Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dark Days are Over - A Glass Half-Full Look at NAIAS 2012

By now dozens and dozens of reviews and lists on the good and the not so stellar have been published on this year’s North American International Autoshow. But while North America’s premier automotive event is receiving major buzz, underneath the bright lights and shiny metal, the publicity is part of a bigger dialogue – One that hasn’t been in the forefront for some time.

It’s quite obvious really: People are talking about Detroit again.

Four years ago, the cornerstone of American manufacturing was on the verge of complete collapse.  The Big 3 watched in horror as the perfect storm gathered – Fuel prices went up, as did the cost of raw materials, and banks froze credit in the wake of the economic crisis. Profitable sales of larger SUVs and pickups plummeted as consumers defaulted to more fuel efficient offerings from overseas competitors. While Ford managed to keep the Big B at bay by essentially re-mortgaging the company, General Motors and Chrysler were forced to take on billions in taxpayer money and undergo drastic consolidation to stay in business. 

But the present made up for past sins. A leaner Big 3 armed with a meaner, more CAFÉ friendly product line-up has slowly rebounded as a leader of America’s manufacturing and engineering prowess.  Sales are up as prospective buyers started returning to Big 3 showrooms and factoring in the domestics as genuine contenders in their purchasing decisions.  The once vilified Detroit automotive industry is once again brimming with confidence and optimism for the future.

Feast your eyes, then, on some of the must-see highlights of the North American International Autoshow.

Ford Fusion / Fusion Hybrid / Fusion Energi

To say Ford owned Cobo Hall with its 2013 Fusion trifecta would be an understatement. The latest version of the Blue Oval’s midsize sedan is a continuation of the ‘One Ford’ strategy, as the Fusion will be sold as the Mondeo in overseas markets.  It is truly a stunning vehicle to behold, enamouring onlookers with its stylish, yet timelessly handsome looks.  Chief Designer Chris Hamilton eschews the much derided Edge design language and builds upon the more modern principles of Ford’s kinetic design.  Paying homage to luxury marques like Aston Martin (Front Grille) and Audi (Front Lip), Ford seeks to democratize premium design by bringing the same aesthetic previously reserved for the affluent to the masses.

On the power front, Ford is following the vein of its competitors, ridding the V6 and substituting it with more efficient, MPG friendly 4 Cylinder powertrains.  Ford is also covering its bases and catering to every taste, offering a Hybrid model which will achieve 48mpg on the combined cycle, and a Plug-In Fusion Energi Hybrid that will go the distance at an astronomical 100MPGe sans gasoline.

With the new Fusion Ford has proven that affordable motoring doesn’t have to come at the expense of style. No need to hedge this bet – The new Fusion is the head of the class and a sure fire winner.

Acura NSX Concept

The NSX was originally scheduled for a revival in 2009 to do battle against Toyota’s LF-A Supercar.  While the car was actually built as the V8 powered HSV GT Concept, it remained forbidden fruit to the public. The global economic crisis ultimately forced Honda to prioritize on volume sales instead of funding halo projects, and production plans were scrapped.

But now the NSX is making a comeback - albeit a painful three years away from production - and it’s greener than ever. Honda ditches the thirsty V8 in exchange for a V6 powered hybrid setup with AWD as standard.  Expect terms like VTEC, Direction Injection and lightweight materials to pad Honda’s green credentials when the car rolls off the assembly line.

Speaking of assembly, the most significant announcement from the NSX revival is that the car will be engineered and built in Ohio.  A strong yen has rendered Japanese exports into a very expensive proposition.  Given that the vast majority of NSXs were sold in North America anyway, it makes sense for Honda to relocate the manufacturing to the NSX’s core market.

The various creases and shapes in the concept’s design are an amalgamation of various existing sports cars (458 Italia? Esprit? Gallardo? It’s all there). But all of that superfluous critical claptrap means very little to the large scheme of things - The People’s Supercar is making a comeback, and it’s here to stay. Long live the NSX.   

Dodge Dart

A quick look through Dodge’s compact car history reveals forlorn nameplates like the Aries, Shadow, Neon, and the recently certified Caliber. While they were responsible for fattening Dodge’s bottom line, none of them were particularly good cars.  Chrysler hopes to change its streak with the revival of the Dart name. Riding atop an Alfa Romeo Giulietta platform, the Dart is the first fruit of Chrysler’s merger with Fiat and Dodge’s answer to anchoring its foothold in the crucial compact sedan market.  It’s an attractive little car - The Charger cues scale well on the Dart, and the blacked out front grille on the R/T model lends a sporty touch a la the Golf GTI.

The interior however is where the Dart really shines. Gone are the fridge binnacle grade plastics and in its place are plush, soft dash materials. Fully digital gauges replace traditional instrument cluster, along with a big 8” touchscreen that operates Chrysler’s UConnect infotainment system. It’s an unprecedented feature on a small car, and made even more incredible as it is slated to go on sale at a smidge under $16,000.

Perhaps the best feature on the Dart? The fully customizable instrument cluster has the speedometer surrounded by virtual flower petals. The petals blossom as a reward for frugal driving, and fall off if the driver has a heavy right foot. 

Falcon F7

The F7 actually debuted at NAIAS last year as a concept, and this is the first chance the vast majority of the public will get acquainted with America’s ‘boutique supercar’ in production guise.  In a world where environmental responsibility has become the norm, the birth of any high powered supercar is enough cause for celebration. The F7 is here to prove that America is no slouch when it comes to supercardom, and on paper it looks every bit as promising as its Hot Wheels inspired looks.  Powered by a modified LS7 engine from Chevrolet that now churns out 620hp and a monstrous 585lb/ft of torque, the F7 will rocket on well north of 190mph. Weight is kept to a svelte 2,785 pounds thanks to liberal swathes of carbon fiber on the bodywork, giving the car a palatable 445 horsepower per ton.  That power to weight ratio is right on par with the best of the best – The Bugatti Veyron gets 446hp / ton, while the 458 Italia manages 378hp / ton.

Don’t think for a moment the F7 is some crackpot millionaire’s supercar fantasy fulfilled.  Falcon Motor Sports has had years of experience as a supplier for the Dodge Viper, and that turned out rather well. To that standard the F7 is on track to become every bit the road beast its spec sheet makes it out to be.

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