Okay, take out your scorecards and get ready to grade me. It's the time of year when I look back on my predictions for 2012 and look ahead to 2013 with more previews and prognostications.
And what better place to start than with Canada's best-selling car for the last decade and a half – the Honda Civic. Last year at this time, I said Honda would upgrade its critically panned Civic in 2012 and, sure enough, just in time for the end of 2012 – as a 2013 model – we have a nicely upgraded Civic. A poor sport would ask, What took Honda so long? But none of that here. I mean, the Civic is only the most important car in Honda's entire global lineup, correct?
Now here's a sign that Honda has learned the lesson of not scrimping on core models: In a recent head-to-head test of mid-size sedans, Consumer Reports graded the four-cylinder Honda Accord higher than the Hyundai Sonata and Toyota Camry; the V-6 Accord is right up there challenging the Camry Hybrid and V-6 Camry for the top spot in Consumer Reports' ratings, too.
"Honda missed the mark with other redesigned models in recent years, but it nailed this one," said Jake Fisher, director, Consumer Reports Auto Test Center.
Bravo, Honda. Now for the coming year, Honda only has one major new model launch, the replacement for the Ridgeline pickup, notes Merrill Lynch and Automotive News. Let's see if Honda finds some magic there.
Meanwhile, Honda has plenty of work to do on its Acura luxury brand. A new TL sedan and a new MDX sport-utility are on the way, say several sources. Look for Honda to tone down the styling of both along the lines of what we've seen this year in the new RDX and ILX. Frankly, when it comes to Acura, I'm looking forward to 2015 when we see the new NSX super sports car.
Okay, to Nissan. Last year I noted that Nissan would aim to jump-start sales in 2012 – from about a 5.5 per cent market share (with Infiniti) to 8 per cent in Canada. New models and new innovative technologies would be the key.
This year, Nissan launched a brand new Altima mid-size car with brilliant fuel economy and all sorts of interesting technologies – from a fuel-saving transmission, to lightweight materials to a little "beep" that warns you about low tire pressure. At the end of this year, we've also seen a new Sentra compact and a new car-based Pathfinder.
The Pathfinder, starting at less than $30,000, will be a big hit in 2013. The 2013 Sentra is a vast improvement over the 2012 model, but with only one engine choice, no hatchback version and tame styling, this compact is in tough, competing against models sold in hatchback and sedan form, with powertrain choices and snazzier styling. The 2013 is a good car, but not a great one.
So my prediction for 2013: Nissan Canada's sales will go up in 2013. That's the good news. The bad news is that, through the first of December, Nissan brand sales in Canada are down 2.5 per cent in a market up overall by 6.5 per cent. Ah, but at least Infiniti sales are up 17 per cent on the year. Alas, even with that, Nissan/Infiniti combined account for about 5 per cent of the Canadian market. So my prediction for growth didn't happen.
Next, Toyota. What a story here. During 2012, Toyota Canada, as I expected, launched a raft of products, from plug-in Prius hybrids to entry-level hybrids, to a new sports car. But most important of all, I said new products for the company's Lexus luxury brand, including the new GS, ES and LS, would be telling.
What's that all mean? Toyota brand sales in Canada are up 21.7 per cent on the year, and Lexus sales are up 13.7 per cent. My expectation for 2013: Toyota's sales will jump even more in 2013.
Why? An all-new, made-in-Canada RAV4 is coming early in the new year and it's a massive improvement over the outgoing one which, by the way, is selling like gangbusters. Sales are up nearly 30 per cent on the year.
But it's not the RAV4 that will drive the bulk of Toyota's growth. No, it's another barrage of new models. In 2013, expect to see a new Corolla compact, a new Highlander SUV, a re-engineered Tundra pickup and a redesigned Sequoia large SUV. At Lexus, look for a new IS lineup and the debut of the CX. And at Toyota's "youth brand," Scion will have replacements for the xB compact box and the xD subcompact box.
With Toyota and Lexus's new models, I expect more of what we've seen in 2012. Toyota will stick with its conservative approach and win more quality awards. Lexus will refine that bizarre spindle grille on its next new models and throw in all sorts of fancy technology. Now, at Scion, the youth branding thing is going to go away quietly. Scions are as popular with pensioners as they are with Gen Y so why not give old baby boomers their due?
This brings us to my predictions last year for the Detroit auto makers. As I said, General Motors' Cadillac luxury brand has been getting new models, the most startling of them being the ATS sedan aimed squarely at the BMW 3-Series. I am not joking. The ATS is a superb automobile trapped inside a brand GM hasn't been able to market successfully in nearly two decades. The 2013 Caddy XTX is also very good, by the way.
GM has this year put in place a new leadership team, with GM's former top Washington lobbyist now in charge. That's a head-scratching move to say the least, but maybe it will work out well for Caddy. The head of product development at GM used to run the human resources department. Clearly anything is possible.
But I'm not optimistic. I predict a continuing muddle at Caddy for 2013, despite a really great emerging lineup of vehicles.
Speaking of future Caddies, in 2013 we're going to see a new ELR plug-in hybrid based on the smart Chevrolet Volt. The hulking Escalade SUV is also getting a redesign, but the most important new Cadillac coming in 2013 is the CTS. Caddy plans to take aim at BMW's 5-Series with it and if the ATS is any indication, the hardware will live up to advance billing.
Also at GM, in the coming 12-18 months, the U.S. Government will divest itself of its ownership take. That will rid GM of the hated "Government Motors" tag. Given that our Canadian Government generally – not always, but generally – takes its cues from Washington, I expect Ottawa and the Ontario government to dump their GM stake within 18 months, too.
I am hopeful that, with the Government Motors thing out of the way, GM will move with more urgency to fix its culture and, by doing so, improve its products and the speed at which they come to dealerships. This isn't just my view; CEO Dan Akerson has said as much in interviews and public statements.
We're going to know just how "fixed" and "new" GM is by the time these various governments have sold their shares. GM is embarking on a huge global product offensive. Over the next 12 to 18 months, Automotive News notes that GM will introduce redesigns of its biggest money makers, including the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups and its four big SUVs.
"We're very aware of how important this launch is," Akerson told the publication, referring to the pickups. "How well we execute is critically important."
Next year, GM will also launch the next Chevrolet Corvette, the redesigned Chevrolet Impala, the new Buick Encore and the next generation of GM's mid-sized pickups, the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon. As Akerson noted at the company's annual meeting this past summer, by the end of 2013, 70 per cent of GM's U.S. nameplates will be new or redesigned. Chevrolet alone is readying 13 new or redesigned models for launch next year.
If, by the end of 2013, GM is not more profitable while also increasing sales and market share, then taxpayers should start getting worried. In other words, I predict that 2013 is a make-or-break year for GM.
To Ford. Here we have a very profitable auto maker, where sales are increasing based on a "One Ford" global product plan. Sure, Ford's European business is a mess, but only Volkswagen is managing reasonably well on the Continent. Ford does have a plan to fix its European operation and I expect it to show dividends in 2013.
Ford's biggest challenge in 2013, though, isn't Europe. No, Ford needs to make Lincoln relevant again and that won't be easy. I just had a long sit-down with Ford's group vice-president for global marketing, Jim Farley, who is also heading up the Lincoln brand renaissance.
"This is the sort of thing I came to Ford to do," said the former Toyota executive who was personally recruited to Ford by CEO Alan Mulally.
Farley talked with passion and great earnestness to me about the new models coming to Lincoln, starting with the new MKZ that goes on sale in 2013. Lincoln is also upgrading everything imaginable about the so-called "customer experience" for Lincoln buyers. Within three years, Lincoln will have been completely reinvented from top to bottom, said Farley. The company has put in place the money and resources to do so.
I want to believe Farley because he is a smart, charming and passionate "car guy." So he gets 12 months. If by this time next year, the new Lincoln Motor Co. hasn't made big strides in sales and brand perception with consumers, then I predict some very tough words from me. Twelve months. Lincoln gets 12 months to prove that the promises are more than just rhetoric. I wish Farley and his crew good luck.
Meanwhile, Ford will fix a few other things. First among them, Ford needs to make its MyFord/MyLincoln Touch infotainment system bullet-proof and easy for consumers to use. I predict Ford will. Because if Ford doesn't, if Ford gets slammed again in 2013's various quality studies, the miracle turnaround will be forgotten and everyone will say Ford is back to its old ways.
Then we have Chrysler. I am impressed by the spunky attitude I encounter every time I meet with a Chrysler official, visit the company's headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., and even when I drive the new products.
"Guess which Detroit car company has repaid all its government money," says Chrysler Canada CEO Reid Bigland, who also runs sales in the U.S., oversees the Dodge Brand as CEO there and sits on the Fiat/Chrysler management board. Yes, that's at least four big jobs for Bigland.
The answer to that question is Chrysler. All the taxpayer money that went into saving Chrysler has been repaid. All of it. Every penny. Because Chrysler is so focused as a company, so driven by its "underdog" status and so necessary to the survival of its parent company, Italy's Fiat, I predict very good things for Chrysler in 2013.
The reinvented Ram pickup will continue as a sales winner and profit spinner – and will be bolstered by the arrival of heavy duty Rams, the 2500 and 3500. Automotive News also tells us we're going to see a new Hornet subcompact and that the Dodge Journey, Canada's best-selling crossover, will be redesigned. The Chrysler 200 will also get a remake, notes the publication.
We're also told a new Grand Wagoneer is coming, the Grand Cherokee will be re-engineered and the Liberty SUV will get redesigned. Look for large and small commercial vans to come from Chrysler, too – based on Fiat models and built in Mexico.
It all adds up to this: 2013 will be a monster year for Chrysler. Yes, I know that the Dart compact launched in 2012 has had a so-so reception overall, but be patient. Chrysler hasn't had a competitive compact car for decades; it takes time for consumers to catch on. But I think overall that Chrysler is onto something and in 2013 I expect big sales increases, at least a few awards and lots of profits.
EUROPEAN AUTO MAKERS
Finally, the Europeans. In 2013, Audi Canada will come close to catching BMW and Mercedes-Benz brand vehicles in terms of sales. Close, but no cigar, as they say. Audi is relentless, though, and I expect double-digit sales gains in Canada once again.
As for BMW and Mercedes, for Canadians what stands out most is the arrival of the new Mercedes-Benz B-Class. At a starting price less than $30,000, this small, five-door wagon will be a massive hit with Canadians. Massive. It will be the standout product in Canada from either of these two German juggernauts.
See you this time next year to review my soothsaying.