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New cars for the new year

Many people around the world are looking forward to the New Year, but none more so than those in Detroit's auto industry.
Image: Tesla
Green means go: The all-electric Tesla Roadster costs $98,000, but the 650 being built this year are all sold out.Business Week
/ Source: Business Week

Many people around the world are looking forward to the New Year, but none more so than those in Detroit's auto industry. In the current competitive environment, January gives carmakers a chance to reset their gauges and hope the upcoming 12 months are better than the previous 12. But there's also a big element of risk. Will the new models sell as well as the old? Which will be flops? What is the competition doing better?

The 2008-09 crop of new cars looks extremely promising. Among the most unusual new cars will be the Tesla Roadster, which, despite its race-car looks, is battery-powered, and the tiny Smart Fortwo, which looks like it should be battery-powered but isn't.

Several turbocharged models also have enthusiasts waiting impatiently this year, including the big and posh Bentley Brooklands and the pocket-rocket Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution.

What all these cars have in common is that they are just about guaranteed to be fun to drive, based on experience with their respective brands and how they stack up on paper. Some are 2008 models, some are 2009s, and some model years haven't been announced yet. Some new cars already have a firm price tag even though they're not on sale yet, but most won't until immediately before launch.

Muscle-Car Revival
Muscle-car revivals are an obvious trend this year, including all-new versions of the Chevrolet Camaro from General Motors, the Dodge Challenger from Chrysler, and the Ford Mustang Bullitt.

The Mustang is named for Bullitt, the 1968 movie best remembered for an extended car chase, in which Steve McQueen drove a green Mustang GT. The new Ford Mustang Bullitt has a similar color scheme to the movie car, including a menacing, blacked-out grille. It's the latest of several special-edition Mustangs. Ford Motor kicked off the current retro wave when it redesigned the Mustang in 2004.

The return of the Hemi
The bad guys in the famous Bullitt chase scene drove a Dodge Charger. Dodge resurrected the Charger in 2005, but has not played up the Bullitt association, probably because in the movie, the bad guys and their Charger crash and burn.

For 2008, Dodge adds the Challenger SRT8. The original Challenger sold in the early to mid-1970s. The heart of the Challenger SRT8 is a Hemi V8 engine, a nostalgic name from the 1960s. "Hemi" refers to the engine's hemispherical (as opposed to cylindrical) combustion chambers, designed to improve performance. "That thing got a Hemi in it?" has been a Dodge catchphrase since 2002, when the brand revived the Hemi engine, initially in its pickup trucks.

A couple of jarring notes amid all the nostalgia: The Challenger SRT8 carries a $2,100 gas-guzzler penalty, something few people would have foreseen back in 1970. And the new Chevy Camaro concept car has what Chevrolet calls Active Fuel Management, which shuts off half of the cylinders at cruising speed, to save gas.

Sold-out roadsters
Gasoline shouldn't be a problem for the battery-powered, $98,000 Tesla Roadster, named for Nikola Tesla, a pioneer of electrical inventions who died in 1943. Tesla Motors in San Carlos, Calif., says it expects to build 650 cars in the first year, starting in the first quarter of 2008.

Production startup was delayed from an earlier target of fall, 2007. The delay is potentially an ominous note for buyers on a waiting list who put down $5,000 each, which the company says is refundable. The company wants an additional $25,000 deposit, also refundable, as cars become available, but before delivery. Still, Tesla Motors says the entire planned production for the first model year is pre-sold.

The Tortoise and the Hare
The remarkable thing about the Tesla Roadster isn't that it's battery-powered, but rather that it appears to be the first battery-powered, high-performance car. Provided the company meets its schedule, the Tesla Roadster should start turning heads later this year.

The Smart Fortwo will turn heads, too, for different reasons. Its three-cylinder engine is tiny, but for around-town driving, the vaguely egg-shaped car is powerful enough, and its size and distinctive styling draw a crowd wherever it goes. That makes it fun to drive, even if zero-to-60 mph is not its strong suit.

In all, 2008 looks like a good year for auto enthusiasts.