Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The greatest and the lamest of Detroit’s 2013 auto show

Seldom was heard a discouraging word at this year's Detroit auto show, what with every major global automaker generating solid profits and a forecast for 2013 of an additional 1 million new cars and trucks to sell in the United States. While the new Corvette dominated the headlines, there was more than two dozen new concepts and production vehicles unwrapped, most to good reviews. Yet away from the smoke machines and Cirque du Soleil performances, not every new model stood up to close scrutiny. Here's what we took away as the best and the rest.

BEST NEW CONCEPT: From an unusually strong crop of design concepts — especially the Nissan Resonance and Lincoln MKC crossover — I'd give the Ford Atlas top billing. The production version of the new F-Series trucks won't arrive for another two years, but the Atlas showed how Ford was willing to push the F-Series design even though it's the top-selling vehicle in the United States. The contrast between Ford's ambitions and the conservative remake of the new 2014 Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra wasn't lost around Detroit.

MOST OVERLOOKED: There's simply too many new models for even enthusiasts to pay attention to, and the Chrysler's updates to the Jeep Compass and Jeep Patriot fell by the wayside. Both small SUVs have never lived up to expectations for Jeep — they lack the off-road prowess that traditional Jeep fans demand, and don't offer enough distinction from the burgeoning crowd of soft-road crossovers to stand out. Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne vows to stick with them until they work.

 MOST QUOTABLE: Speaking of Marchionne, no executive produced quite as much business news during the week, from Chrysler's agreement to start building Jeeps in China again to Marchionne's politically incorrect description of Italian-based engines for Alfa Romeo. The most gregarious chief at a Detroit automaker now has the hardest job; blending Chrysler and Fiat's vehicles in a way that can make the combination profitable on two continents without alienating customers along the way. Chrysler still needs new mid-size sedans and larger people movers; the Dodge Dart's sales have been disappointing; Alfa Romeo's return to America keeps getting delayed. It's going to be a tough 12 months to talk through.

BEST NEW PRODUCTION MODEL THAT'S NOT A CORVETTE: Anytime a luxury automaker tries to chase customers with less money, they tend to overshoot and produce a car that's cheap rather than affordable. 46VR7M29PW8P So far, Mercedes appears to have avoided that trap with the CLA-Class, although the real test will come when the sticker prices arrive. And yes: of all the new production models unveiled at the show, only the Jeep Compass/Patriot and the Nissan Versa Note hatchback were sub-luxury level machines.

MOST OSTENTATIOUS FLOURISH: The Cadillac ELR will come with a power sliding cover for its cupholders. That'll show them bratty grandkids who's hip.

WEAKEST NEW CONCEPT: Honda couldn't even imagine a name for its Urban SUV Concept, and the rest of the Fit-sized crossover also lacked inspiration, from its LED square lights to the CR-V copying side profile. Even by auto-show standards for marketing speak, the pitch for the wee Honda came off like a business plan from an MBA course; surveys tell us young people in cities want crossovers, so we will build this and they will buy it. If there was a reason Honda had for why people would buy this — say, offering more fun or fuel efficiency than a Nissan Juke, Mini Countryman, etc. — it's still a secret.

BUSIEST "RETIRED" EXECUTIVE: At Sunday night's reveal of the Corvette, former GM car guru Bob Lutz was telling reporters how the new Corvette has his old colleagues at Chrysler's Viper program worried. On Monday, Lutz was hanging around his new Destino project, talking about how swapping the Fisker Karma's electric drivetrain for a 638-hp Corvette V-8 lightened the car by 1,400 lbs. And Tuesday, Lutz presented his Via Motors project, which builds plug-in hybrid-electric versions of full-size GM pickups and SUVs for business fleets. Lutz turns 81 years old in February, and given that his father kept working as an attorney past age 100, we expect to see him back in Detroit.
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