Five Cars That Reveal Chevrolet's Future

DETROIT. TheStreet) -- As it turns 100, Chevrolet is looking to the future.

That means Chevrolet is focusing on being global, green and innovative; even as it looks to maintain the long tradition that has made it one of the best known brand names in the world.

In 1911, the first Chevrolet was built in a garage near downtown Detroit. Louis Chevrolet, who lent his name to the enterprise, resembles an early version of Steve Jobs in this sense, getting ahead in an emerging industry by developing technology in a garage.

A hundred years later, it is safe to say that Chevrolet and parent General Motors ( GM) have had more ups and downs than Mr. Chevrolet ever dreamed possible.

Among the ups, it has sold more than 209 million cars and trucks. As for downs, look no farther than the 2009 bankruptcy filing. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Chevrolet is this: The original concept, that people wanted cars to drive, was so compelling the company has managed to survive 100 years of challenges.

As Chevrolet sets its sights on the next 100 years, here are five concepts to build on.

Chevrolet Cruze

The magic of the Cruze is that it proved U.S. automakers can compete in the small-car market.

This makes the car a symbol of the success of the GM bankruptcy, which enabled the world's largest automaker to reduce labor costs sufficiently to build a viable small car in the U.S. The car is built in Lordstown, Ohio, off a world platform.

Even before U.S. sales began, Cruze was the top-selling Chevrolet car in the world, with more than 700,000 units sold since 2008, including Daewoo and Holden variants.

In September, the Cruze sold 18,097 units, making it the 11th best-selling U.S. vehicle. For the first nine months of 2011, Cruze has sold 187,524 units, making it the seventh best seller. It remains to be seen though whether the restoration of full inventories at Honda ( HMC) and Toyota ( TM) will knock Cruze off its perch.

Chevrolet Spark

If Chevy can make it in the compact market with Cruze, perhaps that success can be replicated with a sub-compact.

The Spark is a five-door, four-passenger hatch, already on sale in international markets, that will be introduced next year in the U.S. and Canada following a November debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show. It is 14 inches shorter than the recently launched Chevrolet Sonic.

"For young, urban dwellers, the 2013 Chevrolet Spark can be their key to the city," said Chris Perry, vice president, global Chevrolet marketing and strategy, in a prepared statement. "Affordable, maneuverable and very fuel-efficient, Spark will be easy to own and easy to drive."

Importantly, Chevrolet also said it will produce an all-electric version of the Spark, called the Spark EV, that will be sold in limited quantities in select global and U.S. markets, including California, starting in 2013. This continues GM's focus on green vehicles, currently symbolized by the Volt.

Chevrolet Sail

The Chevrolet Sail is Chevrolet's second best-selling vehicle in China, after the Cruze.

In the first nine months of 2011, Sail sold 96,135 units in China, compared to 138,850 units for the Cruze.

A big part of GM's future is China, where it is the no. 1 automaker with 15% of the market.

On Monday, GM said it had sold more than two million vehicles in China in 2011, marking the second consecutive year it reached the two million mark.

It is not just Chevrolet that appeals to the Chinese. GM said that this year demand in China has risen 73% for Cadillac, 24% for Buick and 18% for Chevrolet. In addition, GM's SAIC-GM-Wuling joint venture sold its 1 millionth vehicle in China this year on Oct. 14.

"We do not intend to rest on our laurels," said Kevin Wale, president and managing director of the GM China Group, in a prepared statement.

GM's self-driving car

It is often said that engineers can solve every automotive problem except for one: The problem of the nut behind the wheel.

GM is working on that.

Vehicles that partially drive themselves will be available by the middle of the decade, with even more sophisticated self-driving systems expected by the end of the decade, Alan Taub, GM's vice president of global research and development, said at the Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress in Orlando this past Sunday.

Sensors, radar, portable communication devices, GPS and cameras will be used to supply critical information to the driver and the automobile's computer system, Taub said. Combined with digital maps, these technologies will enable the vehicle to concentrate on driving while the driver presumably does something else.

"The technologies we're developing will provide an added convenience by partially or even completely taking over the driving duties," Taub said in a prepared statement.

Some of these technologies are already available. For example, a lane departure warning system is available on the Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain, while a side blind-zone alert is available on the Cadillac Escalade, GMC Yukon and Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban.

Malibu

Malibu is one of the most popular cars in U.S. history, with more than 8.5 million produced here since the car's 1964 debut.

Nevertheless, the first eighth-generation Malibu rolled off the assembly line in Incheon, the port of Seoul, on Tuesday. The introduction of Chevrolet's first global midsize sedan will start next month in Korea. Like Ford ( F), GM understands it must reduce costs by developing global vehicles.

"The new Malibu is our most important product introduction of the year," said GM Korea president Mike Arcamone in a prepared statement. "It will play a significant role in enabling us to attain our goals in the domestic market while ensuring that GM Korea becomes an important part of Chevrolet's success in its second century."

In fact, despite the tendency to link hot dogs, apple pie, baseball and Chevrolet in one big American basket, more than 60% of Chevrolet sales in 2010 were outside the U.S.

The U.S. remains Chevrolet's number one market. Next, in order, are Brazil, China and Canada. Number five, which may come as a surprise, is Uzbekistan.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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