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The futuristic concepts are back — but this time the Jetsons-like geekmobiles are promising an autonomous future. Some old-school designs are still on the floor — notably the sultry Cadillac Escala — but mobility is this show’s buzzword. And since SUVs are America’s vehicles of choice, there are plenty of concept utes floating around as well.


What it is: Determined to fill every niche of the popular luxury crossover market, the X2 slots between the front-wheel-drive X1 and rear-wheel-drive X3 as a coupe model. Unlike BMW’s X6 crossover coupe, however, the X2 will likely be a front-drive chassis based on the same architecture that frames the X1 and Mini Countryman (a BMW property).

Payne’s take: With its sleek greenhouse and aggressive snout, the X2 brings to mind sexy small utes like Merc’s GLA and the Infiniti QX30 — not the boxier shape that has defined the X3 and X1. And like the AMG GLA and (coming) BMW M X3, this sporty crossover could get a performance variant when it eventually comes to market.

Chrysler Portal

What it is: The Portal is, well, a portal into Chrysler’s thinking about autonomous cars. Designed as a Level 3 autonomous car, the Portal has a steering wheel so a driver can take control when desired (Level 4 autonomous vehicles lack a steering wheel). Based on the Chrysler Pacifica platform, the Portal has doors that slide open, removable seats, and a 100 kWh battery in the floor.

Payne’s take: Early autonomous vehicles will likely inhabit fleets and the Portal‘s roomy design is optimal for people-moving. Ride-sharing companies can save billions by removing the driver and insurance overhead. “We haven’t been shy to say that we see the Portal as what we view as the future of family transportation,” Chrysler boss Tim Kuniskis said at the auto show. “People ask me, ‘Is it a minivan? Is it a crossover? Is it a UV (utility vehicle)?’ We just say it’s the fifth generation of cars.”

GAC Trumpchi GS7

What it is: The GS7 debuted at the Detroit show alongside two other GAC concepts in the latest signal that Chinese automakers are inching closer to entering the U.S. market. The GS7 appears as a serious design exercise with a 198-horse turbo-4 and liveable interior. It’s sized to the compact SUV class — the most popular in the USA.

Payne’s take: With a design that trails the times and fit-and-finish judged Grade C by industry insiders, the GS7 shows China has a ways to go to be competitive here. But with a main floor display at the auto show, the GS7 craves attention.

Nissan Vmotion Concept

What it is: The dramatic Vmotion 2.0 Concept shows sculpted lines, cabinet doors and B-pillarless design as Nissan imagines a driverless world. But the Vmotion’s intentions are more immediate than just autonomy. The car debuts Nissan’s ProPilot automated driving system, which will appear on the next-gen Leaf EV and allow the car to take over accelerator, brakes and steering wheel at highway speeds. Engaging ProPilot causes the car’s grille and rear diffuser to glow, letting others on the road know that the car is driving, you are texting.

Payne’s take: The Vmotion’s proportions also telegraph the design direction of the Altima sedan. Given the Altima’s forgettable looks, that’s a good thing. I particularly like the deep-cut grille.

Volkswagen I.D. Buzz

What it is: If Chrysler has the Portal, then VW has the Buzz. But the I.D. is meant to be driven as well as self-driven. A monster 111 kWh hour battery sits in the floor, which promises not only 300-mile plus range and lots of interior room, but 369 neck-snapping horsepower. That translates to — not a ’60s retro-hippie mobile — but a 5-second zero-60.

Payne’s take: VW uses its warm-and-fuzzy microbus to announce its future as an electric (ahem, not diesel) carmaker. The Buzz is built on V-dub’s Modular Electric Drive Kit platform, which will be the bones of all its EVs in the near future.

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