After a decade or more of SUVs hogging the spotlight (and the road) with their rugged, go-anywhere cachet, cars are once again gaining an advantage.
Fuel economy may be the main reason interest is shifting away from bulky SUVs toward more-efficient cars: Sedans, coupes and wagons available for sale in the U.S. in 2006 are expected to average 24.6 mpg, while SUVs will likely average about 18.5 mpg, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Gas prices aside, there are plenty of other trends that confirm why cars are an attractive choice — including exciting, or at least interesting, design with better, more-versatile interiors and bolder, more-memorable exteriors as well as all-around higher quality.
Significant leaps in safety technology, including advanced braking systems and lane-departure warnings, also gird the car segment. Plus, carmakers squeeze evermore power out of their engines each year.
More than 30 new luxury and high-performance models are flooding the market, evidence that the already-stiff competition is intensifying. We’ve split the car universe into sedans, coupes, convertibles and wagons.
Take a look at each category below to see what’s hot for 2007.
Sedans (four doors)
Even the lowest-rung luxury or sport sedan today is faster, quieter and more sophisticated than the top models from just 10 years ago. Manufacturers continue to joust for an advantage, which is spurring an emphasis on bold and creative design, myriad tech innovations and better performance.
Today’s sedans have more versatile interiors and bolder, more-memorable exteriors. While bluebloods like BMW and Mercedes-Benz set the pace for the luxury sedan segment decades ago with superbly balanced rear-wheel-drive platforms — a layout that persists and is preferred by driving enthusiasts to this day — front- and all-wheel-drive systems are gaining in popularity. The reasons are various and include, most notably, cost, packaging efficiency and safety. All-wheel drive in particular seems to be flourishing by virtue of its perceived safety advantage — emphasis on perceived (two-wheel drive cars are plenty safe, even on slick roads).
Whether it’s a quasi-race-ready Audi RS 4 compact sport sedan or a svelte, new-age gas/electric hybrid Lexus GS 450h, the luxury sedan segment is boiling over with 12 outstanding all-new models.
New or redesigned luxury sedans hail from Germany, Japan and Sweden. Two top-of-the-line juggernauts known for setting trends — the full-size Mercedes-Benz S-Class and Lexus LS — have been completely redone and bring an arsenal of innovation and loftier levels of luxury. And 2007 is a banner year for top-of-the-market new-model introductions. The S-Class offers a newfangled in-dash night vision system, for instance, and the LS’ climate-control system actually measures occupants’ surface body temperatures.
Coupes (two doors)
Coupes have always made more of a fashion statement than sedans. Exuding an air of “practicality be damned, I care about style,” coupes signify personal freedom and a bit of excess compared to more convenient sedans and wagons. They often get a swoopier roofline and sportier styling than their four-door counterparts.
Coupes create compromises, though: Going for a two-door means sacrificing some space and rear-seat access for a sleeker, sportier look. But in recent years, automakers have come up with some innovative solutions, including better seat-folding mechanisms and small rear-hinged doors introduced on several vehicles, including the Mazda RX-8.
While sporty premium coupes like BMW’s venerable 3 Series and the ever-sexy Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class enjoy continued popularity, hatchbacks are showing a comeback. The chic yet affordable Scion tC and Mini Cooper have been huge hits, and several new or updated premium three-doors will be rolling into showrooms over the next year. While small, two-door hatchbacks used to signal a car at the bottom of the market, younger buyers typically don’t acknowledge that stigma anymore.
After nearly a decade, Audi will finally update its petite TT coupe and launch it as a 2008 model in summer 2007. The stylish new Volvo C30 is an especially important vehicle, as it will introduce Volvo to upwardly mobile young city dwellers who perhaps wouldn’t have considered the brand otherwise.
It’s hard to believe, considering their prevalence today, but convertibles were once a dying breed. Increased traffic congestion, safety concerns and style trends nearly drove them into extinction a couple of decades ago — even Cadillac’s long-standing Eldorado convertible, one of the last remaining droptops on the market in the ’70s, was discontinued in 1976.
Several years after that, few convertibles survived for sale in the U.S. Then, Chrysler released its affordable LeBaron Convertible to eager buyers in 1982.
But what really kick-started the thriving convertible market as we know it today is the Mazda Miata. Introduced in 1989 as a 1990 model, the original Miata revived and captivated the public’s passion for roadsters — generally defined as small, basic, two-seat convertible sports cars. Over the next decade, the roadster market would explode and ignite interest in other varieties of convertibles, including larger ones with four seats and more luxury features.
While the number of convertibles sold in the U.S. has climbed in recent years, they comprise only about 2 percent of the total non-commercial vehicle market, according to R.L. Polk and Associates.
One trend that may generate more interest in convertibles is the growing number of models with folding retractable roofs, which consumers perceive to be safer and more weather-tight than traditional fabric tops, even though this isn’t necessarily the case.
The 1998 Mercedes-Benz SLK pioneered this ingenious type of mechanism that has been incorporated on an increasing number of models in recent years, including the Cadillac XLR, Lexus SC 430, Mercedes-Benz SL and Volvo C70.
At least a few more models with retractable hardtops will hit the market in 2007 — the upcoming BMW 3 Series convertible and Volkswagen Eos, for instance. But some, such as Bentley with its new Continental GTC, prefer that their convertibles announce droptop status even with the roof up and retain fabric tops rather than metal ones that emulate the look of a fixed-roof coupe.
Wagons have cargo capacity comparable to that of SUVs, yet they offer better overall performance and fuel economy — plus they’re easier to park and drive on tight streets.
Unlike in decades past, when wagons were considered frumpy image-killers, they’ve now become badges of a so-called “active lifestyle” — that nebulous expression carmakers and other companies use to describe people they think are hip and have a lot going on, whether they’re urban or outdoorsy.
The definition of a wagon has been morphing in recent years, as manufacturers build smaller, more car-like SUVs and larger, more truck-like cars. Like convertibles, they remain a small segment of the overall market in the U.S., although they’re hugely popular in Europe.
The curious R63 AMG is one of a new breed that blurs the line between SUV and wagon.