades-long loss of market share, one customer at a time. In a Dec. 6 press briefing for the 2008 Malibu, product manager Jim Brown admitted that most loyal Honda (HMC) Accord (BusinessWeek.com, 11/19/07) and Toyota Camry owners will probably never consider a GM product. "Customers in this segment are very skeptical, very risk-averse, and the Accord and Camry are very safe bets. These people are not going to go to a Chevrolet dealer and drive the car," he said.

Innovative Tactic

One way Chevrolet hopes to get around this reluctance to visit a dealer is to put 2008 Malibus in daily rental fleets—not in typical, stripped-down base models, but equipped with options the way most consumers are expected to equip them. Brown also steadfastly avoided forecasting sales for the new Malibu. He even refused to say specifically whether the new car would outsell the old one. Chevrolet sold 163,853 Malibus in 2006, according to Automotive News, down sharply from just more than 200,000 in 2005.

The all-new Accord is a formidable competitor to the Malibu, and the Accord has the sales to back it up, being the No. 2 best-selling car—after the Camry—in the U.S. At the recent Malibu press briefing, Chevrolet also provided models of the new Accord and the Camry for back-to-back test drives, in which the Malibu held its own, in terms of ride and comfort.

"All we can do is get the product right," said David Leone, Cadillac chief engineer, at a press briefing for the Cadillac CTS in September. "What else can we do? We know it's going to take a long time."

See the BusinessWeek.com slide show for a list of the Best Cars of 2007.

Henry is a reporter covering the automotive industry and automotive trends in BusinessWeek's New York office.

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