2014 Detroit Auto Show: Looking Ahead to the Past

January 15, 2014

The organizers of the annual Detroit auto show rebranded the event 25 years ago as the North American International Auto Show. But the 2014 edition — my 40th Detroit show for those who are keeping score — takes me back to the early 1970s when local auto dealers hosted what was still a regional event focused largely on domestic brands. In fact, the hometown angle had been the dominant theme since the show originated in 1907 at Beller’s Beer Garden.

This year, the big news in Detroit is Ford’s redesigned F-150 pickup truck and a new crop of performance cars, including hot editions of the Ford Mustang and the Chevy Corvette. Guess what. I could have written that headline back in 1974.

Except there’s a topical twist: Contemporary sports cars — even the big F-series pickup — are redefining and expanding Americans’ concept of performance to include energy and environmental conservation. Strangely enough, the carmakers seem to have discovered that horsepower and fuel economy aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, as they once argued.

Take the Mustang, which has been around car shows even longer than me. The latest version, which marks the original pony car’s 50th birthday, still offers buyers the choice of a big V8 — or, for the first time in years, a turbocharged four-cylinder engine that provides much better gas mileage, but still packs a serious wallop.

You’ll still be able to order a big V8 this fall in the new 2015 F-150 truck. But it’s so much lighter, thanks to a switch to all-aluminum body panels, that a new turbocharged 3.5-liter V6 will furnish the same level of acceleration and speed as last year’s truck with a 6.2-liter V8. And you can expect fuel economy to go up by 3 to 5 miles per gallon.

The Detroit carmakers aren’t the only ones playing the performance card. Kia, an affiliate of South Korea’s Hyundai Motor, had its California-based design crew whip up a sexy little confection called the GT4 Stinger, a compact four-passenger coupe that sends more than 300 horsepower to the rear wheels from gas-sipping turbo four-cylinder engine. An affordable (think 25 grand or so) sports cars aimed at younger buyers, the Stinger, if given the green light for production, could put a crimp in demand for the Subaru BRZ and Scion FR-S.

Not every sports car on display in Detroit works. While not quite an epic fail, Toyota’s weird FT-1 concept — said to preview a neo-Supra sports car — looks like it was designed by and for 20-something video gamers rather than the aging Boomers who remember the old Supra and could more easily afford something in the $50,000-plus bracket. The same critique could be applied to Nissan’s Sport Sedan concept, a wacky four-door with way-too-busy styling that is said to foretell the next Maxima.

A sleeper at the show — I expect it will be one of the more talked-about debutantes — is the redesigned Chrysler 200, that company’s first truly competitive entry in the midsize family sedan segment and an honest-to-gosh rival to the longtime class leaders, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, as well as more recent stalwarts such as the Ford Fusion and Nissan Altima. Ironically, it took a Chrysler bankruptcy and subsequent takeover by Italian automaker Fiat to bring this “American” car to the market (its underpinnings are adapted from an Alfa Romeo).

Reflecting both the show’s more international flavor and its occasional focus on the future are a handful of concept vehicles — intended to present new ideas in design and technology and test the waters with showgoers — mainly from overseas manufacturers.

Audi’s Allroad Shooting Brake (the name is a quaint British term for “station wagon”) and Volvo’s XC Coupe are not intended for production. But they provide a preview of what may be the next trend in vehicle design — in effect, a convergence of crossovers and wagons that provide flexibility and functionality in a sporty package, along with clean and frugal plug-in hybrid powertrains.

Several big carmakers are betting heavily on hydrogen as the ultimate in future efficiency — ironic considering the idea of hydrogen as an automotive fuel dates back something like 200 years. A much newer spin, hydrogen fuel cells with electric motors, is showcased in Detroit in two vehicles: Honda’s Jetson-inspired FCEV, which still looks like it’s 20 years from production, and Toyota’s FCV, a version of which should hit California streets next year.

I believe I’ll become a true convert to hydrogen when Ford puts a fuel cell in the F-150.

It could happen sooner than you think. After all, the basic concept of hydrogen fuel has been percolating since, oh, about 1806.

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