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NAIAS 2011: Wrap Up

A Celebration of Survival

     Automakers had a lot to celebrate at this year’s North American International Auto Show. The first of which was simply being at this year’s auto show. After surviving a period filled with bankruptcies, shuttered brands, mergers, recalls and the Great Recession, all but one company saw sales rise in 2010. A little recall you might have heard about is responsible for Toyota’s negative sales performance. With the worst hopefully consigned to history, the industry is setting its sights on how best to entice cautious consumers in 2011. Each company will approach this challenge differently. While their results will vary, one thing is certain: car buyers will be the real winners. If you can’t make it to Detroit to see all the new offerings on display, allow us to highlight the winners at this year’s auto show.

All Photos by Jason Muxlow

General Motors

     It was all about small cars this year at the newly profitable Detroit automaker. Chevrolet introduced the Sonic, its smallest US offering and the replacement for the uncompetitive Aveo. After examining the display models we think GM Executives should be feeling pretty confident about the Sonic’s future now that Chevy’s new subcompact can take on any competitor without excuse.
     The powertrain choices include a standard 1.8-liter I4 or the more powerful 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that just debuted in the Chevrolet Cruze. Six-speed automatic transmissions are available with either engine. Engineers say they have one of the stiffest platforms in the segment allowing for sporty suspension tuning, which Chevy claims Corvette engineers helped finalize.
     Sporty wheel and tire combinations up to 17″ are available and 10 airbags come standard. Onstar, USB audio input, Bluetooth, heated seats and remote start are all available in this former econobox. To be completely honest, we’re a bit surprised at how far “upscale” the Aveo’s replacement turned out to be. GM was proud to announce the Aveo will be built at the Orion Township Assembly Plant starting later this year making it the only small car built in America by any manufacturer. They did not disclose pricing.
     Buick’s new small car, the Verano, will also be built in Orion Township. The significance of the Verano lies in whether the new offering will help fulfill Buick’s plan to compete with the likes of Acura and Lexus. Offered with a 177 hp 2.4-liter I4 and a six-speed automatic as standard, Buick promises 31 mpg on the highway.
     In order to help differentiate the Verano from the Chevrolet Cruze on which it’s based, Buick claims the Verano will be the quietest car in its class. Features like Bose audio, leather seats and a heated steering wheel will offer true luxury for around $25,000. Verano goes on sale this fall.
     GM was also celebrating the success of another small car as the Chevrolet Volt, an extended-range electric car, won the prestigious North American Car of the Year award. Up against the fully electric but limited range Nissan Leaf and the wonderful but conventional Hyundai Sonata, the Volt proves to be the most original car to be introduced in a long time.



     Ford is stretching its C-Platform for all it’s worth by introducing a new derivative to the extended Focus family called C-Max. Europe has enjoyed the people moving capabilities of the various C-Max offerings for years, but Americans would never have warmed to the small people mover when gas was cheap. Ford thinks the time is right to make a move and will do its best to convince us of the C-Max’s benefits later this year when the 7-passenger mini-minivan hits US showrooms.
     The C-Max comes standard with a 2.5-liter I4 but can be equipped with Ford’s brand new 180 hp 1.6-liter turbocharged EcoBoost I4. Engineers claim this configuration will return best in class fuel economy but they weren’t ready to commit to specific numbers yet. Both engines will feature 6-speed automatic transmissions.
     The C-Max has some clever interior features and all of Ford’s latest infotainment technology but the best is the disappearing middle seat in the second row. Pull a couple levers and the seat quickly flips and folds under the base of the adjacent seat. It works very slick and opens up a nice path to the 3rd row.
     Ford also highlighted the available C-Max Hybrid that it claims will be even more efficient than the Fusion Hybrid sedan when it goes on sale in about a year, which means at least 41 mpg in the city. If that’s not quite impressive enough for you the 2013 C-Max Energi may be worth the wait. This ultimate efficiency Plug-In Hybrid model promises to be Ford’s answer to Toyota’s upcoming Prius Plug-In and GM’s Volt. We didn’t get electric range numbers or battery pack size, but Ford is aiming for a 500 mile electric plus gasoline total range. Both Hybrid and Energi models will ditch the 3rd row and replace the sliding side doors with conventional front-hinged doors.
     Ford’s other announcement was the Vertrek, a thinly disguised look at the replacement for the Ford Escape. The Vertrek looks modern and aggressive and rides on yet another version of the C-Platform. The concept carries the efficient new 1.6-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder debuting in the aforementioned C-Max.
     The selection of the 2011 Ford Explorer as this year’s North American Truck of the Year came as a surprise to almost no one. The three-row family hauler is a game changer for Ford’s once best-selling model. The Explorer is on sale now starting at $28,190.
     In a welcome sign of improving times Ford also announced intentions to hire up to 7,000 new employees in America by the end of 2012.



     Chrysler finally gave the world a look at its next-generation flagship model, the 300 sedan. While clearly evolutionary as compared to its ground breaking 2004 predecessor, the 300 appears to refine the model’s best attributes while correcting some of its most glaring faults: weak base powertrains and subpar interior refinement.
     Gone are the underpowered and aging V6s, now replaced with a smooth 292 hp 3.6-liter V6. The Hemi V8 is thankfully still available. Chrysler announced that an 8-speed automatic transmission will be offered in the near future but the car will launch with a carryover 5-speed automatic. With eight gears in the new transmission Chrysler expects V6 models to achieve nearly 30 mpg.
     The 300’s interior design has improved tremendously. High quality materials abound and many luxury features now come standard. Chrysler claims it offers the segment’s largest standard touchscreen infotainment system at 8.4 inches.
     Chrysler went to great effort to remind the crowd that the 300 was once a part of America’s romance with the automobile and flashed images of tail-finned beauties from the 1950’s. Chrysler’s design guru, Ralph Gillies, suggested that this romance runs deep with the current car’s owner base so detail changes to headlights, fender shapes and slight adjustments to the belt line were all that were needed to update the exterior. Chrysler is hoping that their customers’ love affair with the automobile will lead them to plunk down at least $27,995 for the base 300 when the car become available this spring.



     One of the few true surprises of the show was the newest production offering from Hyundai. The Veloster may have a silly name but we’re convinced it’s anything but. The small coupe class doesn’t have much for interesting hardware and Hyundai aims to change that by packing its youth-oriented offering with technology, innovation and responsiveness. Veloster is launching with Hyundai’s brand new Blue Link technology which integrates your smart phone with the center screen controlled infotainment system. Entry to the back seats is usually a burden for coupe passengers but Hyundai utilizes a small conventional side door on the passenger side to make entry easy, at least for those measuring south of six foot.
     Executives admit the Veloster won’t win any drag races with its 1.6-liter 138 hp I4, but claim that the car’s 6-speed manual or company-first dual-clutch transmission and responsive handling will reward the driver with true athletic sports coupe dynamics. We tend to believe them since they managed a modern miracle by bringing the curb weight in at a low 2,584 pounds. In addition to the obvious handling dividends, the lightweight will also help the Veloster return up to 40 mpg.
     We liked what we saw and if Hyundai sets a base price around $17,000 like we expect, the 2012 Veloster should have no trouble shaking up the small coupe segment when it goes on sale this summer.
      Hyundai also tried to get in touch with its youthful self in Detroit with the debut of the Curb Concept. This Urban Activity Vehicle (UAC) was designed specifically with the needs of socially active Generation Y consumers in mind. The Curb features an advanced version of the aforementioned new Blue Link technology utilizing a larger 12-inch screen as well as a heads up display. It is powered by a direct-injection 175 hp 1.6-liter four cylinder and rolls on large 22 inch wheels. Expect a production version to compete with the Nissan Juke within two years.
     Kia, a subsidiary of Hyundai, used the Detroit Auto Show to reveal a possible entry into, of all things, a dormant segment. The KV7 is a concept designed to do a van right. It’s not one of these minivans that pretends to be manly or sporty or something it’s not. Kia designers wanted to build a van that was proud of its shape.
     And somehow their box on wheels ends up looking impossibly modern, upscale and fun all at the same time. Inside things are way out in fantasy concept land with a couch and a couple swiveling chairs around an integrated table-top computer that connects all the passengers to their social networks. We particularly like the wood flooring and the gullwing side doors.
     The concept is said to be powered by an upgraded 2.0-liter Turbo with 285 hp. While Kia was hinting a version of the KV7 may make production, we’re not so sure. But then again, stranger things have happened. Kia Soul, anyone?



     Porsche is one of the enduring leaders in motorsports and the German sports-car manufacturer chose to return to this year’s Detroit Auto Show, its first appearance in four years, to debut its most advanced racer yet.
     The 918 RSR Concept is a coupe version of the forthcoming limited-edition 918 Spyder Hybrid supercar. The RSR uses the advanced flywheel accumulator and twin electric motors from the successful 911 GT3 R race car built to test new hybrid technology in the American Le Mans Series. The system works by storing electricity generated by the flywheel during braking. The driver can then choose to activate a 75-kW electric motor inside each front wheel to boost acceleration for up to 8 seconds at a time. This temporarily gives the driver a horsepower peak of 767 hp to aide in passing maneuvers. When the electric motors aren’t assisting power comes from a direct-injection V8 that produces 563 hp at 10,300 rpm.
     The RSR may represent the latest in Porsche’s racetrack arsenal but we’re even more excited the legendary automaker set a 2013 sale date for the limited-edition 918 Spyder. At least we can dream about actually parking that one in our garage.



     The new US-specific Passat proves to be both larger and significantly less expensive than the outgoing model. The car was designed to fit US consumer’s tastes and be built in a brand new plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. VW says 12,000 jobs will be needed to support their only American-built vehicle. While the new Passat fails to make a dramatic styling statement, it’s quietly handsome and that has worked very well for cars like the Chevrolet Malibu, Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
     On the powertrain side VW will offer a 2.5-liter five-cylinder, 2.0-liter diesel and 3.6-liter six cylinder. The excellent diesel is rated at an impressive 43 mpg on the highway. Maybe this will be the car that wakes America out of its gasoline-induced coma and into the world of powerful, smooth and reliable modern diesels.
     Pricing was not specifically announced for the new Passat but was promised to start around $20,000.



     With sales of almost one million units since its debut in 2000, the Toyota Prius is an unqualified success and Toyota can hardly be blamed for looking at ways to expand the hybrid’s appeal to new customers. Which is exactly what we saw Toyota do at this year’s Detroit Auto Show.
     The standard Prius will grow a charging port in the first half of 2012 and become the Prius Plug-In. The capability to charge the new Lithium-ion battery before using the vehicle will result in an electric range of up to 13 miles as long as speeds don’t crest 60 mph. The battery can be charged in three hours from a standard 110-volt outlet.
     But the bigger news in the expansion of the lineup is the brand new offerings. The first addition debuted in production trim as the Prius v, a larger model that offers a lot of, you guessed it, versatility. Most of that comes in the form of sheer size with more than 50% greater interior volume than today’s standard model. Despite the added size the Prius v is rated for 40 mpg combined and will go on sale late this summer.
     A fourth Prius derivative will reach dealers by the middle of 2012 and look similar to the city-car-inspired Prius c Concept. Toyota isn’t saying a lot about it just yet, except to promise that it will be fun to drive and achieve the best fuel economy of any “cordless” hybrid on the market.
     Jumping from one Prius model to four in the next 18 months is an ambitious expansion plan, but if we know Toyota, there will be even more Prius derivatives to come.

     And that’s just the beginning. To view of our complete 2011 NAIAS coverage, including many more debuts and accompanying photo galleries plus behind the scenes bonus coverage, CLICK HERE.

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