2011's shaping up to be a pretty good year for cars, even if the economy's still got a hangover. Here's a look at what's on deck.

And here's to hoping we can afford to buy some of 'em!

Compacts/economy cars

* 2011 Chevy Cruze (base price $16,275) -

Chevy hopes the Cruze will have the Right Stuff to meet segment leaders like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla on equal terms - unlike previous efforts such as the so-so Cobalt (and the downright awful Cavalier).

The Cruze is all-new "premium" compact economy sedan equipped with standout features like 10 (count 'em) air bags, including a driver's knee air bag as well as front seat and rear seat side-impact bags, a six-speed manual transmission, air conditioning and 40 mpg highway fuel economy potential - if you choose the ECO version. It comes with low rolling resistance tires and a 1.4 liter turbocharged engine designed for maximum economy with acceptable on-demand acceleration (0-60 in about 9.2 seconds).

The only obvious downsides to this car are its fairly high $16k-ish base price - expensive for the segment - and the fact that at least for now, the Cruze is only available in sedan form while many of its competitors are also available as coupes or hatchback wagons.

But given the features you get (such as standard rear seat side-impact air bags, which aren't even available as extra cost options in the competition) the price may well be worth paying.

* 2011 Honda CR-Z (base price, $19,200)

Can hybrids be fun as well as fuel-efficient? That's the question Honda hopes it can answer with the new CR-Z coupe.

The compact two-seater has a drivetrain that's similar to the late '90s-era Insight hybrid, but it's set up to do more than just get really good gas mileage, as the Insight was.

A slightly larger, significantly stronger 1.5 liter gas engine (vs. 1.3 in the old Insight) supplemented by an electric motor/battery pack together produce 125 hp. A six-speed manual transmission is available, too. The CR-Z's six-speed manual transmission is a rare, sporty feature to find in a hybrid - almost all of which come with a CVT automatic as the only available transmission.

Official stats weren't available at the time of this report, but Honda claims the CR-Z will be capable of 40 mpgs on the highway and close to that in city-type driving, too (where its electric-assist drivetrain is most efficient).
This isn't as impressive as the old Insight's 60-ish mpg, but the CR-Z is much more fun to drive and even has a reasonably sized trunk/cargo area (25 cubic feet) which is a vast improvement over the Insight's 16 cubic foot trunk capacity.

The only potential downside is the two-seater layout, which will probably limit the CR-Z to being a single-person's car, a commuter car - or a second car.

* 2011 Mazda2 (base price $13,980) -

With money tight and people (rightly) freaked out that gas prices could shoot back up to $3 per gallon (or more) at almost any time, it's likely we'll soon be seeing more and more European-style, value-priced subcompacts like the new Mazda2 on American roads.

The 2 weighs just 2,300 pounds and is only about twelve feet long, nose to tail. To get a sense of that, compare the 2 to the "compact" sized Toyota Corolla, which weighs almost 2,800 pounds and is nearly two feet longer overall (178.7 inches vs. 155.5 for the Mazda).

But though it's small outside, the 2 still manages to be reasonably roomy inside - with five-person capacity and more front seat head and legroom (39.1 inches and 42.1 inches, respectively) than a physically larger (on the outside, at least) compact sedan like the Corolla (38.8 inches and 41.7 inches). Back seat legroom is tighter in the 2, but still serviceable for carrying most average-sized adults - and the car's trunk space (28 cubic feet) is more than twice as much as the best-selling Corolla's 12.3 cubic foot trunk.

The one downside to the flyweight, Mini Me-sized Mazda 2 may be that it'll feel a bit outclassed on American highways - where the slipstream of passing semis may require a firm grip on the wheel.

* 2011 Ford Fiesta (base price $13,320) -

Anyone over 40 today knows what economy cars used to be like yesterday. But while the new Fiesta is inexpensive, it's far from being low-rent. Build quality (fit and finish, materials used, overall sense of put-togetherness) is better than the best mid-priced cars of the Bad Old Days. And equipment that wasn't even available on high-end cars back then - such as a capless fuel filler system, electric-assist power steering, push-button ignition, dual-clutch six-speed automatic, voice-activated "Sync" connectivity for audio and communication - is either standard in the '11 Fiesta or available optionally. You can even get seat heaters in this thing - another unusual feature to find in this price range.

Another plus is the Fiesta's two available bodystyles - sedan and five-door hatchback wagon. Ford says it'll get 40 miles-per-gallon on the highway, too.

The only fly in the pie is that GPS isn't available. However, Ford may have decided to skip this feature because aftermarket units are becoming more popular than factory-installed systems. They're also less expensive, not hard-wired to that specific car and can be swapped out for a newer,more up-to-date model much more easily.

* 2011 Scion iQ (base price $14,215) -

The two-seat Smart Car apparently wasn't so smart, mainly because it barely had room for two people and was just too rickety-feeling to take out on the highway. Scion's new iQ has room for four, which may just be smart enough to make this pint-sized urban commuter-car work.

Just ten feet long, the iQ could be the ideal city transport module. It'll fit into motorcycle-sized parking spots and tuck into tight alleys and other places no other car - even a "compact" - could hope to negotiate. The Smart Car could do all that, too - but it barely had enough room inside for the driver and one passenger, which gave it about the same practicality as a motorcycle.

The iQ may not be a family hauler, but with a pair of rear seats, you can carry more than one passenger - or groceries.

The iQ doesn't arrive at dealerships until late 2010, so performance/mileage figures weren't officially available at the time of this writing. But Toyota is talking high 30s in city driving, so highway mileage ought to be well into the mid 40s.

II Family cars

* 2011 Suzuki Kizashi Sport (base price $18,999)

The Kizashi is a brand-new model for Suzuki and the automaker's first serious attempt to compete head-on against established players in the mid-priced, family sedan segment such as the Nissan Altima, Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, VW Jetta/Passat and so on.

It comes standard with a high level of luxury and convenience features, including push-button start/keyless ignition, projector beam headlights, a premium stereo with USB port and nine speakers and dual zone climate control - for less than $19k, sticker. Equipped with the optional driver-selectable all-wheel-drive system that can be toggled from 2WD to AWD by pushing a button (which saves you fuel and wear and tear by letting you turn off the AWD when you don't need it) it's still just over $21k.

Not many competitors can touch that.

Suzuki also offers reassuringly long-lived 100,000 mile powertrain warranty coverage.

The only obvious potential downsides are the lack of an optional V-6 engine and the "generic brand" status of Suzuki, at least when it comes to cars (Suzuki is well-established as a premium motorcycle brand but hasn't yet become a major player on four wheels).

Still, the wealth of features at such a lowball price - especially the neat 2WD/AWD system - make the Kizashi a pretty appealing prospect, even if Suzuki hasn't yet got the Blue Blood bona fides of Honda or Toyota.

* 2011 Hyundai Sonata (base price $19,195)

As recently as five years ago, a car like the '11 Sonata would not even have been conceivable. As a Hyundai, anyhow.

This all-new mid-sized sedan looks as slick as George Clooney in a tux. Its standard 198-hp four-cylinder engine (200 hp with the optional dual exhaust) puts out close-to-V-6 power, too.

This car's chief virtue, though, is its limousine-like cabin. Check out the Sonata's astounding 45.5 inches of front seat legroom and compare it to the Camry's 41.7 inches and Malibu's 42.2 inches.

That is a big difference.

But there's a downside. That living-large front seat roominess comes at the expense of backseat passengers. There's noticeably less rear seat legroom in the Sonata (34.6 inches) than in either the Malibu (37.6 inches) or the Camry (38.3 inches). Hyundai is banking on most customers worrying more about the room up front than out back. And the room in back is still in line with the competition - and adequate for all but the largest (and tallest) adults.

The car's nearly 17 cubic foot trunk is among the largest in the segment, too.

* 2011 Buick Regal (base price $26,245)

The '11 Regal is a new model for Buick, though not for GM. The same basic car is sold in Europe under the Opel banner as the Insignia. It's about the same size as a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord but (according to Buick) is aimed more at slightly smaller, more athletic (and higher-priced) near-luxury sedans like the Lexus IS250 and Acura TSX.

It has a larger trunk than the Camry or Accord and delivers excellent gas mileage (30-plus on the highway) courtesy of a 2.4 liter, 182 hp engine with direct fuel injection. A six-speed automatic is standard equipment but later in the model year, Buick will offer an optional six-speed manual transmission - which will make the '11 Regal the first stick-shift Buick in decades.

A 220 hp turbocharged 2 liter engine - also with direct fuel injection - is optional.

Overall, this is (by far) the most engaging-to-drive Regal since the '80s-era rear-wheel-drive muscle coupes that also bore the Regal name. It comes standard with 18 inch rims and performance tires, not 15s with whitewalls and pop-off wire wheel covers. The steering actually seems connected to the road - and the suspension will hold the line if you lean on it hard in a corner.

It's sportier than a Camry for about the same money - and it's a bargain compared to the Lexus IS250 ($32,145) and Acura TSX ($29,310).

* 2011 Chevy Malibu (base price $21,975)

The Malibu has been an American family car favorite for decades, even as the underlying chassis has evolved from rear-wheel-drive ('70s and '80s) to the current front-wheel-drive layout.

While some things have changed, much remains familiar - most notably the Malibu's easygoing nature. Even the V-6 version, which is among the quickest cars in this segment (0-60 in the mid 6 second range) has a relaxed, big car feel to it.

One reason for this is the Malibu's relatively long wheelbase (112.3 inches), which is nearly as long as the $50,000 Mercedes E-Class (113.1 inches) and significantly longer than the 107.4 inch wheelbase of the Ford Fusion, the Malibu's main domestic-brand competition.

Big cars feel "big" - planted and solid - in part because they have longer wheelbases than stubbier cars. The Malibu has that appealing big car highway car ride esteemed by several generations of Malibu buyers. Its looks, meanwhile, are red state conservative - and very American. It is a squared-off, masculine lug of a car.

Many traditional car buyers want exactly that - and the '11 Malibu delivers.

* 2011 Kia Cadenza (base price $26,195)

Kia is becoming the new Hyundai as parent company Hyundai (seller of V-8 powered, rear-wheel-drive luxury rollers like the $55k Equus sedan) rapidly becomes the new Lexus.

The Cadenza is an all-new mid-large front-wheel-drive sedan intended to undercut competitors like the Toyota Avalon (and Buick LaCrosse) on price while matching or surpassing them on features and equipment. It is a larger car than the model it replaces - the Amanti - and also larger than its primary target, the $27,945 Avalon, with more wheelbase (112 inches vs. 111 inches for the Toyota) and more head and legroom inside for passengers.

Buyers can choose either a 162 hp four-cylinder or 286 hp V-6, the latter outgunning the Avalon's 276 hp, 3.5 liter V-6. Six-speed automatics will be teamed with both engines. The Cadenza will also offer high-end audio, communications and safety equipment comparable to what you'd expect to find in cars priced well over $30k.

The Cadenza will arrive at dealerships later this fall.

See here http://www.ericpetersautos.com/forum...ad.php?t=15480 for Part II.