REVIEW: 2010 Detroit Motorshow

By Guy Bird for LS:N – LifeStyle News Global, Dec 2009

2010 might be remembered as the year the usually truck- and muscle car-infested Detroit auto show started to ‘go green’

2010 might be remembered as the year the usually truck- and muscle car-infested Detroit auto show finally started to ‘go green’. It still had big car unveils from a special edition Ford Mustang endorsed by rapper Nelly to the Cadillac XTS large luxury saloon, but the bigger headlines were made by smaller (and more eco-friendly) vehicles. As Ken Billes, one of the young European designers behind Toyota’s new compact Hybrid FT-CH concept reflected, “it’s a strong statement to present a small car in Detroit”. Indeed…

 

“It’s a strong statement to present a small car in Detroit”

It’s interesting to note that Ford – the least damaged US carmaker of 2009 – is also the one most ready and willing to launch smaller and more fuel-efficient mass market cars. Its key show car was the forthcoming ‘European-spec’ Ford Focus – promising compactness, frugality and great connectivity (including improved voice activation). From a very different perspective big truck and SUV maker GMC – and historic supplier of The A-Team’s van – also showed a small car: a high-roofed boxcar concept much shorter than the current Focus. Project leader Frank Saucedo explains: “It’s about size and mass. The goal was to do a compact box but in a premium way for a younger professional market. They don’t haul wood or boats so don’t need a big van or an SUV.” The seats also showed the unusual trick of folding along the car’s symmetry line into the middle of the car to allow a bike to sit alongside the driver.

Toyota launched its FT-CH concept to reinforce its hybrid range expansion plans (eight hybrids are due in the next few years for the US alone). Although half a metre shorter than a Prius, the FT-CH still seats four and is aimed toward those put off by the Prius’s higher price and ‘holier-than-though’ image, as interior designer Ben Urwin told LS:N, “we tried to make this appeal as a younger person’s vehicle but keep the sensible rationale.”

Visually stylish but sensible elements include an aerodynamic exterior and an interior made up of fewer components – including a simple seating design where the seatback and squab frames are made of the exact same pressing to reduce cost and manufacturing complexity. Rival Japanese brand Honda is arguably already a step ahead in this market, choosing Detroit to unveil its first production-ready sports hybrid CR-Z. A strict two-seater for US markets or a two-plus-two for Europe and Japan, Honda is promoting the CR-Z as the car to shed the image of hybrids as dull to drive, featuring the world’s first manual gearbox on a hybrid, and a promised 56.4mpg.

Even traditionally conservative VW showed the relatively sporty New Compact Coupe (NCC) hybrid concept. Despite its valid petrol/electric powertrain, its shape is more important short-term, revealing the smarter look of the next Jetta saloon due within a year.

Cars able to drive solely on electric power were also much in evidence at Detroit. Audi showed another accomplished E-tron concept – this time much smaller – to complement the bigger concept of the same name shown at the 2009 Frankfurt last autumn. The reason for using the same name is to try and establish a clear sub-brand for electric vehicles like ‘Quattro’ has become for its all-wheel drive vehicles, so that in time, hopes Audi CEO Rupert Stadler, “customers will say, ‘my car is an E-tron’, not ‘my car is electric’”. Audi says its first E-tron-badged production vehicle will launch in late 2012. Less visually interesting but with more mainstream appeal were electric versions of existing cars. BMW showed the Concept Active E – a 1-series Coupe with a 170bhp electric motor powered by a lithium-ion battery able to drive 100 miles on one charge – while Fiat and Volvo revealed EV prototypes of the 500 and C30 respectively.

Whether the traditional Detroit show-going public is open to buy into all these eco products yet is difficult to determine 

An unlikely sight at this year’s Detroit show was the debut of the 37,000 sq ft ‘Electric Avenue’ exhibit in the main exhibition space featuring almost 20 electric vehicles including the production-ready Mitsubishi iMiEV and Nissan Leaf among less well resolved if somewhat more futuristic EVs including the TRIAC freeway commuter. The separate ‘EcoXperience’ arena dedicated to electric drive opportunities reinforced the eco theme further.

Whether the traditional Detroit show-going public is open to buy into all these eco products yet is difficult to determine but for those skeptical of early adoption, there were other exhibits less obsessed with austerity and restraint. Mercedes chose Detroit to unveil the brand-new E-Class cabriolet with some innovative drop-top tricks (see LS:N’s Detroit Preview) plus a striking piece of sculpture that hints at the shape of its next CLS four-door coupe due in 2011.

Alongside the fun of the Mini Beachcomber dune buggy – showing how a variant of the forthcoming four-door MINI Countryman crossover could look – the beauty of the Mercedes sculpture came as a refreshing change among the sometimes-dull environmental worthiness. Mercedes also announced the latest details of its ‘Roadmap for Sustainable Mobility’ too – involving clean conventional engines, hybrids, EVs and fuel cells – but it clearly realises that in order for its ‘map’ to work, customers must still desire the products it is selling.


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