A look at what's in store for the world's automakers this year will tell a lot about what to expect for cars down the road.
Every car sale tells a story — multiple ones in many cases — but some sales are more important than others. For key models, they provide important indicators about brand strength, segment popularity, technology trends, and a host of other issues. Here are some current and future models whose sales bear watching most closely.
1. 2013 Honda Accord
Competition is always ferocious in the mid-size segment, but the stakes are higher for Honda because the Accord accounts for a big chunk of its U.S. sales. Praise for the 2013 Accord has been high (it is shortlisted for North American Car of the Year honors) but unfocused. The question is whether Accord’s reputation for all-around competence will enable it to outshine cars that are known for reliability (Toyota Camry), fuel efficiency (Nissan Altima), or flair (Ford Fusion).
2. 2013 Lincoln MKZ
Ford F is making a big advertising and marketing push to lift Lincoln into premium brand status. More new Lincolns are coming to market, but as the first, the MKZ will most influence perceptions about whether the effort has the makings of a success. One of Ford’s first challenges will be avoiding the recalls that have plagued its recent launches.
3. 2014 Buick Encore
Buick’s spacious backseats may be the industry standard in China, but in the U.S., its cars are getting smaller. First came the compact Verano sedan, based on the Chevy Cruze. Now comes the Encore (2013 pictured above), a tiny crossover just inches longer than a Mini Cooper. Using smaller cars to attract younger buyers is key to Buick’s survival, but previous efforts (Skyhawk anyone?) haven’t been encouraging. Early reports suggest the chunky Encore needs to power up and slim down.
4. 2013 Tesla Model S
Entrepreneur Elon Musk has garnered thousands of reservations and a Motor Trend Car-of-the-Year award for his all-electric Tesla Model S. Now he just has to build them. A production shutdown due to supplier problems has put his 2012 goal of 5,000 cars in jeopardy. But Musk says Tesla TSLA can assemble 20,000 cars in 2013. If they all sell, the Model S will qualify for more car of the year awards, and Musk will be hailed as a 21st century combination of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.
5. 2014 Mercedes S-class
Benz’s new flagship car is said to be the first ever able to drive itself. According to the website MotorAuthority, a feature called Steering Assist, working with cruise control, can take over the wheel during highway driving. An array of sensors and computer algorithms monitor traffic and road markings to keep the car on course. Besides moving the S-class closer to fully autonomous transportation (2013 model pictured above), the new technology could give lagging Mercedes sales a much-needed jolt.
6. 2014 Jaguar F-type
Mind-blowing technology or even blistering performance isn’t the point with Jaguar’s new roadster. It’s all about harkening back to the romance and pleasure associated with Jaguar sports cars from a half-century ago. As the ultimate halo car, the F-type will be watched closely to see if it’s got enough glow to light up the Jaguar brand.
7. 2014 Acura RLX
Acura is another upscale brand that needs a fire lit under it, and if the flagship RLX can’t do it, then a rethink will be in order. As in past years, the RLX will be a technological showcase: A rare hybrid with all wheel drive, it will have three electric motors and two LCD screens. But questions about its curb appeal persist.
8. 2014 Chevrolet Silverado
Nothing lines the pockets of General Motors’ GM shareholders like the Silverado, but despite the unveiling of the 2014 revamp months ahead of its actual launch, anticipation for the new pickup has been strangely quiet. With the economy growing and housing starts picking up, Silverado sales are in no danger of slipping. Still, Chrysler’s Ram is providing stronger-than-usual competition, and Ford’s redo of the F-150 is just a year away.
9. 2013 Nissan Leaf
After relentlessly beating the drum for electric cars, Nissan took a hard fall ilast year when Leaf sales leveled off (2012 model pictured above), and the one-time technological marvel became the poster boy for the environmental revolution that never arrived. Analysts will be fly-specking Leaf’s performance again in 2013 to see if its time has come, or if it is a car for the future — and always will be.
10. 2014 BMW i3
If the Leaf is the eat-your-lettuce version of the battery-powered car, then the i3 is like a filet mignon. Built of lightweight carbon fiber and designed with engaging originality (and the likely premium price to boot), the i3 also benefits from wearing the BMW propeller on its hood. The combination of appearance and ancestry should enable it to recharge interest in electric cars. At least for high-end buyers.
11. 2015 Cadillac Escalade
For all the attention focused on the ATS, CTS, and XTS, it is the Escalade that really sparked Cadillac’s revival in the 00’s, and it still gushes profits like an oil well. With this fourth-generation model (2013 pictured above), the trick will be maintaining the luxury SUV’s over-the-top image without devolving into self-parody. Too much bling could turn off celebrity owners like Mark Wahlberg and David Beckham.
12. 2014 Toyota RAV-4
A pioneer among compact crossovers, the RAV-4 has lagged as more manufacturers enter this fast-growing segment. The RAV gets a dramatic face-lift for its fourth generation (2013 model pictured above), and its performance should provide more evidence that the product-led renaissance led by Akio Toyoda is paying off.
13. Ford E-series
The E-series van (formerly Econoline) never seems to need a facelift. Ford has been making the same design for 21 years, booking fat profits by avoiding regular updates. That all goes away when production stops at year’s end. The automaker is replacing its homely van with an all-new version of the Transit, which Ford has been selling outside North America. But there will be no substitute for its beautiful margins on the operating statement.