Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Big questions for the auto industry in 2013

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What will 2013 bring to car lovers, automakers and shoppers? Here are some of the questions on my screen as the year begins:

Can Chrysler engineers and designers develop a great off-road-capable Jeep Liberty replacement based on a Fiat vehicle architecture?

They'd better, or Chrysler-Fiat's bold promises to expand Jeep's model line and boost global sales will prove as empty as Daimler's vow that the Compass and Patriot would herald a golden age for Jeep.

Beyond off-road ability, questions facing the Liberty replacement include whether its styling will be retro or modern, and what Jeep will call it. Will it deserve the revered Cherokee name?

Is this the year plug-in hybrids take off?

They cost more than regular hybrids, but the ability to go extended distances on battery power before the gasoline engines take over is very appealing.

At the low end, the Toyota Prius and Honda Accord plug-ins offer 18 to 21 kilometres of EPA-rated battery range. Ford's Fusion Energi and C-Max Energi plug-ins aim for 32 to 35 kilometres of electric driving, while the Cadillac ELR should deliver 56 to 61 kilometres.

What's the perfect balance between vehicle cost and battery range?

Can Ford rehabilitate its MyFordTouch and Sync controls, or will they damage the brand's reputation further?

Ford's controls enchant some owners, but they've devastated the brand's quality and reliability ratings from J.D. Power and Consumer Reports. With no big vehicle introductions imminent, this would be a good time for Ford to change the narrative by de-bugging or deleting the systems' most controversial aspects.

At what point does being true to your convictions cease to be a virtue and turn into pigheadedness?

Are Honda's upgrades enough to save the Civic?

The critical response to the latest version of Honda's most important car was brutal, bad enough that the former benchmark compact got an emergency update for 2013. Honda improved the interior materials, added some standard equipment and tweaked the exterior styling just a year after the new Civic went on sale.

The disappointing Civic lent credence to voices saying the automaker had lost its edge. It's hard to regain momentum when your most important car has stalled.

Is it too late for the new Civic to make a first impression?

Will people buy BMW's electric cars?

BMW's audacious "i" brand of plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles hits the road with the battery-powered i3 later this year and the i8 plug-in in 2014. The i3 concept has the look of a sporty compact crossover, with rear-wheel drive and a 170-horsepower motor. The i8 hews closer to the classic BMW formula: It's long, low and lovely. Its electric motor and gasoline engine produce 354 horsepower. Details such as price and performance for the production models are TBD.

Will the ultimate driving machine be electrifying?

Can Mercedes-Benz regain relevance?

Mercedes has slipped a long way from the pinnacle of luxury it occupied for a century. None of its current models come up when the conversation turns to the most advanced, opulent, stylish or exciting vehicles.

Mercedes needs to stake a claim for the mantel of luxury leadership or risk losing it forever. The all-new S-class flagship and Merc's new family of A-class compacts coming in 2013 will tell the tale.

Do the new Chevy and GMC pickups have the technology and fuel economy to compete with Ford and Ram?

We've seen the 2013 Silverado and Sierra, but GM's mum on key competitive criteria including fuel economy and towing capacity.

Ford and Ram have splurged on turbocharging and eight-speed transmissions to give their full-size pickups bragging points. Will GM be able to claim leadership on any front, or did the company's brief bankruptcy delay the arrival of pickups with head-turning power or efficiency?

Will Toyota ever replace the Corolla?

Finally, the answer is yes. The current Corolla is by far the oldest compact on the market, but it remains amazingly popular and highly fuel-efficient. The new version, likely to look like the Furia concept coming to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January, should be a major step forward.

Whether Toyota has a small crossover up its sleeve to replace the Matrix remains an open question, though. Could Toyota miss out on the coming boom of small crossovers?

-- Detroit Free Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2013 F5

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