Philip King: highlights from the Detroit motoror showshow.
There were several bright spots at the Detroit showcase, despite a surprising number of absentees
The annual curtain-raiser for the global car industry, the Detroit motor show is rightly regarded as one of the year’s premier events and, after suffering a few woeful years in the wake of the global financial crisis, has gradually recovered its mojo in lockstep with the US recovery.
This time the economic settings could scarcely be better. US vehicle sales rose 6 per cent last year to hit 17.5 million — a level unseen since a decade ago. Home-grown brands Jeep and GMC were among the standouts. Locally made pickups, led by Ford’s F150, took out the top three spots in the bestseller charts and on these big vehicles carmakers enjoy big margins. One reason for the pickup boom is cheap fuel, with oil dipping below $US30 a barrel as the show opened.
At the other end of the market, many luxury importers celebrated record years, with Land Rover, Volvo and Audi enjoying the biggest gains. But it was an oddly subdued Detroit show this year, with many absentees, especially among premium brands, while many that did attend had little to say. It signified an industry catching its breath after a postGFC dash, with products mid-cycle and hands declared.
The lack of brands such as Land Rover and Mini is more surprising than the absence of top-tier players such as Maserati and Ferrari, which tend to be selective about when they attend. Some, like Bentley and Rolls, are nursing wounds from the collapse in top-tier Chinese demand. Last year, Rolls sales in China were cut in half.
Of course one importer, Volkswagen, had no choice but to turn up and face the music after being caught cheating on emissions tests. US journalists were keen to witness contrition — Golf won North American Car of the Year last year, after all — and that led to an awkward moment in a media scrum for Volkswagen chief Matthias Mueller when he was confronted by a doubter and the exchange was captured by television cameras.
Volkswagen believes a demonstrable commitment to alternative fuels is part of the answer. It showed a plug-in hybrid version of its Tiguan SUV and an electric Kombi concept, fresh from the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas. Everyone loves a Kombi, right?
Another part of Volkswagen’s strategy was cold, hard cash. “We want to make this right in the American way. We’ll do everything in our power to make it right, to regain your trust,” said Volkswagen
US boss Michael Horn as he announced an extension to the $500 handout to affected owners.
Volkswagen sales fell 5 per cent stateside last year but its brand Audi dodged the fallout, with sales up 11 per cent. Still, it had an alternative driveline concept to reveal, just in case. The H-tron Quattro, a companion vehicle to the pure electric E-tron Quattro unveiled in Frankfurt a few months ago, is a zero-emission SUV powered by hydrogen fuel cells and a battery. The striking design previews an eventual Q6 production model.
Porsche was another Volkswagen group member with something to celebrate. Its US sales rose 10 per cent in 2015, mainly thanks to its Macan SUV. Nevertheless, the US remains a vital market for the 911 sports car and Porsche rolled out a refreshed 911 Turbo, as both coupe and cabriolet. This pinnacle 911 can now reach 100km/h in less than 3 seconds and is more fuel efficient despite adding power. Here, the range starts at $384,900. Don’t Google US prices, it will make you weep.
Imported coupes and convertibles were plentiful at the show. BMW took the wraps off its first M2, a car that embodies the spirit of its famous 2002 from the 1970s, it says. It also reminds buyers that just because it’s making front-wheel drive mummy-mobiles now, in its centenary year it hasn’t forgotten its roots. The M2 arrives here next quarter, starting from $89,900.
BMW also showed an M Performance version of its racy X4 SUV, the X4 M40, although Australia will miss out on this one.
Meanwhile, Mercedes rolled out a refreshed SLK, its small convertible now dubbed SLC, and the most expensive car you’ll be able to buy with a three-pointed star: the S65 Cabrio, with a turbocharged V12 and a price well above half a million when it arrives late this year.
Less glamorous but more vital to Mercedes prospects was its new E-Class luxury sedan, with cutting-edge autonomous driving capability that means it can steer itself for up to a minute. It arrives midyear and starts from $80,000.
Other coupes put the finishing touches to concepts unveiled previously at Detroit. They included the Infiniti Q60, a two-door version of the its mainstay Q50 sedan, and the Lexus LC 500, which appeared in concept form fully three years ago and remains at least another year from launch. Under the bonnet is the brand’s long-serving 5.0litre V8 and Lexus says the LC 500 is its most dynamic car since the LFA — a one-off supercar that in retrospect set the bar a little too high for subsequent models.
One surprise came from General Motors brand Buick, which turned up with an attractive coupe called Avista, with a clear lineage to its Avenir concept from last year. That was a product of Holden’s design studio in Melbourne and if Avista ever gets made, it would be a worthy successor to the Monaro.
Unlike last year, when Ford stole the show with its spectacular GT supercar, it was difficult to pick a standout this year, with contenders including the Buick Avista, Lexus LC 500 and a stunning concept called Precision from Honda’s premium division Acura.
However, I couldn’t help but admire Volvo’s S90 large sedan for its quietly assertive Swedishness. Sharing many components with the XC90 large SUV, which was anointed North American Truck of the Year, it’s the second in a wave of fresh product from the Swede and a confident expression of the nation’s aesthetic values, beautifully rendered down to its Thor’s-hammer headlights.
Volvo was celebrating the most productive year in its nine-decade history after selling more than 500,000 vehicles for the first time, although you wouldn’t know it from the stage delivery of Hakan Samuelsson, whose deadpan speech seemed perfectly matched to the mood of the show.
AUDI H-TRON QUATTRO CONCEPT
What is it? A large hydrogen-powered fourseater SUV with racy modern design. A study for an eventual Q6 based on Q7 underpinnings.
Driveline Two electric motors, one at the front and one at the rear, powered by a 110kW hydrogen fuel cell boosted by 100kW from a battery when required.
Pluses Zero emissions and a 600km range when all three hydrogen tanks are full. It refuels in just four minutes and takes less than seven seconds to hit 100kmh.
What is it? A 2+2 grand touring coupe heavily influenced by the Holden-designed Avenir sedan concept from Detroit last year.
Driveline Turbocharged 3.0-litre V6 driving the rear wheels via an eight-speed automatic.
Pluses A Buick with real visual appeal that transcends the US. If it ever gets made it would be an ideal performance car for Holden, suitably rebadged.
PORSCHE 911 TURBO
What is it? The latest version of Porsche’s pinnacle 911, with more power but improved efficiency.
Driveline Turbocharged 3.8-litre flat-six cylinder in two states of tune: 397kW and 427kW. All-wheel drive.
Pluses Visual changes are subtle but effective. Technology updates include an new infotainment system. Fastest Turbo can hit 100km/h in 2.9 seconds.
What is it? The tenth generation of Mercedes’ large luxury sedan adopts the styling of the larger S and smaller C.
Driveline Range of four and six-cylinder petrol and diesel engines, including the first in a new family of diesel units and a plug-in hybrid.
Pluses It lifts the bar on autonomous driving with the ability to overtake and navigate without lane markings. Debuts smartphone-style wheel controls.
What is it? A large sedan that’s the second car in a wave of fresh products from Volvo, following last year’s
Driveline Four-cylinder petrol or diesel engines using forced induction, plus a plug-in hybrid.
Authentic and persuasive statement of Scandinavian design offers something different from the generic Germans.
LEXUS LC 500
What is it? The production version of a 2+2 performance coupe that appeared three years ago as a concept.
Driveline A naturally aspirated 351kW 5.0-litre V8 driving the rear wheels via the industry’s first 10-speed automatic.
Pluses It’s built on a new platform and production begins next year. The LC 500 has been confirmed for Australia.
What is it? A small performance coupe in the best BMW tradition.
Driveline A new 272kW turbocharged 3.0-litre straight-six engine driving the rear wheels via a six-speed manual or seven-speed double-clutch automatic.
Pluses Zero to 100km/h in 4.3 seconds and dynamics to match, with the front and rear axles from the M3/M4 and a rear diff. Starting price $89,900, it arrives next quarter.
What is it? A two-door coupe companion car to the Q50 midsize sedan from Nissan’s premium division.
Driveline Turbocharged four-cylinders or V6s, with rear-drive standard but all-wheel drive an option across the range.
Pluses It’s a “daring visual statement”, according to Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn, which “reinforces Infiniti’s reputation for performance”.