Two years after the domestic auto industry collapsed, Detroit is returning from the road to perdition. Government bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler obviously helped, but Detroit is also winning customers with must-have cars emphasizing style, fun, and even fuel economy. Here are 15 cars fueling Detroit's revival:
Ford Fiesta. (Starting price: $13,320.) Detroit neglected small cars for years, but has finally gotten religion. This chipper subcompact started as a hit in Europe, and Ford (NYSE:F) wisely brought the car to America this year. Crisp performance and a comfortable cabin will leave drivers feeling like they underpaid for a ride that gets average mileage in the mid-30s.
Chevrolet Cruze. (Starting price: $16,275.) Chevy has never offered a winning small car, a gaping hole in its lineup that the Cruze is meant to fill. Chevy has given the Cruze a touch more space than some competitors and a stylish interior typical of a more expensive sedan. Taut handling and a pair of punchy four-cylinder engines show that Chevy is paying attention to detail. An "Eco" model is tuned for average mileage in the mid-30s.
Ford Fusion. (Starting price: $19,695.) This pleasing sedan, introduced in 2006, proved that Ford can compete with the best mainstream offerings from Japan and Europe in the industry's most crowded segment. The conventional model feels smooth and luxurious for its price, and the hybrid, which starts at about $28,000, hits a sweet spot in terms of mileage, size, and cost.
Cadillac CTS. (Starting price: $35,165.) This luxury sedan, which debuted in 2002, has become a franchise car for Cadillac. Consistent improvements have helped the CTS make Car & Driver's "10 best" list for three years running. And the aggressive, angular styling still looks fresh.
Buick LaCrosse. (Starting price: $26,495.) Executives at Buick complained for years that their products were underappreciated. The LaCrosse is the car that made believers out of skeptics. It's as plush and quiet as competitors from Lexus and Acura that cost thousands more, with ample space and an understated elegance that suits mainstream buyers.
Buick Regal. (Starting price: $26,245.) It's smaller and sportier than the LaCrosse, and just as convincing. Buick has revived the old Regal nameplate in its bid to produce a mid-sized sedan that can undercut competitors like the Acura TSX, Lexus IS, and Infiniti G37 on price—while matching them on appeal and performance. It comes close. If Buick can keep up the extra-base hits, it will rightly earn a place in GM's lineup that is still in doubt.
Ford Mustang. (Starting price: $22,145.) In the renewed battle of the muscle cars, the recently upgraded Mustang earns top points for handling and agility. The base model comes with a stirring V-6 that produces 312 horsepower and somehow delivers average mileage in the mid-20s. Two meatier versions offer a choice of V-8s with 412 or—gulp—550 horsepower.
Chevrolet Camaro. (Starting price: $22,680.) Even if you never drive one, be happy it's on the road: Its looks alone enliven any highway. And the Camaro is no vapid pretty boy. The base engine is 312-horsepower V-6 that, like the Mustang, gets average mileage in the mid-20s. An SS model offers 426 horsepower for a relatively reasonable $31,000 or so. And a rakish convertible is coming next spring.
Chevy Traverse. (Starting price: $29,224.) Parent company General Motors never built a competitive minivan, and it abandoned the segment altogether in the early 2000s. The Traverse and its sibling, the GMC Acadia, have made up for it. The vehicle has a comfortable car-like ride and looks like an SUV, yet has many minivan features, including room for seven. Families love the curb appeal and functionality.
Chevrolet Equinox. (Starting price: $22,745.) It's unremarkable, but that's just what GM needs: A comfortable crossover that does many things well, with no obvious flaws. The Equinox and its GMC sibling, the Terrain, offer a better combination of space and fuel economy than many competitors, with a bit more moxie than the Honda CR-V (NYSE:HMC) or Toyota RAV4 (NYSE:TM).
Jeep Grand Cherokee (Starting price: $30,215.) Unlike Ford's Explorer, Jeep is sticking with what it knows: unapologetic (if unnecessary) off-road capability. The brand-new version of the Grand Cherokee is even more upscale than before, with a Teutonic interior that puts it in competition with some luxury makes. Parent company Chrysler clearly hopes its bold gambit will please purists unimpressed by less manly crossovers.
Ford Explorer. (Starting price: About $28,000.) Ford is showing its progressive side by transforming this stalwart SUV from a rugged, truck-based off-roader into a smoother, car-based crossover. The new Explorer, arriving later this year, won't even have a V-8 option, just a four- and six-cylinder model. Top mileage will be close to 30 mpg, a big boost from the current mileage rating, which maxes out at 21 mpg.
Fiat 500. (Starting price: Unannounced, but probably about $16,000.) Will it fly? Chrysler's turnaround depends on imports from its new parent firm, Fiat, and the 500, coming early next year, will test Americans' appetite for bubbly little European runabouts. The first version to hit U.S. shores will be a sporty turbocharged model, with a convertible coming next spring. Chrysler hopes it can replicate BMW's success with the Mini Cooper.
Ford Focus (2012 model). (Starting price: Unannounced but probably around $18,000.) The current Focus dates to the bad old days when Ford wasn't paying much attention to compacts sold stateside. The brand-new 2012 model, due early next year, should be a stark improvement, with sporty handling, a quiet, upscale cabin and zippy performance, for the price.
Ford C-Max. (Starting price: Unannounced but probably around $20,000.) The closest thing to the C-Max on American roads is the quirky Mazda5, a "microvan" (or van-like wagon) that seats six in a tidy, maneuverable package powered by a thrifty four-cylinder engine. The tall, narrow C-Max has been a hit on Europe's smaller roads since 2005, and Ford is hoping that thrifty American shoppers will now flock to it.
[In pictures: See the 15 cars driving Detroit's comeback.]
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