Lexus super-car
Rebecca Cook  /  Reuters
Lexus is showing its LF-A sports car concept at the Detroit auto show, featuring a 500-horsepower engine capable of 200 mph.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/19/2007 3:58:54 PM ET 2007-01-19T20:58:54
ANALYSIS

Many of the carmakers exhibiting their wares at the Detroit auto show this week seem to have an identity crisis, displaying products and concepts that aim to reverse their popular images.

American carmakers, for example, are aiming to recast themselves as purveyors of vehicles that are relevant, responsible and reliable, while some Japanese brands are trying to spice up their conservative style.

Exhibit A is General Motors, which captured much of the early buzz at the North American International Auto Show with its Chevrolet Volt, an electrically driven concept car that can charge its batteries using any of several different fuel sources.

GM, which was accused in a documentary movie of helping to kill the electric car, now appears to be staking much of its future on electric drive technology matched to plug-in charging and on-board generation through a variety of fuels and engine types.

GM also continues to push Cadillac’s image forward, with a new CTS sedan that not only features aggressively updated styling, but improved handling dynamics and an appropriately luxurious cockpit (finally).

“It’s got to work,” said GM’s product chief Bob Lutz of the company’s effort to recast Cadillac’s once-musty image. That’s because today’s customers have no interest in buying old-fashioned cars represented by Cadillac’s former products.

The effort at Cadillac and other GM divisions is working, Lutz added, pointing out that the company has seen the industry’s biggest increase in residual values, reduction in sales incentives and reduction in fleet sales compared to retail sales.

Chrysler also looks set to turn convention on its head, as conventional wisdom dictates that manufacturers need to pull out the stops to disguise the functional practicality inherent in family vans.

“Au contraire,” says Chrysler designer Ralph Gilles, famed for penning the now-iconic Chrysler 300 sedan.

Rather than pump up the new Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country with faux muscularity, Chrysler optimized space and functionality with an upright boxy design that embraces its role as a family provider. No pretensions of safari while making the late-night Pampers run here.

Ford, meanwhile, doesn’t mind copying Chrysler’s success with the 300 sedan, rolling out a pair of rumbling V-8 muscle cars based on the Mustang platform, stretched to four-door service.

The Ford Interceptor and Lincoln MKR are similar in size and concept, with the Lincoln staking a claim to the company’s high-end heritage, while the Interceptor hews to the populist, rolled-up sleeves approach. Both are listed as concept cars, but expect to see some similar-looking vehicles in showrooms within a couple years.

It’s not just domestic carmakers seeking to shake off the image of rickety, musty old designs. Non-American automakers are jockeying to reposition themselves, too.

Take Toyota. Long respected for its durable, practical products, the Japanese automaker wants desperately to be seen as exciting, sexy, maybe even a little (just a little) dangerous.

This week Toyota and its Lexus luxury division rolled out sporty concepts and production cars meant to shift the “old reliable” image before the desperate housewives who are its mainstay customers get bored and run off with that tall, dark and handsome competitor with a European accent.

Toyota’s FT-HS is a Supra-esque hybrid-powered sport coupe meant to shake up showrooms, and the supercharged LF-A concept — with a 500-horsepower engine capable of 200 mph —presages an exotic super car that will do the same for Lexus dealers.

“We want to be known for more than reliability,” said Alex Chen, exterior designer for the FT-HS. “We want to be known for design.”

But the FT-HS and the LF-A are still only concepts, so in the meantime Lexus will offer the ISF, a hot-rod 400-horsepower V-8 version of the popular IS350 that looks ready to give BMW’s upcoming M3 a run for its money. The ISF will hit the streets in about a year, according to Lexus.

Honda’s conservatism also has taken a toll on the image of a company once renowned for its adventurous engineering, a trend the Accord Coupe concept and Acura Advanced Sports Car Concept seek to redress.

The new Accord coupe, shown here for the first time Monday, sports a distinctly provocative hemline compared with the current model — a grab for attention in an increasingly racy segment that includes the Nissan Altima coupe, which debuted at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November. Although Honda calls the Accord a concept, look for a similar-looking production car and its four-door sister to arrive in the fall.

Like Lexus, Honda’s luxury brand Acura needs a supercar to spice up its showrooms, and the anonymously titled Advanced Sports Car Concept will help cement the relationship between Honda’s racing programs and the cars it sells.

Mercedes has successfully employed a similar performance strategy to link its cars to its racing programs, but the company’s street credibility still lags the cachet of Bentley. The solution: The Mercedes Ocean Drive concept, a large convertible with the brash attitude of a 1950s American cruiser wrapped in a thoroughly contemporary body.

Jaguar, which was in danger of being seen as a nostalgia brand, is steering a course confidently into the future with the XKF concept car, which illustrates the design direction for the company’s upcoming replacement for the now-tired S-Type midsize sedan.

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