2014 Detroit Auto Show: Looking Ahead to the Past
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 â€” my 40th Detroit show for those who are keeping score â€” 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 Bellerâ€™s Beer Garden.
This year, the big news in Detroit is Fordâ€™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 thereâ€™s a topical twist: Contemporary sports cars â€” even the big F-series pickup â€” are redefining and expanding Americansâ€™ concept of performance to include energy and environmental conservation. Strangely enough, the carmakers seem to have discovered that horsepower and fuel economy arenâ€™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 carâ€™s 50th birthday, still offers buyers the choice of a big V8 â€” or, for the first time in years, a turbocharged four-cylinder engine that provides much better gas mileage, but still packs a serious wallop.
Youâ€™ll still be able to order a big V8 this fall in the new 2015 F-150 truck. But itâ€™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 yearâ€™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 arenâ€™t the only ones playing the performance card. Kia, an affiliate of South Koreaâ€™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, Toyotaâ€™s weird FT-1 concept â€” said to preview a neo-Supra sports car â€” 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 Nissanâ€™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 â€” I expect it will be one of the more talked-about debutantes â€” is the redesigned Chrysler 200, that companyâ€™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 â€śAmericanâ€ť car to the market (its underpinnings are adapted from an Alfa Romeo).
Reflecting both the showâ€™s more international flavor and its occasional focus on the future are a handful of concept vehicles â€” intended to present new ideas in design and technology and test the waters with showgoers â€” mainly from overseas manufacturers.
Audiâ€™s Allroad Shooting Brake (the name is a quaint British term for â€śstation wagonâ€ť) and Volvoâ€™s XC Coupe are not intended for production. But they provide a preview of what may be the next trend in vehicle design â€” 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 â€” 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: Hondaâ€™s Jetson-inspired FCEV, which still looks like itâ€™s 20 years from production, and Toyotaâ€™s FCV, a version of which should hit California streets next year.
I believe Iâ€™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.