The Chevy Silverado is Truck of the Year. (Paul Sancya / AP)
This year’s North American International Auto Show showcases U.S. manufacturers’ ingenuity. Facing growing regulatory pressure, automakers are proving they can work toward these demands while offering vehicles their customers will happily drive.
Strong 2013 auto sales and growing consumer confidence are felt on the floor at Cobo Center. The 2014 North American Car and Truck of the Year announcements Monday morning helped set the tone, with the Chevrolet Corvette and Silverado earning the titles.
With a revving economy, Dave Sullivan, an analyst with automotive research and forecasting firm Auto Pacific, says consumers aren’t as afraid to go for larger, flashier vehicles. And automakers are delivering innovative approaches to meeting stricter federal regulations mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The fuel regulations were drafted in 2011 and championed by President Barack Obama as a way to become more energy independent while saving consumers money. The standards: 35.5 mpg average fuel economy by 2016 and 54.5 by 2025.
“CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standards are a huge challenge,” says Larry Dominique, executive vice president at TrueCar.com, an automotive information company. But he adds automakers are “very innovative when their backs are to the wall.”
And regulations aren’t just coming from the government. A new offset barrier crash test standard from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, for instance, is tougher than the government’s. While automakers aren’t required to meet the insurance standard, no manufacturer wants to look unsafe. Meeting these benchmarks adds cost and weight to each vehicle.
Sullivan says this year’s auto show marks a contrast with past shows in that the emphasis isn’t on green vehicles. Automakers are still pursuing this technology, but it’s taking a backseat. For example, the auto show used to highlight an “electric avenue”; that’s no longer around.
This 2014 show is about the vehicles Detroit is known for: sports cars, SUVs and pickup trucks.
Consider a few of the highlights at this year’s show:
F-150: This truck, made of aluminum, is expected to drop more than 700 pounds from the current weight. This will allow for better fuel economy while it maintains the utility consumers expect. Dominique says Ford is a perfect example of how auto manufacturers seek both a compliance edge and a competitive edge. “Ford is looking to command a lot of attention,” he says. Dominique notes building the truck out of aluminum is a novel way to get closer to federal fuel regulations while also giving consumers a superior product.
GMC Canyon Pickup: This is the twin of the Chevrolet Colorado, and it’s a new midsize pickup designed to offer drivers the benefits of a truck, with less fuel consumption.
Chrysler 200: The midsize sedan has a spiffy new design and an estimated highway fuel economy of 35 mpg. It is the first vehicle in its class to offer a standard nine-speed automatic transmission. This should help Chrysler become more competitive with the current market leaders: the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
“There is a flexing of engineering muscle,” Sullivan says. That muscle is apparent at Cobo this week, as journalists from all over the world get a first look at the show’s offerings. The Big Three look right at home.