10 To Watch These are the 2004 standard-bearers; if they succeed, Detroit gets back on the road. Based on research, interviews, and more than a little intuition, FORTUNE's Alex Taylor III rates the ten on how well they are likely to perform.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – [1 car] Flopperoo [2 cars] Shoulda, woulda, coulda [3 cars] Keeps the factory open [4 cars] Makes the dealers happy [5 cars] Sells without incentives
BUICK LACROSSE [2 1/2 cars] The first all-new Buick in seven years, the LaCrosse replaces both the Regal and the Century at the bottom of the lineup and offers traditional luxury at a more affordable price, starting at around $23,000 for the V-6 model. Older buyers like Buick, and they should love the front-wheel-drive LaCrosse. As for the rest of us, we're all aging too, but will a car like this make us feel older than we really are?
CHEVY COBALT [2 cars] This is the car GM has designated to replace the Cavalier and go up against the Honda Civic, the Toyota Corolla, and the VW Jetta. Tough assignment. Based on looks alone, rent-a-car companies would be the biggest customers for the Cobalt, but its global Delta platform should enable it to drive better than it looks. Expect it to typically sell for about $16,000. Chevy has lots of ground to make up in this segment, so the Cobalt faces a rocky road.
CHEVY EQUINOX [3 cars] Arriving late to the crossover wars, Chevy puts a steel body on the Saturn VUE, adds a V-6, and sends it out to 4,100 Chevy dealers, with prices starting at $21,560. Special feature: The rear seat slides eight inches forward and back, so Mom can keep Junior and his car seat in close range. Chevy hopes to sell more than 100,000 annually. Crossovers are the next big thing, but this one may look wimpy next to those like-a-rock Chevy trucks.
CHRYSLER 300C [2 1/2 cars] Answering a question nobody asked, Chrysler revives the big, boxy American sedan with rear-wheel drive. It's worth a second glance: The 300C has loads of interior space, looks better moving than standing still, and is priced to sell, starting at $23,595. Exactly who it will appeal to is something of a mystery, so industry experts will be watching closely. But all those Chrysler New Yorker owners from the 1970s will be standing in line.
DODGE MAGNUM [2 cars] Dodge dealers have been screaming since Chrysler decided to replace the front-drive Intrepid four-door with this oversized rear-drive sport wagon--the first from a U.S. automaker. The Magnum looks cool and goes fast (zero to 60 in 6.3 seconds for the V-8), and prices start at an enticing $22,495. It would work perfectly as a California hot rod but may struggle to reach the larger audience Chrysler needs. Expect to see a sedan version soon.
FORD FIVE HUNDRED [4 cars] The traditional American sedan just got better. Replacing the Taurus, Ford raised the roof five inches for greater space and the driver's seat four inches for better visibility, then added all-wheel drive for improved traction. Starting at $23,000, the Five Hundred should give the Europeans a fight. Despite all that engineering, Ford forgot to include one important feature: excitement.
FORD FREESTYLE [3 cars] Based on Volvo XC90 engineering, the Freestyle carries seven passengers in moderate comfort. Continuously variable transmission, which shifts seamlessly from low to high speeds, will attract the tech savvy, and a base price of $26,000 puts it in reach of the middle class. Ford execs like to point out how much roomier the Freestyle is than a Chrysler Pacifica, but real competition may come from the more ruggedly styled Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot.
FORD MUSTANG [5 cars] The venerable Mustang is in its 41st year but still going strong. Ford has reworked it again, creating a modern chassis and engine and wrapping them in the best design features from the 1960s. Wimps can get a V-6 for under $20,000; the hairy-chested will opt for a pavement-ripping V-8, starting at $25,000. Now that GM's Camaro and Firebird muscle cars have been retired, Mustang can roll up rich profits all by itself.
JEEP WRANGLER UNLIMITED [5 cars] Ever seen a Wrangler that wasn't filled with teenagers? Now that the off-road icon has been stretched by 15 inches, the kids have more room for beach blankets, coolers, and a giant sound system. The $25,000 Unlimited also works great for 50-year-olds who like to party without leaving their families behind. Companies like Procter & Gamble pioneered this kind of brand extension years ago, and it's time Detroit caught on.
PONTIAC G6 [4 cars] Having survived a midlife crisis, Pontiac is shucking its boy-racer image and producing more grown-up designs. Perhaps they are so sophisticated nobody will notice them. The G6 is better in every way--new engines, modern mechanicals, slicker looks--than the Grand Am it replaces. But will buyers who defected to Asian brands after seeing Fast and Furious come back to Detroit? GM expects to sell more than 160,000 a year at $22,000 and up.