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the year ahead

Yes, of course, I like high-horsepower rockets with slick styling and flat high-speed cornering.

Yet, after 25 years of covering the auto industry and its products, I am also primed to drive cars (and light trucks) that have something other than 500 horsepower, low-profile rubber and downforce-generating wings on the back. There is a place for the 2012 Nissan GT-R, which delivers all the above. But there is a bigger place in the car business for vehicles like the Fiat 500 and Ford Focus.

In fact, I am expecting a burst of creativity from car companies in 2011. The horrible and painful recession of 2008-2009 is largely behind the industry. Pent-up creativity is about to come fact-to-face with pent-up demand. Auto makers from Seoul to Tokyo, from Detroit to Stuttgart, from Munich to the British Midlands, are back in growth mode. Sales of new vehicles around the world will grow substantially this year. The trick for car makers is to pull in buyers by offering something they haven't already seen.

While buyers are expected to return to showrooms in strong numbers this year, they'll be picky, too. Today's buyer is demanding and patient - a potentially lethal combination for an auto industry grounded in appealing to the emotional impulses of consumers. When the product is good, new-car shoppers are willing to pay something close to full price and that means profits for car makers. But mediocre vehicles move only with deep discounts.

Believe me, the auto industry collectively wants to get out of the discounting game in a big way, therefore it will need to entice consumers with appealing vehicles that sell on their own merits, not because they're being delivered with money in the trunk, the glove compartment and under the cushions in the back seat.

I've just compiled a list of 22 new models I expect to drive in 2011, each of which promises something new and interesting. These vehicles should sell on their merits, not on $5,000 rebates.

I expect each of these to light up dealer showrooms based on styling, technology and performance. By performance, I'm not necessarily pointing to vroom-vroom. No, performance in 2011 also means fuel efficiency from the powertrain and simplicity from the seemingly never-ending array of gizmos and gadgets in new vehicles.

Here, then, is my list of the new rides I'm anxious to drive in 2011, along with my reasons for high anticipation. They appear in no particular order because without wheel time, it's impossible to rank any list of rides.

These highly-anticipated new models are designed to impress, withimproved styling, technology and performance