In better times exhibitors at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show might steal the stage with a stunningly imaginative, if impractical, concept car, or by crashing a Jeep Grand Cherokee through Cobo Hall’s front windows.
But in today’s environment of tight budgets and struggling economies there is little time or patience for blue-sky concepts or zany stunts.
Against such a staid backdrop, Ford's new products stole the show. “They were really the only ones who had anything,” remarked John Casesa, managing partner for market researcher Casesa Shapiro Group, LLC.
The first press conference of the show set the tone. Ford swept the show's top honors when the North American Car of the Year organization named the Fusion Hybrid its 2010 Car of the Year and the Transit Connect as its Truck of the Year.
Then Ford pushed all of its chips onto the table with its introduction of the new Focus compact car. There was enough sound and light wattage to hearken back to the boom years, but that didn't distract from the generally positive verdict for the car’s appearance and specifications. And its unveiling was uncluttered by the usual array of space-age, nuclear-powered boy toys that normally accompany the announcement of more pedestrian models slated for actual production and sale.
"Concepts take money and engineering resources that are needed for production programs,” noted Richard Truett, a spokesman for Ford’s powertrain engineering division.
Ford already sells the Focus in markets worldwide, but the cars wearing the “Focus” badge are often unrelated to one another.
The 2011 Focus goes into production later this year and will reach customers in Europe and America early next year. With it, Ford is pressing forward with the "One Ford" initiative that president and CEO Alan Mulally has championed since arriving from Boeing to find Ford unexpectedly fractured into regional fiefdoms.
The new Focus will look the same and share 80 percent of its parts in common all its guises. That will saving significantly on engineering and purchasing costs, according to the company. The differences will take into account the varying government requirements from one country to another for things such as lights and bumpers.
The Focus launches in the U.S. as a five-door hatchback and a four-door sedan. Upcoming wagon-style models will drive total production for the underlying hardware to as many as two million vehicles per year worldwide. It is this economy of scale that will let Ford deliver a better product at a competitive price in a fiercely price-sensitive segment, according to the company.
The U.S. version of the Focus will employ a new 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine matched to a computer-shifted, dual-clutch automated manual six-speed transmission. The engine will provide about 20 more horsepower than the current model’s 143 hp, while the new transmission promises about 9 percent better fuel efficiency than the old-style four-speed automatic currently in use.
The company also introduced an updated Lincoln MKX mid-size crossover vehicle. Ford refreshed the MKX with new front and rear styling that better matches the rest of the company’s current product line. And it ditched Lincoln’s brief flirtation with boxy lines meant to evoke the company’s classic ‘60s Continentals.
While the outside changes are modest, the MKX carries the first cabin to feature the company’s new “MyFord” or “MyLincoln” dashboards. This features LCD displays on the instrument panel like those already seen on the Fusion Hybrid, which let the driver choose what information to show. Controls in the central dashboard for functions like stereo and climate control are new touch surfaces that eliminate conventional knobs and switches.
Ford domination at the show perhaps hinted at a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel for U.S. automakers after a year that saw two of the Big Three bailed out by taxpayers.
But foreign carmakers showed they were not giving ground, especially what's expected to be a hotly contested segment — hybrids.
Toyota showed a concept car bearing the catchy moniker FT-CH that closely forecasts an upcoming compact hybrid (get it? Future Toyota-Compact Hybrid). The FT-CH will give Toyota an ultra-mileage model. The design is meant for a generation that grew up in the 80s playing Atari video games.
Honda took a more direct approach to attracting these buyers with its hybrid CR-Z production debut, a two-seat sports car styled to remind drivers of the company’s much-loved CRX two-seater of the ‘80s. The new car supplements its 1.5-liter gas engine with an electric motor in a bid for an optimal mix of performance and efficiency.
Meanwhile, Volkswagen previewed plans for its upcoming U.S.-built replacement for the popular Jetta with its Compact Coupe Concept. While sleek and stylish, showgoers expressed concern that it erred to the side of the generic, with views that echo the Honda Civic.
Audi also showed a two-seat sports car, the e-tron, a battery-powered mid-engine electric sports car that is smaller than the previous R8-derived concept car. While the electric version of this future sports car debuted first, the production model will feature both conventional and electric drive trains, according to a spokesman.
Mini sought to learn how far it can stretch the definition of “mini” with its Beachcomber compact SUV concept that carried the promise of the open-air beach-driving fun of the old Mini Moke cars familiar from their popularity at various Caribbean resorts.
General Motors was also present, naturally, at the show which is held only blocks from the company’s headquarters. But the production models shown were simply high-end variants of existing models. Which while appealing, weren’t terrifically surprising to anyone. The pavement-pounding Cadillac CTS-V Coupe will win adherents to the brand while earning profits for the company, though it's likely to sell in comparatively small volume, according to Ed Piatek, program engineering manager for the car.
The company also highlighted what it terms as concepts of the upcoming Chevrolet Aveo and Buick Regal, each dressed in sporty trim with more power, fatter tires and bigger brakes than the everyday versions.
Cadillac also showed a very nearly production-ready concept called the XTS. This is a new full-size flagship model that unconventionally features a front-wheel-drive configuration more commonly used for mundane family models. The concept included a V-6 engine and GM’s two-mode hybrid technology, promising to combine fuel economy with prestige.
This layout is more practical considering the future regulatory environment, observed GM vice chairman Bob Lutz. “We have to meet federal fuel economy mandates and selling large V-8 sedans does not help in that regard,” he said.
But it has been common practice for automakers to tease consumers with high-tech alternative power trains in concept cars, only to launch the cars with only conventional engines. That isn’t the case anymore, according to Clay Dean, Cadillac’s chief designer. “You can’t show something you aren’t going to offer anymore,” he said. “(The hybrid power train) is no B.S.”