Image: Volt production line
Bill Pugliano  /  Getty Images
GM is betting that demand for its Volt will be high.  But it will be a first major test of how Americans feel about really owning an electric car.
Image: Paul A. Eisenstein, contributor
By contributor
updated 12/30/2010 8:42:44 AM ET 2010-12-30T13:42:44

The waning days of 2010 offer an opportunity to look back on what might charitably be described as a “learning experience” for much of the auto industry — though there are some who managed to squeeze lemonade out of the year’s many lemons.

“This is definitely a year we’d all like to put behind us,” says Mark Fields, Ford’s President of the Americas.

The challenges of 2010 will persist in 2011: rising fuel prices, soaring costs for raw materials, a still-uncertain economy and the promise that competition will only get more intense.

The other big story of 2011 will likely be what share of that volume is captured by the new wave of “electrified” vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt. Both makers claim strong initial demand. But will it hold, considering the trade-offs in terms of range and price that go along with battery power? The coming months could begin the wholesale shift away from petro-power, or they could show that we will be dependent on oil for the foreseeable future.

As the year wraps up there are some surprising winners and losers. Among the losers is the humbled Japanese giant, Toyota. The world’s largest automaker has seen its once seemingly bulletproof reputation for quality and reliability tattered.

Toyota has recalled more than 11 million vehicles over the last year, the vast majority in the U.S. Its executives have been berated before Congress and the company has paid out a series of record fines for failing to order recalls in a timely fashion.

Yet, every time a senior Toyota executive promises the worst is over, another recall is revealed. The latest was announced just two weeks ago for 100,000 2010 model Sienna minivans.

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Going into 2011, Toyota can only pray that it has finally seen the end of its safety and quality-related problems — and that the process of rebuilding its reputation can truly begin. But all signs point to a continuing decline in sales and market share, and not only in the U.S.

While it seems unlikely to happen soon, further setbacks could position Toyota to be overtaken by the very ambitious Volkswagen, whose CEO Martin Winterkorn is openly declaring his plan to make VW the world’s largest automaker.

To pull that off, VW will have to count on two critical factors in the year ahead: first, a resurgence in the U.S. market. The maker is slowly making headway, and 2011 will bring the launch of its new assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., the first time VW has assembled vehicles in the U.S. in a quarter century.

New models, such as the 2011 Jetta, are gaining traction but the real make-or-break model will be the first to roll out of the Tennessee plant, a 4-door designed specifically for the U.S. and codenamed the New Midsize Sedan.

China's growth
Equally essential for Volkswagen will be the continued growth of demand in China, now the world’s largest national automotive market. But the same could be said for a number of other makers, notably General Motors. Significantly, in October GM became the first car company ever to sell more than 2 million vehicles in China in a single year.

Ironically, that strong demand is centered around Buick, a traditionally American brand that might otherwise have been abandoned when GM emerged from bankruptcy last year. Instead, it’s getting a flood of new products that has begun to reconnect with American motorists. Can the new Regal and soon-to-debut Verano sedan maintain that momentum?

Going into 2010, GM was itself a hobbled giant and many analysts questioned its long-term viability. But as its rising sales, market share — and earnings — now suggest, GM is entering 2011 in a very different position. Recent offerings, such as the Buick LaCrosse, the Cadillac SRX and the Chevrolet Equinox have won surprisingly strong kudos, notably from influential sources like J.D. Power and Consumer Reports magazine.

“More than anything, the perpetuation of excellence, and the destruction of mediocrity will be the most important things that will enable us to win,” contends GM President Mark Reuss.

GM’s turnaround was rewarded by investors who made its long-anticipated IPO a big success in November, but the carmaker shareholders love is Ford, which has seen its stock surge from a 2008 low of barely $1 to recent highs in the $17 range.

Keeping that going will also depend on “recognize(ing) this isn’t a static world and find(ing) ways to continue driving change through the organization,” even when the crisis is over, stresses Bill Ford, the maker’s Chairman and great-grandson of founder Henry Ford.

Among Detroit makers, the real question mark hovers over the corporate head of Chrysler, the other domestic maker struggling to put its 2009 bankruptcy in the rearview mirror.

Now controlled by the Italian maker, Fiat, Chrysler will be steadily ramping up its much-needed product roll-out through 2011, though the real assault won’t hit until 2012. But the coming year will still be a critical one. On the product side, that will include the launch of a new flagship, the redesigned Chrysler 300 sedan and the debut of the 500 microcar. The latter will mark the return of Fiat to U.S. shores after a two-decade absence.

Among the other brands to watch this coming year, are the Korean siblings Hyundai and Kia. The former marque will end 2010 with record sales and a reputation far different from that of just a few years ago, when it was best known for low-cost, low-quality econoboxes. Today, it is offering top-rate reliability and some surprisingly lavish offerings, like the popular Sonata, where the active term is high-value, rather than low-price.

Hyundai Elantra
Hyundai will bring to market a variety of models, including a new Elantra compact, but it could either burnish or tarnish its image with the imminent launch of the Equus, its first premium luxury model, which will go up against such benchmarks as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and Lexus LS460.

Kia, meanwhile, hopes that the new midsize Optima sedan will let it come out from the shadow of its bigger brother.

There are a variety of factors that could cause the automotive world to shift in unpredictable ways. Rising commodity costs are among the potential problems. Then there’s petroleum, which seems to be defying gravity despite the economic downturn. These days, $4 a gallon seems a certainty. The only question is when. A rapid run-up, as we saw in 2008, could send the economy spiraling downward, dragging car sales with it.

The outgoing year will see a reasonably sizable jump in volumes, the market closing at around 11 million a year, about 15 percent higher than a disastrous 2009, but a pale shadow of the record 17 million the industry used to enjoy. Forecasts by J.D. Power and Associates, among others, call for the numbers to climb back into the 12 million to 12.5 million range in 2011, and perhaps surge past 14 million by 2012. But there are plenty of experts, including GM’s sales chief Don Johnson, who caution that we may fall short of the peaks set during the last economic cycle.

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Explainer: Ten electric cars for the coming year

  • Think
    Think plans to sell its City electric car in the U.S. in 2011.

    Not so long ago, electric vehicles were woeful. They were fringe models sometimes with no back seat, a short driving range or no amenities, or they were exorbitantly expensive converted gasoline-powered cars.

    The idea of visiting a nearby car showroom to buy an electric car from a car company that might still be in business a year down the road was unheard of, until now. The first modern, mainstream electric vehicles are coming to market in 2011. Here are some of the options that will really, truly be available to car shoppers in most areas of the country in the next year ahead.

  • Nissan Leaf

    KAZUHIRO NOGI  /  AFP - Getty Images

    The battery-electric Nissan Leaf is hitting dealers in limited regions now, with a nationwide rollout to come in 2011. Nissan has invested in battery manufacturing plants with the expectation of selling a half-million electric cars a year worldwide. That will mean a proliferation of Nissan and Infiniti electrics in varying sizes and shapes to suit customers who might not want a funky-looking subcompact like the Leaf. The Leaf starts at $32,780 before any tax credits.

  • Chevrolet Volt

    Bill Pugliano  /  Getty Images

    “Never drive faster than your guardian angel can fly.” It’s a popular safety admonishment, but the electric car equivalent could be “Never drive farther than your extension cord can reach.” The Chevy Volt addresses the fear of running low on battery charge with no power outlet nearby by including a gas-powered generator on board to propel the car to the next charging station. Like the Leaf, the Volt is in mass production and is on sale now, so you can buy one from a nearby dealer. It costs $41,000 before tax credits.

  • Ford Focus Electric

    Ford  /  Wieck

    The Focus has been a popular compact model in recent years. So when an electric version arrives in Ford showrooms toward the end of the year consumers will already be familiar with the Focus name and driving experience, but they will have the option of enjoying that sans gasoline. A 23 kilowatt-hour battery pack should give the Focus about the same driving range as the Nissan Leaf, but in a more spacious, mainstream model.

  • Ford Transit Connect

    Ford  /  Wieck

    For even more space, electric car intenders can opt for the Transit Connect Electric minivan. This vehicle is aimed at commercial customers who make delivery runs over a pre-defined distance before returning to a base to recharge, but with an 80-mile range the Transit Connect could also do soccer mom carpool duty. But you can probably forget using it for the holiday drive to Grandma’s house or a summer vacation trip unless those destinations are nearby. Ford has already started delivering electric Transits to fleet customers, but retail pricing still isn’t available.

  • Mitsubishi I-MiEV

    STAN HONDA  /  AFP/Getty Images

    Mitsubishi “electrified” one of its tiny Japanese domestic market “kei” segment minicars, but found that global customers found it too claustrophobic. So in late 2011 the company will launch a version that is four inches wider, allowing the I-MiEV to feel more like a real car and a bit less like a Smart ForTwo that’s been stretched to seat four people. This car will cost less than $30,000 before any tax incentives, so it could be the least expensive battery electric on the market.

  • Honda Fit EV


    The Fit won’t reach showrooms until 2012, but like the preceding models it will come from an established carmaker that can provide sales and service from a nearby dealer for most customers. The Fit will have the same 100-mile range as most cars in the battery EV segment, but it offers three driving modes that can improve acceleration or driving range, depending on the program selected. The electric drive motor is derived from the one in Honda’s FCX Clarity fuel-cell car, and the Fit EV can reach a top speed of 90 mph.

  • Tesla Roadster


    Tesla is not a longstanding traditional car maker, but the company is building credibility by steadily delivering it zippy two-seat sports cars to customers. The Tesla Roadster is tiny and holds only two people, and it has a six-figure price tag, so most buyers are wealthy consumers who are adding an electric plaything to their personal fleet. That means the Tesla Roadster is probably not doing a great deal to solve the world’s energy problems, but it has served a useful role in advancing interest in electric vehicles and it is helping to establish the Tesla brand name as the company plots more mainstream models.

  • Fisker Karma

    Damian Dovarganes  /  AP

    Like the Chevrolet Volt, the Fisker Karma backs up its battery pack with a gas-fueled generator. Like the Tesla Roadster, the Karma has an exclusive price tag that will preclude its widespread use as a commuter car. But the Fisker Karma does help illustrate the point that electric-powered cars need not be tiny, or funny-looking. And while Fisker is a new, unproven brand, founder Henrik Fisker has earned respect in the industry over the course of his career as a designer, and he has inked a deal for the Karma to be assembled by a Finnish contract manufacturer that has also built cars for Porsche, so this company probably isn’t the flash in the pan it might appear to be.

  • Think


    Speaking of Nordic companies, Think is a longtime electric carmaker from Norway that Ford briefly owned during its acquisitive days. The company has since regained its independence and is selling the latest version of its tiny four-seat City electric car in Austria, Norway and the Netherlands. Think plans to sell the City in the U.S. in 2011, so keep an eye out for availability, but don’t expect to find a dealer in every town as with the established carmakers.

  • GEM


    GEM doesn’t stand for Golf carts Everywhere Manufacturing (it is actually Global Electric Motorcars), but its little machines are built on a scale closer to that of golf carts than of real cars (even the Think City and Mitsubishi I-MiEV look menacingly large by comparison, and those cars meet all federal crash safety requirements). GEM’s neighborhood electric vehicles are good for tooling around a corporate campus or running neighborhood errands on streets with low speed limits, and their comparatively low price tag (starting at $7,500) makes them an appealing option if you only expect to use your electric car for these sorts of uses.

Photos: Los Angeles Auto Show

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  1. Focusing on electric

    Ford Motor Company Focus Electric, Ford's first all-electric, zero CO2 emissions passenger car, is test driven at the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. It's Karma

    Fisker Automotive's Fisker Karma, a sports luxury plug-in hybrid car, is shown at the auto show, Nov. 18, 2010 (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Making like a leaf

    The Nissan Leaf, a 100% electric car, is test driven at the auto show on Thursday. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Whip it

    Mike McQuary, CEO of Wheego, speaks beside two Wheego Whip Life vehicles, Nov. 18. (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Cool blue

    The Mazda Shinari concept car is displayed at the Los Angeles Auto Show, Nov. 17. (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Pile up

    Scion cars are on display at the show in Los Angeles. (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. One of 333

    The Audi R8 GT, of which only 333 are scheduled to be sold worldwide, is seen at the show on Thursday. (Reed Saxon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Electrifying concept

    The 2011 Kia Pop concept car is revealed. Less than 10 feet in length, the all-electric, chrome-colored three-seater was created by Kia's European Design Center in Germany and can travel up to 100 miles on a single charge, according to press materials. (Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Trying it on for size

    A visitor sits in the driver's seat of the 2012 Infiniti M35 h (hybrid). (Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Coming to America

    The new Fiat 500 is seen near the old version during the press day of the LA Auto Show. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Chrysler interior

    The interior of the 2011 Chrysler 200. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. What's it going to take to put you in this car?

    The 2011 Hyundai Elantra is presented by John Krafcik, president of Hyundai Motor America at the Los Angeles Auto Show. (Friso Gentsch / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. SAAB story

    The SAAB 9-4X Crossover is unveiled at the LA Auto Show. (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Electric presentation

    Shinichi Kurihara, President and CEO of Mitsubishi Motors North America, introduces the Mitsubishi electric vehicle at the LA Auto show. (Phil Mccarten / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. The 2011 Chrysler 200 is unveiled at the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Charge!

    General Motors North America Marketing Vice President Joel Ewanick drove this Chevrolet Volt electric car with extended range capability from Detroit to the Los Angeles Auto Show. The Volt will go on sale in December. (Steve Fecht / GM via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Hepcat

    The Jaguar CX75 Concept electric car is unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show. The show opened to the press Wednesday. (Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Topless

    The Nissan Murano Cross Cabriolet Concept, unveiled at the show, is ready to take in the Southern California sun. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Star power

    Jonathan Browning, President and CEO, Volkswagen Group of America, left, and German model Heidi Klum show off the new Volkswagen EOS convertible at the show. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Big entrance

    The 2011 Chevrolet Camaro convertible makes its world debut at the show. The car features a 312-horsepower direct injection V-6 engine delivering 29-mpg highway. An SS model will feature the 6.2L V-8 engine producing 426 horsepower. A six-speed manual transmission will be standard, with an optional six-speed automatic. (Steve Fecht / GM via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Interior design

    A Nissan's Ellure opens up at the show. The car may be poised to replace the Altima in the automaker's current model lineup. (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Golden moment

    Stefan Jacoby, President and CEO of Volvo, gives the keynote addres at the Los Angeles Auto Show on Wednesday. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Hello L.A.

    The Range Rover Evoque, a five-door, all-wheel drive vehicle makes its debut at the show. (Reed Saxon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Tonight's guest ...

    Mercedes CEO Ola Kallenius introduces the automaker's CLS63 AMG at the show. The V8-powered sedan sports a menacing look. (Paul Buck / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Going up

    This Cadillac concept car unveiled at the LA Auto Show makes simply opening the door an adventure. (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. By a nose

    Fuji Heavy Industries President and CEO Ikuo Mori poses with a new Subaru concept car unveiled during the show. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. "F" grade

    President and CEO of Mercedes Benz USA Ernst Lieb introduces the Mercedes Benz F-Cell at the show. The F-Cell is a hydrogen electric, zero-emmissions vehicle powered by a fuel cell. (Paul Buck / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Close Focus

    Visitors look at a 2012 Ford Focus with racing modifications. (Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Concept hybrid

    The Lexus CT 200h hybrid concept is on display at the show. (Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Porsche hybrid

    A Porsche GT3 R Hybrid is displayed. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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