What a difference a year makes. In the beginning of 2009, potential new products generally fell into two different groups: Those being canceled and those being delayed. Today, it's obvious ye olde product pipeline is once again up and running for just about all of the OEMs '” even Toyota.
In what might be considered a diversionary tactic, the company decided to release an image of the 2011 Toyota RAV4 ahead of its debut at the upcoming Geneva Motor Show. The vehicle is one of Toyota's most important, as it's the automaker's entry in the highly competitive, continually growing, midsize crossover segment.
The current RAV4 was among last year's top 20 bestsellers, but so were competitors like the Ford Escape and Honda CRV, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that another rival, the Chevrolet Equinox, will be on that list this year. And then there's the South Korean entries: The new Kia Sorento is benefiting greatly from its redesign, as is the refreshed Hyundai Santa Fe; going one size smaller, but still likely to steal sales from the RAV4, the Hyundai Tucson is selling as fast as the factory can make them. Once the new Kia Sportage hits dealers later this year, you can expect that vehicle to do the same.
As for the RAV4, December was a particularly strong month, with the vehicle notching an impressive 16,742 sales; unfortunately, that number was more than cut in half in January, when the RAV4 became part of the Toyota Recallathon.
In other words, the RAV4 definitely faces some challenges in the marketplace, but the 2011 facelift should help. The last big redesign for the Toyota came about five years ago, and its appearance has not aged well: The RAV4's bland exterior is the epitome of Toyota at its least imaginative. That's especially problematic now, when automakers are putting a new emphasis on aggressive design.
So it's no surprise that the first images of the '11 model show a much more "truck-ish" vehicle, with more prominent wheel arches as well as a sculpted hood and front fascia. But the biggest improvement come from some subtle changes to the sheet metal along the crossover's sides, which are no longer so smooth and featureless that your eye slips right off them and onto other products.
Geneva will also mark the debut of the all-new Volvo S60, another vehicle that carries a heavy burden for its maker. In this case, although the S60 was designed while Volvo was still under the Ford banner, it will almost certainly come to market this summer as part of Geely. A few pesky details have to be wrapped up before Ford's sale of Volvo to the Chinese OEM is complete, but it's essentially fait accompli here.
We've been hearing that China will begin exporting cars to the U.S. for years, and, in a way, the S60 would finally get things started. In synch with this revolutionary occurrence, Volvo is also positioning the S60 as a revolutionary new kind of product. Per the automaker's press machine, the new sedan will be the most "dynamic" Volvo ever '” which, admittedly, may not be saying much.
On the other hand, it will offer Volvo's most powerful T6 engine ever, making 304 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque, which should translate into 0-60 times of less than 6.5 seconds. Significantly, the car also borrows some of Volvo's safety-oriented traction-control functionality for a unique system that improves cornering: When turning, the inside wheels can be used for braking while the outside wheels actually get increased power.
There's also no doubt the S60's exterior is an improvement, although it's not quite as groundbreaking as Volvo makes it out to be. In fact, the new front fascia really seems to weigh down the S60's front end, although I know styling is subjective. And needless to say, the rest of the car gets the full load of Volvo's high-tech safety toys, including a new system that can identify pedestrians in the vehicle's path and then automatically apply full braking power to the car if the driver isn't paying attention.
Now, the thing is, the S60 will be going up against cars like the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4. In the past, I might have said the Volvo had no chance against the Germans '” not because the S60 wouldn't match up well, but as a result of the difficulties involved in getting BMW/Audi intenders to even try something else. Which is where Geely could provide some big-time help. I'm thinking the automaker will be pulling out all of the proverbial stops when it comes to supporting its first entry in the U.S. market, and that should help pull in a nice chunk of additional customers.
Speaking of Swedish automakers with new corporate owners, it's also worth pointing out that the Saab deal is officially a "go." The first new product available for ordering? The Saab 9-3X.
The car is essentially a Saab 9-3 SportCombi with some added ground clearance and an eminently capable four-wheel-drive system, but it fits in a niche with plenty of room for growth. "SportCombi" is Saab's term for a station wagon, so what we're talking about here is a rugged AWD wagon that splits the small remaining difference between an actual car and a crossover. So, it's a bit like a Volvo XC60 or Subaru Outback.
Thanks to an increased interest in premium sport wagons like those from the Cadillac CTS and the 3 Series, station wagons in general are slowly creeping back onto the marketplace. Something like the 9-3X seems like an ideal next step and could help put Saab in an unusual position: At the top of customers' "most wanted" lists.