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2012 Nissan Versa sedan. (Mike Ditz/Nissan)
2012 Nissan Versa sedan. (Mike Ditz/Nissan)

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Small cars stand tall in the Big Apple Add to ...

A Caribana-worthy parade of small cars was unveiled at the New York auto show this week, although many shared their global debut with similarly timed events at the Shanghai motor show.

Most of the cars are scheduled to be on sale in North America by this summer or fall, and there are certainly some surprises here.

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Perhaps most surprising is the 2012 Nissan Versa sedan, which will arrive this summer without an equivalent hatchback model, at least to start - the current hatch will continue to be sold alongside the new sedan, until the hatch's replacement arrives later.

The 2012 model will be more fuel-efficient than the current Versa, averaging 6.1 litres/100 km, or right up there at or above the best-in-subcompact-class.

That gain in fuel economy will mean a decrease in power, however; while the current model's 122 hp makes it the powerhouse of the segment, the 2012 model will generate 109 hp, though the latest Versa is sure to be lighter as well. It will also be smaller and more compact inside and out, with only the trunk seeing an increase in space, thanks to greater rear overhang.

Nobody was expecting a "race" version of the all-electric Nissan Leaf either, although that's what the Leaf Nismo RC intends to be. Using the same 80 kW motor as the production EV, it generates a decidedly quiet 107 hp. Still, with rear-wheel drive, mid-ship mounted batteries and a carbon-fibre body stripped of its rear seat, two rear doors and most convenience items, weight is pared down enough to allow for a 0-100 km/h sprint time of 6.85 seconds, Nissan says.

Another global debut this week was the unveiling of the next generation '12 Volkswagen Beetle, its imminent status previewed by an Oprah giveaway early this year, its look updated but still undoubtedly a Beetle.

This latest "21st-century" Beetle has dropped the "New Beetle" moniker. It's less cutesy than the current one, so don't expect the slim, single-flower vase to continue. Arriving in Canada this fall, the less bubbly, more beefy Beetle will at first offer only VW's outdated 170-hp, five-cylinder engine, but will follow that up in a few months with a 200-hp turbo-four.

Another surprising NYC debut is the Mercedes-Benz Concept A-Class, because Benz's U.S. arm still doesn't sell the B-Class that Canadians receive, much less the smaller A-Class. Benz has said, however, that the next-generation B-Class will head to the U.S. (likely next year), and the firm is making noise about the concept previewing "a new compact class era at Mercedes-Benz," so perhaps there is some North American potential for a hatchback based on this small stunner.

The Concept A offers a 210 hp turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline engine, a dual clutch transmission and a radar-based collision warning system, all impressive technology for the class usually sized and priced below subcompacts, though the front-wheel drive A-Class will most certainly come in at a higher price than your average Ford Fiesta when it bows in 2012.

Kia unveiled the sedan version of its new Rio in New York - the hatchback version debuted in Geneva in March and confirmed that a powerful-for-the-class, 138-hp engine will be paired with start/stop technology. The stylish, subcompact sedan will compete with a new breed of fashion-conscious B-segment runabouts, including the Versa, Fiesta and corporate sibling Hyundai Accent.

Perhaps the most fanciful small car to debut on the show floor of New York is the Fiat 500 Cabrio, a new drop-top version of the tiny 500 hatchback. Fiat ran into some delays on its way to North America, after leaving more than 27 years ago, but the Cinquecento that Chrysler promised for late last year finally arrived in March to tempt prospective Mini and Smart owners. The new 500c will feature a unique power-operated cloth roof that leaves the B- and C-pillars in place when the roof slides back to unveil the sunshine.

Chevrolet unveils global 2013 Malibu

An all-new 2013 Chevrolet Malibu was unveiled in New York, Oshawa and in Shanghai this week, wearing Camaro-like rear taillights and a much-swoopier overall design to help it compete with the newly redesigned Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima.

Ten airbags, a backup camera, a lane-departure warning system and a flip-up radio face that covers a lit storage compartment will all be available on GM's volume mid-size sedan. Adding to its high-tech appeal are aerodynamic and therefore fuel-efficiency-enhancing active shutters, which close off air intakes behind and under the grille when the car no longer needs cooling, which makes for smoother airflow; they open automatically when engine sensors detect extra load on the engine or in hot weather at city speeds.

The new Malibu will also feature a new 2.5-litre, four-cylinder engine to put out 190 hp, the only engine shown with the car, to be paired up with a six-speed automatic. Is the V-6 engine option on its way to endangered species status in large family sedans, as the South Koreans have already done? We'll have a good hint in early 2012, when the 2013 Malibu is set to go on sale in North America.

Super-car wars still on

Don't let all those fuel-efficient and green cars coming to market make you think that ultimate performance cars were absent from New York - in a city with this much money, there's never a lack of toys for speed lovers.

A high-performance North American version of Maserati's four-seat coupe was unveiled; called the GranTurismo MC, its 444-hp V-8 and 4.8-second, 0-96 km/h time making it the fastest Maserati available on this continent. Unlike the European GranTurismo MC Stradale, our MC retains its two rear seats, but keeps the same aggressive bodywork, with twin exhaust pipes mounted towards the centre of the car.

Although not quite a rival to the luxurious Maserati, Dodge also confirmed recently that its Viper is set to return to market in late 2012, and for the first time will offer stability control to help corral those rumoured 600-700 horses going to its rear wheels.

New motorcycle book

If Ted Laturnus's chilling account last week of a motorcycle ride gone horribly wrong because of an inattentive, left-turning "cager" hasn't turned you off the notion of life on two wheels, or high gas prices have you looking at other commuting options, an informative book just landed on my desk that aims to help those pondering life as a motorcyclist.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Motorcycles from Jason Stein, Motorcyclist magazine's contributing editor, is a new fifth edition for 2011 that updates the colour "New Bike Buyers' Guide" section, and adds new sections on electric bikes and three-wheelers.

The brief mention of the three-wheeled BRP Can-Am Spyder is about the only Canadian content you'll find in the book, but it's still a very useful resource, even for long-time motorcyclists.

Its separate new- and used-bike buyers' guides are split into recommended bikes for new, intermediate and experienced riders, meaning they sometimes differ from what's been recommended in Motorcyclist magazine, which assumes a certain level of experience. It may also be useful that many of the recommendations for the used bikes go back to 1980s-era machinery.

But the general tips on what to look for when buying a new or used bike are useful to riders of any level of experience, including basic maintenance how-to's, luggage packing tips and, importantly, detailed tips on riding safely.

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