Known for being bland and practical, the American mid-size sedan segment is getting an injection of personality. As a key component of the GM turnaround plan, Chevrolet was the leading GM act with emphasis on passenger cars...

Final wrap up

Celebrating its 100th anniversary, the North American International Auto Show in Detroit re-emerged with a buildup of excitement and fury. In the weeks preceding, intense anticipation over potential unveiling's swirled itself into a ball of momentum which finally went super nova upon opening day. With over 6000 members of the media present, the appetite for news and analysis about the American auto makers and their dire financial situation was heightened even more. If there was ever a time to reveal a new strategic direction, it was now, in their home town. And so they did.

SUV's exit stage left by cane hook

No, SUV's won't be facing extinction like the El Camino any time soon but instead will experience a market correction. Recent high fuel prices did not send SUV sales plummeting but instead showed the resilience of consumers by holding onto their beloved SUV's and pickup trucks. The $3.00 per gallon price of fuel was not enough to instigate a mass migration to passenger cars. However, it was enough for consumers to see SUV's in a different light, especially with all of the hype surrounding green cars. Now, sales will continue to drop as consumers make the move from "self-indulgent" SUV's to mid-size sedans with enhanced "personality". The American auto makers clearly recognize the diminishing SUV market, especially in urban areas where the SUV is worn as a fashion accessory instead of a utility vehicle, and their new model offerings at NAIAS clearly suggested a shift in focus towards passenger cars.

Passenger cars enter stage right tap dancing

Known for being bland and practical, the American mid-size sedan segment is getting an injection of personality. As a key component of the GM turnaround plan, Chevrolet was the leading GM act with emphasis on passenger cars, particularly the all-new Malibu, Camaro Convertible, Volt Concept and outside of the Chevy brand, the all-new Cadillac CTS. Also giving support were the previously launched Saturn Aura and Saturn Astra which are direct transplants from the Opel Vectra and Opel Astra, respectively, in Europe. However, the focal point was the Chevy Malibu. Exerting one of the most dramatic turnarounds, the new Malibu truly impresses with tasteful European influenced body lines and a progressive interior characteristic of a vehicle with a much higher price tag. (Malibu starting price $20,000)

The Ford Interceptor Concept, based on the Mustang platform, attempts to reflect 1960's American muscle car attitude within a modern mid-size sedan. Bold, attitude, muscle are some of the words Ford uses to describe the Interceptor but I would prefer to use: inferiority complex, monolithic and heavy. Hmm, sounds like the familiar SUV mentality transplanted into a sedan. Hopefully, this will be the last example of recycling the glory days of American design of yesteryear, and instead moving forward with fresh modern designs like the new Malibu. Ford Executive Director of Design, Peter Horbury, the man responsible for the successful design invigoration at Volvo, and his design team accomplished what they set out to do - create a modern interpretation of 1960's American style. But I find this a bit of a contradiction. According to Horbury, "Our customer target for this powerful masculine sedan was a man with a family." Horbury continued, "He's essentially a good guy, but a bit mischievous. He loves power and performance. But ultimately, he's responsible. When he has his family on board, he values new safety technology as well as a powerful engine that runs on E-85 ethanol." This sounds like a guy born late 60's to early 70's, a Generation X-er, and would have grown up appreciating cars from the 80's and 90's. A bit far fetched, but wait! Redemption is always around the corner and Horbury really hit the mark (no pun intended) with the Lincoln MKR.

Luxury: American vs. European

It's safe to assume the American makers as well as the Japanese will take some time before they match the Europeans in terms of luxury car offerings. Hundreds of years of royalty and high society has given the Europeans much practice with a level of refinement and lavishness not seem anywhere else. However, I couldn't help but come away impressed with Horbury and his design team with the Lincoln MKR Concept. The MKR is a major jump forward which shows the European influences of the design team finally starting to emerge into a competent American luxury car. Ford declares this revelation as, "a new era of Lincoln design" and uses such language as sophisticated, modern and romantic. I couldn't agree more.

Another promising luxury vehicle was the Chrysler Nassau Concept. Chrysler exterior designer, Alan Barrington, proudly confirmed its' British influence, "Traditional exterior proportions have been enhanced with a silhouette that recalls the classic English 'shooting brake.' While sharing the same wheelbase as the 300C, the Nassau gives a sporting sleek appearance from the front and side angles until you move to the rear where an unexpected vertical hatchback bewilders. First impressions are puzzling but the design language is confident and distinct. As American preferences warm up to hatchback and estate type vehicles again, this shooting brake concept could potentially create a new niche in the luxury market. However, the real luxury resides in the interior. Designed to attract a young professional by utilizing futuristic breakthrough materials from architectural interiors as well as all of the latest electronic gadgetry, the interior hints to a potential influence by Mercedes.

No restraint to be found in the far end of the luxury category by well established premium auto makers Mercedes-Benz and BMW owned Rolls-Royce, as they present their full size coupe-convertibles. Mercedes' Ocean Drive Concept is based on the four door S-Class platform and likely to go into production. Mercedes describes the Ocean Drive as, "an awe-inspiring jewel on wheels", which, "features the maximum in elegance, lifestyle sophistication and exclusiveness." The Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe first launched as a concept in Detroit 2006 will be the second model in the Rolls lineup. According to Rolls-Royce Chief Designer, Ian Cameron, "The Phantom Drophead Coupe is about emphasizing the essentials of pleasure. Above all, we were determined to make this car a joy to live with. Rolls-Royce is the opposite of stiff formality. Why would you design and build a car like this and not make it fun to use?" I'm sure Hip-Hop and Hollywood celebrities won't be complaining.

While the Europeans remain the epitome of luxury, the Americans have shown some promise. Perhaps we could even see the Malibu moving into the premium segment? Maybe not, but Honda and Toyota need to be wary.

Let downs

  • Ford launches Focus facelift number two since its launch in 1999. With the successful European version in slight demand in the US, Ford is unable to consolidate the platforms until 2010. Sounds like poor planning.

  • Can we please put chrome wheels to rest? I am amazed how many concept vehicles such as the Jaguar C-XF, Interceptor, Lincoln MKR and many more still utilize chrome wheels. Glitz and glamour aside, it looks really cheap.

  • No BMW M3 pre-production concept

  • Chevy Volt Concept was actually a decent concept despite the bland looks. The "E-Flex" electric propulsion system performance and usability improvements over the abandoned GM EV1 electric car launched in 1996 was significant but suffers the same project killing problem as the EV1. Battery technology has still not evolved to the point of making a vehicle like the Volt viable despite the impressive performance gains.

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