These are traumatic times for the U.S. auto industry. As of this writing, trade publication Automotive News is estimating that total U.S. sales of cars and light trucks fell 1.8%, to 16.2 million in 2007. Some on Wall Street expect sales to drop 3.7%, to 15.6 million in 2008.
So when it came time to choose which cars I liked driving best in 2007, there was somber background music playing in my mind. It wasn't an easy task. I reviewed some 50 cars and trucks and test-drove many more. How to choose the best ones?
Obviously, any way of doing it would be subjective. And the vagaries of who got to test-drive which models during the year meant that colleagues tried out some of my favorite vehicles. For instance, I didn't review any Porsches in 2007, and there certainly would be a Porsche on my list had I reviewed one. Ditto for any Chevrolet Corvette—I didn't test-drive any of them in '07 either. A colleague got to review the new BMW 3 Series retractable hardtop convertible. It, or any of the new 3 Series models, would have made my list had I test-driven them in 2007; I love them all.
I ended up picking the best vehicles in various categories—best new family sedan, best roadster, best new pickup truck, etc. My list reflects some trends in the industry, and defies others.
A Greener List Next Year
For instance, if I do the same list next year, I would expect it to include more hybrids and high-mileage economy cars. Car sales are rising while truck, van, and SUV sales plunge, because buyers are putting a premium on fuel economy. The new energy bill Congress just passed mandating high fuel economy won't have much immediate effect. But one hopes it will have a psychological effect on both Detroit carmakers and consumers.
Despite gasoline price jitters, crossover vehicles, which don't get especially good mileage, are very hot. There are so many good new models out that I included two of them.
Half the vehicles on my list are made by Detroit companies, if you count Ford-controlled Mazda as a Detroit company. Three are from General Motors (GM) and one each from Mazda and Chrysler. In addition, there are three from German companies and only two from Japanese companies.
The Toyota Factor
To my surprise, there isn't a single Toyota (TM) on the list. I drove some nice Toyotas, including the Lexus LS460 and the new Tundra pickup truck and Highlander SUV. But one advantage of a yearend list is that you have time to reflect a little and think about which models linger in your memory. Well-built as Toyotas are, they often aren't exciting or memorable.
That's what I mean when I say some of my choices defy the trends. Toyota is the juggernaut of the auto business, and it's giving Detroit fits. For the first time ever, the combined market share of General Motors, Ford (F), and Chrysler fell below 50% at times during 2007, including during the month of November. The Detroit companies will finish the year with about 51% of the market, but they remain overly exposed to gas guzzling SUVs (down 24.6% in November, according to Automotive News), pickup trucks (down 10.4% in November), and vans (down 8.1%). Crossover vehicles are hot but not hot enough to make up for plunging sales of other light trucks.
The Toyota brand's market share, meanwhile, topped Chevy's during some months—another first—and Toyota is projecting increased sales next year. Chevy remained a few tenths of a percent ahead of Toyota for all of 2007, with around 14% of the market, but how long can that last? Then again, mighty Toyota has been suffering quality problems on models such as the new Tundra pickup truck. Consumer Reports even removed the six-cylinder engine version of the Toyota Camry—the nation's top-selling car—from its recommended list. Could Toyota be riding for a fall? I doubt it.
Watch Out for GM
GM is the Detroit company to watch next year. Like Ford and Chrysler, GM has a new, cost-cutting labor agreement and is benefiting from the plunging dollar. But has anyone else noticed that GM posted record European sales in 2007? In 2008, all that should help insulate the company's bottom line from falling light truck sales, at least a little.
GM is also churning out many wonderful new models, including the Cadillac CTS, the Buick Enclave, the Saturn Aura, the new Chevy Malibu, and the Chevey Silverado pickup truck.
If you're curious about which ones made the list, click here to see our favorite test drives of 2007.