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2010 Detroit Auto Show wrap-up

The future of Ford: the Focus.
The future of Ford: the Focus.

There were some fascination contrasts on display the first day at Detroit. It started with Ford; not only did they sweep the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards with the Fusion Hybrid and Transit Connect, but their unveiling of the new Focus was unmatched by any pomp and circumstance that followed.

Here is a company that exudes confidence and chutzpah—no surprise with sales and market share up and a profitable quarter to end last year. And for the first time we Americans didn’t get the hand-me-down version of their C-segment offering. This new Focus looks terrific in both four- and five-door form, and its interior (if it’s close to that inside these preproduction units) is simply stupendous for a vehicle in this price range. Ford is ‘democraticizing’ high-tech with this car; whether it’s the second-gen Sync system or the intuitive touch-screen interface, or features like self-parking or the twin-clutch tranny, the Focus makes mainstream—and small—feel premium.

In comparison, General Motor’s first two intros felt a bit lacking. GMC started out by unveiling a small concept crossover that looked just liked a Scion xB (on sale now for over two years), and a Denali version of the excellent Acadia. While there’s little doubt it will make money for the division, something more than a cosmetic upgrade—like perhaps a more powerful motor—would have been nice.

Then Buick got all the boomers excited by the thought of a follow up to the turbocharged GNX, in the form of the Regal GS—yet they haven’t decided to actually build it yet. This in spite of their avowed goal of lowering the brand’s average buyer age of 99 to something approaching pre-retirement. To compound the challenge, they decide to rename the gorgeous European-designed Opel Insignia as the ‘Regal’ instead of something even mildly evocative.

Toyota’s time was dedicated to reminding the assembled press corps that they have been involved in the electric vehicle (EV) game for decades, and they still don’t think these machines are near ready for prime time. That also applies to plug-in hybrids and lithium-ion batteries; they’ll run a test fleet of Priuses powered by such over the next year, while GM rolls out the production Volt. It will be intriguing to see which company has timed the tech and the market better. They finished with the FT-CH, a concept for a smaller Prius-like hybrid, inspired by ‘8-bit’ video gaming culture.

The Germans came across as very confident, as they should be, based on sales numbers and profits. Rumor was that VW might have outsold Toyota to become the world’s largest car company; even if not proven, their market share and grosses are up. Their New Compact Coupe was predictably elegant and expensive looking; it comes from Walter de Silva’s talented team, and reminds of a more angular, junior-league Audi S5. It also previews a hybrid drivetrain from the company, and is probably an accurate indicator of the forthcoming Jetta. The firm also showed sped-up video of the construction of their $1-billion plant in Chattanooga, and reminded us that the US has always been their ‘home’.

Audi crowed about their profits and success, and one look inside the luscious interior of the new A8 (which looks much better in the metal than expected from photos) explains why. Known for standard-setting cockpits, that of their new flagship moves the game on, both in its use of top-flight materials and in its shapes and color choices.

Mercedes, also doing well, unveiled the E-class Convertible; this should spin some serious money for the Swabians, as it’s a glorified C-class underneath, and its innovative solutions to keeping pampered ladies’ hairdos intact via its ‘Aircap’ system of moveable spoilers shows they know their target demographic well.

Honda showed off the production CR-Z hybrid coupe, which looks awful from some angles, great from others—like many of the firm’s other recent offerings. Hopefully it drives better than the Insight, with which it shares many of its mechanicals. More intriguing was their introductory video, which audaciously questioned whether cars are even a good idea. See it here.

Kia—one of only three companies to increase sales in 2009 in the US—tried to amuse the jaded journos with Sully the pitchman; Mini did much better when they unveiled the Beachcomber Concept. Add doors and maybe a roof and you’ll have a good indication of what the forthcoming small crossover (with optional AWD) will look like when it hits showrooms in the next eighteen months. And lest anyone think a larger, CUV is against the brand’s character, they showed pictures of the Mini Moke, one of the world’s first lifestyle SUVs, which they had forty years ago.

Detroit’s second day was a bit tamer; the advantage being you could catch up on things you missed. Things kicked off with the domestic luxury brands.

Cadillac’s full-size XTS Platinum concept showed off a subtly softer evolution of their ‘Art & Science’ exterior form language and an renewed emphasis on the interior and occupant interfaces—which will be important as they continue to grow in Asia, where many owners never even drive.

Lincoln’s thorough refresh of the MKX crossover brought the split, waterfall grill to the smaller crossover, along with the more luxurious interior trappings they’ve showcased of late, and some cutting edge tech in the form of the awkwardly-named but intuitive (and iPhone-esque) ‘MyLincoln Touch’; and the bonus of a more robust engine, the Mustang’s revised, 3.7-liter V6, here in 305hp form. Those of us looking for an EcoBoost version left the unveiling unfulfilled, though.

Subaru picked up from there, with a reheated Tokyo offering, the Hybrid Tourer Concept, a beautifully rendered gullwing special with right-hand drive and the kind of surface language we can only wish the Legacy showcased. Though its body has little to do with reality, the all-wheel drive, hybrid drivetrain will see production in 2012.

They were followed by BYD, a Chinese firm whose initials stands for ‘Build Your Dream’, though what that might be in the context of their Detroit offerings is something of a nightmare. Their production offerings were poorly built copies of other company’s cars, but they are one of the planet’s largest suppliers of rechargeable batteries, so their F6DM—the first production plug-in hybrid—must be taken seriously.

Press conferences concluded with several about our electric vehicle future, and I did a quick run down ‘Electric Avenue’ to see if there was anything in touch with American reality. The forthcoming Nissan Leaf is serious business, and a ballsy business move—the company (and its partner Renault) is shooting for 20% of their production to be fully electric by 2012—and it was cool to finally see the Mitsubishi I MiEV in person; it makes the Smart look tame. But by and large, nothing here gave me a serious jolt. But that left time to revisit some of the highlights of my Detroit ’10 experience, though these particular cars debuted overseas at other shows last year.

My first stop was at the Bentley stand to see their new flagship, and the first car built under their own auspices since the Eight Liter of 1930: the Mulsanne. This is my dream: as big as an aircraft carrier, as beautiful as a Botticelli. Powered by a 6 and ¾ liter pushrod V8 that not only meets the world’s stiffest emissions standards, but also manages to crank out 752lb-ft of twist across the rev range, this stunning behemoth’s luscious interior takes skilled artisans—some of whom are 3rd generation Bentley craftsmen—170 hours to configure. As gorgeous as it had appeared in press releases, it need the scale that only comes in person to be truly appreciated.

As much as I love Jaguars, and the work of Ian Callum, I wasn’t sure what to make of the firm’s flagship XJ from their webcast and various photos. In the metal, this cat is imposing, compelling, and very, very 21st Century. Yes, the D-pillar is a bit challenging to convention, and the taillamps perhaps make the car look a bit narrow, but the interior is sheer genius. The color palette, use of timber, and door panels are original in form and execution; the TFT-screens for the instruments and infotainment completely current. And the steering wheel is without doubt exquisite to behold—and hold. Well done; cant wait to drive it.

Completing the British Fab Three for me was the all-new Lotus Evora, a mid-engined four-seat sports car. That it’s swept every English magazine’s ‘car of the year’ type comparo already is to be expected—the Brits are often the most Anglo centric of us all—but on the floor it had terrific presence, and its cockpit (often a weakness of Hethels’s products) felt very special. The pricing may be a bit ambitious for the humble Toyota-based 280hp V6 engine, but if the drive is anything like we’ve heard, the Evora may rewrite several rulebooks and humble many better-known brands.


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