Ford, GM Bring Their 'A' Game

Ford and GM stack up well against their competitors, driven by ingenuity.
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DETROIT (TheStreet) -- Hold your head up, Detroit: New offerings from Ford (F) - Get Report and General Motors have your back.

That declaration would've elicited a spit take in November 2008, when bloated brands and outdated, redundant models helped drive Ford's stock price down to $1.39, and GM was weathering a 23% sales collapse that would lead to liquidation, brand dissolution and government intervention. Almost two years later, a spate of innovation by the two most visible members of the Big Three (still waiting for more than the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee from

Chrysler

) is bringing rare optimism to the Motor City.

In fighting shape after dropping the Mercury brand and bolstering offerings like the new Taurus and Fusion hybrid, Ford's sales are up 5% from last year's "cash for clunkers"-fueled numbers while market share increased for the 21st time in two years last month.

GM's resurgence hasn't been as strong. After losing the dead weight of its Pontiac, Saturn, Hummer and Saab brands, GM has repaid $7 billion of its combined $59.7 billion bailout, purchased subprime lender AmeriCredit to fill the void left by bailout victim GMAC and increased sales of its remaining brands 31% since last year. News reports today said GM is aiming to raise up to $16 billion in an initial public offering, which would be the second-biggest in U.S. history after Visa's $20 billion two years ago.

As Ford and GM accelerate the release of new models,

TheStreet

picked four to serve as mileposts of the automakers' progress. We've paired them against their strongest category competition to see how far they've come, and the following comparisons show just how quickly the two companies have gotten back up to speed:

DETROIT

Ford Fiesta

Starting price: $13,320

Miles per gallon: 29 city/40 highway

While Ford likes to tout the Fiesta's 1.6-liter engine and handling (traction and stability control standard), the Fiesta is built on amenities. Some of the better perks include a capless fuel tank, seven air bags (including a driver's knee bag), push-button start, rear heaters and a

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

SYNC system that connects Bluetooth-enabled phones, MP3 players, navigation and emergency-service features.

For a more cushy subcompact, buyers should consider springing for the power moonroof and heated leather-trim seats.

THE COMPETITION

Honda Fit

Starting price: $14,900

Miles per gallon: 27 city/33 highway

Why does a car this small have 10 cupholders? It's all about options, which the surprisingly large

Honda

(HMC) - Get Report

has in droves.

With 57 cubic inches of storage space once every seat but the driver's is folded down, three different seating arrangements and an iPod-compatible entertainment system with USB ports and optional navigation, the Fit is like a rolling modular clubhouse. The driver doesn't get left out either, as a telescoping steering wheel, 40 inches of head space and a 1.5-liter engine make for a comfortable and surprisingly zippy ride.

ADVANTAGE:

Fiesta. It doesn't have nearly the storage space or seating options of the Fit, but the Ford's lower starting price and mileage more than make up for it. That combination could further shake Honda's subcompact, whose sales have dropped 23% this year.

DETROIT

Chevy Volt

Starting price: $41,000

Miles per gallon: 50 mpg (40-mile range on single charge)

GM's really given this one some thought, as this plug-in hybrid's features already include a remote starter, 7-inch LCD touch-screen, 7-inch digital instrument cluster, Bose sound system, a 30-gigabyte hard drive for music, standard navigation, five years of free OnStar assistance, an 8-year/100,000 mile battery warranty and eight air bags. Oh yeah, and 40 miles of gas-free driving per charge.

Want one? Get on the waiting list, which is already two years long.

THE COMPETITION

Nissan Leaf

Starting price: $32,780

Miles per gallon: N/A (100 miles per eight-hour charge)

Leaf owners won't have a kicking sound system or remote starter, but they'll never have to buy gas again. That's the primary reason

Nissan's

(NSANY)

potential buyers who aren't on the waiting list won't have access to this hatchback until at least 2012, but little perks like a Bluetooth phone system, folding rear seats, push-button ignition and traction control give them a few items to play with.

Besides, when electricity equals mileage, anything more than a modest AM/FM/CD console with a USB cable for MP3 players can be a drain.

ADVANTAGE:

Volt. The problem isn't the Leaf's lack of features, but its lack of options. While Volt owners low on juice have gas to get them the rest of the way, Leaf owners are forced to count miles and spend hours charging at home until quick-charge cables arrive and the infrastructure catches up. The Leaf's more environmentally pure but, right now, not as practical.

DETROIT

Ford Explorer

Starting price: $28,190

Miles per gallon: Still in question

Once the poster child for American SUVs -- for better or worse -- the Explorer has been stripped of its truck underpinnings and turned into a crossover. The need to climb into the cab, the V8 engine and the ability to tow a building across a parking lot are gone, leaving behind a V6 and four-cylinder (that's right, four-cylinder) engines and the trademark three rows of seats. Sigh all you'd like about the Explorer's lost bulk, but we're guessing the EPA's mileage figures will be less gaudy for an interior that's just as roomy.

Now that Ford's throwing in its SYNC, touch-screen displays and keyless starting, it'll also be more fun than it's '90s grocery-getting grandparent.

THE COMPETITION

Subaru Forester

Starting price: $20,295

Miles per gallon: 20 city/27 highway

OK, Explorer, you want to go crossover? Meet the king of the lacrosse-mom circuit. Having grown a bit from its infancy as a bloated station wagon, the Forester is now a five-seater with the space of an SUV but the mileage of a mid-sized car.

Though it has a whopping 33.5 cubic feet of rear cargo space even before a folding seat drops, little features like rear-center armrests, underfloor cargo storage and multifunction center consoles with iPod attachments have helped push the Forester to a 15% sales spike in 2010.

ADVANTAGE:

Forester. The Explorer's new to the crossover game, which is likely why it still clings to a 3.5-liter V6 and 5,000 pounds of towing capacity. Sadly, that's not what its new market is looking for, especially at a nearly $10,000 premium.

DETROIT

Chevy Cruze

Starting price: $16,995

Miles per gallon: Still in question

The car the Cruze is replacing, the Cobalt, was adequate at best and a god-awful category cellar-dweller at worst. That said, initial reports on the Cruze suggest a vast improvement. GM's estimate of 40 miles per gallon on the highway would be a welcome change from the Cobalt's 24 mpg average.

Additions including OnStar emergency and navigation services, Bluetooth phone connections, USB connection for MP3 players and 10 standard air bags -- including front knee airbags -- also make it much more fun than the fleet-friendly Cobalt thousands of drivers sighed at when they drove it off the rental lot.

THE COMPETITION

Toyota Corolla

Starting price: $15,450

Miles per gallon: 26 city/35 highway

Acceleration-recall aside, the Corolla is still the standard for its class. The fact that

Toyota

(TM) - Get Report

made all optional safety features standard only enhances that position. You could fill out calendars based on its 1.8-liter engine's reliability, while little throw-ins like standard fog lamps give this utilitarian-mobile much-needed charm. The sound system isn't fancy (you're lucky you're getting an MP3 connection), the locks aren't remote and the Bluetooth and navigation that are becoming old hat in smaller cars are still options here.

Yet, much like an old blanket or well-worn sneaker, just knowing the Corolla's going to be there and do its job is the most comforting feature of all.

ADVANTAGE:

Cruze. What about the Corolla's just-like-clockwork reliability, you ask? It matters a bit less when the Cruze's warranty covers an extra 40,000 miles. With more trunk storage (15.4 cubic feet to 12.3), fuel tank capacity (15.6 gallons to 13.2) and features (remote locks and alarm -- c'mon, Toyota), the Cruze is making a big splash and could be just what GM needs to claim some market share amid Toyota's woes.

-- Reported by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.