It won't be a business-as-usual model year for the U.S. auto market.
A stubbornly slow-to-recover economy. Lingering economic and social effects from last year's terrorist attacks and recent corporate scandals. Detroit's scanty passenger-car portfolio and an ongoing struggle for brand credibility. Looming repercussions from the industry's twin crutches of gigantic rebates and low-rate financing.
Pick one or all from this a la carte menu of explanations for why the '03 model year should be fascinating — and tense.
Although most forecasters and industry observers are optimistic about the strength of U.S. light-vehicle sales approaching 17 million units by year-end, the veneer may be losing its luster.
More investors and analysts have become critical of incentive-ballooned sales and their effect on industry profits. The industry responds that everything's fine.
If the '03 model year will be long on business intrigue, it also won't suffer for lack of product. By our count, there are as many as 30 all-new models, accompanied by a raft of significant redesigns or makeovers.
So, here are Ward's showroom forecasts, with a look at potential winners and losers:
Well, there aren't any more models to sell this year than there were last year. If you think the larder looks bare, you're not alone.
Hang on until next year, when the so-called new-product “explosion” begins - there's the all-new F-Series, the 500 sedan and the next-generation Mustang. Until then:
Diesel-up with the '03 Super Duty F-Series. When the new Power Stroke diesel is available in the first quarter, you should have customers foaming at the mouth to get their hands on the fantastically upgraded new 6L Power Stroke V-8.
SVT-compliant stores should do well with the smoking, 390-horsepower Cobra and the addition of a 5-door bodystyle for the SVT Focus.
Meanwhile, back off of the fading-fast Ranger and leave the Taurus for the rental-car lots.
Finally, some new product! Aviator looks like an easy sell, but let's restrain our enthusiasm until we're certain the Aviator can burn through the static coming from the scads of other SUVs coming to market. Pricing, we predict, will be crucial to non-incentive selling.
And there are some meaningful power and chassis upgrades to the LS line, which might briefly re-ignite some interest. Order early, but don't expect any heat to last. This car needs new sheet metal.
The Pontiac lot should be buzzing a bit more. The de-cladding of the '03 Grand Prix makes it look like an all-new car, and take all the Vibes you can handle. Too bad about the Firebird's retirement, though.
If you're dealing Hummer, then you're too busy writing orders to be reading. The all-new H2, last time we checked, was on fire, despite a healthy base price not far from 50 grand. Hope the good vibes keep Hummin' into next year, when the pickup-bed version comes.
For Chevy, the 50th anniversary of the Corvette is a meaningful event, and it would be wise to get all the ‘Vettes you can.
By now, you know the TrailBlazer EXT is money in the bank, and that the Camaro is retired. Be careful, too, about the midyear intro of the SSR, the hot-engined reincarnation of the El Camino. GM brass thinks it's the cat's pajamas. At a price north of $30,000, we're not as convinced.
Same goes for GMC and its experiment in reconfiguration gone mad, the Envoy XUV. Although some customers might buy into the idea of having multiple cargo-carrying options, will they pay $30,000-plus for the pleasure?
But the '03 front-end redo of the Sierra should bring'em running, and some nice upgrades to the Yukon line should have you gunning for all the units you can grab.
You have to be patient over at the Cadillac store — nothing's coming until early next year, all as '04 models. We like the looks of the SRX crossover, but the competition's as stiff as the SRX's projected price. We give a cautious “buy” on SRX inventory.
The XLR roadster should be the no-brainer of this early century, and the new 3.6L DOHC V-6 engine will make the CTS more competitive, too. Hopefully, you've ridden Escalade to the moon and back, but be careful, because buyers in this segment are fickle and may already be moving to the next 'ute of the month.
Hang on tight and hope that customers are ready to buy stations wagons. Because that's what the Pacifica is — albeit a darn nice one.
We believe the initial interest will be positive for Pacifica, and the sheet metal's certainly interesting.
But once the furor is over, be careful: Pacifica may be too ambitiously priced to stay strong. Plus, this 3-row wagon is testing uncharted waters: some think buyers are ready to move from minivans to tall-roof wagons, but others — including Bob Lutz, former Chrysler big shot, current GM big shot — are unconvinced. Do you want to bet against Lutz's gut?
The other big news is the Ram HD pickup line, coming to market with not one but two blazing new engines. Beg, borrow and steal every unit you can get — then open the Swiss bank account.
PT Cruiser GT: get ready for a new round of hungry buyers. At least for six months.
Dodge Viper: The scorching, all-new 500-hp Viper is already sold out, so your Dodge outlet just made the easiest money on the planet. So why don't they make more of these?
You've had your day in the sun, now hunker down for some lean times — the product pipeline is at a trickle.
There's a convertible to spruce up flagging New Beetle sales, but the huge question is at the other end of the price scale: the ambitious Phaeton is coming next year. Our advice: stock up on Passat and Jetta and wait to see if anybody even comes in asking for the pricey Phaeton, which really is just a fat Passat.
Ditto for the unfathomably named Touareg, the long-needed SUV that's also coming early next year. Yeah, whose VW store couldn't use an SUV? But did it have to come with this insufferable name and closing-in-on-40-grand price tag?
Meanwhile, the last thing the Audi lot needs is an all-new A8: you're probably still trying to move the '99 model, right?
At least the new A4 still is going strong, and there is the welcome prospect of the new Cabrio to build some showroom traffic.
Suddenly, the brand looks alive. Grab the CL Type S with the new 6-speed manual transmission; don't worry, the customers will come.
MDX still is king, but the new Honda-badged version is an option that may slightly stall sales. But so what, there never has been enough of 'em to go around, anyway.
Come on. This is cruise control. The transporter comes. You sell. Another transporter comes. You sell more. Your golden retriever could do it, so relax and enjoy the prospect of a new Z4 roadster (it's about time, the Z3 was way too old).
If you can't sell every G35 coupe the zone manager sends, you're in the wrong business. It'll be hot for a year, then, like all coupes, it will be a low-volume traffic-builder from there.
The G35 sedan remains one of this year's surest bets: great looks, great pricing and a growing reputation spell solid legs for the best single model to come from Japan in years. Your patience with the brand finally is paying dividends, eh?
Wish we could say the same for the homely M45, but this thing looks like the proverbial fish out of water. All-new, yet looks like an '80s leftover.
Our advice: If you must take some, use them for service loaners.
Your ship has come in, and its name is Pilot. This is Honda's first real stab at the midsize-SUV market, and it's an out-of-the-ballpark home run.
Plead for as many as possible. Heck, go to the factory and help make some extras. This is as close to a “cinch” as it gets.
Balancing Pilot is the all-new Element. The overt funk-factor means that if Pilot is a sure thing, Element is a roll of the dice. Some think it's ugly and won't sell, but a price less than CR-V won't hurt. Be cautious, but ready to pounce on extra inventory — Honda seldom misreads the market.
Get ready for some late nights. The Altima's still running hot and Xterra isn't exactly chopped liver, either.
But wait for Murano, the swoopy crossover SUV with a standard V-6 and the weird but wonderful CVT transmission. Optimism is best, despite our reservations about a possibly too-ambitious base price and the lack of optional three-row seating. But we'd still take the gamble — Murano looks great.
And how can you go wrong with all the Z-cars you can get? The all-new Z is a fabulous drive with a killer price. What's not to like?
Be careful, though, with Pathfinder and Maxima: both are long in the tooth and facing excellent new competition from Honda, Toyota and that pesky upstart, Kia.
We have one word for you, and it isn't “plastics.”
It's Sorento. Fine SUV. Finer price. Prepare to tidy up your Kia store, because traffic is definitely going to increase. Get every Sorento you can find on U.S. soil and enjoy your winter on some southern hemisphere beach.
It's a strangely quiet year, with only the advent of an all-new 4Runner — now offering V-8 power — to break up the monotony of clearing off your lot every month.
The XC90 crossover should be the answer to your prayers: a shapely, honest competitor to all those genuine upscale SUVs that have been stealing your customers.
Although we think pricing is a tad pushy as some high-line models hit the mid-$40,000s, XC90 should be an outright winner, and we predict tight supplies. Order now, order often, and don't take no for an answer.