2012 Sneak Preview: American Cars

200. That’s the number of new and updated cars that are scheduled to debut over the next twenty-four months. You don’t really want to read about every reskin or 5-hp bump, so we’ve filtered that list down to the 25 cars you most need to know about. Much of our information is hard fact, while some of it is educated guesswork or pure conjecture. We have included a “speculation meter” for each car to indicate what’s what. Here, then, is the scoop on the cars you will be hearing a lot about over the next two years.

This is the first of four articles that appear in our June 2012 print issue. Tomorrow we'll tell you about what to expect from European automakers, then the Asian automakers, and finally we'll tell you about the 10 trends steering the auto industry.

Chevrolet C7 Corvette

No dramatic changes for America's preeminent sports car.

Our annual Sneak Preview package just wouldn't be the same without some speculation on the Corvette that General Motors refuses to talk about. A few years ago, we infuriated the Vette's chief engineer with predictions -- which are still echoing around enthusiast communities -- of a V-6 engine. A V-6 is still on the table but likely for the generation after next. The seventh-generation Corvette won't be dramatically different from the current car.

Given its recent financial troubles and resultant period of government oversight, it's no surprise that GM has hewed to a fairly conservative course in preparing the latest (and now just plain late) new Corvette. As hard as it might be for us to understand, the idea of GM spending gobs of money to radically reengineer its screaming, tire-smoking supercar could in some circles be seen as less than prudent, especially when the current Vette is already a world-class performer. So, the upcoming new Corvette -- the C7 for short -- retains the current mechanical layout. Instead, efforts have gone into lowering weight, downsizing powertrains, and improving efficiency. We're still looking at a V-8 engine, however, and the numbers bandied about for the base model are 5.5 liters and 440 hp -- so this downsizing is evidently nothing too drastic. The V-8 will be direct-injected and the transmissions will add more gears, giving the Vette an eight-speed automatic and a seven-speed manual like the one in the new Porsche 911. The car will also be trimmed in size, and that, frankly, is welcome, but not quite as much as the promised higher-quality interior. Also welcome is a more adventurous design, considering the play-it-safe recent efforts. Chevrolet released a teaser in the form of the Stingray concept back in 2009, but that show car is pretty far off from the production version. Instead, we're expecting something along the lines of what you see above, with the creases of today's car more pronounced, a vaguely Ferrari 599 look to the profile, and a hint of Camaro in the taillights to build the Chevy family resemblance. It won't be long before we'll know how close this is to the real thing. We'll get our first look at the next-generation Corvette in less than a year at the 2013 Detroit auto show before the car goes on sale as a 2014 model.

And for those of you holding out hope for a mid-engine Corvette, we advise you to let it go.

What: Slightly downsized in dimensions and displacement, but not in power or performance.
When: Next year.
Wow: An interior nicer than a $15,000 Sonic's.
Speculation Meter: Our Best Guess

Fisker Nina

The big question isn't what Fisker's next car will be, it's whether the automaker will survive long enough to produce it. After the Department of Energy suspended its loan to Fisker, the board inserted former Chrysler executive Tom LaSorda into the CEO position. If it all works out (and we sincerely hope it does), the next car Fisker builds will be a sedan smaller than the Karma with a more palatable price.

Of course, since the company is named after and still likely run by designer Henrik Fisker, this Mercedes E-class-sized sedan (illustrated above) figures to be dramatically lower and wider than other cars its size -- and it will likely be more beautiful, too. In place of the Karma's GM-sourced four-cylinder gasoline engine is BMW's new N20 turbo four-cylinder strapped to a generator to produce power to turn the rear wheels. We expect the Nina to be a four-seater with its large battery pack stored in a raised center console, as in the Karma.

What: A smaller, less expensive range-extended EV.
When: Maybe next year, maybe never.
Wow: Nice body.
Speculation Meter: More Fact Than Fiction


The family car of the future?

The tesla Model S four-door sedan is scheduled to begin its first deliveries in July. After that, the next Tesla you'll see on the road is a crossover, the Model X. The external size bogey was the Audi Q7, but Tesla boasts that its first crossover beats the Q7 in interior space by 40 percent, and indeed its interior is both enormous and attractive. The "Falcon Wing" rear doors are double-hinged and rise up to seven feet, allowing easy access to the third row.

Surprisingly, even the rearmost row is comfortable for two adults, and it's bright and airy thanks to overhead glass, although it's a bit narrow. The Model X's space coup is that it provides not only an enormous rear trunk but also a commodious and nicely finished cargo hold up front.

What allows all this space is the Model X's electric powertrain. The Tesla crossover will be offered with two battery sizes (60 or 85 kWh, giving a projected range of some 200 and 275 miles, respectively) and with three different powertrains: Base models will have rear-wheel drive and a rear-mounted motor producing 295 lb-ft of torque. All-wheel-drive models add a front-mounted, 148-lb-ft motor that helps drag the big crossover to 60 mph in just 5.5 seconds. The third variant, Model X Performance, has more powerful motors (the rear one producing 443 lb-ft and the front more than 150 lb-ft) that shave that time to an incredible 4.4 seconds.

That means it will deliver Mercedes-Benz R63 AMG-type performance but in complete silence -- all you'll hear are the whispered exclamations coming from all six stunned passengers. The Model X has it in the corners, too, with tightly controlled body motions thanks to the floor-mounted battery pack's contribution to a low center of gravity. Tesla is sticking to a conventional brake pedal -- no blended regeneration -- so it, too, promises the feel of a nonhybrid.

Tesla says the steel-bodied crossover shares up to 60 percent of its parts with its sedan brother, and overall range should diminish by only about 10 percent thanks to tremendous efforts paid to minimizing aerodynamic drag. To that end, Tesla is working on readying camera-based sideview mirrors for production to meet or better the sedan's 0.24 coefficient of drag. The images they capture are relayed to the flanks of a large screen that makes up the gauge cluster. A seventeen-inch capacitive touch screen forms the main control center on the center stack, and even the buttons on the steering wheel are OLED touch screens, meaning their functions can be customized by the driver.

The best thing about Tesla is that it's taking performance seriously. The roadster set a high bar, and now the company will have a sedan and a crossover that can brutalize sports cars at real U.S. road speeds. Says one Tesla engineer: "It's pretty cool to be able to do roll-on burnouts at 40 mph." Tesla's rumored next car -- a sedan about the size of a BMW 3-series -- might then be an electric competitor to the M3. Wouldn't that be cool?

What: An all-electric people mover with gull-wing rear doors.
When: Late this year.
Wow: A seventeen-inch touch screen..
Speculation Meter: You Can (Almost) Bank On It

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