NOT A MOMENT TOO SOON
Their predecessors had either grown old and stale or seen a sudden onrush of potent new competition, so the pressure's on for these new models to raise the bar.

Nissan Versa sedan
Apart from looking decidedly dour, the outgoing Nissan Versa sedan was actually a remarkably good economy car. The better-looking, pricier hatchback edition has been selling so well -- comprising more than three-fifths of the Versa's class-leading 28 percent market share in 2010 -- that Nissan left it alone for 2012 and focused on up-dating the notchback. The refreshed sedan weighs about 150 pounds less than its predecessor, thanks mostly to its new "V" platform, which underpins Nissan's March and Micra models on other continents. The most noticeable change, though, is its more stylish skin, which is said to signal the future direction of Nissan styling.

Cross your fingers that future Nissans don't look this drab inside. Or feel this cheap. That used to be the status quo for this segment, but entries such as the Ford Fiesta and the Hyundai Accent have reset the standard. Sure, those cars cost more than the base $11,750 Versa sedan, but most Versas will cost at least $15,000, where such shortcomings are much less forgivable. Plus, the Nissan is less powerful than those rivals and fails to achieve the now-magic 40-mpg highway rating (coming up short by 2 mpg). Instead, the Versa's best assets are its low price, decent steering, comfortable ride, and fields of legroom. However, that might not be enough for Nissan to maintain its lead in the sales race.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $11,750 | ENGINE: 1.6L I-4, 109 hp, 107 lb-ft | LOOK FOR BIG GAINS IN: Styling


Subaru Impreza
The Impreza has been plugging along as Subaru's most affordable offering, with little besides standard all-wheel drive to recommend it. An all-new version has the potential to add more enticements to the mix. A chief area of improvement is fuel economy; with a smaller, 148-hp, 2.0-liter engine instead of the previous 170-hp, 2.5-liter unit and a new CVT replacing the old four-speed automatic transmission, EPA figures make a sizable leap from 20/26 mpg city/highway to 27/36 mpg (a five-speed manual is also available). Sedan and hatchback models have roughly the same exterior dimensions as before but have airier interiors, roomier back seats, and more cargo space. The handling benchmark was the Mazda 3, which should bode well, but the really fun-to-drive models, the WRX and the STI, aren't undergoing a redesign just yet.

ON SALE: November | PRICE: $19,000 (est.) | ENGINE: 2.0L flat-4, 148 hp, 145 lb-ft | LOOK FOR BIG GAINS IN: Fuel economy


Chevrolet Sonic
Replacing the sad-sack Aveo, the Sonic is derived from the Opel Corsa but borrows its 1.8-liter and 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engines from the larger Chevy Cruze. The Sonic's hefty curb weight of nearly 2800 pounds doesn't help fuel economy in the city, but Chevy expects the Sonic to match the class leaders' 40-mpg highway rating. Quite unlike its predecessor, the Sonic aims to be the enthusiasts' choice in the segment, and our brief drive of an early mule was very promising, with the car proving to be eager and responsive.

ON SALE: October | PRICE: $14,495/$15,395 (sedan/hatchback) | ENGINES: 1.8L I-4, 135 hp, 125 lb-ft; 1.4L turbo I-4, 138 hp, 148 lb-ft (est.) | LOOK FOR BIG GAINS IN: Driving dynamics


Cadillac XTS
The Cadillac DTS, nee DeVille, is the last vestige of Cadillacs of yore. It's old, but not as old as its owner base, one of the most geriatric in the industry. Its replacement, the XTS, retains the DTS's generous proportions and front-wheel-drive layout. Crisper, more modern styling, however, should help the new car extend its appeal -- at least to would-be STS buyers, since that model, never a serious challenger to the Mercedes-Benz E-class and the BMW 5-series, has been dropped. Unveiled in 2010 as a plug-in-hybrid concept (shown above) with a 3.6-liter V-6, the production XTS will have the 3.6-liter but not the hybrid assistant. The XTS is larger than the CTS, but Cadillac is adamant that this is not the brand's flagship. Indeed, word is that the company is working on a true S-class/7-series competitor.

ON SALE: Early 2012 | PRICE: $50,000 (est.) | ENGINE: 3.6L V-6, 320 hp, 275 lb-ft (est.) | LOOK FOR BIG GAINS IN: Prestige


Ford Escape
A half-hearted redesign a few years back failed to keep the Escape competitive, but Ford's marketing muscle has kept sales strong (the Escape was the best-selling SUV in America in July). A truly new Escape -- developed in Europe, where it's known as the Kuga -- is on the way. Expect a major, and much-needed, interior upgrade as well as lots more luxury features. An all-four-cylinder engine lineup will include a 2.5-liter base engine; a 1.6-liter EcoBoost (the most economical); and a 240-hp, 2.0-liter EcoBoost in place of a V-6. The hybrid, however, will go away, as the all-hybrid two-row C-Max takes over that role. Styling will very closely resemble that of the Vertrek concept, as our illustrator shows above, but the Escape name will be retained.

ON SALE: Early 2012 | PRICE: $23,000 (est.) | ENGINES: 2.5L I-4, 170 hp, 170 lb-ft; 1.6L turbo I-4, 180 hp, 170 lb-ft; 2.0L turbo I-4, 240 hp, 270 lb-ft (est.) | LOOK FOR BIG GAINS IN: Interior quality


Cadillac STS: Some say that the XTS is the replacement for both the STS and the DTS. That sound you hear? The STS's rear wheels rolling over in its grave.

Boomshadow
Guys, could you please fix your layout? The tiny little thumbnail photos completely disassociated from the matching text makes this entire feature a hot mess. If you have to, give each car a completely separate page so we can just see text and photos all at once. You probably won't have to add too many page clicks, and even if you do, that's just more ad space to sell. Am I meant to believe you have a print magazine as well? I'd never know this wasn't a first-week blog from the layout.

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