Whether cynics choose to believe it or not, the North American International Auto Show in Detroit remains one of the top automotive events of the year. The Detroit show’s relevance has waned and waxed over the past five years while the future of the Detroit Three automakers — General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group — remained unclear. Increasingly large auto shows in Los Angeles and New York seemed poised to leave NAIAS a relic of Detroit’s glory days.
After bailouts, plenty of layoffs, corporate reorganizations and a steady stream of good product, Ford, GM and Chrysler are no longer the butt of the automotive industry’s jokes. If it was whispered in 2011, this year the Detroit show is a shout — Detroit is back. Almost every automaker with U.S. operations set up multi-million dollar displays in Cobo Center this year. Nearly 30 production and concept cars were shown off, ranging from realistic models to pure fantasies. Here are my top three debuts:
• 2013 Ford Fusion, Fusion Hybrid and Fusion Energi: This one really goes without saying. An iPad application malfunction leaked a picture of Ford’s new volume sedan several days ago. Now that we can see the entire Fusion, all I have to say is, “Wow.”
The new Fusion is the largest fruition of Ford’s “One Ford” global design strategy, joining the smaller and equally attractive Fiesta and Focus. The 2010 Fusion won several major awards — including Motor Trend’s Car of the Year — and enjoyed sustained high sales. I was never a fan of the three-bar grills of Ford’s Red, White and Bold design theme. The new design draws from several Ford EVOS concepts, paired with the elegant Kinetic theme Ford has employed in its European operations for years.
The resulting sedan is stunning. Design-wise, only the Korean Kia Optima and Hyundai Sonata siblings come close. It’s almost an insult to Ford’s new Dearborn design studios to mention Fusion in the same sentence as the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry or Chevrolet Malibu. The Chrysler 200 abomination should probably be in another paragraph.
The conventional model is offered only in V-4 flavors, two of which utilize Ford’s lauded EcoBoost engine. Statistics regarding the hybrid model’s efficiency aren’t final, but Ford claims it beats out Toyota and Hyundai hybrid sedans in efficiency.
Most interesting is the Energi electric model — though I’m not sure why incorrect spelling is in style. It claims 100 miles per gallon equivalent, and its design doesn’t differentiate it from the conventionally powered Fusions. Part of the problem with electric models, like the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf, has been their polarizing styling. It’ll be interesting to see if Fusion Energi sales prove my theory that Americans do want to buy electric, they just don’t want everyone to know they’re driving an eco-mobile.
• 2013 Dodge Dart: Chrysler has had as many marriages and messy divorces as Newt Gingrich. The most recent partnership with Italian conglomerate Fiat has produced its first lovechild, the Dart — based on, but heavily differentiated from, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. Aggressive Dodge features work well on this sedan, though family resemblance to the Charger and Challenger is minimal aside from the long, horizontal backlight.
The Dart comes late in the game to fill Chrysler’s C-segment hole. Since the much-loved Neon was replaced by the much-hated Caliber in 2005, the Auburn Hills-based automaker hasn’t had a competitive small car. Though Japanese competitors have lost steam, the Hyundai Elantra, Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus have raised the small-car bar. Ultimately, the Dart will serve as a test to the sustainability of the Chrysler-Fiat relationship. To put it bluntly: The Dart has to be good — really good.
• Cadillac ATS: Right now, Cadillac is a one trick pony — that pony being the CTS sedan. The new ATS, along with the larger XTS, are poised to continue Cadillac’s renaissance and establish it as a direct competitor to Audi, BMW and Mercedes. The German automakers all have small, medium and large sedans, and the ATS is Cadillac’s first real vehicle that can compete. Specifications are suspiciously close to the BMW 3-series, but it’s no accident. The ATS is the first American car in decades to directly take on the 3-series, Audi A4 and Mercedes C-class. The next CTS will grow to take on the BMW 5-series and Audi A6.
The ATS’s design is almost identical to the CTS. From a distance, most won’t be able to tell the difference. That’s not a bad thing — it’s a handsome sedan. Cadillac, however, could have taken a bigger risk and evolved its Art and Science theme further. Inside, however, Cadillac’s new CUE user interface should be simpler to use than BMW’s i-drive.
In the class the ATS will compete in, performance is vital. Two smaller engines will be offered, but the 320 horsepower V-6 is the engine that the Germans should fear. No doubt we’ll see an ATS-V to take on the BMW M3 with a year.
Andrew Weiner is the editorial page editor. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on twitter at @andrewweiner.