The 2009 model year is going to be a particularly significant – and perhaps confusing – watershed, because buyers’ tastes have rapidly evolved away from thirsty trucks and SUVs, making this year’s crop of good-old-fashioned cars the most important in a long time.

If you’re in the market to buy, there are plenty of places to find an exhaustive list of every new model available for 2009, not mention all the significant changes to older models.

I’m cutting through the clutter to tell you 12 important new vehicles for 2009. There is no particular order of significance – I’ve selected pickup trucks, crossover vehicles and hatchbacks.

Dodge Ram: $21,270-$43,240; fuel economy: 14/20 mpg

Nobody said the car business is easy and Chrysler couldn’t have picked a tougher environment – crummy economy, crushing gas prices- in which to launch it’s totally redesigned Ram pickup.

If you can get past all that, you’d almost call the new Ram beautiful. There’s a real artfulness in the new truck’s simplicity of line, and the Dodge engineers have crafted all manner of sweet new storage and cargo-hauling gizmos.

Best of all, the all-conquering Hemi V-8 has undergone a power upgrade (like it needed more of that), yet delivers better fuel economy.

Ford Flex: $28,295-$36,555; fuel economy: 17/24 mpg

The funky-boxy Flex looks a lot like a pumped-up Mini Cooper. The styling is very polarizing; we find most people reacted positively, however, for this useful station wagon Ford calls a “crossover,” but effectively is the company’s replacement for its defunct minivan.

Thanks to its Volvo-derived structure, you can wager the Flex is safe. There’s a ton of room inside; six can ride in limo-like comfort. The Flex is available with all-wheel-drive, though fuel economy is not the Flex’s strong suit.

Flex is a versatile package that takes some styling risks, and for that we applaud Ford. It will be interesting to see if Ford makes headway with this game-changing effort.

Ford F-150: price TBA; fuel economy: TBD

Ford’s best-selling model is heavily redesigned for 2009, with sharp new styling, two more powerful, more efficient V-8s and a roomier interior with almost sinfully cozy fittings.

There’s no doubt high gasoline prices mean it’s going to be a tough year to drum up enthusiasm for pickups, unless it’s among drivers who really need them.

In answer, Ford engineers present the F-150 SFE (Superior Fuel Economy), an efficiency-optimized version that delivers 15 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway. You’ll have to be the judge of whether that’s “superior,” but in the realm of full-size pickups, it’s pretty decent.

Nissan Murano: $26,870-$36,450; fuel economy: 18/23 mpg (AWD)

The Murano is the crossover that virtually defined “crossover” for the auto industry. The first-generation Murano was a dead-on bull’s-eye for what most people really want from a utility vehicle and instantly became a benchmark for Nissan’s competitors. The 2009 Murano manages to improve on that already formidable recipe.

Formerly unimpressed with the Murano’s unique and fuel-saving continuously variable transmission, new programming and other upgrades have turned us into true believers. It doesn’t hurt, either, that the Murano is tugged around by the best V-6 on earth. The Murano’s interior – a little chintzy in its first go-round – has been upgraded to the point it’s running dangerously close competition for Nissan’s premium Infiniti division.

Honda Fit: $14,550-$18,760; fuel economy: 27/33 mpg

Better get in line now, because the redesigned 2009 Fit is better than the first-generation model that quickly won cult status among Honda lovers and the just plain frugal.

The subcompact Fit astonishes with seemingly vast and useful interior space thanks to clever design. The cargo area can be configured in multiple ways and the “magic” rear seats are a treat in their flip-and-fold ease. But best of all, the Fit is a hoot to drive, rarely feeling underpowered. Fuel economy of about 30 mpg (combined) means you can thumb your nose at Big Oil.

Toyota Venza: (price TBA); fuel economy: TBA

Okay, here’s a bit of a risk for Toyota (if anything Toyota puts in a showroom is really a risk). The all-new Venza is effectively a Camry station wagon – only slightly jacked up and filled-out – looking like it’s been hitting the gym for a while.

Some wonder where the fit is for the 2009 Venza. It’s not quite crossover enough and not quite car enough. And Toyota already has the Highlander for those who want a car with lots of interior space but sits a little higher and has the option of all-wheel-drive. Pricing and marketing might determine whether the Venza is a hit or a miss for Toyota.

With every new model year in the auto industry, it seems there are more choices than ever before. And the market’s “segments” are becoming more fractionalized, too, with automakers plying sometimes slight variations in the attempt to convince customers a certain model suits all their needs.

Hyundai Genesis: ($32,250-$37,250); fuel economy: 17/25 mpg

Yeah, that’s Mercedes-Benz and Lexus looking over their shoulders, spooked by the presence of Hyundai’s all-new 2009 Genesis, the first true luxury sedan – it’s rear-wheel-drive – from the Korean company that made its name in the econo-car market.

The spacious and effortlessly powerful Genesis oozes with luxury in the same way the very first Lexus did some two decades ago. And much like that first Lexus, the Genesis’ calling card is a killer price: the V-6 Genesis (which almost anybody would find decadent) starts at a price that barely gets you into the competition’s entry-level cars. Move up to the 4.6 model and you get a V-8 with 368 horsepower worth of outlandish thrust, but a price that still seems almost criminally low.

And you know what, even with that magnificent V-8, fuel economy isn’t all that bad at 17/25 mpg. Hyundai’s got a mean and ultra-competitive machine here.

Lincoln MKS: ($37,665-$39,555); fuel economy: 17/24 mpg

The all-new 2009 MKS is a vitally important car for Lincoln. Okay, auto writers say that all the time, but we mean it now. If Lincoln can’t make some headway with the MKS against the luxury-car establishment, Ford may have a hard time rationalizing the future of the Lincoln division.

The MKS has a creamy ride, better-than-you’d-think handling, plus the interior is richly appointed and spacious. The sheet metal is handsome but slightly anonymous, save the chrome-on-chrome, Joker-mouth grille. Critics, however, say the MKS is underpowered – and its front-wheel drive configuration doesn’t hold up against the market’s Big Guns, all of which sensibly drive the rear wheels. But with a nicely fitted MKS going for barely 40 grand, the MKS is a lot of refined metal for the money.

BMW 335d: (price TBA); estimated fuel economy: 22/33 mpg

Forget everything you’ve known about diesel engines. The new-generation 3.0-liter diesel that powers BMW’s scorching 335d cancels all prior impressions. It’s that magnificent.

If BMW, one of the auto industry’s most uncompromising brands when it comes to performance, will put a diesel in its best-selling 3 Series sedan, you can rest assured there’s nothing slow or smoky about new-age diesels.

We just point to the performance: BMW says the 335d hustles from 0-60 mph in 7 seconds – yet based on our experience with a Euro model, you’ll get 30 mpg all day long. Want more? You’ll probably get a tax credit for going diesel.

Audi A4: ($32,700-$40,000); fuel economy: 21/27 mpg

Although the A4 is Audi’s entry-level sedan, there’s nothing small or “entry” about it: the all-new 2009 A4 is larger in almost every dimension and carries on Audi’s heritage for stunning interior design and materials. Like all Audis, the new A4 looks rich beyond its price.

A wealth of technical innovations – and Audi’s famous Quattro all-wheel drive system – means the A4 takes a back seat to no sport-sedan in terms of panache; this latest A4 may be Audi’s best all-around car. Don’t even bother with the optional 3.2-liter V-6 – the A4’s standard turbocharged 2.0-liter is a dream, and generates fine fuel economy to boot.

Mazda6: ($18,550-$28,260); fuel economy: 21/30 mpg

Mazda’s got yet another head-turner with the rakish new Mazda6 sedan. And as we’ve come to expect with most revised models, there’s more interior room with a better grade of materials.

Although Mazda remains a second-team player compared with the Toyotas, Hondas and Nissans of the world, the Mazda6 may be the car that brings the company closer to the Big Guys. We’re not sure specifying a larger, 3.7-liter V-6 was a good idea for the higher-trim versions, but it doesn’t really matter, you get all the same wonderfulness, including the expected responsive handling, in all versions of the new Mazda6.

Chevrolet Camaro: (price TBA); fuel economy: TBD

After seeing the new-age interpretation of Chevy’s 1960s classic, all I can say is: I want one. Bad.

Never mind crazy-high gasoline prices. Tell your auto-insurance agent to get a life. Squeeze in the kids’ booster seats. Do whatever it takes to get yourself into this car. I’m telling you this and I don’t even like muscle cars (that much).

I don’t care that it’s technically a 2010 model. I’m including it with the most-significant-of-’09 because the Camaro will be in showrooms by March next year. Most everyone has seen the pictures, but be prepared to be blown away when you see the Camaro in the metal. Here’s one “retro” car that absolutely manages to look better than the original. Move over, Mustang – there’s a new mid-life-crisis car in town.


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