OK, the 2011 car-model year is not expected to set sales records. The U.S. economy is dragging like it has a bad cold -- and this cold is hanging on. Experts predict that U.S. car sales, which stood at a robust 16 million units as recently as 2007, will be lucky to total much above 12 million in 2011. With sales expected to be down at least 25 percent from the halcyon mid-decade years, you can bet there won’t be many parties in the halls of the big automakers this year.

But despite the sales doldrums that haunt America and reverberate worldwide, global automakers have put together some very, very interesting vehicles for your approbation (and purchase, for that matter). In fact, one might accurately state that the most-anticipated of the 2011 cars are among the most interesting vehicles launched in the past 50 years. Let’s take a look at them, shall we?

2011 Car No. 1: Audi A8

The go-to big sedans in the luxury segment have traditionally been the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the BMW 7 Series, but Audi has changed the face of the competition with its new A8 L.

The long-wheelbase sedan is being launched globally with five engine offerings, and while not all of them will appear in America, the 500-horsepower 12-cylinder engine will.

What’s amazing about the A8 L is that it is a true driver’s car that still offers limousine-like amenities, like individual rear seats that can be equipped with ventilating and massage functions. You can also opt to equip your rolling recreational area with a table and refrigerator.

2011 Car No. 2: Chevrolet Volt

Certainly no domestic car model in decades has been as awaited as the Chevrolet Volt.

One could make the claim that General Motors is still in business because of anticipation of this model -- a difficult halo to keep shiny. But the Volt does offer leading-edge technology throughout.

The midsized sedan is electrically driven, but drivers don’t have to worry about running out of juice: Its onboard gasoline-powered engine keeps the battery pack charged. It will go about 40 miles on a fully charged battery, and then the engine kicks on.

Although it’s eagerly awaited, it won’t be available across the U.S. just yet. Instead, the Volt will be available initially to Chevrolet customers in California, New York, Michigan, Connecticut, Texas, New Jersey and the Washington, D.C., area.

2011 Car No. 3: Ford Fiesta

The 2011 Ford Fiesta will test Americans’ desire for a premium small car -- in other words, a small sedan or hatchback that isn’t built to the lowest common denominator.

The Fiesta is expected to deliver best-in-class highway fuel economy of up to 40 mpg. But its 1.6-liter dual-overhead-cam four-cylinder engine, combined with a six-speed automatic transmission and electric power-assisted steering, gives it a sporty feel others in the class lack.

Its well-regarded SYNC® voice-activated communications system will also make it a world-class leader in connectivity. 

2011 Car No. 4: Nissan LEAF

What’s greener than a LEAF?

That’s the question posed by the first all-electric car to come to the U.S. market from a major manufacturer in more than a decade. The bigger question: Will Americans accept a vehicle with a range of just 100 miles full recharge will cost less than $3, so on a per-miles-driven basis, the LEAF will be very inexpensive to operate. And the federal government will help with the purchase or lease side with a $7,500 tax credit.

Oh, you wanted to learn more about the car?

Rest assured it will be well-equipped with a variety of features, including an advanced navigation system and Internet/smartphone connectivity that will enable pre-heating and pre-cooling before it has to be recharged? One factor in its favor is that, in many areas, while the car is plugged in (a great way to maximize range). Safety features include electronic stability control, traction control and six airbags. And you’d be surprised at how much fun the LEAF is to drive.

Tom Ripley Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about electric cars, the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.



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Driving Today Auto Review - The Most Anticipated 2011 Cars