Five things we learned from the Detroit auto show
Published: Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 8:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 8:50 p.m.
DETROIT — Maybe it was the brand new, bright red Chevrolet Corvette gleaming in one corner, or the elegant BMW coupe in the other. Maybe it was just the free-flowing espresso at nearly every stand. But car companies were positively giddy this week as the North American International Auto Show opened in Detroit.
They have reason to be. U.S. new car and truck sales reached a five-year high of 14.5 million in 2012, and many executives and analysts think they'll climb to 15.5 million this year. Credit is easier to obtain, interest rates are low and many people who held on to old cars during the recession are ready to buy.
To catch those customers' eyes at the Detroit show, car companies unveiled 59 new cars and concepts. That's up from just 41 in 2012, a sign that auto makers have more profits at their disposal and expect higher sales.
The show opens to the public Saturday. Here are five trends visitors will see:
1. Getting more efficient
One lesson from this year's show: There are plenty of ways to squeeze more efficiency from cars and trucks.
Volkswagen is showing a plug-in hybrid SUV prototype called the CrossBlue that mates a diesel engine with two electric motors. It can travel 14 miles in all-electric mode and gets an estimated 35 miles per gallon while running on both gas and electricity. The Jeep Grand Cherokee is also making a jump to diesel power with a new, optional 3-liter V-6 diesel that gets 30 miles per gallon on the highway, five better than the gas-powered V-6.
Automakers are trying other tricks to save fuel as they face higher fuel economy requirements, even in muscle cars. The eight-cylinder engine on the 2014 Corvette kicks down to four at highway speeds. The grille and wheels of Ford's Atlas concept pickup have shutters that automatically close at high speeds to cut wind drag. Many carmakers are replacing steel with aluminum, carbon fiber and other materials to save weight.
Jeremy Anwyl, vice chairman of the Edmunds.com auto website, said many people have been surprised by the resurgence of internal combustion engines as new technology makes them more efficient.
"It is one reason why we're not all driving hybrids now, or EVs," Anwyl said.
2. Pickups take off
With new home construction back on the rise, pickup truck sales are poised to grow in the coming year. And Detroit is ready.
General Motors is showing its new trucks for the first time at the Detroit show. The Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra, which will go on sale this Spring, have mean-looking grilles, restyled interiors and new engines and transmissions that GM promises will be very efficient.
Chrysler's just-refurbished Ram pickup — named the truck of the year by automotive journalists at the show — is also no slouch, boasting a segment-best 25 mpg on the highway.
But Ford, whose F-Series has been the top-selling truck for more than three decades, won't cede that title without a fight. The company pulled off one of the show's few surprises, lowering its Atlas pickup concept from the ceiling amid a shower of sparks during media previews. Ford gave few details about the beefy, chiseled Atlas, other than to say that it hints at the look of the next F-Series, due to come out in 2014 or 2015.
3. Luxury boom
Supple leather seats, finely stitched dashboards and sparkling chrome grilles are everywhere at this year's auto show, a sign that car companies are clawing at each other for a piece of the growing and lucrative U.S. luxury market.
From a well-crafted new E-Class lineup from Mercedes to the plush, decked out luxury Cadenza sedan from once-lowly Kia, automakers are vying for customers who are ready to be pampered a little more.
Luxury sales grew almost 12 percent last year to over 1 million sales, and automakers are expecting further increases as people feel better about the economy and the Great Recession recedes into the rear-view mirror.
4. Blurring the lines
The unveiling of the BMW 320i sedan, an entry-level 3-Series that starts at $33,445, renewed questions about whether luxury cars are starting to bump into mainstream models.
In the last couple of years, mass-market brands have started offering features once reserved for luxury brands. Ford offers a hands-free, automatic parallel parking systems and lane-departure warning signals on the midsize Fusion. Even the little Dodge Dart has a heated steering wheel.
Jim Lentz, who runs Toyota's operations in the U.S., isn't worried. In his own lineup, he says, the Toyota Avalon and Lexus ES sedans are very similar, but few shoppers consider both.
5. Crossovers get smaller
With explosive growth in crossover vehicles in the past five years, automakers are looking at new ways to attract buyers of more efficient SUVs that are based on car underpinnings.
At the Detroit show, Honda opened a new front in the battle with a sharp-looking small utility. It's based on a subcompact frame and will be smaller than Honda's popular CR-V. It's a new part of the market that's attractive to automakers because there aren't any well-established competitors to unseat. Nissan already is in the market with its funky Juke. General Motors' Buick is just entering with an all-new Encore.
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