While a lot of factors could prevent global auto sales from rebounding to past levels in the near-term future, a lack of innovative new products won't be among them. Automakers from around the world are making 2010 a great year for both new vehicles and new ways to improve current ones.
Infiniti to Launch Diesel SUVs in Europe
Nissan's luxury division '” Infiniti '” has long used its focus on performance to differentiate itself from its key rivals, Lexus and Acura. This approach is especially noticeable on the Infiniti M, which is ready to play in the same performance sandbox as the BMW 5 Series. And it might just be the 5 Series that gets sand kicked in its grille, courtesy of two new engines for the 2011 M.
The Infiniti sedan will start with a V-6 that makes 330 hp and 270 lb-ft of torque (up 27 hp and 8 lb-ft over its 2010 V-6) and offer a V-8 that delivers 420 hp and 417 lb-ft of torque (increases of 95 hp and 81 lb-ft). Notably, both engines also deliver significant mpg bumps '” for example, highway mileage is up 4 mpg with the V-8.
But the aggressive positioning even trickles down to the luxury crossover segments, where the Infiniti EX and Infiniti FX show the long-hooded proportions of a classic sports car like the Jaguar E Type.
Now, the idea of a diesel sports car is still a new one in the U.S., but European customers are much more comfortable with the concept, particularly because diesels also offer better fuel efficiency than their gasoline-powered counterparts. All of which helps explain why Infiniti has recently announced plans to offer an all-new V-6 turbo-diesel in each of the three vehicles for the European market. Per the company, the engine will make about 235 hp and a very diesel-ish 405 lb-ft of torque.
There's no word yet on when/if the diesel variants will come to the U.S., but remember that a number of OEMs are now offering up-level oil burners here, ranging from sport sedans like the aforementioned 5 Series to SUVs such as the Audi Q7 and Volkswagen Touareg. If the domestic market for diesels gets a bit closer to the tipping point, Infiniti will be pointed in the right direction to cash in on new opportunities.
VW Takes Aim at MINI
As I might have mentioned once or twice before, I really like the idea of the MINI Countryman, the (very) small crossover set to go on sale here later this year. My thinking is that for some U.S. customers, it's style, not size, that keeps them out of cars this small, and the rugged, SUV-influenced look of the Countryman '” and whatever amount of actual AWD capabilities it offers '” will make up for the fact that it's smaller than the Honda Fit.
Well, it looks like Volkswagen might be trying the same route with the VW Polo. Slated to soon come to the U.S., the Polo is another important vehicle in VW's plan to triple its U.S. sales. The car is essentially a smaller version of the VW Golf and is targeted at cars like the Fit, Nissan Versa and new Ford Fiesta.
The big difference, though, is that VW also has developed a crossover-ish version of the car '” called the CrossPolo '” that will launch at the Geneva Motor Show and go on sale in Europe starting in May. With the "regular" Polo already confirmed for America, the CrossPolo would seem a natural extension of the lineup, and for the same reasons I mentioned in regards to the Countryman.
The Suzuki SX4 has become something of a cult fave using similar positioning, and the GMC Granite concept '” which debuted earlier this year in Detroit '” became a surprise hit by leveraging truck-ish design cues on a subcompact platform. Add in those new entries from VW and MINI, and it's obvious consumers should look forward to some big changes in the small-car segments.
Ford High Performance: RS or SVT?
Here in the U.S., the Ford F-150 Raptor SVT is a major hit, with orders already outdistancing the Blue Oval's original expectations '” and this with just one engine option available. Once the truck '” essentially a street-legal off-road racer '” is available with Ford's new 6.2-V-8 this spring, interest is expected to surge even further, as will the vehicle's performance numbers.
Over in Europe, the Ford Focus RS is among the hottest of the hot hatches, with its latest/greatest model being a limited-edition World Rally Champion version that holsters a 305-hp turbocharged five-cylinder engine. Like the Raptor, the WRC car is based on a hi-po off-roader, in this case Ford's WRC competition racer, and it's also part of the company's celebration of 40 years of Focus RS production.
They're two very different vehicles, representing two very different approaches to performance for Ford, and with the products aimed at two very different markets, you might not see a problem here '” except for the fact that Ford is pushing to integrate its global business throughout the company.
Well, it turns out that FoMoCo is going to work the same kind of magic with its high-performance development groups as it is with the rest of its manufacturing and design processes, by "aligning" the operations of its U.S.-based SVT group and European RS team under one umbrella, and throwing its Australian FPV squad into the mix as well.
Ford execs aren't talking about exactly which initials will adorn the next generation of the company's performance products, but I know what their customers will be wearing: Exceedingly large grins.