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Sunday, 03 February 2013 22:01

Good for gear heads (and the planet, too)

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Good for gear heads (and the planet, too) PHOTO: Joe Boomgaard

It turns out that fun-to-drive cars, 500-horsepower engines and respectable fuel economy don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Over the past few years, the automotive industry seemed to be telling a feel-good product story as the automakers eschewed their once proud labels as “car companies” and instead anointed themselves as purveyors of sustainable mobility. Green was king, even if the hardcore electric vehicles and expensive hybrid technology appealed only to a small niche of customers.

But in a marked pivot at this year’s North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), the automakers seemed to talk less about hybrids, electrics and their ilk. No, they’re not regressing on the issue of more efficient transportation. Rather, they’re showing that they are paying more attention to the cars, trucks and SUVs that the general public wants to buy — as well as the vehicles aimed squarely at the hearts of enthusiasts. In short, they’re using the best technology available to make the cars people buy simultaneously fun, efficient and smart forms of transportation.

“In the past years, you’ve seen a flurry of electric vehicles and hybrids, and there was a little bit of that, but nowhere near the preponderance as we’ve seen in the past. There was more of the focus on the vehicles themselves and not the propulsion system,” said Mike Wall, a Grand Rapids-based automotive analyst at IHS Automotive. “It doesn’t mean that (EVs and hybrids are) going away or that they’re not important. They’re critically important, especially in the longer run, but I think we may have overshot a bit or got over-enthused. This maybe was a realignment across the board.”

[RELATED: Car enthusiasts find limited options for affordable fun]

The shift was also noticed by Marc Noordeloos, managing director of Grand Rapids-based Fox Motorsports and a freelance automotive journalist. A self-professed enthusiast and "car guy" with an interest in performance cars and mid-range to high-end vehicles, Noordeloos said the prevalence of cars with more than 500 horsepower — some with available all-wheel drive — and a full warranty "blew my mind."

He cited examples including the Audi RS7, BMW M6 Gran Coupe and Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG, which all debuted in Detroit.

“When I was a kid, I couldn’t imagine having a car with 500 horsepower and luxury and fuel economy to boot,” he said. “What I like is that they’re building those cars and they do get better fuel economy than the models they’re replacing. It’s not just marketing. I think we’re seeing known technology — rather than groundbreaking technology — being developed to improve fuel economy to a good level. We need to do all that we can with the technology we have now.”

[Related: Stability returns to auto outlook]

Noordeloos’ point: The vehicles that automakers brought to the Detroit auto show focused more on advanced iterations of existing and familiar technology — more usage of direct injection, automatic transmissions with up to 9-speed gearboxes, the use of lightweight materials — to reduce fuel usage, versus completely new and untested automotive systems.

“These are more practical vehicles,” IHS analyst Wall said of this year’s show.

The analyst said he saw three main themes for this year’s NAIAS: “a redesigned icon with the Corvette, the rise of the pickup truck and the healthy dose of luxury unveilings.”


AMERICANA REBORN

As one of the all-American automotive icons, the new Corvette was met with an infectious anticipation in the days and months leading up to its Detroit unveiling. (The fever continued even after the debut, as some attendees of the world premier were selling their free Corvette press materials online for a going rate of $400 to nearly $700.)

Ford Atlas ConceptExcept to the cadre of unyielding Corvette enthusiasts who are loath to accept even the smallest of changes — square tail lamps, for example — the overwhelming consensus was that GM’s design team struck a good balance of appeasing the Corvette fan base while also evolving the sports car into a more globally competitive package.

The new Corvette Stingray features a revised V8 powertrain with direct injection and cylinder deactivation, an available 7-speed manual gearbox, and lightweight materials throughout, including an all-aluminum frame and carbon fiber body panels even on the base models.

The more angular design and much-improved interior was a step along a path to position the Corvette and the Chevrolet brand on a global scale, Wall said.

“That does not mean they’re going to sell a lot of these Corvettes globally — not by any stretch — but what it does is it starts to change that Chevy image a bit,” he said. “It even starts to change it a little bit here in the States. When you see that vehicle, there’s that certain core buyer you may think of with a Corvette of yore. It’s going to tend to skew a little bit older, folks that are tending to respond to the heritage side of the Corvette. This attempts to start to bring that average age down and bring more youthful buyers into the dealerships.”

Noordeloos agreed.

“I think they struck a good balance between not pushing away present Corvette buyers but attracting younger people that might like a Nissan GT-R,” he said. “I like the direction it’s going.”

Now the challenge for Chevrolet and GM comes down to whether or not the company can strengthen the rest of its vehicle lineup to take advantage of the attention the new Corvette will attract, Wall said.

“This will be a halo car that will bring people in all day long, but you want them to (at least) leave with a different car,” he said.


TOW WITH LUXURY

The 2013 NAIAS was destined to be the “Corvette Auto Show” right up to the point when Ford took the wraps off its Atlas concept pickup truck, which offers a preview for the direction Ford plans to take the next generation of its best-selling F-150 pickup.

As Road & Track described it, the surprise unveiling of the Ford Atlas caused “the new GM pickups (to) become a footnote at their hometown coming-out party.”

Compared to GM’s design evolution with its 2014 Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra pickups, Ford’s Atlas concept — with its active aerodynamic elements and integrated roof cargo hold — was more of a leap forward in terms of styling and technology.

While Noordeloos praised Ford’s Atlas concept, he said GM’s 2014 redesign of the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra was much more “understated” and aimed at “the mainstream truck buyer, while Ford and Dodge look at the advanced truck buyer.”

All three Detroit pickup platforms are backed with more fuel-efficient powertrains and clearly the trend is toward more plush, car-like interiors. Pickups are, in essence, becoming luxury cars that tow, Noordeloos said.

Wall from IHS said automakers have to constantly refresh their interiors and add technology to all their vehicles, including trucks, to keep them competitive. After all, that’s where owners spend most of their time: on the inside.

“A typical buyer of a Silverado or Sierra, or of a pickup truck in general, I don’t know that they’re going to be significantly put off by the evolutionary redesign. The interior is an improvement. It’s a wickedly competitive segment. Each of the Detroit Three has strong offerings,” Wall said. “All three of the Detroit Three had pickups at the forefront. The Ram won (North American) Truck of the Year, you have the new Silverado and Sierra for GM, and Ford wasn’t going to be outdone with their Atlas concept truck.”

Because of their large production runs, pickup trucks are very important, profitable vehicles for the automakers, which explains why the companies continuously refresh their product offerings, he said. Moreover, with housing starts on the rebound and an aging existing fleet of trucks on the road, truck sales are projected to increase at a higher rate than the rest of the light vehicle market. (See Stability returns to auto outlook, page 4.)

SUVs were also back at this year’s NAIAS. Volkswagen revealed its Cross Blue and Cross Coupe SUVs, while Honda showed its small Urban SUV Concept. Nissan also revealed its mid-size Resonance SUV concept, a nod to what the replacement for the aging Murano could look like.

As well, Chrysler showed that it was committed to keeping its Jeep offerings up-to-date with a more up-market driven refreshing of its Grand Cherokee, which just launched in 2011. The SUV features an updated exterior and interior, as well as an available new 3.0-liter diesel engine and standard 8-speed automatic transmission with an Eco Mode to improve fuel economy across the range of V6 and V8 powertrains.

Buyers of commercial vehicles should also note that Ford launched its new European-engineered Transit and Transit Connect vans, the company’s first new platform in the van market in decades, which come in varying roof heights and lengths, as well as with a choice of EcoBoost gasoline or diesel powertrains.


DELUXE DELIGHT

Opposite the showroom floor from the utilitarian trucks and vans, automakers also debuted many new models in the premium and luxury segment.

New launches included the Mercedes-Benz E-Class family, the BMW 4-Series, Lincoln MKC, Infiniti Q50, Acura MDX, Lexus IS and the Cadillac ELR. Even Hyundai dipped its toes further into the luxury segment with its up-market HCD-14 concept.

Those who prefer an Italian flair to their luxury sedan also have a new option: the new Maserati Quattroporte, now with a turbocharged range of engines: the 410-horsepower V6 with available all-wheel drive or a 530-horsepower V8.

“There were just a ton of luxury offerings,” said Wall.

Long the domain of the German Three — Audi, BMW and Mercedes — more companies are turning their attention to the lucrative segment, often by sharing platforms among lower-end and premium vehicles. That way, they can eke even more profitability out of the R&D and engineering that goes into platform development, Noordeloos said.

In Detroit, Noordeloos talked to Rolf Frech, the head of engineering for Bentley, about the British luxury brand’s new SUV, which it previewed last year with the EXP 9F concept. By tapping into Bentley’s corporate parent, Volkswagen Group, the company can start with the bones of the latest platform shared by the Porsche Cayenne, Audi Q7 and Volkswagen Touareg, “throw in some wood and styling, and you’ve got a Bentley,” Noordeloos said.

“That’s how companies can get economies of scale,” he said. “If it’s sophisticated enough and as long as the mainstream journalists don’t make a big stink, I think it will work. ”


REINVENTION AT WHAT COST?

On the other hand, both domestic luxury brand stalwarts, Cadillac and Lincoln, are still trying to find their way forward by attracting new buyers while not alienating a clientele that still skews mostly to the older end of the spectrum. Some of their customers still appreciate the big beige barges of the 1980s and 1990s, far cries from what younger drivers expect, Noordeloos said. In trying to broaden their reach with European-inspired designs and sporting intentions, they might end up isolating some of their long-time customers, he said.

Cadillac, for example, last year launched both the ATS and the XTS, two very different cars with very different aspirations. With the 2013 North American Car of the Year-winning ATS, engineers at Cadillac aimed squarely at the BMW 3-Series crowd with nearly identical dimensions and similar rear-wheel drive architecture. However, the front- or all-wheel drive XTS fills a spot the older generation of Cadillac buyers can easily identify with.

But even if GM was to follow the model of brand reinvention it shepherded with Buick, it needs to flesh out the Cadillac portfolio across more segments, Wall said. Wall noted that the new range-extended plug-in hybrid Cadillac ELR, based on the Chevrolet Volt architecture, will “certainly draw higher up than the average income buyer,” but the vehicle “will be low volume.”

“Again, it’s about fleshing out that Cadillac brand. I think to that extent, it goes a long way to showing the design scheme, the design format of the vehicle itself,” he said.

The same is true for Ford with Lincoln, which, by almost all accounts, has been languishing for years in trying to find its way. The newly rebranded Lincoln Motor Company followed up its MKS sedan from last year with the MKC concept SUV based off the Ford Escape platform.

The concept “looked great and is a great step forward” for the brand, Noordeloos said.

“Both Cadillac and Lincoln face the interesting decision of how much do they try to hold on to their old customer that’s aging and how much do they try to be like an American Audi and BMW and Mercedes,” he said. “I think they’d do better to look to Mercedes.”

But even emulating the Germans is not a sure bet anymore, Noodeloos said. As some of the brands adopt “extroverted styling” to appeal to the Middle Eastern and Chinese markets, they may wind up putting off American customers, he said.

“I think a lot of the West Michigan clientele likes subtle, classy design,” Noordeloos said. “Some of the way design is going could probably be a little polarizing. A lot of it is overly aggressive, but some people like that.”


THE FUN RETURNS

While it’s typical auto show hyperbole to say the cars were the stars, at this year’s NAIAS, one could make that case. As Wall from IHS Automotive said, the automakers really seemed to focus on showing their cars and not any groundbreaking propulsion systems or technology — aside from Hyundai’s hand gesture-sensing controls, perhaps.

The general sense was that the 2013 NAIAS was a more mature show with the automakers again ready to step back out into the spotlight.

“You’d be hard pressed not walk around with a smile on your face with all these vehicles and these unveilings,” Wall said. “There wasn’t necessarily an arrogance to it all, by any means. But there was at least a little more confidence to it. That was great to see.”

For Noordeloos, this year’s show was a testament to how far the industry has come from the brink of oblivion. It’s back on firmer footing now and ready to compete and inspire buyers to open their wallets, he said.

“I will never forget the 2010 show. When I walked through the GM stand, it was just like a carpeted area with cars,” Noordeloos said. “For me, 2010 was the bottom, and it’s gotten better since then. And now in 2013, the show is back into the groove of automakers being more comfortable showing off and being proud of their direction and going forward. They’re bringing back some of the fun of buying cars from years ago.”

Read 2441 times Last modified on Friday, 15 February 2013 17:46
Joe Boomgaard

Managing Editor

jboomgaard@mibiz.com

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