While most of us have only just vacuumed the beach sand out of the 4x4’s carpets and are trying to remember why we do what we do for a living (instead of surfing professionally, or crafting award-winning viognier in the Cape Winelands), the first major motor show of the year has already come and gone. The North American International Auto Show gave visitors a taste of things to come. But frankly, the menu could have been tastier. By DEON SCHOEMAN.
Early January is not the most auspicious timing for a motor show – especially one located in the grungy heart of downtown Detroit. And yet the motoring media doesn’t hesitate to brave blizzards, flight delays, filthy sleet and sub-zero temperatures to attend the first major motor show of the year.
Admittedly, the US is one of the largest and most influential vehicle markets in the world, despite the lingering effects of the credit crunch. But what makes the Detroit pilgrimage so remarkable is the new car market in North America is also one of the globe’s most colloquial.
Compact cars in Yank-speak are what we would consider C-segment contenders like the VW Golf and Jetta, the Ford Focus and the Honda Civic. Sedans generally rule, and bakkies are called trucks, which often outsell cars.
Of course, the US motoring landscape is changing. Fuel is no longer cheaper than bottled water and California is no longer the only state with an environmental conscience. A new generation of low- and zero-emission cars – hybrids, plug-in electrics, and even fuel-cell vehicles – is starting to emerge.
It seems the American psyche has finally started accepting that small and frugal doesn’t have to be inferior by definition. Except in Texas, where size still counts.
Still, the razzmatazz at the Cobo Centre in downtown Detroit, which traditionally hosts the NAIAS, isn’t quite as loud, as proud and as brash as it used to be. The stands are still expansive, the cars polished to a jewel-like sheen. But the showmanship, the cheap thrills, the diamante and the patent leather, have all but disappeared.
Instead, this year’s Detroit was a strangely pragmatic place. And America’s Big Three – Chevrolet, Ford and Chrysler – looked decidedly meek and mild, perhaps still smarting from the humiliation of near-insolvency and government bail-outs. By comparison, their European rivals pushed hard to command centre stage.
The all-new Audi A6 is a good case in point. That the sleek luxury saloon made its world debut in Detroit proves just how serious Audi is about wooing US customers.
The sedan’s cohesive lines disguise a car that’s still generously dimensioned inside and out, while a mix of lightweight steel and aluminium keeps weight down, but improves dynamics and fuel efficiency. The five-strong engine line-up includes petrol and turbodiesel options.
Those familiar with last year’s A8 will recognise many of that car’s interior traits in the new A6 cabin, with the focus very much on space, comfort and ergonomics. Indeed, describing the new A6 as a junior A8 is about right.
The newcomer should arrive in South Africa in the third quarter, where Audi hopes it will finally have the appeal and the pedigree to take on the standard-setting BMW 5-Series, and the somewhat more ponderous Mercedes-Benz E-class.
BMW’s show stand in Detroit was one of the busiest. Among the new models was a mildly facelifted 1-Series Coupé. The subtle changes include a revised front with a restyled airdam that channels air to create a so-called Air Curtain ahead of the front wheels, which should reduce drag and improve efficiency .
Other updates include new headlights with LED daytime running lights, revised tail light clusters, redesigned wheels and upgraded interiors with a greater array of trim and finish options. Both models still offer a varied array of petrol and turbodiesel engines.
But arguably BMW’s most important Detroit debutant was the new BMW 6-Series Convertible, which made its appearance barely a week before the start of the car’s world launch (currently under way right here, in Cape Town).
Like its predecessor, the new two-door is more grand tourer than wieldy sports car, but at least the design appears to be more cohesive than its predecessor, with a welcome hint of elegance and ample visual muscle.
There’s a choice of two engines: a twin-turbo three-litre straight six offering 235kW, and a 300kW V8. The gearbox is an eight-speed auto in both instances. The interior is plush, with better packaging and more space, while BMW’s Drive Dynamics system allows agile handling.
But it’s still a big and ostentatious car that will have to work hard to vindicate is sports car positioning. And yes, the US is considered a key market for the newcomer.
It may look remarkably like its predecessor, but the latest Chrysler 300C is new from the ground up – new chassis, new engine, new body, new interior.
Pity it looks much the same, although the slatted chrome grille, LED daytime running lights and accentuated flanks are points of difference.
An upgraded interior is said to rival Europe’s best, while the underpinnings match a responsive chassis to a new three-litre V6. The classic 5,7-litre Hemi V8 remains as an option, too.
The 300C is due here later this year – although it could well arrive here badged as a Fiat, in the wake of Fiat’s share acquisition. Somehow, a V8 Hemi-powered, Fiat-badged muscle sedan sounds like a true Cosa Nostra machine Sicilians will welcome with open arms.
Stealing the show on the Ford stand was a compact SUV concept called the Vertrek. It’s been designed for global markets and employs the same platform as the new Focus – all of which point to the strong positioning of the Vertrek as a future production model.
In real-world trim, the Vertrek will take on class leaders like the Kia Sportage, and will offer a choice of petrol or turbodiesel drivetrains, as well as a choice of front and all-wheel drive, and green systems such as stop-start and regenerative charging.
How ironic that the brightest star on the General Motors stand was a tuned version of a small car developed not in the US, but by Daewoo in Korea. The Sonic will be released in South Africa as the next-generation Aveo.
The Z-spec concept, resplendent in not-so-subtle black and orange, adds some sporty appeal to the new car, but the versions we’ll get here will be a lot plainer – read boring.
As before, the Sonic family will include sedans and hatchbacks, with an engine line-up likely to offer 1.6 and 1.8-litre options. Local buyers can expect an interior similar to the Cruze, with a high level of standard spec, when the car is launched here in the second half of the year.
Honda America took Detroit showgoers by surprise with near production-ready concepts of the next-generation Civic Sedan and SI Coupe. However, these cars are US market-specific, and won’t replace the European-spec Civics currently on sale in South Africa.
That said, the sedan is a handsome and sporty offering with some Accord-like design traits, and may share some design traits with a planned Civic sedan replacement for European markets, due sometime next year
The more aggressively styled SI Coupe is sportier than the sedan, but the rear-end treatment is fussy, with emphasised haunches that make the two-door look too heavy-set from some angles.
Engine choices will include i-VTEC petrol units, as well as an IMA Hybrid drivetrain culled from the CR-Z sports hybrid. The new US-specific Civics go on sale in May.
One of the more futuristic concepts at the Detroit show was the Hyundai Curb, an active urban utility vehicle with the stance and attitude of an SUV, but the dimensions and agility of a compact hatch.
Likely to tackle the upcoming Nissan Juke when it goes into production, the Curb is powered by a 1,6-litre petrol engine and features a high-tech interior with connectivity as the key theme.
Perhaps more relevant was the unveiling of the much-anticipated Hyundai Veloster. The low-slung, sporty coupé is unusual because of its third door, directly behind the front passenger door, which is meant to ease access to the rear bench seat.
Power comes from a 1,6-litre engine good for 103kW and 167Nm, and since the Veloster weighs less than 1,200kg, performance and fuel economy are said to be impressive.
Detroit was certainly an apt forum for the first unveiling of the facelifted Jeep Compass. Jeep claims the revitalised SUV, which now looks like a baby Grand Cherokee, offers optional true off-road capability, together with improved fuel economy and an uprated interior.
New suspension settings are said to enhance ride comfort and all-terrain capability, while safety features have been beefed up too.
The futuristic Kia KV7 concept MPV was another crowd pleaser and underlines the strong design integrity of the Korean brand.
The KV7 features a gull-wing door, tabletop computer and lounge-style seating, while making full use of the box-like shape’s interior space.
Mercedes-Benz added some US-style glitz and glamour to its Detroit Show presence, with the reveal of a facelifted C-class the intended highlight.
With more than a million sold thus far, the current C-Class has been hugely successful for the Three-Pointed Star. The updated version features more than 2,000 new components.
Most obvious are the redesigned front incorporating a revised bumper, different grille, redesigned headlights and new bonnet.
At the rear, the bumper, apron and tail light designs are new too, creating a fresher, more dynamic appearance. There are detail improvements to the interior execution, too.
Not surprisingly, the drivetrain changes are aimed at improving efficiency and performance. Stop/start systems are standard across the range, with BlueEfficiency status for all engines. Seven-speed auto gearboxes are now the norm.
The upgrade package is applied to both sedan and estate versions of the C-class, despite the fact that estates remain much less popular than their sedan siblings in the SA market. Still, the C-class estate makes a compelling argument for premium-grade, practical lifestyle motoring. The new C should arrive in SA before mid-year.
The buzz on the Mini stand was almost tangible, with the unusual Mini Paceman concept the obvious drawcard.
Think of it as the X6 of the Mini world, it combines the tall stance and in-your-face attitude of the Countryman with a two-door coupé configuration, creating another niche within a niche in the process.
The car’s larger dimensions will no doubt find favour in the US market. And yes, it seems set for production, in Cooper S trim only, and with the option of all-wheel drive. We expect the production version to debut at the Frankfurt Show in September.
PORSCHE 918 RSR
Porsche’s long tradition of endurance racing with legendary race cars such as the record-breaking 917 Le Mans winner found unexpected acknowledgement at the Detroit expo in the form of the Porsche
918 RSR – a futuristic racing car that Porsche calls a racing laboratory for the future.
The 918 RSR combines design elements of the Geneva Show 918 Spyder Concept with the 911 GT3 R hybrid race car.
A 420kW V8 is partnered by a KERS system that powers two 75kW electric motors on the front axle for up to eight seconds. It wasn’t the supercar everyone was expecting, but it does indicate that Porsche is working on making the concept a reality – on road and track.
TOYOTA PRIUS C
Rather more pragmatic was Toyota’s announcement of an extended Prius family, which will include a more compact Prius C.
Shown in concept form at Detroit, the Prius C is set to become the Yaris of the hybrid world, with compact dimensions and wieldy handling attracting a younger, trendier audience seeking a more eco-friendly alternative than the current small car crop.
The Prius C is likely to be highly fuel efficient, practical and offer a host of entertainment and connectivity options more in line with its intended younger audience. The hybrid drivetrain is retained, but in a smaller, more efficient form.
The production version of the Prius C is due in 2012, and will join a new-generation Prius V, and a Prius plug-in hybrid. All three cars are expected to create a sexier, more high-tech image for the somewhat fuddy-duddy Prius brand.
However, the Prius C is the one that really matters – not only because it promises to be more accessible than the current range, but also because it may herald an era of exciting new Prius-style cars from its rivals.
Detroit might not have been the biggest or brightest show. And it lacked the true showstoppers, the razzmatazz and the bigger-is-better ambience of previous years. But perhaps Detroit’s pragmatism is more representative of the real world. And that would make it a more relevant show than ever before. DM
Main photo: A model stands in front of the Chrysler 300c during the press days for the North American International Auto show in Detroit, Michigan, January 11, 2011. REUTERS/Mark Blinch
While we have your attention...
An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.
Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.
Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.
"We spend the first year of a child's life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down. There's something wrong there." ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson