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New year, new questions for automakers

| Friday, Jan. 4, 2013, 5:22 p.m.

What will 2013 bring to car lovers, automakers and shoppers? Here are some of the questions on my screen as the year begins:

• Can Chrysler engineers and designers develop a great off-road-capable Jeep Liberty replacement based on a Fiat vehicle architecture?

They'd better, or Chrysler-Fiat's bold promises to expand Jeep's model line and boost global sales will prove as empty as Daimler's vow that the Compass and Patriot would herald a golden age for Jeep.

Beyond off-road ability, questions facing the Liberty replacement include whether its styling will be retro or modern, and what Jeep will call it.

• Is this the year plug-in hybrids take off?

They cost more than regular hybrids, but the ability to go extended distances on battery power before the gasoline engines take over is very appealing.

At the low end, the Toyota Prius and Honda Accord plug-ins offer 11 to 13 miles of EPA-rated battery range. Ford's Fusion Energi and C-Max Energi plug-ins aim for 20 to 22 miles of electric driving, while the Cadillac ELR should deliver 35 to 38 miles.

• Can Ford rehabilitate its MyFordTouch and Sync controls, or will they damage the brand's reputation further?

Ford's controls enchant some owners, but they've devastated the brand's quality and reliability ratings from J.D. Power and Consumer Reports. With no big vehicle introductions imminent, this would be a good time for Ford to change the narrative by debugging or deleting the systems' most controversial aspects.

• Are Honda's upgrades enough to save the Civic?

The critical response to the latest version of Honda's most important car was brutal, bad enough that the former benchmark compact got an emergency update for 2013.

Honda improved the interior materials, added some standard equipment and tweaked the exterior styling just a year after the new Civic went on sale.

The disappointing Civic lent credence to voices saying the automaker had lost its edge. It's hard to regain momentum when your most important car has stalled.

• Will people buy BMW's electric cars?

BMW's audacious “i” brand of plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles will hit the road with the battery-powered i3 later this year and the i8 plug-in in 2014.

The i3 concept has the look of a sporty compact crossover, with rear-wheel drive and a 170-horsepower motor. The i8 hews closer to the classic BMW formula: It's long, low and lovely. Its electric motor and gasoline engine produce 354 horsepower. Details like price and performance for the production models are TBD.

•Can Mercedes-Benz regain relevance?

Mercedes has slipped a long way from the pinnacle of luxury it occupied for a century. None of its current models come up when the conversation turns to the most advanced, opulent, stylish or exciting vehicles.

Mercedes needs to stake a claim for the mantle of luxury leadership or risk losing it forever. The all-new S-class flagship and Merc's new family of A-class compacts coming in 2013 will tell the tale.

Mark Phelan is the auto critic for the Detroit Free Press; mmphelan@freepress.com.

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