Welcome to Times Square, Detroit-style.
Cobo Center this January has been transformed into a mind-blowing wonderland of jumbo LED screens, floor-to-ceiling videos and consumer goods stores. This being Motown, of course, all the stores contain cars. Here, you can find everything from pint-sized Smart ForTwo cars to ginormous Ford F-150 pickups. Heck, like Times Square, there’s even a Disney presence with a life-sized replica of Lightning McQueen, the star of “Cars 3.”
But for all the glitz, this year’s new reveals are for the bread-and-butter shopper.
The auto market is going through a major shift from sedans to trucks and every manufacturer is remaking its portfolio to accommodate the trend. In doing so, they need to balance the conflicting visions of a federal government that wants smaller, fuel-sipping cars and consumers who want more utility. Midsize utes and sedans are the core moneymakers that allow automakers to make fun toys like Camaros and M2s — so they got to get them right.
Chevy brand customers want more room so the all-new three-row Traverse SUV grows bigger, even as its chassis sheds weight for better fuel economy. Its more upscale sister brand, GMC, on the other hand, is downsizing its Terrain crossover to be more nimble in the compact SUV segment. Compact SUVs are fast replacing the midsize sedan as the dominant family vehicle.
Even the BMW stand is looking like ute-ville. The German maker graced Detroit with the global reveal of its 5-series sedan, but it’s the BMW X2 coupe concept crossover – which will be the sixth SUV in the performance brand’s lineup — that steals the show. Finally, a sexy SUV from Bimmer.
Grab your grocery bag and let’s go shopping. These are my show highlights:
The best-selling car (Toyota Camry) and truck (Ford F-150) both debuted new looks at this year’s show. The Camry is the more dramatic.
The sedan is still the top dog in sedan sales (388,618 sold in 2016) but sales were down 10 percent. As families flee to SUVs like Toyota’s RAV4, customer priorities for sedans shift to style, performance and fuel economy. The new Camry offers all three. Determined to show the world that it’s shedding its vanilla image for more Chunky Monkey Double Chocolate Oreo swirl (well, at least chocolate), Toyota threw the kitchen sink at the new Camry.
Built on a new, stiffer platform first shown on the (much peppier) Prius hybrid, the Camry gets a lower center of gravity and seating position. That sportiness is telegraphed by a more purposeful exterior, including a lower, more aggressive front hood and grille — and quad pipes (quad pipes on a Camry!) for the V-6 model. The interior is even more radical with a chrome-ess curve splitting console and available red leather seats. But wait, there’s more. Toyota Chairman Akio Toyoda (who stole media week with a routine worthy of a stand-up comic) also rolled out a new NASCAR Camry and a lovely Camry hybrid.
The F-150 could be a show in itself. With sales topping 800,000 a year, it outsells VW and Chrysler brands combined. Following its radical, aluminum-skin makeover three years ago, the F-150 gets a major mid-cycle refresh. The fresh face and “F-150” tattoo are cool, but the real story here is under the skin, where the F-150 gets its first-ever diesel engine so you can pull redwoods out of the ground. For all its utility, my favorite F is the Raptor cyborg, which can race across deserts at over 100 mph. For a taste, check out the simulator in the lobby.
Except for the F-150, the Big Three took this year off in revealing new performance athletes. Nothing from Dodge, Alfa, Cadillac, Camaro or Corvette (despite lots of rumors about a ZR1). So for cars that stir our loins, we had to turn to ... Asian manufacturers?
Cue Korea’s Kia, which is intent on giving its bread-and-butter image a dose of hot sauce. That’s why you hire ex-Audi designer Peter Schreyer. Schreyer delivered a sleek, affordable, fastback five-door that looks a lot like an Audi A7 (no coincidence, surely). Named the Stinger, it debuted in blazing red with a powerful, turbo six that should light anyone’s fire.
Nissan, meanwhile, took the wrap off a Vmotion concept. Continuing a design trend that began with the racy Maxima, the concept lives up to its name with slashing body creases that all rush to a giant V-grille. If translated to production models like the Altima, Nissan’s bread-and-butter is about to get a lot tastier.
The Detroit show lost a number of premium brands this year, including crowd-pleasers Porsche, Jaguar, Land Rover and Tesla. They’ll be back. But there was no dearth of jaw-dropping reveals. My favorite was BMW’s M760i Xdrive. Not quite a full-blown M performance version of the big sedan, the Bimmer nonetheless gets a glorious-sounding V-12 engine. Cobo should give it an outdoor concert every night.
And there was the V90 Volvo station wagon. Think Volvo is bland granola? Think station wagons can’t be sexy? Think again. Like the Chrysler Pacifica that has put “sultry” and “minivan” in the same sentence, the V90 is worth long looks.
Last decade every auto show had to be green as automakers showed off emerging electric vehicle tech. Today, batteries are no longer news as they’ve found a regular place in auto lineups, from hybrid-performance Acura NSX cars to sippy plugin Fords.
The new, new thing is autonomous. Like every auto show on the planet, Detroit is a showcase for the latest driverless people movers. We’ve moved well beyond Google marshmallow-bots to autonomous minivans (the Chrysler Portal) and VW microbuses (the I.D. Buzz). Trouble is, these vehicles are aimed at the ride-sharing market, where the priority is interior seating, not exterior styling. That is, they are (yawn) rolling train cars.
There’s still demand for individual transportation. Cars remain a profound individual statement about your lifestyle and personality. Detroit’s Times Square has a store for everyone.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
Detroit auto show
Location: Cobo Center, 1 Washington Blvd., Detroit
Dates: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Jan. 14 to Jan. 21; 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Jan. 22
Tickets: Adults, $13; age 65 and older, $7; children 7-12, $7; 6 and younger free when accompanied by a parent or guardian. To order tickets online or to learn more, visit naias.com.
Parking: Joe Louis Arena, 900 W. Jefferson; Cobo Roof Deck, 625 W. Congress; Millennium Garage, 432 W. Congress.
Other sections of the consumer guide:
- Auto show consumer guide: A feast for all auto appetites
- Auto show compact, midsize sedans: Cars grab spotlight
- Auto show big SUVs, trucks: Market keeps on truckin’
- Auto show minivans, SUVs: Form beyond function
- Auto show sports cars: Market diversity rules stage
- Auto show concept cars: Geekmobiles generate buzz
- Auto show luxury cars: Eye candy sweet, less plentiful