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All eyes on the road ahead for the auto industry Add to ...

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;

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

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-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;

-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;

-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.

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