NAIAS 2016 | Part III : The Japanese brands

Naias 2016-3

Honda’s big announcement at the Detroit show was the new Ridgeline pick-up truck that continues to feature a monocoque construction rather than the body-on-frame construction of most others. The previous model was ungainly and awkward, but this latest version is a big improvement, although its clean lines and ‘crossover front-end’ are not at all rugged looking.  This new model has a number of interesting features like a two-way opening tailgate and hidden storage under the load floor.
Acura revealed the ILX, a stunning concept car in a beautiful shade of red. This quite large, pillar-less four door was as dramatic as it was beautiful.  Strong feature lines, bold shapes and many interesting details, make this a strong contender for the best concept at the show.  Bright trim pieces sweep up across the A-pillars onto the roof towards the centre of the car, flowing seamlessly into the formed rear window.  The high mounted stop lamp is like a spear extending over the backlite – quite unique.  The taillamp and exhaust outlet shapes and dramatic and complement each other on the Kamm tail.  The interior is equally strong with four bucket seats separated by a prominent center console, a rectangular steering wheel, a surprisingly small instrument cluster and the inevitable large central infotainment screen.  There is not much chance that this concept will make it into production, but this could signal a breakout for Acura design going forward – something they badly need!
Frankly, the Toyota display was rather boring and very similar to last year. The only vehicle that was new and interesting was the Kikai, which is a crazy cartoon of a car, but it is fun to see what happens when you let designers run free!
On a more serious note the Mirai (which means Future) is here! Toyota will sell 200 of its fuel cell vehicles in Southern California during 2016 at a price of $57,500.  Of course they are all spoken for already.  Toyota showed two special versions of the Mirai, one of which had an experimental flat panel roof antenna that will provide much improved communication with satellites.  The second was a gull wing two-door concept with cool chrome wheel covers.
The FCV plus (previously shown in Tokyo) is not intended for production, but it is a vision the future of fuel cell cars with electric motors at each wheel and wildly futuristic appearance inside and out.
Toyota’s youth brand, Scion showed a very interesting concept called C-HR. This small coupe actually had four doors, the rears being cunningly disguised to maintain the coupe appearance.  The car features big (21 inch) wheels, strongly emphasized wheel arches and very interesting front and rear lights – the rears appearing to float above the quarter panel.
Stop the presses! Toyota just announced that the Scion brand will be dropped in August of this year.  Apparently the slow sales of the brand can no longer be tolerated and the Scion products will be folded into the Toyota line-up where appropriate.
Lexus debuted two interesting cars at the show. First was the LF-FC, which is a large four-door concept with fuel cell power.  The proportions of the vehicle are excellent, with elegant lines, a strongly sculptured bodyside and dramatic lights front and rear.  Like the Acura ILX there are no door handles – great for the design, but perhaps not so practical….   The large air intakes, plus the sharply angled headlights and running lights further dramatize the now familiar and very prominent “spindle” grill.
The LC 500 could be seen as a more realistic and practical version on the exciting LFA coupe, but it is actually the realization of the LF-LC concept shown here in Detroit 4 years ago. It will be the flagship of the Lexus brand when introduced in 2017 with lots of power and a beautiful design.  Even the obnoxious spindle grille looks somehow better on this svelte design, framed as it is by the intricate front lights and air intakes. The rear lights are not so pleasing, with blank white lenses when unlit and elongated spears going in two random directions.  We love the exhausts, however, and the unusually strong feature lines embracing the exhaust outlets and the license plate that sweep towards the center of the vehicle.
The Nissan display was an exercise in contrast. On one side was the IDS concept, which is an autonomous, ‘zero emissions’ EV four door sedan; while on the other was the Titan Warrior pick up concept, the rock crushing opposite to the “tree-hugging” IDS.  Like many concepts these days, the IDS features a pillar-less suicide door set up.   The design is much more pleasing than the homely Leaf, but it may be a little too extreme for production.  The “buck-tooth” grille, as well as the front and rear lights, are evolved from the current Nissan look.  There are some new features, like an illuminated Nissan badge at the rear and a messaging system across the base of the windshield!  This would allow the driver to say things like “After you” to pedestrians or other drivers.  The potential messages have the imagination running wild!
The Warrior truck concept is well executed, with all the right macho elements. It further reinforces Nissan’s determination to gain more market share in this important US segment.  With its recently introduced new version of the Titan pick-up – which now comes with a V8 Cummins diesel engine – they could do just that.
The Infinity QX30 crossover had been shown as a concept a year or so ago and more recently announced for the US at the Los Angeles show. It is faithful to the original concept and should be nice addition to the Infinity Range.
Also revealed at the show, was the Q60, a two-door coupe version of the Q50 sedan. Again, it is very close to the concept unveiled at last year’s show and succeeded in being both elegant and sporty.
Rounding out the Japanese exhibitors, Subaru presented the Impreza Sedan Concept. In common with most of the Subaru line, the concept didn’t try to be outrageous or futuristic, but it was a clean well executed design, with some nice fresh touches that should work well for Subaru, assuming that something like this reaches production.

NAIAS 2016 | Part II : The German brands

Naias 2016-2

The big introduction from Mercedes was the new E-Class. While the design was classic for the brand and instantly recognizable, it was somewhat disappointing and broke no new ground, although we did like the strong front end featuring large air intakes.  The interior is also classic Mercedes – but in a good way.  We were happy to see that they have gone away from the “iPad stuck on the instrument panel” look, moving to an integrated rectangular screen that spans from in front of the driver all the way to the central infotainment display.   This display is either two 12.3-inch screens made to look like one, or, on lower line models, a more conventional instrument cluster and a central 12.3-inch screen also integrated to look like one large display.  There are some well-executed wood inserts and LED accent lighting customizable in 64 different colours!
The S-Class Cabrio is a really beautiful car with a great interior….. and now we get the twin turbo V12 S65 AMG version. Lust at first sight!
The facelifted SLK, now called the SLC was also on display.
The Audi stand next door featured the Q8 h-Tron Quattro concept. This sharp looking crossover was first shown last fall in its battery powered e-Tron guise.  The h-Tron is powered by a fuel cell and uses a combination of three hydrogen tanks plus a 1.8 kW hour battery pack to store energy.  We do like the front-end look of this concept, as well as the “pop-out” rear view cameras on the front fenders. We can’t wait for these cameras to become viable for production so that we can get rid of the huge door mirrors we are obliged to use today.
The new A4 sedan and Allroad wagon also were on display. This model is typical Audi, with a nicely executed exterior and a finely detailed interior that remains the standard of the industry.  We just wish that the exterior had a little more “reach” and we are disappointed that the interior has the “iPad” look for the infotainment – especially considering the hi-tech cluster Audi introduced on the TT.
We do like the facelifted R8 without the big “spear” behind the doors, but the front grill texture is rather Japanese looking. We also love the belt driven Ducati that was on the stand!
BMW chose Detroit to introduce the M2 Coupe, harking back to the 1970’s when we first came to love BMWs. A 2002 turbo model was on the stand for comparison.  We are sure that the car will be a blast to drive and the front end is certainly a very dramatic combination of air intakes and aerodynamics, but the rear half of the car just doesn’t work.  The roofline/C-pillar is weak and the car is just too short to provide an aggressive stance.
A 650i Cabrio on the stand painted in an attractive matt bronze colour caught our eye and the i8 still generates awe in all of us – although the black and white colour scheme is not our favourite……..
The VW stand was a rather sad place to be during press days. The pall resulting from the emissions debacle hangs heavy in the air and the VW executives failed once again to move us, the dealers or the customers beyond this fiasco.  The VW goal of increasing US volumes to 1 million units is now just a dream.  Amazingly, Subaru’s volume in the US exceeds that of VW, Audi, Bentley and Lamborghini combined.
I am sure that the 2016 Passat is a decent cart , but it is rather dull and the only thing worthy of comment is the frameless interior rear view mirror.  No big volume opportunity here.
The Tiguan GTE Active Concept was yet another attempt by VW to convince us that they actually have some SUV/Crossover products in the pipeline. They certainly cannot come soon enough for the struggling dealer body.  Although execution of the vehicle is quite good, the choice of wheels and tyres seemed dated.  In a move to convey ruggedness they put big truck tyres on the concept.  We would have preferred a bigger wheel and a lower profile tyre.

NAIAS 2016 | Part I : The American brands

As usual, the snow and the cold weather arrived just in time. After a very mild December, Mother Nature remembered that all the international journalists were due in Detroit for the auto show, so she turned on an icy blast and just enough snow to be a nuisance.  The show itself was one of contrasts.  After very strong sales in 2015 where an all-time US sales record of almost 17.5 million units was set, you would expect an almost euphoric atmosphere.  Instead there were some notable companies missing from the floor, a good deal of space was dedicated to suppliers and for some reason there was a very large Rob Report stand.  Another contrast was the record low fuel price at local filling stations, juxtaposed with the tremendous effort that almost every manufacturer has devoted to electric, hybrid and fuel cell propulsion.  But…  enough of this introspection.  Let’s look at the cars.
Starting with the domestics, Ford had its usual large stand — lots of cars and trucks, but not much new or exciting. The Fusion facelift should help maintain the great momentum that this well designed mid-sized car has earned, but frankly it was hard to spot the differences without one of the old models alongside.
Two of the more interesting vehicles were hidden away on a mezzanine floor.  The new, even bolder version of the Raptor Off-Road pick-up truck and alongside, the Focus RS, which is new in the US market in 2016.
The Lincoln stand was remote from the parent company this year and featured the return of the Continental as a full size four-door sedan. At least Ford has come to realize the power of the classic model names from the old glory days, so maybe they will get rid of the ‘alphabet soup’ on the other Lincoln models too — MKC, MKX, MKZ  etc, etc.  Alas, Cadillac is probably too far down that road to go in a similar direction and they are too hell bent on chasing the German manufacturers.  The design is not as bold as the original concept, but it is clearly a Lincoln and presents a fresh look.  The strong belt moulding incorporates the ‘fixed’ door handles and integrates the door mirrors. The door latches are electronic and just require finger contact to release.  Similarly on the inside the doors are opened with just the push of a button.  Some points of contention: The grille looks like a cross between a Jaguar and a Kia and the taillights are pure Dodge ‘racetrack’.  Why?  The 5 small, rectangular headlights on each side are cool, but they look rather like an Acura.
General Motors had little in the way of new mainstream products, but they did show the production version of the all-electric Chevrolet Bolt. Some people said that the styling is similar to the BMW i3, but if so, I would say the Bolt wins hands down.
The Cadillac stand featured the new XT5 SUV. This is an evolutionary replacement for the SRX (more alphabet soup confusion) and clearly follows the Cadillac design theme.  Arguably not as attractive is its predecessor, it is further let down by a mediocre interior.
It was left to Buick to provide some flare and excitement for GM. Evolving from last year’s Avenir 4 door concept, Buick displayed the Avista concept.  The Avista is a large 2 door, 4-seat coupe that is even more striking than the Avenir.  Its dark blue paint job appeared to be inches deep and accentuated the sweeping lines and bold features.  The shape of the DLO* was gorgeous and it was highlighted by tasteful bright trim.  This is the kind of car we would all like to see built, but how big is the market for large two door cars???  Quel dommage!
*DLO: This is an acronym for ‘Day Light Opening’ and is used to describe the graphic appearance of the vehicle’s side glass. The DLO is the most important graphic element of the vehicle’s design and provides a major contrasting surface to accentuate a form.  Further emphasis may be created by outlining the DLO with bright trim. By concealing the A-Pillars and/or rear-most pillars with flush glass or other treatments, the DLO may be extended to include the front and/or rear screens. This design treatment works best with a light coloured car, dark tinted glass and blacked out pillars.



GM is doing some good work in the design studios; the new Buick LaCrosse just a few feet away from the Avista is a very nicely executed full size car. Nothing extreme or extravagant, just a really nice car – perfect for the Buick customers.
For Fiat Chrysler Automobiles the main event was the introduction of the new Pacifica minivan. Chrysler invented the segment back in 1983 and has dominated sales ever since.  Ford and GM dropped out of the market, but Toyota and Honda are close on Chrysler’s heals.  The all-new people hauler, available with a hybrid powertrain, is planned to replace both Chrysler and Dodge versions of the prior model and consolidate FCA’s position in the segment.  In the short term the Dodge Caravan will be continued to fully assess the potential ongoing demand for the old model.  The new design is strong with a front face reminiscent of the 200 sedan.  It also comes laden with features, including foot-actuated sliding doors, touch screens in the back for kids video games and even a built in vacuum cleaner!
Also new on the FCA stand was the Fiat 124 Spider. From certain angles you can clearly see the shared Mazda MX-5/Miata underpinnings, but overall the design is fresh and should attract some new customers to the Fiat stores.  We like it better than the Mazda!
There was a relatively large Alfa Romeo presence on the FCA stand with four Giulia Quadrifoglio models on display. The car certainly looks great (especially this model), but it is going to be quite hard for Alfa to penetrate this highly competitive segment with a brand that is essentially new to the market.  It will also be hard for Americans to master pronunciation of the full name!


NAIAS 2014 : Our American dream is back !

NaiasThe Polar Vortex that had driven freezing air to Detroit and huge swaths of the North American continent just a week before had now become a fading memory.  In contrast, journalists arriving in Detroit for the North American International Auto Show were greeted by almost balmy weather with temperatures around 4 degrees C.  They were also greeted by a rekindling of the American love affair with the automobile.  Styling and luxury were keynotes of the show with exciting coupes everywhere and very attractive compact SUV’s and crossovers for every taste and wallet.   With the economy growing, industry sales roaring back and fuel prices lower, consumer confidence is back.  The emphasis on electric propulsion and cheap transportation is gone.  Yes, customers want fuel efficiency, but they want it without any compromise to style or excitement.  And the manufacturers are ready to deliver…

stay tuned for a show review…!


The US auto industry is back.  After several years in the doldrums, finally there was a strong feeling of optimism and excitement, at the Detroit auto show this year.  Even the weather cooperated for once, with relatively mild temperatures and no snow.  The media days were well attended, with the usual throngs of reporters and writers crowded around the industry “stars” like Marchionne and Mulally, hanging on every word.

The real stars of the show are the cars of course, at least as far as the public is concerned and they were not disappointed.  As further confirmation that the show was upbeat, a good many of the introductions and concepts featured up-market brands and higher priced vehicles.  Front and rear lamps are increasingly jewel-like, with more and more LED accents everywhere.  Bodysides are becoming more and more sculptured, with strong feature lines sweeping in all directions – some more successfully than others!  Under all that bling, the serious business of making good cars continues unabated.  Fuel economy and emissions requirements continue to drive more and more drivetrain efficiency.  Hybrids are everywhere, full electric vehicles are still struggling to make an impact, turbo-charging is a strong trend, along with fewer cylinders in the engine, but more speeds in the transmission.  And don’t forget diesels.  The US has long resisted the transition to the diesel engines that Europe so embraced, partly due to a lingering perception that they are noisy and smell bad, but also because there has never been a price incentive to encourage the switch.  Diesel fuel remains more costly than gasoline in North America.  Nevertheless, more and more diesel engine options are becoming available in the US and to make the point, Jeep introduced a diesel version of the Grand Cherokee at the show.
The big news at GM was the new Corvette Stingray, a further evolution of Chevrolet’s flagship model.  The car generated quite a lot of interest although some people think that the car is somewhat “overwrought”, with lots of vents and feature lines, plus elements from numerous earlier generation Vettes.  The biggest complaint, however, was that the rear lamps were square and not the twin round lamps that have always been a Corvette trademark feature.  Overall the car looks quite dramatic, but then again, it is hard to fail when the proportions the designers are working with are this good!   The real question is, “Can the car attract younger buyers?”  The other big news from ‘the General’ was the new family of Chevrolet and GMC full size pickups.  Although they have some interesting features, like the counterbalanced tailgate that makes for easy opening and closing, the designs were underwhelming and lack the reach that they needed to compete more strongly against the market leading Ford F150.  Introduced with a lot less fanfare was the new Chevrolet Impala full size car.  With a lot more presence than its dull predecessor, this could be a worthy competitor to the Chrysler 300 and Ford Taurus.  Also significant was the Cadillac ELR introduction.  Basically it is a Chevy Volt with a swoopy Cadillac coupe bodystyle and a suitably luxurious interior.  The car is attractive, (apart from some minor exterior trim issues), but the real question is, will it sell in sufficient quantities to justify the development cost?  And does Cadillac need another two-door coupe alongside the CTS coupe?  Time will tell, but the superbly executed Volt is selling much slower than GM had hoped and the Nissan Leaf is in similar trouble.  Electric cars are still too expensive for prime time.
With the recent introduction of the new Fusion, Ford has a strong car well executed line-up with Fiesta/Focus/Fusion/Taurus.  These cars, backed up by impressive powertrains, (further bolstered at the show by a new three cylinder Ecoboost motor) provide Ford with a very competitive market position.  Ford aims to protect its dominance in the pickup market and had a beefy looking concept truck on display to blunt the announcement of the new Chevy Silverado.  Introduction of the European developed Transit van to replace the long serving Econoline as well as a new passenger version of the Transit Connect, further demonstrate Fords strength in the commercial side of the business.  Ford’s whole range of cars and trucks demonstrates the soundness of Alan Mulally’s push for “One Ford” and the efficient use of worldwide resources.  The problem at Ford is that they need to revitalize Lincoln as a luxury brand, and fast.  A great deal of effort is being put behind that objective and to that end the MKC small SUV (yes another one!) concept was revealed.  The prominent Lincoln “split wing” grille may not be to everyone’s taste, but the overall execution was clean and expertly designed.
Chrysler recently updated its range of pickups (the new Ram 1500 is Motor Trends Truck of the Year), so the refreshed Grand Cherokee was the most significant news for the strongly recovering Chrysler Corporation.  With steady growth in volume and share over the last three years, the success of this rejuvenated company demonstrates the power of having a chief executive who knows what he is doing and who can really lead an organization, extracting the very best from all the employees.  Cerberus, Daimler, are you watching?
The Fiat portion of the Chrysler/Fiat display showed the Fiat 500L, a welcome sight for all those Fiat dealers who have been surviving on just the Cinquecento and its derivatives (joined at the show by the EV model) since they opened their stores in 2011.  Now they have to keep their fingers crossed that the long awaited Alfa Romeo re-launch will really happen in late 2013 with the introduction of the 4C.  With both Alfa and Fiat that could be a franchise worth having.  The 500L is a bit of an ugly duckling and is reminiscent of that other ugly duckling the Mini Clubman/Paceman, but it could well join the 500 as a cult small car and find reasonable success in the increasingly fuel-conscious North American market.  Staying with the Fiat Group, Maserati had an unusually large display in order to accommodate the world premier of the new Quattroporte.  It is undoubtedly a very elegant car, with evolutionary design cues and a significant upgrade in size in order to make room for future additions to the model range.  Maserati has some lofty worldwide volume aspirations; so watch this space for more announcements.
Controversially, Motor Trend Car named the Tesla Model S as their Car of the Year.  This is a real boost for the fledgling auto company and demonstrates what they have been able to accomplish with their first ground-up car.  Most industry observers are impressed and surprised with what Tesla has been able to achieve – including this writer.  Let’s hope that the longer-term durability/quality/reliability will keep us impressed.  Their volume expectations are another story, however, and only time will tell if there is enough demand to sustain the planned growth and expansion of the model range.  As mentioned, sales of the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt have been disappointing to say the least and start-up companies like Tesla and Fisker face a considerably more difficult challenge.  Tesla also revealed a concept of their next vehicle at the show, the Model X.  It is an attractive battery electric SUV based on the Model S platform with conventional front doors and “Falcon Wing” rear doors.  The rear doors open upwards from the center of the roof like a gull wing door, but fold in the middle as they open – hence falcon wing.  Of course, Tesla CEO Elon Musk also named his Space X rocket the Falcon 9, so he must like falcons!
Honda/Acura showed another NSX concept – one step closer to production we are told.  It is a stunning car from every angle, even the Acura grille looks good on this one, so let’s hope it really does become available for sale so that we can see it on the road.  Acura also showed a new MDX concept that is close to production, although I found it generic and uninspiring.  On the Honda side of the aisle they showed a small “Urban SUV” concept based on the Fit platform.  Smaller than the CRV, it looks ready for production and with its sweeping bodyside contours, would be a stylish addition to the Honda line-up.
Hyundai has been growing strongly in North American with good quality cars and dramatic designs.  The very strong bodyside feature lines or contours of the Sonata and Elantra may not be to everyone’s taste, but rival manufacturers have certainly copied them extensively.  Probably hoping for another trend-setter, Hyundai revealed a dramatic Genesis concept model, the HCD-14.  Apparently the car is being designed and engineered in Germany with an introduction date scheduled in 2014.  The car is long, low and coupe-like, with flat bodyside sheet metal topped by a strong ‘A’ line feature.  The grille is bold to say the least and the lamps are designed to mimic a cut diamond.  The interior also is bold and dramatically sculptured.  The design drew some criticism, so it will be interesting to see how much of this concept is carried over to the production version – probably not the pillar-less bodyside with rear hinged doors I am guessing.
Toyota showed the Furia concept, a clear vision of what we can expect to see when the new Corolla is rolled out in late 2013.  The bold design is a further indication of how Toyota is trying to move away from its typical dreary design image and compete more strongly with the style leaders.
BMW introduced the new 4 series which is killing the 3-series, both coupe and cabriolet. This model is lower, wider and longer than the replaced 3 series. In one word, it is sportier… Thanks to the longer wheelbase the car will have a better on road handling too. The styling is not exactly surprising, but follows the Adrian Van Hooydonk signature…and remains impressive.
Audi presented the RS7 sportback and the SQ5. Although not much in terms of styling, these cars have a lot in terms of engine and image.  It seems that Audi is a little bit stalled in its design (style) innovation at the moment, but you can be sure that their design studio is thinking about making another big hit like the first generation TT.  It is difficult to improve on a style that initiated many of the design trends that you see on the road from many other manufacturers. It is also a risk to change direction when you have reached such perfection.
VW featured two concept crossover vehicles, the Cross Blue and the Cross Coupe.  Both look close to production with typical VW professionalism.  The Cross Blue is about the same size as the Jeep Grand Cherokee, while the Cross Coupe is smaller and less functional.  Both vehicles could have key roles in VW’s North American volume and share aspirations.
Next stop Geneva, where we all meet on neutral ground.
Tony Richards [automotive correspondent] & Audrey Seguin [design correspondent]