Life After 'Clunkers' for Best-Selling Cars?

The government's increasingly high standards for fuel emissions and grants for alternative fuel technology are propelling automakers to forge ahead with a bevy of models, ranging from the electric-powered Chevy Volt to ever-more fuel efficient hybrid-powered vehicles.

But their expense could prove prohibitive for many consumers until the new technologies become cheaper.

Gas-powered small cars are "what's going to be popular over next five to seven years, until they figure out how to make these lithium-ion batteries not cost $10,000 so that you can put them in the mass market," said Spivey. "When you don't have to sell a hybrid for $35,000 or $40,000, when you can sell it for $20,000 or $25,000 … then I think that's when you'll see that market take off."

Toyota Corolla

For now, the makers of the Corolla and the Focus are enjoying their time in the sun under the Clunkers program.

"It's the perfect product in this type of program," said Ed LaRoucque, Toyota's National Small Car Marketing Manager. "More than ever, in this economy people are looking for a good value."

Though a Japanese car, the Corolla has a long history in the U.S. The first model was exported here in 1968.

Toyota has built 8 million Corollas over the years and the 2010 model is the tenth generation of the vehicle. LaRoucque said the company has focused heavily on listening to what customers want and that's why the tenth generation is a bigger car with a restyled design. There are two engine options in all Corollas, the 1.8 liter four-cylinder and a 2.4-liter inline-4.

Not Exciting but Reliable

Part of the Corolla's appeal, said Edmunds' Moody, is that it feels like a more expensive car.

"The Corolla, in terms of small cars, is sort of like the Lexus of small cars," he said. "It just has a nice, finished feel inside. When you look at the materials and kind of poke around and press certain things, it seems like it might be a little bit more upscale then you would expect for an $18,000 to $20,000 car."

On the downside, Moody said, the Corolla's handling is not as smooth as you'd expect from a Toyota. It's not exactly sporty either, critics say.

Still, said Aaron Bragman, an auto analyst for IHS Global Insight, although the Corolla is not going to set car enthusiasts' blood on fire, there is a reason why the vehicle has maintained a very high owner loyalty in the industry.

"Basically, it's an appliance. It's reliable. It gets you from A to B easily," he said. "Corolla is a good car. It's not going to offend anybody and it will do what's asked of it, and that's really all a lot of people require."

Ford Focus

It's the Ford Focus' improved technology that's drawing customers, said Andrew Ashman, a Ford contest and incentatives manager.

In addition to its fuel economy, the vehicle offers Ford's SYNC technology which provides customers hands-free control of their mobile phone, MP3 player and GPS -- a feature more common to more expensive cars.

Ford was the only one of the three major American automakers not to accept billions in government bailout funds, but the company's got its own challenges, including stiff competition from foreign automakers like Toyota as well as Honda.

"We're working everyday to prove to customers that we have the plan, we have the product and that people should come back to Ford," said Ashman.

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