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All eyes on the road ahead for the auto industry

So that's it – 2011 is done and 2012 looms.

What's ahead for the year in cars? A lot. But first, a few quick highlights of 2011:

-It was a year during which Honda and Toyota struggled, really struggled, for the first time in decades;

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- Ford remained the No. 1 car company by sales in Canada and, in the big picture, announced the return of the company dividend;

-Chrysler posted a jump in sales that no one could have predicted, driven largely by upgraded products and enticing deals, and at least for now has become the dominant partner in the alliance with Italy's Fiat;

-BMW and Mercedes-Benz duked it out to the end for the title of King of Luxury Car Sales in Canada and Audi and BMW are in a worldwide battle royal;

-Hyundai established itself as a world-class player in the car game, period, with hugely successful models such as the reinvented Elantra and Accent small cars;

-General Motors has a pile of cash and renewed mojo, but sales in Canada were disappointing on too many fronts;

-Volkswagen had a record year in Canada thanks to the success of its brilliant diesel lineup, the down-market Jetta compact whose success baffles know-it-all car critics, and the reinvented Passat mid-size car designed and built specifically for North Americans;

-Real electric cars, production models including the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt came to market in Canada, but remain low-volume, niche products that depend on taxpayer subsidies to drive sales;

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-New-vehicle sales in Canada were up, slightly, though rich sales sweeteners were needed to keep showrooms busy and moving the metal;

-And new, interesting opportunities began to emerge for a handful of car companies, Hyundai's alliance partner, Kia, perhaps first among them.

The year ahead? A few highlights:

-Nissan Canada is aiming to jump-start sales – and raise market share to 8.0 per cent in Canada from about 5.5 now – with a raft of new models and an emphasis on innovative technologies.

-Honda vows to upgrade the critically-panned Civic and retain the crown of best-selling car in Canada, while launching a new CR-V compact crossover. And Honda's Acura brand is, essentially, being relaunched with a new small car, a new RDX, a replacement for the moribund RL, perhaps the return of the NSX as a high-performance hybrid and a new customer service initiative;

-Toyota has a raft of product launches ahead, from plug-in Prius hybrids to entry-level hybrids, to a new sports car – but most important of all will be new products for the company's Lexus luxury brand, including the new GS;

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-General Motors' Cadillac luxury brand will also start getting new products, badly needed ones;

-At Ford, well, the Lincoln brand does okay in Canada, though heavily discounted, but in the big picture Lincoln will start getting the new models and technologies and styling it has needed for two decades – or risk disappearing entirely;

-Audi, the "other" German luxury brand selling in high volume, will now need to prove its sales gains in Canada are sustainable, and do so with a new Audi Canada president on board;

-Chrysler will start a product renewal in 2012 that will determine whether the gains of 2011 were short-lived and incentive-driven, or real and sustainable;

-Speaking of sustainable, Kia and Hyundai had amazing years in 2011, now both will be looking to consolidate and retain those gains – both in terms of raw sales and as far as image-building goes, too;

-And the rich sales incentives that have really driven light truck sales, pickups in particular, are surely going to come down to earth this year, right?


Of course, everything that happens in cars for 2012 will be influenced, no shaped, by the big macroeconomic story. Will it be a horror show? Europe looks like a basket case right now, with the Germans in full denial over the cost they are facing to pay for the benefits of a cheap Euro versus an expensive Deutschmark; and the southern European countries will keep struggling to fund their debt and deficits. Oh, and fortress Britain seems bent on reverting to island-state status.

Europe is a big car producer, with Germany particularly dependent on vehicle exports despite what the Green Party might think and say. If Europe's economy completely tanks, the implications for its auto industry could be staggering. We'll see.

Meanwhile, China, the engine of the auto industry and the world's biggest car market, is slowing and there are signs of a real estate bubble about to burst. Now if China's car market tanks – no car company wants to contemplate such a scenario. The year in cars for 2012 may very well turn on what happens in the United States and perhaps even Canada, though to a far smaller extent.

The big picture in cars looks muddled, then. But the day-to-day is all about details and here, brand-by-brand, are the new models we're expecting in 2012:

Acura: The most exciting news of all has to do with the NSX concept super car that will be unveiled in January at the Detroit auto show. The car is stunning – low-slung, dangerous looking but not over-the-top-edgy and fast. Also coming this spring is a new compact sedan called the ILX, along with a redesigned RDX small crossover. Then in the spring of 2013 a redesigned TL will be joined by a reinvented MDX large crossover. Look for Acura to kill the ZDX large crossover, a stunning sales disaster. It's a big year ahead for Acura.

Alfa Romeo: Alfa is coming back to North America, but in 2013. Hold on for one more year.

Aston Martin: Is a redesign of the DB9 on the way? Stay tuned.

Audi: Looks as though the A4/S4 will be freshened in 2012, as will the A5/S5. The S7 and S8 will likely have their debugs and the S6 is expected to be redesigned. We're hoping for a Q5 diesel, but a Q5 hybrid is more likely.

BMW: The all-new 3-Series is just around the corner and this car matters more than anything else to the Bavarian auto maker. The 7-Series and the X6 should also be freshened in 2012.

Buick: A new model, the Encore, is expected in 2012, along with reskinned versions of the LaCrosse and Enclave.

Cadillac: The biggest news is the debut of the XTS sedan. Looks gorgeous. The ATS smaller car is also coming, and a reskin of the SRX.

Chevrolet: The Spark mini-car is due in 2012, along with a new Malibu and a reskinned Equinox.

Dodge: We've seen teaser photos and heard some details about the upcoming Alfa Romeo-based 2013 Dodge Dart due to be launched at the Detroit show in days. The four-door sedan is said to have class-leading aerodynamics. It is the first Chrysler vehicle based on Fiat architecture – adapted from the Alfa Giulietta. Rumour has it the Viper will return at some point, though it will surely come as part of the SRT performance brand.

Fiat: The high-performance 500 Abarth is coming and it looks like a zinger. An electric version of the 500 might also surprise us.

Ford: The Escape crossover will be all-new in 2012 and that's a massively important development for Ford. The Taurus also gets restyled and the Fusion is expected to be redesigned. Also look for a Focus electric car, and the Focus ST is likely. A C-Max hybrid minivan is coming, too.

GMC: A new model called the Granite is coming, and the Acadia is due to be reskinned.

Honda: By the end of 2012, the Civic should have been given a major facelift to fix the problems that among other things led Consumer Reports not to put this compact on its recommended list. The new CR-V crossover, built in Canada, arrives in big volumes. And then an all-new Honda Accord is coming in 2012, too.

Hyundai: Could there be an Elantra coupe in the works? We think so. A Veloster turbo should also be coming, along with a freshening of the Genesis Coupe and a new Elantra Touring. We can expect the Santa Fe to be redesigned and a Hyundai plug-in hybrid is a strong possibility.

Infiniti: Nissan's luxury brand is getting the new JX crossover in the spring. It's a large wagon aimed at the likes of the MDX and Audi Q7. There is talk of a new small Infiniti coming perhaps later in the year or as a 2014 model. The G will likely be re-engineered and the QX56 freshened.

Jaguar: We are getting plenty of hints about a new Jag sports car and it just might come as something to compete against the Porsche Boxster, though less expensive and prettier. A wagon version of the XF is set to be shown in March at the Geneva auto show.

Kia: We can expect to see a new sedan called the Cadenza in 2012, along with a redesign of the Forte and Rio. The Sportage may be freshened, too.

Lexus: Toyota's premium offerings will get reinvented for the 2013 model year, starting in 2012, of course. The new GS will be first, arriving in the spring. Then look for the IS and ES lines to get reinvented, too.

Lincoln: The big Navigator is due to be restyled, and there is talk of a new Lincoln small crossover. Also, the MKZ and MKS are due for to be reinvented.

Mercedes-Benz: A lot is about to happen here. The GL will get a redesign, as will the SL, and perhaps even the S-Class. A new B-Class is coming and there is talk of the A-Class coming to North America, too. The E-Class will be refreshed and the CL redesigned.

Mini: BMW's "youth" brand gets a roadster and coupe in 2012. The Clubman will be restyled and there is talk of something called the Paceman coming in 2012.

Nissan: A huge year ahead. The Versa hatchback is coming in 2012, along with the freshening of the GT-R and the 370Z. Over the course of 2012 and perhaps into 2013, look for all-new versions of these core models: Altima, Sentra, Rogue and Pathfinder. A small utility vehicle called the NV200 can be expected in the next 18 months, too, along with new styling for the Frontier pickup and engineering upgrades to the Murano crossover.

Porsche: The new 911 comes in 2012 and we can also look for a Boxster redesign and a freshening to the Panamera.

Scion: Toyota's "youth" brand will welcome a sports car to the fold, the FR-S, which is a joint project with Subaru. The xD is also likely to be redesigned.

Smart: It seems only natural for Smart to launch an electric vehicle and it's coming. Now that's a city car.

Toyota: Hybrids. Toyota is emphasizing hybrids in 2012. The Prius C is coming and should be priced in the very low $20,000s. A plug-in Prius is coming, also. Then the Avalon is likely to get a redesign, the RAV4 re-engineered to some extent, the Highlander will surely be redesigned, the Tacoma restyled and we may even see a RAV4 electric vehicle go on sale.

Volkswagen: Look for a Beetle turbo-diesel, and perhaps a Beetle convertible this year. The Golf R is coming for sure, and a Jetta hybrid could be coming.

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About the Author
Senior writer, Globe Drive

In 25 years of covering the auto industry, Jeremy Cato has won more than two-dozen awards, including three times being named automotive journalist of the year. Jeremy was born in Montreal and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. More

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