The unspoken themes at this year’s North American International Auto Show are beauty and brains. There were plenty of gorgeous two-door coupes to go around—some concepts, some the real deal—and lots of talk of sensors and systems. These ranged from on-board autonomous tech to permit varying degrees of self-driving up through more system mobility solutions to help make driving better and more efficient for everyone.
There wasn’t as much obvious muscle on display in Detroit as there has been in recent years—particularly last year’s double-whammy rollouts of the Ford GT and Acura NSX—but there was lots of technological finesse. Hybrids and EV’s are part of the fabric of our automotive lives now, and the focus is shifting to how to integrate everything into a more broadly beneficial collective. Call it a smarter, more evolved vision of the future on display—and a gorgeous one, to boot.
Acura Precision Concept
This chiseled, sculpted, and aero-shaped four-seater is meant to be the new standard-bearer of Acura design, so elements will appear in future vehicles. The concept is all about cantilevered surfaces (inside and out), extreme proportions, and sharp creases. The huge 22-inch wheels help anchor the design. Inside, next-gen tech is meant to ease the interaction between passengers and the machine, via a huge touchscreen interface and an automatic scanning technology to customize the lighting, seating, and entertainment preferences for the occupants.
Mercedes has been gradually introducing its latest design language to its lineup, and the mid-range E-Class sedan is one of the last to get the makeover. It’s worth the wait, because the car looks terrific—slightly larger, wider, longer than its predecessor, and with nicely aggressive wheel arches and rear fenders. Its techy twists run deep, and include: Advanced autonomous mode on highways, with lane change capability coming soon; Remote Parking Pilot, which allows drivers to pull the car in and out of tight parking spots while standing outside of the vehicle, via an app; a Pre-Safe Impulse mechanism that inflates an airbag to push occupants away from the doors in the event of an imminent side impact; and the distinctly spooky Pre-Safe Sound system. This is based on the human “stapedius reflex,” in which muscles in the ear contract in the presence of loud noises, such as what you’d experience in a crash. To prevent injury, the newest Merc emits short interference signal to prepare the human ear for a collision, neutralizing the reflex.
Ford spent a lot of time in Detroit talking about mobility advancements, including a new “wearables” lab, a new data platform for analyzing urban congestion, and an expanded fleet of autonomous cars—the largest in the industry—that, for the first time, are now being tested in the snow. Though usually dependent on lane markings to navigate, Ford is deploying a suite of precision mapping and sensing tech to help cars know precisely where they are in low-visibility conditions. That will be key to all future autonomous drive systems. Ford also showed off some cars, including a new Ford Raptor pickup and updates to its mid-range Fusion line, including an upscale Platinum trim level, with high-grade leather and 19-inch wheels, and a new V-6 Sport model, with 325 hp and all-wheel-drive. That one also gets 19-inch rims and a new honeycomb grill. All models now have the option for adaptive cruise control with restarts from a complete stop and advanced park assist, including automatic perpendicular parking in addition to parallel parking.
This stunning four-seat coupe concept from Buick caught the auto show by surprise. A car this hot from Buick? Cool! The machine is built on a Camaro frame but is meant to compete against other luxury coupes from Mercedes and Jaguar. It’s got rear drive, 20-inch aluminum wheels, touch-pad door handles, and Electronic Precision Shift to help move through its 8-speed automatic.
The redesigned Q60 gets a new 3-liter, 400-hp twin turbo V6 engine—as well as an optional 208-hp four-cylinder turbo—and a sleek new set of lines. The designers worked with engineers in order to create more precise angular shaping of the sheet metal, which introduces significant manufacturing challenges, and the company debuts its second-generation Direct Adaptive Steering system, an innovative steer-by-wire setup that permits tunable feedback and input requirements, and allows for faster steering input and therefore fewer corrections from the driver.
Audi h-tron Quattro Concept
Audi unveiled its hydrogen-powered h-tron Quattro Concept, a fuel-cell powered, off-road capable all-wheel-drive hybrid electric wagon. The zero-emission EV has two motors, a 121-hp motor in front and a 148-hp motor driving the rears. The result—from these motors and a supplemental battery pack—is a significant 406 lb-ft of torque, which helps shoot the wagon to 60 in under 7 seconds and will help it muscle over virtually any terrain. Audi pushing for hydrogen power in the year after Toyota and Honda released their own hydrogen vehicles to continued public skepticism is yet another vital boost for the alternative fuel. The car’s tanks hold 6 kilograms of hydrogen, good for 370 miles, and can be refueled in only 4 minutes.
This compact giant-killer debuted in the flesh in Detroit, with a 365-hp inline-six and two transmission options: a dual-clutch and a conventional manual, for those who still dig rowing their own gears—and there are many of us who do. The engine generates prodigious torque—343 lb-ft, which is good enough for a zero-to-60 time of just 4.5 seconds. Not bad for a four-seater priced at a relatively manageable $52,695.
If there’s any automotive category ripe for reinvention, it’s the minivan. The lowly family hauler gets essentially that in Chrysler’s completely redesigned sequel to the Town & Country. The van gets a completely new look that’s more crossover-like than van-like, and far more interesting to look at. It’s also interesting to drive, with an optional hybrid motor that generates 80 mpg and lets drivers carry groceries up to 30 miles on electric power alone.
This gorgeous performance coupe provides no less than 467 horsepower from its big, 5-liter V8 engine, and a new ten-speed transmission that Lexus claims will be as fast as the dual-clutch affairs favored by many performance-car manufacturers. Lightweight, high-strength materials and chassis stiffeners will help the car stay flat and steady in the turns, and then power quickly out of them. The car is based on the LF-LC concept car that created considerable buzz in 2012, and it successfully carries over that car’s design and engineering thinking.
Following up its ultra-successful, ultra-high-tech XC90 SUV, launched last year, Volvo introduced its new flagship luxury sedan, the S90, in Detroit. The car will compete with the BMW 5-Series, the Mercedes E-Class, and the Audi A6, bringing its most advanced, nearly autonomous Pilot Assist system yet. The system can drive on the highways at up to 80 mph with no driver input, keeping the car aligned in the lane based on roadway markings. (Previous versions required another car to follow.) It also introduces the ability to identify large animals in the roadway, providing warnings to the driver and assisting with braking as necessary.
Honda’s pickup truck returns from its hiatus with a more subtle package, stylistically, and a tweaked target market. After listening to their research into customer preferences, Honda produced a truck geared more for normal users than construction-site types. Instead of a body-on-frame construction common to big pickups, Honda chose a unibody chassis for a more compliant and comfortable ride. Instead of a super-muscular, high-horsepower engine, Honda opted for a more modest, but still capable, V6 producing 280-hp. There’s a front-drive option in addition to torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive. It’s also got the same under-bed trunk that its predecessor had, and another secret hidden trick: Six speakers embedded in the sidewalls of the pickup bed, ideal for tailgating or general outdoor partying. That’s a major first—and a fun idea.
We drove the new compact electric Bolt last week at CES—it proved powerful and stable while flipping through turns on a small autocross. This week in Detroit, we actually have some hard numbers to go with the reversal of the final production model. When it goes on sale at the end of the year—at around $30,000, after government incentives—it will have an impressive 60 kWh battery good for over 200 miles between charges and acceleration in the sub-7-second range. Single-pedal driving—via regenerative braking to both slow the car and charge the battery—is enhanced with a low gear engineered precisely for that purpose. The 960-pound battery pack is less than four-inches thick, and sits evenly distributed under the floorboard to maintain a low center of gravity. This is a hugely important car; GM will effectively beat Tesla by a year or more in the race for an affordable, practical EV.