You know that 2012 is winding down when automakers begin releasing 2014 models (a timing mystery that's never been explained well). While manufacturers are itching to drive into the future, let's look back at this year's major themes to help understand where they're headed.
We're all winners
The intense battles in the midsize sedan and crossover markets demonstrate how good consumers have it. Where the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord were once the clear choices, there are now nine sedans worth test-driving.
They all have their strengths, and quality is high across the board. The only downside is trying to figure out which one to buy. No one can let up now, so expect more of the same next year.
One world, one car
Once upon a time, European- and Asian-market vehicles were quite different from American cars. This year marked a tipping point in bringing more models into alignment.
Three years ago, Ford shared no models between the U.S. and Europe. Now, the Fiesta, Focus, Fusion and Escape are nearly identical to their Euro counterparts, and the Transit line of light trucks is replacing Econoline vans.
Chevrolet's Volt makes the trip to Europe as the Opel Ampera. The Malibu is sold throughout the world as far away as Uzbekistan, and the Korean Sonic and Spark are now found in U.S. showrooms.
Chrysler's marriage to Fiat gave us the 500, but most Americans are unaware that the Chrysler 300 and Town & Country, and the Dodge Journey and Dart, get Lancia or Fiat badges in Europe. It's simple: designing world cars is more profitable. You'll see more of them.
The end of rebates?
The lack of high-profile incentives this year was due to a couple of factors. Many automakers shuttered plants during the financial meltdown of 2008, effectively eliminating overproduction that resulted in cars being sold at fire-sale prices. Also, incentives hurt resale values, which manufacturers hate.
The new normal will be subtle spiffs such as low-interest financing. Or manufacturers will simply reduce production if a model doesn't sell well.
Once touted as the Next Big Thing in the auto world, electric-car sales have been mixed.
Mitsubishi sold only 36 i-MiEVs in September, and Ford moved 118 Ford Focus Electrics in October. October saw a record 2,961 Chevy Volts and 1,579 Nissan Leafs sold. But here's a reality check: In the same month, Toyota sold 29,926 Camrys.
The Tesla Model S came to market, my clear pick for Car of the Year. But quantities are limited, and the $49,000 starting price after tax breaks (and rising to $98,000) is too rich for most mortals.
While the Fiat 500, Chevy Spark and Honda Fit get electric versions next year, expect modest sales. Taking this all into account, automakers will probably focus on hybrids until battery technology is improved.
These cars made me smile in 2012 and are pointing their brands in new directions.
The Cadillac ATS is a brilliant machine, and a no-excuses competitor for the Audi A4, Infiniti G37 and BMW 3-Series. The Chevy Volt continues to fascinate me with the best combination of electric power and gas-generator safety net.
A glimmer of passion has emerged from Toyota in the new Avalon, Scion FR-S and Lexus GS Series. The Dodge Dart handles great, and looks even better. Honda has its mojo back with the 2013 Accord.
Who would have thought Chevy could build great small cars? The Sonic and Spark are proof. And Ford keeps hitting them out of the park with the Fusion, Escape and C-Max.
The Buick Verano is a guilty pleasure, and wait until you see the diminutive Encore crossover. Finally, the 2013 Porsche Boxster has redoubled my efforts to become wealthy.
There's more excitement on the horizon, so bring on the 2013s -- or should that be 2014s?