Oct 24, 2008

Best Cars of 2009—If Anyone Is Still Buying New Cars

Between high fuel costs, credit woes, and overall economic gloom, it's a lousy time to buy a car. Too bad, because some of the '09 models are great.

The new 2009 model cars and trucks have been trickling into dealerships for months. But now that the pumpkins are ripe and showing up in stores, the leaves are turning, and off-weeks in the NFL season have begun, the newest models will really start rolling.

How many people will actually care is anyone's guess. Even before the Wall Street meltdown and severe credit crunch kicked in, analysts were predicting auto sales this year of a little more than 12 million vehicles. That's the lowest level of sales since the 1980s. Through August, sales were off more than 11% from 2007 levels. At 12 million in annual sales, that would more than 4 million units off the pace the industry was setting after 2001.

There are a number of market forces converging as automakers try to decide how to pitch their newest wares, and consumers decide whether to bite or sit on their wallets. Indeed, General Motors (GM) and Ford (F) have cut their ad budgets by double digits as they rely on good press reviews and Internet marketing to do the job that huge TV campaigns used to.

Volatile Gas Prices
Credit is harder to come by. Chrysler and Ford both report having to turn away would-be buyers who would have easily qualified for loans a year ago. All companies have cut back on leasing, once a way to qualify buyers with low credit scores. Home equity lines of credit, once a source of down payments, have dried up. Economic skittishness because of all the bad news and a volatile national election have would-be buyers sitting on their hands. Gas prices at the pump, while falling in recent weeks, are seen as volatile and likely to climb back above $4 a gallon next year.

Add into all that are a raft of cars, sport-utility vehicles, crossovers, sports cars, and pickup trucks that were planned by the companies four years ago when the U.S. economy looked a lot brighter.

Choosing a top 10 list of new 2009 models isn't easy. Mostly, I judged them based on timeliness to the market, design, engineering execution, innovation, price-to-value, and how well they drive. The final 10 is a mix. I didn't plan it that way, but that's how it worked out.

Focus on Design
As automakers have focused on more expressive design and higher quality, the good news is that the new offerings have hardly ever been better. If the economy would cooperate even a little, I suspect the industry would be in for a banner year.

Among the new models that didn't make the list: MINI clubman, which technically launched as a 2008 model though it arrived just a few months ago; Subaru Forester, which narrowly missed the list; Lincoln MKS, a nice car that is somewhat overpriced; Kia Borrego, which, as a body-on-frame SUV, seems totally mistimed to the market; the Tiguan from Volkswagen (VOWG.DE), which is a very nice piece of work but overpriced owing to the weak U.S. dollar; Honda (HMC) Pilot, which is a solid piece of work that would have made a list of 12, but fell out of the bottom of a Top 10 list; and the Chrysler Aspen Hybrid, which uses the same technology as General Motors but just doesn't deliver enough fuel economy for the big price tag.

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