Factory shutdowns, supply disruptions, nervous buyers — all are making this the most fraught year in the auto business since the Great Depression.
Still, the sun will come up tomorrow. While a great contraction still awaits an industry filled with excess capacity and soon-to-be-outdated technology, 2021 models are in the pipeline. Think of them of rays of hope, a promise that perhaps someday things will return to some form of normality that we might all agree exists.
They also represent an industry in transition.
The next two years will bring dozens of electric models. The number of hybrids continue to grow, even though the smart money seems to see hybrids as a bridge technology. Blending internal combustion systems with electric puts the complexities of both under the same hood.
At General Motors, for example, CEO Mary Barra is investing her capital reserves and best and engineering and design talents developing electric vehicles. The stunning Cadillac Lyriq is just around the corner, but so are electric pickups.
GM got a head start on the world two decades ago when Bob Lutz began the process of developing an electric car, the Volt.
It wasn’t a commercial or financial success. It wasn’t supposed to be. GM engineers began to figure out how to build such a creature and along the way the company acquired a file cabinet full of patents. That was one reason why GM and Honda last week essentially got engaged, signing a joint operating agreement that will allow GM to access Honda’s ability to build cars and Honda to access GM’s ability to build electric vehicles.
At the same time, GM acquired a substantial stake in electric truck startup Nikola Motors.
The why behind all this is quite simple: Electric vehicles are far less complex to build. They ride on what many describe as a skateboard, a chassis that has rows of battery packs in the middle and electric motors at either the front, rear, or both. No engine with 2,000 moving parts, no transmission, no drive shaft, no cooling system, no exhaust system with expensive catalytic converters.
Are electric motors reliable? Ever seen a ceiling fan?
In the meantime, manufacturers from Tesla to GM are making huge strides to both reduce the price and extend the range and lifespans of electric batteries. Consortia of auto and energy corporations are quickly building out charging systems.
Once economies of scale are reached, electrics will take over simply because they are more efficient. They will be cheaper to build, cheaper to buy, much cheaper to operate and last many times longer. Internal combustion engines will become the modern version of the buggy whip.
Oh, yeah, they’ll be good for the air. Gas engines get about 30 percent of the energy they burn. The rest is wasted in heat and exhaust. Electrics get about 90 percent of the energy they use, and that energy is created buy far more efficient sources.
To be sure, the technology of internal combustion engines continues to improve. It should also be noted that the last buggy whip makers to shutter were the best in the business.
Here is a quick, though hardly comprehensive, look at what’s in the works for 2021.
If you can’t choose between a compact RAV4 or the midsize Highlander, Toyota now offers the Goldilocks solution, the Venza.
Reviving the name of a Camry-based SUV it sold from 2008 to 2015, Toyota is bringing back the Venza as an upscale compact SUV for people looking for a “graceful life.”
Riding on the same wheelbase as the RAV4, the Venza is an upscale vehicle that is offered only as a hybrid that achieves an estimated 39 mpg.
It is filled with premium materials and extensive technology, including four USB ports. Available are goodies like a birds-eye external camera view, a digital rearview mirror and what Toyota calls a StarGaze panoramic roof. Occupants can switch between clear and clouded glass.
Prices: $32,740 – $39,800
For South Korean automaker Kia, it’s out with the refined Optima and in with the K5, built in in West Point, Ga.
The all-new midsize sedan is longer, wider and lower than the model it replaces. The base engine is a 180-hp four. The GT trim comes with a 290-hp turbo-four.
The K5 offers an upscale cabin with either an 8- or 10.25-inch touch-screen infotainment system. AWD is available.
Price range: $23,490 to $30,490
Ram 1500 TRX
Who cares about fuel economy? Let’s go race Baja!
Taking dead aim at Ford’s acclaimed Raptor, Ram is rolling out the 702-hp TRX, complete with a suspension built not just for off-road, but whoop-dee-doo flying, dust-cloud making, high-speed, off-road racing.
It sits two inches higher than a regular Ram 1500 pickup and can ford up to 32 inches of water. Shocks, springs, sway bars, transmission, air cooler, air filter — everything is plus sized. Yet, the TRX still sits on Ram’s multi-link, coil spring suspension, giving it a nice ride, even in mid-air.
Prices will start run $70,000 – $90,000
With half-a-million Leafs on the road worldwide, Nissan knows a thing or two about building electric cars.
In late 2021, Nissan will show off its electric expertise with a compact crossover, the Ariya, which will start at $40,000. Thanks to the flat floors afforded by battery architecture, the five-passenger CSUV will have a roomy and, Nissan says, “lounge-like” cabin.
The Ariya will feature Nissan’s Pro PilotAssist semi-automated driving technology, allowing hands-off driving in certain situations.
Polestar, jointly owned by Volvo and its deep-pocketed Chinese owner Geely, takes direct aim at the Tesla Model 3 with the Polestar 2, starting at $59,900.
The Polestar 2 uses electric motors front and rear and shoots from 0 to 60 in less than 4.7 seconds. It has an EPA-estimated range of 275 miles.
With Scandinavian minimalist interiors, the Polestar 2 cabin offers luxury and simplicity. A large touchscreen controls most vehicle functions and eliminates switches and buttons.
Tesla’s first model was the Roadster, which was essentially a Lotus Elite converted to an electric car.
For 2021, Tesla is introducing a new Roadster, engineered from the ground up to be a high-performance, open-top, two-seater starting at $200,000.
Tesla says the new Roadster will hit 60 mph in less than two seconds and have a top speed of 250 mph.
Elon Musk first revealed the concept in 2017 and later promised it would be available in 2020. When it will be available remains an open question. Regardless, Tesla will accept your $50,000 to reserve a model.
For 2020, Hyundai dramatically redesigned the Sonata, its popular midsize sedan. Now it is applying the same “sensuous sportiness” motif to the compact Elantra, which sells in the $19,000 to $25,000 range.
The 2021 Elantra is longer, lower and wider and for the first time will offer a hybrid powertrain capable of exceeding 50 mpg.
Available will be phone-as-key technology. Leave the keys at home and unlock and start the car with your phone.
A nice suite of driver-assist technology is standard, including Automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist, automatic high-beam headlights, and driver attention monitoring.
For nearly 20 years, Lexus has worked to command market share in the entry-level luxury sport sedan, a niche once dominated by BMW and Mercedes.
The Lexus IS has long been a value leader in the segment, even if it lacked the exhilarant driving dynamics of Bavarian-bred competitors. No more.
Early reviews indicate the 2021 IS, in showrooms soon, will climb any mountain as well as quickly and smoothly, or more so, than a BMW 3 or 4 series sedan.
In just the last two years, Toyota and Lexus engineers have developed a remarkable balance between luxury ride and sporting drive. The IS, which will be priced between the mid-$30,000s to mid-$40,000, is the latest model to be redesigned using Toyota’s global architecture.
Packed with the latest in driver-assistance and safety technologies, the IS will come with three engine choices.
Mercedes will roll out the seventh generation of its flagship sedan sometime in 2021. The current model sells for anywhere from $94,250 to $235,600.
The base engine is a mild-hybrid V6 that puts out 429 hp. There’s also a 500-hp, twin-turbo V8 with a mild hybrid. A plug-in hybrid I6 is on the board. AMG models will see twin-turbo V8s and Maybach models will get the Merc V12.
Large screens will replace much of the switchgear and the S-Class will be the first car to offer rear-seat air bags mounted in the backs of the front seats.
Electric-car startup is almost ready to bring three models to market with prices ranging from “below $80,000” to more than $170,000, before $7,500 tax credits.
Using the same battery packs as Formula E racers, Lucid models expect to attain ranges of greater than 500 miles. Plugged into a fast-charge unit, they can recharge enough to go another 300 miles in about 20 minutes.
The company says its Air Dream model generates 1,080 hp, goes from 0 to 60 mph in 2.5 seconds and runs the quarter-mile in 9.9 seconds, hitting 144 mph.
Don’t forget to unplug it first before trying that.