Detroit Auto Show Guide: Sedans

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Sedans are oh-so 15 minutes ago. As SUVs have taken over dealer lots like dandelions in a country field, even King Camry has been humbled. After 15 years as the best-selling non-pickup in autodom, the Camry last year trailed the Toyota RAV4 and Nissan Rogue SUVs. Detroit automakers have taken a scalpel to their sedan lineups, with Chrysler eliminating all production except for its large 300 sedan. Expect more Detroit retirements, even as Japanese and European manufacturers double down on new sedans. All-new Honda Accords, Nissan Altimas, Camrys and VW Jettas will hit the market this year.

VW Jetta

2019 Volkswagen Jetta at Cobo Center in Detroit on Jan. 15, 2018. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

What it is: VW’s best-selling sedan is all new, with bigger dimensions and a sleeker, more coupe-like exterior. Built on the brand’s excellent front-wheel-drive MQB architecture, it’s powered by the Jetta’s carryover turbo-4. The big story is the interior — the Jetta follows the Golf and crossover Tiguan with an array of digital goodies and plenty of storage.

Payne’s take: The Jetta joins a revamped U.S. lineup as the German brand builds momentum in a market it has long misunderstood. America has a thirst for SUVs, and VW has, at last, made its Yankee-fied Tiguan and Atlas crossovers competitive. But from the Jetta sedan to the hot-hatch Golf GTI to the AWD Golf Alltrack wagon, VW has one of the most capable compact lineups in the market.

Honda Insight

Honda Insight Prototype

What it is: The second coming of Honda’s original hybrid car, the Insight. Based on the Civic platform, the stylish Insight sedan promises over 50 mpg with stylish options like leather seats, 7-inch digital instrument display and smartphone connectivity. Part of the Honda Electrification Initiative to sell two-thirds of its lineup as battery-powered vehicles by 2030, the entry-level hybrid introduces “great cars that happened to be electrified.”

Payne’s take: You’ve come a long way, baby. The original 1999 Insight was a wee soap-bar that only a green geek could love. The 2019 model is a complete remake that trades covered wheel wells for a bigger, more upscale wardrobe. And with the Civic’s sturdy bones, this greenie should be fun to drive as well as eco-conscious.

Smart ForTwo

2018 smart 10th Anniversary Edition.

What it is: Happy anniversary! The microcar brand celebrates its 10th year in the U.S. market with a 10th Anniversary ForTwo electric coupe. The special edition gets 10th-anniversary badging, a Brabus aftermarket shift-knob, 16-inch Brabus wheels and Sapphire Blue Metallic paint. Only Smart and Tesla offer EV-exclusive lineups in the U.S. market.

Payne’s take: Ubiquitous in Europe, where it can squeeze into cramped parking spaces, the ForTwo never hit its stride in the U.S. Cute as it was, the expensive gas-powered Smart’s underwhelming 40 mpg made it a tough sell. Now marketed as a pure EV, its mere 58-mile range will also limit its appeal in an age of 200-mile range EVs.

Toyota Avalon

2018 Toyota Avalon Limited Hybrid. 2018 Toyota Avalon at the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center in Detroit, Michigan on January 15, 2018. (Image by Daniel Mears / The Detroit News).

What it is: The Avalon follows the Camry sedan with a complete makeover designed to keep its big sedan relevant in an SUV-mad market. The huuuuge front grille will get your attention, as will the quad tailpipes. But this is more than a wardrobe change: The Avalon is more poised on Toyota’s new TNGA architecture and grows 2 inches in length for better interior legroom. A throaty V-6 will be available as well as a hybrid.

Payne’s take: Chairman Akia Toyoda’s directive to sex-up the Toyota/Lexus continues with the Avalon. The sedan’s Darth Vader-like grille rivals Lexus products for most-intimidating face, and engineers promise more growl from the pipes. The highlight for me, however, is the interior, which gets character — and finally brings Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity to the Toyota lineup.

Kia Forte

The 2019 Kia Forte was unveiled Monday January 15, 2017 at the North American International Auto Show at Cob Center. (Max Ortiz/The Detroit News)2018

What it is: The Korean automaker’s best-selling compact is all new for 2019. The exterior is much more chiseled, throwing off the bland, compact blanket of the previous generation. The interior gets bigger and is nicely laid out with horizontal lines and console tablet screen. Mechanical details are thin, but the Forte mates its standard I-4, 147-horse engine to a CVT transmission for better fuel economy — 3 mpg, we’re told. Expect less efficiency and more fun with an optional turbo offering.

Payne’s take: This is what trickle-down looks like. The sexy Sportback Stinger sedan is the new halo for Kia’s lineup — it’s everywhere on the show stand — and its vibe is already being felt on down-market cars like the Forte. The new Forte is more aggressive-looking with its bold “tiger nose” grille (grrr!) and LED taillights.

VW Passat GT

2019 Volkswagen Passat GT at Cobo Center in Detroit on Jan. 15, 2018. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

What it is: VW’s mid-size sedan gets a sporty upgrade with the model line’s big 280-horsepower V-6 wrapped inside a tuner-rific R-line wardrobe with lots of mascara and red highlights. All for $29,940, significantly less than sporty V-6 rivals like the Toyota Camry. More choice bits: A dual-clutch 6-speed tranny, dual tailpipes and 19-inch tornado wheels. Limited-run only.

Payne’s take: The GT sprung from the brains of VW’s American team in Santa Monica and Chattanooga (where the Passat is manufactured) as the German brand focuses on more value for U.S. buyers. The GT’s looks echo the popular Golf GTI, but does not yet get the updated MQB chassis that the Golf (and new Jetta) sit on. Patience, V-dub fans.