By Chris Haak
Press days are long since over, the stories have been filed, and members of the public have seen the 2011 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. So just what did we see at this year’s show? With the benefit of a week since press days ended to ponder the best concept vehicles and production-car reveals, I decided to give my opinion of what we saw at the show and what the impact of those vehicles will be going forward. Some were good, some were not so good.
Generally, the mood at the Detroit show was more optimistic than it’s been in years. There was far less gloom-and-doom pervading the atmosphere, and the show’s organizers were taken by surprise with the number of press conferences requested for the show’s first day. The result was a schedule that was booked solid for about 12 hours, from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., without even a meal break scheduled for a chance for journalists to catch their collective breaths. Though I don’t have official attendance figures, there seemed to be far more people in attendance – both from the manufacturers and from the media – during this year’s show than there had been during 2009 and 2010. Altogether, good problems for the industry to have, but the packed schedule and extra crowds made it challenging to navigate the show. With that being said, I don’t think I’d trade attendance at the Detroit show for any other auto show in the US.
KUDOS to GM for finally, after decades of trying, putting a competitive subcompact car on the market. I’m talking, of course, about the Chevrolet Sonic. Previously built in Korea and called the Aveo (which was a synonym for “I have a used-car budget but I have to have a new car), the newly-named Sonic is attractive, well-appointed, and has some nice powertrain options, including an optional four cylinder turbo. What’s more, the car will be built in Michigan instead of by Daewoo in South Korea. Some of the UAW members who will be assembling the Sonic may not be happy about the two-tier wage structure employed in the Sonic’s Orion, Michigan plant, but putting the car together at home seems to beat the alternative of importing it.
KICKS to Ford for coming to its hometown show with basically nothing new to show. The week before the auto show, Ford chose to debut its Focus Electric at the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas, so the car’s debut to the assembled automotive media was fairly anti-climactic. Ford did show the production C-Max 7-passenger van (though it famously did not make its stage debut on cue, leaving product chief Derrick Kuszak to describe an invisible vehicle), but the forthcoming US-built mini-minivan had been shown before, and is already sold in Europe. Ford’s Vertrek concept, which foreshadows the next-generation Kuga and Escape crossovers as those two models merge into a single vehicle, was attractive and certainly a design leap over the boxy Escape, yet that same attractive shape was probably attractive only because it was familiar due to its liberal borrowing of other vehicles’ design cues.
KUDOS to BMW for showing the awesome 1 Series M. The “don’t call me an M1″ is the company’s smallest, lightest M model, and not surprisingly, also its cheapest. Proving that it’s far more than a 135i with a more powerful engine, the 1 Series M gets a widebody treatment with huge fender bulges, giant tires, and a unique-to-the-M interior treatment that features a liberal dose of Alcantara on the dashboard and door panels. The car looks great, particularly in the metallic orange of the car that the company brought to Detroit.
KICKS to GM for its attempt to latch onto the legitimate off-road cred of Ford’s SVT Raptor with the GMC Sierra All-Terrain HD Concept. The truck was fundamentally a standard Sierra with a copycat version of the Ram Box and a new front clip, plus added off-road hardware, it looked like the love child of a Hummer H2 and a standard Sierra. Though the truck looked intimidating, to be sure, a crew cab full-size pickup is not the ideal off-road vehicle. There’s a reason that Hummer died, you know, and a company hell-bent on burnishing its credibility with the tree huggers could not have brought a less appropriate vehicle to the show. Ford didn’t have any Raptors on the show floor last week, by the way.
KUDOS to Honda for showing a glimmer of hope from its design department. The 2012 Civic Coupe and Sedan concepts are very much what the production Civic will look like, just toned down a notch or two for production. There appeared to be no odd nose, no unresolved C-pillar shape, and sculpted body sides that give the car a new degree of visual interest. The Civic is one of Honda’s perennial best sellers, and the company couldn’t afford to mess it up. Though the ninth generation Civic is more evolutionary than revolutionary, at least it’s evolving rather than devolving.
KICKS to Toyota for giving us the Prius V, which is the extra-large version of the company’s popular Prius hybrid. When the 2010 Prius made its debut, it managed to shed at least some of the dorkiness of the second-generation car. But guess what: whatever amount of dorkiness the third-generation Prius lost, the Prius V managed to find. Large wheels are not good for fuel economy (unsprung weight, and all that), but the Prius V looks like the love child of a Prius and a Kia Rondo. Be warned, Toyota: the Rondo was just canceled by Kia.
KUDOS to Audi for the new A6 and A6 Hybrid. As with nearly all current Audi offerings, the new A6 sets the class standard for design and for attention to detail in the interior. Unfortunately, as with most Audis, the A6 has the oversized, overwrought grille, and the same-box-different-size problem that BMW had a few years ago. Chris Bangle managed to break BMW free of that issue; who will be the designer to make Audi’s cars look more distinctive from one another?
KICKS to Mini for the Paceman concept. Though admittedly it’s not bad looking, Mini is guilty of the same-box-different-size issue mentioned just one paragraph ago in reference to the design of Audi’s mainstream sedan offerings. The Paceman is a Countryman (which, itself, is a small crossover but hardly “mini”) with two doors removed and a roofline that tapers downward toward the rear of the vehicle. The resulting vehicle is a large Mini with styling similar to the small ones. Were the Paceman to ever see production, we’d have three main Minis (Cooper, Clubman, and Countryman) plus the Coupe and Roadster derived from the Cooper, then the Paceman derived from the Countryman. Are you confused yet?
KUDOS to Chrysler for revamping nearly its entire lineup – save the Ram trucks – for 2011. The Grand Cherokee, 300, 200 (nee Sebring), Town & Country, Grand Caravan, Journey, Compass, Charger, Avenger, Patriot, Durango, and even the Wrangler have either new sheetmetal, new interiors, or both. The Challenger got little more than a new steering wheel visually, but the SRT8 392 packs the SRT team’s new 6.4 liter (392 cubic inch – duh!) Hemi and 470 horsepower, plus numerous chassis upgrades. Chrysler also spread availability of its new 3.6 liter Pentastar V6, turning the minivans and the 200/Avenger cousins into what could almost be described as hot rods. There’s much more coming in Chrysler’s Fiat-fortified pipeline, and I’m eager to see what the men and women from Auburn Hills have up their sleeves in the next two years. (One new confirmed product is a Jeep Grand Wagoneer to replace the ugly and unloved Commander).
KICKS to Hyundai for the HCD-12 Curb concept. Though it’s not a bad looking little guy, one has to wonder at what point the market will be completely saturated with subcompact crossovers like the Nissan Juke. Even though the Curb was billed as a concept, it’s clear that it was made with production in mind, as its shape is not really out in left field, and it has a very conventional drivetrain. Under its fluidic scuplture-shaped hood is the company’s new 1.6 liter inline four, turbocharged to 175 horsepower. Clearly intended as a Juke competitor, I will at least give Hyundai credit for making a Juke competitor that is less oddly-styled.
Let’s wrap up with a rapid-fire round:
KUDOS to Kia for the KV7 minivan concept, even though gullwing doors aren’t the most practical solution for vans. Someone’s going to figure this “swagger wagon” thing out eventually.
KICKS to Volkswagen for cheapening the Passat. They actually did do a better job of hiding the cost cutting in the Passat than they did in the Jetta, and the car has a very spacious interior.
KUDOS to Toyota for the Prius C concept. Leaving the current Prius as the “medium-sized” variant and the new Prius V on the large end, the Prius C is a smaller, more efficient package for Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive. It’s too bad that Toyota’s execs had to keep using the qualifier, “of cars that don’t plug in” when talking about how the Prius C will be the most fuel efficient car on the market if it is produced.
KUDOS to Ford and GM, for winning the North American Truck of the Year (the 2011 Ford Explorer) and the North American Car of the Year (the 2011 Chevrolet Volt).
What do you think? Did I give credit where none is due? Did I criticize something that was actually a good move? Have your say in the comments below.