Hybrids, minivans, concepts become show’s highlights

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

After slogging through the January winter to Cobo Center for the 2016 Detroit auto show (slogan: “We wish we were holding this in September when the weather’s perfect here”), I recommend you make a beeline for the Ford lobby display at Cobo’s north end. There sits the Le Mans-bound, 2016 Ford GT supercar and the Le Mans-winning, 1967 Ford GT Mark VI — bookends on 50 years of Ford ambition to grind Ferrari into the asphalt.

Visitors view the crossover, luxury and hybrid cars at the North American International Auto Show. Inside Cobo Center visitors will find fewer manufacturers than in past years but spectacular displays.

If that doesn’t warm you up, nothing will.

Inside the hall you’ll find fewer manufacturers — Mini, Jaguar, Land Rover, Bentley, Tesla all had other appointments — but you might not notice because you’ll be too busy ogling the spectacular manufacturers’ displays. I mean, this place has more neon and video screens than Times Square. Mind the short steps between displays because you’ll be looking up with your mouth open most of the time. Dazzling, floor-to-ceiling screens playing non-stop video of cars hurtling across the landscape. Massive overhead light cones that look like the spaceship descending in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Sweeping, Gehry-like architectural accents dressed in all colors of the rainbow. Cars? There are cars, too?

The Chrysler display features video-screen-wrapped columns that are synchronized with the mega-screens. Ford’s all-new space looks like the world’s biggest Apple store with its rows of white table-top computer tablets. Or maybe it’s a Toys-R-Us with Lego play tables and make-your-own-lapel-buttons, and a computer camera where you can take 3-D pictures of yourself. Where’s the new Ford F-150 Raptor you ask? I swear it’s in there somewhere.

Other floor exhibitors will be new to show regulars. Suppliers like Denso and Brembo (“No, Johnny, that’s not Captain America’s’ shield. That’s a huge Corvette brake rotor”) filled the gaps left by AWOL original equipment manufacturers. The smallest automaker, Bob Lutz’s Auburn Hill-based VLF Automotive, is in the big hall after years in the lobby showing off its outrageous, $268,000, 745-horspower Force 1 (with champagne bottle holders, natch).

But for all the glitz and glamour, this is a meat and potatoes expo showing key products aimed squarely at consumers’ comfort zone: Chrysler’s most significant minivan since it invented the segment four decades ago; the Lincoln Continental reborn to redefine the brand; Honda’s Ridgeline pickup trying to catch up with the red-hot, midsize pickup segment.

Grab the family. Treat them to the greatest show on earth. My highlights:

Concept cars

Payne's take on the 2016 Detroit auto show cars

Payne's take on 2016 Detroit auto show SUVs, trucks and minivan

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of concept cars have been exaggerated. Once the grande dame of the show, concepts lost favor in recent years. They were a waste of money, some said. But concepts have roared back this year. I credit two trends: Underdogs and global warming. Underdogs like Buick and Acura have been uninspiring for so long they are desperate to prove to the world that they can still stir emotions. Thus the passionate Buick Avista sports car and Acura Precision sedan. On the global warming front, California — which I think is the world’s second largest economy — has decided to stop it by itself by mandating hydrogen and electric vehicles. Even though a handful of are asking for them. So Audi (the H-tron) and Lexus (LF-LC) showed hydrogen-powered cars and VW showed the Budd-e microbus and the Tiguan plugin. Okay, actually, VW just wants people to talk about anything but diesel.

Tesla vs. Bolt

Tesla isn’t at the auto how perhaps out of embarrassment that it was beaten in the moon shot to the 200 mpg EV by ... a Chevy? Yes, the Bolt, sequel to Chevy’s battery-plugin Volt, is the first car to claim a 200-mile range on battery alone. The accomplishment is second only to GM defying marketers’ predictions after last year’s Bolt concept was shown that Chevy would never call it the “Bolt” because it was too hard to differentiate from the “Volt.” What’s next? The Jolt?

Name games aside, the Bolt is a sharp-looking crossover that GM probably wishes the Volt had been (so tired are car sales in SUV-nation these days that only two sedans were unveiled at this year’s show). But to catch on beyond the green crowd, it will have to prove it’s more than a $37,500 Sonic.

Horsepower arms race

Then there’s the other green. The color of money. Luxury sports cars are nearly as dazzling this year as the three-story video screens. There’s a horsepower war on, haven’t you heard? The 580-horse Porsche 911 Turbo S tops 200 mph for the first time. The Lexus LC500 weighs in at 468 ponies, the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio at 505, and the Mercedes-AMG S65 Cabriolet at 621. All of which inspired the Three Musketeers of Gilbert Villarreal, “Maxium Bob” Lutz and Henrik Fisker to produce the 8.4-liter VLF Force 1 with 745 horsepower that gets from zero-60 in less time that it takes you to say “Gilbert Villarreal.”

My pick of the litter is the BMW M2 which has more horsepower – 365 – than big brother M3 had just 10 years ago. That’s half the horsepower of the VLF coupe but twice the number of seats. So I can share the thrill with my kids.

Chrysler Pacifica

Horsepower-schmorsepower. Chrysler reinvented the minivan (and rehabilitates the crossover Pacifica name) to get my nod for Car of Show. This family hauler is a Swiss Army knife of versatility and it’s gorgeous to boot. Speaking of boots, soccer moms can kick both the rear and side doors to automatically open when their arms are full of kids and bags. The Pacifica is a rolling living room with a console drawer for iPads, two TVs screen amidships and a vacuum cleaner in back.

The chief engineer for this achievement deserves a medal. Just make sure you’ve taken the egg cartons out of the middle row seat before you fold it into the floor.

Minivans, concepts, and supercars, oh my. Win the Powerball and you can afford them all. See you at the show.

Detroit Auto Show floor map and pdf - The Detroit News

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne.