Five Thoughts about the Auto Industry for April 22, 2011

The New York auto show has given everyone plenty to talk about this week, with a number of interesting new vehicle introductions and plenty of speculation to fuel conversation about the future of several brands and their models.  Let’s take a quick look at five auto industry stories that caught my eye over the past seven days.

1 – Scion FR-S Steals the Toyota FT-86’s Thunder

Scion pulled the wraps off of the FR-S (Front-engine, Rear-wheel drive, Sports coupe) this week in New York, and the compact two-door is an absolutely stunning entry into the affordable performance coupe segment.  The FR-S borrows its platform from the Toyota FT-86, which means it will feature both naturally-aspirated and turbocharged boxer four-cylinder engines developed by Subaru.  More importantly, the FR-S avoids the somewhat confused styling of the FT-86, which has so far seen two concept models fail to make a significant impression in terms of looks.

It is looking more and more like Toyota will save the FT-86 for the global market and tap the Scion FR-S as its compact sports car champion for American drivers.  Set to debut in 2012, this move could go a long way towards re-energizing Scion, which has until now relied more on styling, pricing and quirkiness than a truly engaging driving experience when attracting young car shoppers.

2 – Subaru Brings Out Next-Generation Subaru Impreza

The 2012 Subaru Impreza is in many ways an improvement on the model it replaces.  Most importantly for Subaru, the 2.0-liter engine that replaces the 2010 edition’s 2.5-liter, four-cylinder unit gets fuel mileage that is 30 percent better (27-mpg city, 36-mpg highway), allowing it to finally match front-wheel drive competitors in terms of efficiency without sacrificing the all-wheel drive traction that has become one of the Impreza’s primary selling points.

As I wrote in my column at Autotropolis, however, there was a price to pay for more miles per gallon, and that was in the power department.  The upcoming Impreza gives up more than twenty ponies to the larger engine found in the departing model, which means that despite steps taken by Subaru to reduce the Impreza’s weight,  the compact’s already docile performance won’t be any better for 2012.

3 – Volvo Denies Saab Bid

Saab’s fairy-tale rise from the ashes of GM’s neglect thanks to the intervention of Dutch supercar builder Spyker hasn’t quite gone according to plan.  Although the all-new Saab 9-5 has been reasonably well received, financial problems behind the scenes have the car company scrambling to secure enough funding to maintain operations.  On top of that uncertainty comes a report that Geely, the Chinese owners of Sweden’s other famous automotive export – Volvo – could be interested in solidifying its Scandinavian holdings by adding Saab to its portfolio.  Volvo has denied any interest in absorbing Saab.

4 – Toyota Declares Six Months Before Production Returns to Normal

Toyota has been issuing statement after statement regarding the progress it has been making in trying to right the listing ship that is its automotive production capability after last month’s devastating earthquake in Japan.  The most recent prognosis from Akio Toyoda, the president of the world’s largest car company, sees Toyota restoring first Japanese operations and then ramping up American production over the course of the next six months.

Toyota hopes to be back building cars at 100 percent capacity by November of this year.  Currently, the company is operating at half that figure in Japan, and at only 30 percent capacity in the U.S.

5 – A Diesel Mazda and a Four-Cylinder Taurus

What is the single most pressing issue facing car companies today?  If you said “fuel economy,” you are right.  It’s not just the rising price of fuel that has automakers doing whatever they can to slash the consumption of their vehicles, but also the more restrictive fuel mileage regulations that are lurking just over the horizon in important markets like the United States.

These pressures are bringing some very interesting new developments to market, such as the Mazda SkyActiv family of engines and transmissions that promise to deliver 40 miles per gallon in the upcoming Mazda3.  Mazda has let it be known that it will also be offering a diesel edition of its SkyActiv technology in the next few years in order to improve fuel economy even further.

In the same vein, Ford will be adding a four-cylinder EcoBoost drivetrain to the options list associated with the full-size Ford Taurus.  The new motor comes as part of a refresh of the only two-year old Taurus platform, and Ford expects 31-mpg on the highway out of the turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder EcoBoost engine.

The most promising aspect of each of these new and efficient engine choices is that neither relies on battery-assisted hybrid technology, helping to keep costs down for new car buyers.

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