Taurus, Prius, EVs Charge Up NAIAS

Expectations were low as journalists arrived at Detroit's Cobo Center Jan. 11 to begin the press days at the North American International Show. Two-thirds of the Detroit Three had just begged Washington for a financial lifeline, and every auto maker had suffered sales declines in 2008. So the usual flash and sizzle would be gone, especially at the shockingly sparse General Motors Corp. and Chrysler

Expectations were low as journalists arrived at Detroit's Cobo Center Jan. 11 to begin the press days at the North American International Show.

Two-thirds of the Detroit Three had just begged Washington for a financial lifeline, and every auto maker had suffered sales declines in 2008. So the usual flash and sizzle would be gone, especially at the shockingly sparse General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC stands.

The whole show looked lean without the Porsche, Nissan, Infiniti, Land Rover, Rolls Royce and Ferrari brands on hand for this year's autofest.

There was so much extra space in Cobo Center that the basement was converted to a faux forest and alternative-energy test track while the main-floor space once occupied by the exotic and saucy Bugatti Veyron years ago had become — of all the indignities — a food court.

But there was reason to deem Detroit's auto show a success, all things considered. Through the public days and including the industry previews, attendance was off only about 8%, despite a bone-chilling cold snap and a regional economy in tatters.

And show organizers say some 5,500 journalists from around the world — down slightly from 2008 — covered the show for interviews and unveilings of production and concept models.

Some people had feared misery from tough economic times might work its way into the fabric of the Motor City's big hometown event. But NAIAS co-chairman Doug Fox, a native Detroiter and an Ann Arbor, MI, auto dealer, says those fears were unfounded.

“The first thing you see is the stylish nature of the displays is alive and well,” he tells Ward's while walking the show floor. “Now it's all about the cars and a little less about the displays.”

The undisputed star at the Ford Motor Co. stand was the new '10 Taurus, which design chief J Mays describes as a “big improvement” over the outgoing model, which has suffered poor sales since its launch as the Five Hundred in 2005. The new Taurus goes on sale this summer.

Mays says the current Taurus is too conservative, likening the vehicle to a beautifully tailored Brooks Brothers suit. “There is nothing wrong with a Brooks Brothers suit, but we wanted something more stylish than that with the new vehicle.”

Mays says the original Taurus, launched in 1986 to great success, did not inspire the design of the new sedan, noting the former was a “family” car while the latter is a “hedonistic, driver-oriented” vehicle.

Arriving in showrooms this spring in Japan and the U.S. is Toyota Motor Corp.'s third-generation Prius hybrid-electric vehicle, another star for its fuel-sipping qualities. The sedan is expected to achieve 50 mpg (4.7 L/100 km).

Toyota expects annual Prius sales to reach 400,000 units globally by 2010 and will extend the HEV's reach by retailing it in 80 countries, nearly twice that of the outgoing model.

The auto maker sets its lofty sales goal without the benefit of its Blue Springs, MS, manufacturing plant, whose construction has been halted until the U.S. economy recovers, says Jim Lentz, president-Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.

Toyota was to begin production at Blue Springs in 2010 but recently stopped construction on the 90%-complete facility, which was to have planned capacity for 150,000 units.

Although Prius bests the fuel economy of rival Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s lower-priced Insight, which is estimated to achieve 40/43 mpg (5.9L-5.5 L/100 km) city/highway, Lentz believes the two cars will carve out their own niches, appealing to different sets of buyers. He praises the Insight for helping promote hybrids.

Honda took a unique approach to unveiling the Insight: It didn't. Instead, when the doors opened to media Jan. 11, the Insight was on full display, and a handful of photographers raced over to get the first shots.

The Insight, expected to start under $20,000, goes on sale in April with the 5th generation of Honda's Integrated Motor Assist parallel hybrid powertrain. Power comes from an all-new low-friction 1.3L SOHC iVTEC 4-cyl. engine that produces 88 hp and runs most of the time.

Mated to the engine is a 10-kilowatt ultra-thin electric motor that provides up to 13 hp and 58 lb.-ft. (78 Nm) of torque, while enabling generation of electricity that is stored for use when the engine shuts off.

Every auto show needs an edgy roadster to get the blood flowing, and Volkswagen AG provided this year's excitement with a concept that could be on the market “in a couple of years or so” if it gets the green light from management, company insiders say.

The car, dubbed Bluesport, is a small open-top 2-seater, similar in concept to the Audi TT convertible, but with a heavier accent on fuel economy to go along with performance.

Power for the small car comes from a 177-hp 4-cyl. clean diesel positioned midship that is mated to a 6-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. Driving the car's rear wheels, the powertrain is said to deliver fuel economy of 55 mpg (4.3 L/100 km).

Micro-hybrid-type technology that includes start/stop and energy-regeneration systems boosts fuel economy another 5%, if the driver opts for the “Eco” setting, VW says.

General Motors unveiled two new vehicles aimed at global markets in 2011: the Cadillac Converj concept based on the much-anticipated Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle and a new-generation Chevy Spark minicar, which comes to the U.S. in 2011.

The Spark will be based on three minicar concepts the auto maker unveiled in 2007 at the New York auto show — the Chevrolet Beat, Trax and Groove. GM currently builds the first-generation Spark in China and India.

The new Spark's introduction in Europe and other markets in 2010 will precede its U.S. arrival, a cadence the auto maker currently is executing with its new Chevy Cruze global compact car.

The Cadillac Converj is a sporty 4-passenger coupe that uses the Volt's electric drivetrain with a small-displacement internal-combustion engine to extend its range beyond 45 miles (72 km).

Reinforcing the point that big vehicles were relegated to small-potato status at this year's show was BMW AG's Mini brand, which has proven remarkably resilient in an era of collapsing sales and fluctuating gasoline prices.

Sales of the brand in the U.S. climbed 29% in 2008, to 54,000 units. At this year's show, Mini introduced a new convertible based on the redesigned second-generation platform of the hardtop Mini Cooper.

The new convertible features an evolutionary design and benefits from the new platform's more efficient engine, which features 22% lower fuel consumption and carbon-dioxide emissions.

Also from the BMW family came the latest generation of Bavaria's sexy Z4 roadster. The convertible features a highly sculpted exterior design and retractable hardtop, in place of the previous-generation's fabric top.

The new roof is comprised of two aluminum shells that fold into the trunk in 20 seconds, while allowing enough room for a medium-size suitcase or one golf bag. With the roof up, the car can accommodate two golf bags.

In the U.S., the car will be available with a choice of two 3.0L inline 6-cyl. engines.

Chrysler's unveiling of the 200C EV electric-drive sedan represented a “coming-out party for the new Chrysler (LLC),” says the auto maker's vice chairman and president.

Jim Press says the concept car underscores what is possible at Chrysler, if the auto maker is given a chance to succeed. Chrysler, as well as GM, is devising a business plan to satisfy terms of a multimillion-dollar taxpayer-funded bridge loan approved by the Bush Admin.

However, the 200C EV is not being considered for production as Chrysler's first electric-drive vehicle. Nor does it hint at the next-generation Chrysler 300 sedan.

The 200C EV features a range-extender powertrain configuration that affords 400 miles (644 km) of driving without refueling, including 40 miles (64 km) of all-electric, zero-emissions travel.

Chrysler also introduced a fourth electric-drive concept vehicle, the Jeep Patriot EV, ratcheting up suspense over which one it will build. The auto maker has said it would market one of three previously unveiled electric-drive concepts starting in 2010.

The Patriot EV springs from ENVI (known internally as “Envision”), the auto maker's advanced-technology vehicle-development enterprise.

When the Patriot EV's lithium-ion battery is depleted, it benefits from a “range-extender” setup that consists of an onboard generator fueled by a small gasoline engine. Total range: 400 miles (644 km), including 40 miles (64 km) of zero-emissions, all-electric operation.

It joins a pair of range-extender models in the ENVI stable, along with an all-electric sports car. They are the Chrysler Town & Country EV minivan, Jeep Wrangler Unlimited EV and the Dodge Circuit EV 2-seater.

Volvo Car debuted its S60 concept as a glimpse of what the production version will look like when it bows in 2010.

“We interpreted it as a step forward,” Volvo Design Director Steve Mattin says. “We still have the typical Volvo DNA elements, but we're interpreting each of those in a more emotional, dramatic way.”

One element designers changed was the continuous shoulder flow found on earlier Volvos. The sculpted look has been replaced by what Mattin calls a “double-wave” shoulder line.

Ford's Lincoln luxury brand showed the C concept vehicle. Based on the auto maker's global C-segment platform, the concept demonstrates what a future Lincoln small luxury car could look like.

The concept car is powered by a gasoline 1.6L direct-injection, turbocharged 4-cyl. EcoBoost engine that produces 178 hp and 177 lb.-ft. (240 Nm) of torque. Ford says it is capable of achieving 43 mpg (5.5 L/100 km) on the highway.

On the production front, Ford unveiled the '10 Lincoln MKT cross/utility vehicle.

Although it is the platform mate of the '09 Ford Flex fullsize CUV, the MKT bears virtually no resemblance to the Blue Oval offering.

Indeed, the new MKT more closely resembles other luxury CUVs, such as the Acura MDX and Lexus RX, while the Flex boasts a quirky, boxy style.

The MKT, arriving in showrooms this summer priced below $45,000, received the green light for production shortly after it was first shown in concept form at last year's Detroit auto show.

Under the hood, customers get a choice of two engines, a standard 3.7L V-6 producing 268 hp and 267 lb.-ft. (362 Nm) of torque or a 3.5L twin-turbocharged direct-injected EcoBoost V-6 generating an estimated 355 hp and 350 lb.-ft. (475 Nm) of torque.

Bucking the market with a 0.3% increase in sales last year, Subaru of America Inc. took the wraps off a concept version of its Legacy midsize sedan.

The bling-intensive Legacy concept came dressed in a stainless-steel-esque, high luster “Ultimate Silver” finish, with a chrome strip across the trunk lid. Chrome also adorns the side mirrors.

Subaru Chief Designer Osamu Namba says he is considering the use of chrome for detailing across the Subaru lineup but is not specific as to whether it will be found on the next-generation Legacy production model.

Ward's data shows a next-generation Legacy is due in the '10 model year, but executives do not reveal when the car will debut.

For the truly indulgent, Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz premium division turned heads with the E750,000 ($1 million) 650-hp carbon-fiber SLR Stirling Moss.

Sold outside North America, the special-edition SLR pays tribute to Moss, the British driving legend who piloted an SLR at an average speed of 97.9 mph (158 km/h) to a record finish in Italy's Mille Miglia in 1955. That standard remains unbeaten and unmatched.

Mercedes also showed — ever so briefly — the redesigned-for-'10 E-Class sedan before being covered up again to re-emerge at the Geneva auto show in March.

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