The North American automotive market is starting to show signs of life again. After three years of doom and gloom, manufacturers, suppliers, PR folks, and even the people in the press are starting to talk about the industry in positive terms. It's about time.
When gas prices started climbing a little more than five years ago, the end was coming. When the market crashed and the economy went into freefall, "the car business would never be the same again." Let's hope.
Every decade or so, there's a major upheaval in the car industry, usually sparked by economic turmoil. Whether it's the end of World War Two, the recession at the end of the 1950s, the oil crisis of the early 1970s, or the import invasion of the late 1970s, each has spurred manufacturers to make a quantum leap and make better products. With the "Great Recession" in recovery mode, car companies are looking to rebound with newer products designed to fit the latest "new world order."
Hybrids have been big news for nearly a decade, and they continue to be featured in 2011. Unless gas prices unexpectedly drop considerably, this will be the new norm. But it is the enhancements to the non-hybrids that caught our fancy this time around at the Detroit Auto Show.
Following the shake-up with the American manufacturers, each company is taking the hometown show to proclaim that they've weathered the storm and are stronger for it. General Motors wants to let the American public know that their one-fifth share in the company is paying dividends and that competitive vehicles are on their way. Chrysler, with the help of Fiat, has even more to prove after five years of less-than-competitive German-inspired products are being replaced by Italian-inspired vehicles with global aspirations. And speaking of global, Ford's aircraft-industry leader has brought new ideas to Henry's company in hopes of uniting all divisions into a fleet of world-beaters.
Off shore, the Japanese, Korean, German, and even Chinese manufacturers are looking to make further inroads. The battle lines have been drawn, primarily between Volkswagen and Toyota, with Hyundai and Honda looking on, for the top spot among the planet's carmakers. The battlefield covers almost every country, but the most intense fighting will be on our shores.
The manufacturers present at the Detroit show are almost as important as the ones missing. Porsche has returned after a few years away, and China's BYD continues to display its cars even though sales here are not imminent. Not attending the show this year are Fisker, Infiniti, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Rolls-Royce, and Suzuki. Fisker chose to unveil the new Karma at the Geneva show in March where the others will also show their products. For some of these foreign brands, April's New York show is more important than Detroit.
Among those who have shown up to the North American International Auto Show, here are the highlights:
Audi --Following in the steps of the new A8, Audi's A6 makes its debut at the Detroit show. Its upscale looks are an evolution of the previous A6 but moving more in the direction of BMW's mid-range sedans. At the front, Audi's trademark LED headlamps light the way, and the rear features the high taillights that have been part of Audi's style for some time. A range of engines will be offered, including direct-injected gas and diesel units and a hybrid four-cylinder that, oddly enough, isn't planned for the U.S. market.
BMW --BMW's smallest model finally gets M Power treatment. The 1-Series M features a higher output version of the 3.0L inline-six engine that should make the little car fly.
With the current 1-Series apparently complete, BMW offered a glimpse of the next generation 1-Series. Being developed under the UKL codename, the new 1-Series is based on the platform used for the Mini Countryman. Yes, this would be the first production BMW with front-wheel drive. Production versions will be offered in four-door hatchback and four-door wagon models.
Updated for 2012, the 6-Series convertible receives all new bodywork. Just like the previous version, the new convertible keeps the "flying buttress" roofline with the nearly vertical glass rear window capable of being raised or lowered independent of the roof position.
Buick --Based on GM's Delta platform (shared with the Chevrolet Cruze and Volt), the 2012 Buick Verano marks Buick's return to small cars in North America. To be built in the Lake Orion (Michigan) plant where the Buick Lucerne and Cadillac DTS are currently produced, the Verano will share the assembly line with the Chevrolet Volt and potentially the Chevrolet Cruze. Translating the Buick styling DNA, with its wrap-around projector headlamps and waterfall grille, to a smaller car works surprisingly well. The only engine for the smallest U.S. Buick will be the 2.4L DOHC four-cylinder found in the Buick Regal. Pricing will start around $21,000.
BYD --Showing up as the only representative of the coming Chinese invasion, BYD shows off its latest products: the e6 Premier electric sedan and the S6DMplug-in hybrid SUV. While the e6 Premier promises a range of about 190 miles and a top speed of 87 m.p.h., the SUV is expected to have a 35-mile all-electric range and a 300-mile range with the 2.0L four-cylinder powered up. The company plans to test market vehicles in the United States in late 2011.
Chevrolet --Based on the Chevrolet MPV5 introduced at last year's Beijing Auto Show, the Chevrolet Amp concept is an all-electric minivan. Based on the Volt, the Amp eliminates the gasoline engine to become a zero-emissions vehicle.
Formerly known as the Chevrolet Aveo, the brand's subcompact Korean import becomes a Michigan-sourced hatchback and gains a new name: Sonic. The new sporty styling takes cues from previous small show cars with its wide headlights and deep grille opening to take on the darling of the subcompacts marketed as the Ford Fiesta. As with the Aveo, four-door sedan and hatchback models will be offered.
Chrysler --As part of the company's rebirth, Chrysler will revamp each of its models. First was the replacement for the Sebring, now called the Chrysler 200. At the Detroit show, Chrysler introduces the thoroughly revamped 300. Sporting new front and rear fascia, the 300 drops the former model's blocky styling for a more mainstream and wedge-like look. From the new finned grille flanked by LED rimmed projector headlights to the vertical taillights, the new design takes the 300 upscale.
Inside, the new 300 gets a full makeover as well. A large moon roof lets the light in above all occupants while the driver is greeted with a large 8.4" screen controlling various functions, including the sound system and the optional navigation system.
Under the hood, the new 300 upgrades all engines. Out goes the old 250-horsepower 3.5L SOHC V6 and in comes the new Pentstar 3.6L V6 producing 292 horsepower on the standard model. The optional Hemi 5.7L V8 gets a power bump to 363 horsepower. A five-speed automatic is the only transmission choice at the moment, but more ratios are coming. The 2011 model year doesn't have the high-output SRT8 model, but it is promised to return for 2012 with more displacement (6.4L versus 6.1L) and even more power.
Ford --In the world of One Ford, the global brand is merging crossovers from opposite sides of the Atlantic into one product. Shown as a concept, the Ford Escape previews the 2012 American Escape and European Kuga crossovers.
While the Escape and Kuga have shared a market segment across the ocean, the other debut at the show has no former U.S. equivalent. The new Ford C-Max is a mini-minivan in the vein of the Mazda5. Based on the Focus' new platform, the C-Max provides a people carrier for those who don't need quite as much room as, say, a standard minivan or Ford Flex. With room for five, plus jump seats for two more children, this little four-banger promises better gas mileage than those alternatives with its standard 2.5L DOHC or optional Ecoboost 1.6L turbocharged engines.
Features on the C-Max include the park-assist function previously found on the Escape and a new power lift gate that only requires the simple wave of a foot to open.
Merging trans-Atlantic segments, again, will be the new 2012 Ford Focus. When this car was introduced in the late 1990s, the North American and European versions were quite similar, but then they went in two different directions.
With the introduction of the new 2012 Focus for North America, the two lines become one once more. The new Fiesta pushes the Focus up market slightly with a base price of just over $16,000.
All the new Ford features are here. MyFordTouch includes an eight-inch customizable screen to control many of the interior functions. The optional Microsoft Sync system helps keep electronic distractions to a minimum by allowing the driver to use the phone and sound system without taking eyes off the road by using voice commands.
Once again, two body styles are being offered: The four-door sedan returns, albeit in a fastback design, but the coupe has been replaced by a more utilitarian four-door hatchback. The 2.0L four-cylinder gains direct injection to boost power to 160 horsepower, mated to either a five-speed manual or six-speed "PowerShift" automatic transaxle.
GMC --In an apparent attempt to confuse the public, GMC named its new full-sized pickup concept the Sierra All-Terrain HD. Based on the Sierra HD, the All-Terrain (sharing nothing but the brand name with the smaller GMC Terrain) crew cab pickup features an integrated grille/bumper/stone guard at the front. The protected front axle clearly showcases the raised truck's impressive ground clearance. In the sides of the bed are storage bins. A high-torque version of the 6.6L Duramax turbodiesel resides under the hood of the truck. The concept provides a hint at the next generation Sierra pickup styling.
Honda --Providing a glimpse of the 2012 model, Honda unleashed a Civic concept at the Detroit show. The sleek styling takes the popular compact into its ninth generation, which will go on sale in the Spring of 2011.
Hyundai --Derived from the 2007 HND-3 Veloster concept car, the 2012 Hyundai Veloster is a three-door coupe with seating for four. The front-wheel-drive coupe will be powered by the four-cylinder Accent engines giving the car 40 m.p.g. capability, but it is said that there's enough room for the larger fours from the Sonata.
Additionally, Hyundai brings out the new Curb concept car, which takes the new design of the Sonata and Elantra to the next level. The crossover enhances the already two-year-old "fluidic sculpture" styling, giving an idea of where Hyundai's going in the near future.
Jeep --After four years of lackluster sales, Chrysler has decided to revamp the lowly Jeep Compass. Not quite a car and not quite a truck, the Compass has yet to find a niche for itself. In order to help find that niche, the automaker is taking the model where few would dare: upscale. A new front clip moves away from the Wrangler-like design and toward the styling of the new Grand Cherokee with its sloped nose and wraparound headlights--literally sharing the lights with its bigger sibling. An upgraded interior rounds out the package, which now comes with a $4,000 increase in base price in order to move it away from the mechanically similar Patriot.
Kia --In their seemingly never-ending expansion of the crossover market, Kia brings yet another concept vehicle to the Detroit show. This time, the seven-passenger KV7 concept adds a swiveling second row of captain's chairs on the inside, with gull-wing doors replacing the minivan's traditional sliding doors on the outside. The flat interior floor is highlighted by pedestal seats, allowing objects to slide in virtually uninterrupted. The exterior combines traditional minivan styling with the look of modern crossovers such as the Ford Flex or Honda Element. With a history of turning concept cars into production cars quickly and with only slight modifications, the KV7 could be headed into production relatively soon.
Mercedes-Benz --Jumping on the hybrid bandwagon in only the way that Mercedes-Benz could, the brand brings out its SLS AMG E-Cell. A step up from the nearly $200,000 SLS AMG sports car, the E-Cell version adds in the hybrid drivetrain with electric motors on each wheel--combining for more than 500 horsepower and well over 600 ft.-lbs. of torque.
On the bottom end of the lineup, the C-Class gets a turbocharged four-cylinder and a 302-horsepower V6 engine when the car is updated early this summer.
Mini --Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the brand's reintroduction, Mini brings out a new concept car. The Paceman is a two-door version of the new Countryman. Larger than the standard Mini models, the Paceman is described by the company as "sports activity coupe" with its slightly raised ride height, larger tires, and available all-wheel drive. The car's design is meant to emulate the look of a helmet, with its white roof "floating" above the green body.
Power comes from the John Cooper Works version of the 1.6L four-cylinder engine producing 211 horsepower and 207 ft.-lbs. of torque (15 more than in the standard JCW Mini). MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link rear suspension control that power, while BMW's All4 system can shift up to 100 percent of the power toward the rear wheels. While just a concept, it does look production ready, and most of the parts are already on the road.
Porsche --Returning to the Detroit show after a four-year absence, Porsche comes back with a race-ready version of the 918 hybrid concept supercar, the 918 RSR. First shown at the Geneva show in 2010, the Porsche 918 caused such a stir that the company saw the need to put it into production. The primary source of power for the 918 RSR is a 563-horsepower V8 engine, which is augmented by a flywheel that stores energy from its regenerative braking system to power two additional front and rear electric motors. This gives the 918 RSR a total of 767 horsepower. In other news, Porsche will launch a hybrid version of its four-door Panamera this year and has announced plans to adapt the road-going 918 to plug-in technology.
Saba Motors --After showing their little electric roadster last year, Saba returns with the Zero Carbon two-seaters. With batteries from ThunderSky, a Shenzhen, China-based supplier, Saba claims the Zero Carbon to be capable of 0-60 sprints in about five seconds with a range of 120 to 140 miles on a charge. Little more has been said about this $50,000 EV as the company is still seeking funding.
Toyota --Based on the popular Prius, Toyota used the Detroit show to introduce the three-row Prius V. Looking like the combination of a Prius and a Matrix, this MPV is the closest thing any American market brand has come to a hybrid minivan. Power comes from an upgraded version of the Prius' 1.8L Atkinson cycle four-cylinder, now putting out 138 horsepower. About the size of a Mazda5, the Prius V has the chance to be a 40-m.p.g. people-moving hit.
Another Prius-based concept as well as an update to the Yaris makes its debut at the show.
Venturi --With the current push for electric cars, French sports car maker Venturi is touring its latest concept. The Venturi America is an all-electric roadster with a 220-kW. motor capable of pushing the carbon-fiber to 60 miles an hour in a claimed four-second flash. Venturi also says the car's new 54-kW.-per-hour battery pack can propel the car at highway speeds of 90 k.p.h. (56 m.p.h.) for more than 180 miles. The Venturi Fetish, on sale since 2004 and on which this model is based, has been in limited production (10 units so far), but expanded production won't launch sales of the car in America too dramatically since the price lightens the wallet by more than $400,000.
Volkswagen --After years of waiting, we are finally being treated to the debut of Volkswagen's "New Midsized Sedan." Production is planned at the new Chattanooga, Tennessee plant. The car should replace the outgoing Passat and supplement the new, less-expensive Mexican-built Jetta. The U.S.-only mid-sized family sedan is key to Volkswagen's desire to be the largest global automaker before the end of this decade. Production will begin in April with sales starting in the fall.
Wiki Speed --A competitor for the Progressive X Prize for producible high-efficiency vehicles, Wiki Speed is showing its SGT01 sedan. Weighing in at an amazing 1,300 pounds, the SGT01 incorporates an aluminum chassis and claims to pass all current crash regulations with five-star ratings. Production versions of the four-passenger hybrid are expected to weigh a still very impressive 1,500 pounds, according to the company. Claimed fuel economy numbers of 114 m.p.g. on the highway and 104 in the city are astounding when combined with the estimated 0-60 time of about five seconds and a top speed of 149 m.p.h. Top all this off with a desired on-sale price of "less than $20,000," and the concept sounds even more like a dream.