NEWS: 2012 Sneak Preview: American Cars

April 16, 2012
2012 Chevrolet Corvette C7 Front End In Motion
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
2012 Chevrolet Corvette C7 Front End In Motion

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

TESLA MODEL X

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

Ford Mustang

It might not look exactly like this, but it'll be a very big deal.
It was April 1964 when the Ford Mustang burst onto the scene with its debut at the World's Fair in New York. The Mustang's introduction was the most successful new-car debut ever, as the car went on to sell an almost inconceivable one million copies in just eighteen months. (That's about ten times the sales rate of the current 'Stang and twice that of the Toyota Camry, today's best-selling car.) The fiftieth anniversary of that momentous date is soon approaching, and don't think that Ford hasn't noticed. So April 2014 is a very good bet for when we'll see the next generation of Ford's long-lived pony car. But what will that next generation bring?
Insiders expect two major mechanical changes: an independent rear suspension and EcoBoost engines. The independent rear suspension--seen on the Mustang Cobra a decade ago but not available at all on the current car -- is long overdue. The changes to the engine lineup are a little dicier. We expect that the base V-6 will be replaced by a turbocharged, direct-injected four-cylinder, which probably won't be a tough sell given the smaller engine's fuel economy and weight benefits. The riskier move is having the EcoBoost V-6 step in for the base V-8 -- the sound of the V-8 engine is, for many people, inseparable from the Mustang experience, and indeed Ford has gone to great lengths through the years to preserve and continually improve the sound. Ford CEO Alan Mulally points out how well F-150 customers (who were also feared to be ardent traditionalists) have accepted the change to a V-6, so Mustang buyers might, too. No matter what, we still expect a V-8 under the hood of the highest-performance Mustangs, including the myriad special editions that Ford spins out so adeptly.
When it comes to balancing heritage and modernity, the even more difficult task might be finessing the exterior design. Ford went full-on retro for the highly successful 2005 redo and has evolved it since. Expect that process to continue with the new car, which will get a dose of the company's latest "Kinetic 2.0" design language. Ford executive director of global product programs (and one-time Mustang chief engineer) Hau Thai-Tang confirmed that the new styling -- which appears first on the 2013 Fusion -- is supposed to be "a family look," adding, "It's going to move the Mustang forward." The challenge will be doing that while keeping enough of the fifty-year-old DNA to ensure that the new model looks like a Mustang. The illustration below attempts to fuse the new design language, previewed by the Ford Evos concept and the forthcoming Fusion sedan, with some of the Mustang's retro cues. It's a flat-out guess, but our Sneak Preview issue wouldn't be complete without at least one pie-in-the-sky styling exercise.
What: An all-new 'Stang ready for global sales.
When: April 2014
Wow: Independent rear suspension.
Speculation Meter: More Fact Than Fiction
Future Ford Mustang Front Three Quarters 4B

Ford Focus ST

The game of hot hatches has been dominated by three German letters for decades: GTI. Ford says all you really need are two: ST. When we asked Jost Capito, Ford's director of global performance vehicles, if the forthcoming Focus ST will be better than the benchmark Volkswagen in every way, he laughed for a second, regained his composure, and said, without a glimpse of humor in his eyes, "yes." Them's fightin' words.
We've long considered the GTI to be one of the best bargains in automobiledom -- you can't beat the mixture of performance, refinement, looks, and price. The Focus ST might indeed finally challenge the GTI, and a ride in the passenger seat around a test track in Lommel, Belgium, reinforced the possibility.
With Capito at the wheel, the ST demonstrated incredibly neutral chassis balance, a complete indifference to midcorner bumps, and far better body control than you'd expect from an upright hatchback. It also showed off a prodigious ability to put power down. We watched Capito fight the steering wheel visibly as the words "zero torque steer" exited through his well-polished PR smile, but hey -- this was a preproduction car, and its torque-steer-compensation software tuning had not yet been finalized.
What is final, though, is that the Focus ST will have a 247-hp, 2.0-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder, front-wheel drive, and a six-speed manual transmission to keep away the poseurs. The version we get in America won't be watered down one bit. "Of course, the Focus ST has to be good at daily transportation, but the primary goal here is performance. Regular car buyers have different tastes around the world, but car guys here are car guys there--they all want the same thing." It only took how long to figure that out?
What: An American GTI challenger from Ford of Germany.
When: Later this year.
Wow: A stick-shift hot hatch? Welcome back, 1980s!
Speculation Meter: You Can Bank On It
2013 SRT Viper Front Right View

SRT Viper

The unlikely resurrection of an American icon.
Imagine how unlikely a new Viper was only three years ago, when Chrysler faced liquidation. If the company survived, bread-and-butter products like family sedans, crossovers, and pickup trucks would, naturally, have to command the bulk of product-development dollars. How could there possibly be interest in something as indulgent as a low-volume, expensive, high-performance sports car?
"We had to do a lot of soul searching," admits Ralph Gilles, Chrysler's design star and now head of the SRT brand. "[After the bankruptcy and acquisition by Fiat] we had the privilege -- not the right -- to develop a new Viper. This car was born when we were righting the house." SRT design chief Mark Trostle also has memories of that dark period: "The summer of 2009," he recalls, "Ralph told me to rally the troops. [Working on a new Viper] was a great way to help morale among our designers." Trostle's team, mostly working after-hours, did six scale models on the down-low, as there was no guarantee -- indeed, it was doubtful -- that a new Viper would be green-lighted. By June 2010, with Chrysler barely off life support, Gilles presented the Viper to Fiat/Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne and his management team. In the Chrysler design dome, Marchionne walked over to a Viper foam model, ran his hands along it, and declared it to be the most beautiful car he'd ever seen. "Ten minutes later," says Gilles, "the program was approved."
The 2013 SRT Viper you see here is not an all-new car, although from what we've seen so far, it is a remarkable on-the-cheap remake. The Viper is virtually identical to its predecessor in length, width, and height, but its front track is one inch wider. The windshield carries over, but all other windows and body panels are new. The 8.4-liter V-10 returns, sending about 640 hp and 600 lb-ft of torque through a reworked six-speed manual gearbox. The V-10 boasts new forged pistons and a new aluminum flywheel, and it's spanned by a striking aluminum crossbrace that Gilles has nicknamed "Spidey." All body panels are made of aluminum, plastic composite, or carbon fiber, and Gilles promises that "every scoop, duct, and gill is functional."
The new Viper's big catchword is "refinement." The old car had virtually no soundproofing, whereas this one has sixteen pounds of insulating materials. The cabin, thankfully, bears no resemblance to the cut-rate, kit-car environment of the previous Viper and features an 8.4-inch center-stack touch screen and a 7.0-inch cluster screen in front of the driver that will display track telemetry and other information. The Fiat alliance paved the way for lightweight, elegant, and supportive seats from Sabelt, the same supplier that Ferrari uses. The luxurious GTS model pictured here is aimed at snaring Porsche and Lamborghini owners who in the past rightly dismissed the Viper as being too crude.
Whether the SRT Viper (it no longer gets a Dodge badge) will be able to capture buyers who usually turn to Europe for their sports cars is an open question. What's not up for debate is that the new Viper is going into production late this year at a reworked factory in the heart of Detroit and it looks spectacular inside and out. And it's a minor miracle that it even exists.
What: All-American V-10 muscle, still made in Detroit.
When: Early 2013.
Wow: Unmistakably a Viper, but now with elegance and, gasp, refinement.
Speculation Meter: You Can Bank On It

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