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Henry Payne's guide to the Detroit auto show

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

You don't have to walk far into Cobo Center to find my Car of the Show. The gorgeous, blood red, plug-in, battery-powered, twin-turbo, jewel-eyed, platinum-priced, fuel-efficient, high-performance, low drag, shrieking supercar Acura NSX.

The long-awaited NSX is a one-car smorgasbord of every hot feature on the floor — with the exception of a pickup bed. And like nearly every reveal at this year's show it will only appeal to a few.

During media week, the NSX was a celebrity magnet. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld (reportedly he and fellow funnyman/car fanatic Jay Leno have dibs on the first two copies), rapper Ludacris, and every auto executive in town came by to ogle the $150K-plus exotic beauty. They are also the rare few who can afford it.

The 2015 Detroit Auto Show is a showman's show boasting 50 eye-catching reveals. But it's a dramatic departure from 2014's circus that showcased major volume segment reveals like the Ford F-150, Chrysler 200, and Honda Fit. Key luxury debuts abounded, including the Lincoln MKC, Hyundai Genesis, and Acura TLX.

Last year, Cobo was big box retail. This year it's an oversized boutique. With the U.S. market back to glorious, pre-recession, 17-million-in-sales-a-year growth, manufacturers are slicing and dicing the market with specialty models. That means performance models. Off-road models. Hybrid models. Anything to keep showrooms packed as automakers try to tease that last dollar out of your wallet.

This fracturing of the field means that fights are popping up all over the floor like sword duels in a "Hobbit" battle scene. Over here are Tesla and Chevy battling it out for the first 200-mile electric car. Over yonder a skirmish for best small pickup. Me? I'm a sucker for affordable sports cars. Here are the highlights:

Henry Payne's take on 2015 NAIAS sports cars

Henry Payne's take on 2015 NAIAS small, midsize and green cars

Henry Payne's take on 2015 NAIAS luxury cars

Henry Payne's take on 2015 NAIAS SUVs

Henry Payne's take on 2015 NAIAS concepts

Henry Payne's take on 2015 NAIAS trucks

Raptor vs. Rebel

In this corner of Cobo, the earth-pawing Ford Raptor. And in that corner the boffo, red-on-black Ram Rebel. Sounds like a WWE bout, huh? The names are intentionally intimidating. These are trucks with attitude. But the bout is a mismatch. The F-150's evil twin, Raptor is an off-road assault vehicle suitable to run the legendary Baja 1000. With a seriously upgraded chassis and suspension, this monster might eat the trees that Ford has placed around the pickup's exhibit. In contrast, the Rebel is an aggressive trim upgrade. Blacked-out grille, dual exhaust, and huge, knobby tires give it menace. But inside, this tough truck is a softie. Red-stitched vinyl interior, 8.4-inch UConnect console screen, and a clever media holder for your phone/tablet.

The Raptor/Rebel bruise brothers are evidence that there are the Big Three truck makers — and everyone else. Over in the Nissan stand, an all-new, full-sized Titan is everything you want in a truck. But the F-150's Raptor variant alone sold more copies than Titan last year.

The 200-milers

Tesla's Elon Musk has thrown down the gauntlet on making an affordable, $30K electric car. General Motors just picked it up. Expensive electrics like the Tesla Model S and Cadillac ELR are tech wonders, but rare. The Big Game in battery power has always been the challenge of building an affordable EV. The Ford Model T revolutionized motoring because once millions of Americans could afford cars, gas infrastructure followed. So will recharging infrastructure follow the 30-grand EV? If anyone can make the car.

Musk claims his promised, 200-mile-range, Model E (Model E like Model T, get it?) will be the silver bullet. Chevy's 200-miler Bolt concept may beat him to it. The Bolt — smartly executed as a trendy, small crossover — stepped all over the Chevy Volt 2.0's introduction this year. Don't pity the Volt. The redesign has all the sex appeal of a loaf of bread. Or a Corolla.

Hybrid supercars

The aforementioned NSX is the latest entry in a new class: The plug-in hybrid electric supercar. The $900,000 Porsche 918 launched the trend with neck-snapping, 2.2-second, 0-60 time. But $1 million cars belong in museums, not on roads. The $138K BMW i8 — so beautiful it even shames other Bimmers on the stand — brought that price into more conventional, Porsche 911 Turbo-like orbit. The NSX follows. Electric motors benefit supercars in two ways. They add instant acceleration to lightweight chassis. And they turn the front wheels, transforming mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive athletes into AWD cruise missiles that can turn on a dime. Or (ahem) even negotiate a Detroit snow storm.

While we're drooling over supercars, note the show-stopping Ford GT is not a plug-in. It's a conventional, twin-turbo V6. Which means it's headed for LeMans GT racing to slay Ferrari. High five.

Dashboard revolution

Thanks to digital technology, I get blind-spot alerts, automatic braking before I punt the car in front of me. . . I can even drive hands-free with lane-keep assist (which freaks out Mrs. Payne). But the digital revolution is also transforming the center console. Tesla's "floating iPad" console is as cool as its 200-mile range. Over at the Lincoln stand, the all-new MKX eliminates the cumbersome gearshift stalk with a push-button tranny next to an infotainment screen angled helpfully toward the driver. Ditto the Chrysler 200.

And now for something completely different: The new Audi TT fuses console and instrument screens into one display for better heads-up driving. Thank a super-smart nvidia (Intel is sooo 15 minutes ago) chip — the same brain that runs your kids' awesome video games.


For all the micro-segments on Cobo's floor, there is one over-arching megatrend: SUVs are taking over the world. Like the 19th-century stagecoach, we homo sapiens like riding high in our 21st-century vehicles. Some cars go to extraordinary lengths to be SUVs. Check out the Volvo S60 Cross Country, which takes its flowing, coupe-like sedan shell and jacks it 2.5-inches in the air to be labeled a crossover. Or the Mercedes GLE63. Looks kinda like a Subaru Outback (who knew Subie was a fashion leader?).

But maybe the most haunting proof that everything will ultimately turn into a crossover is the Hyundai Santa Cruz concept. It's a pickup. The height of a compact SUV. With car-like, unibody construction.

Wild. Put a 550-horsepower plug-in-hybrid drivetrain in it and I bet Leno will snap it up in a minute. Enjoy the show.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

Five must-sees

Dodge simulator: The Detroit show's first full-car simulator. Take the family for a wild ride in a Charger Hemi.

Acura NSX: You'll be hypnotized by this supercar's 12 jewel-eye headlights. If its 550 plug-in electric horsepower doesn't already have you a trance.

Mini Superleggera. What you get when you cross a British boy toy with an Italian supercar designer.

Ford F-150 SVT Raptor. Looks like a mechanized Jurassic Park reptile. Just don't put your hands inside the cage.

Alfa Romeo 4C Spider. Turbocharged, sports-car fun. In a drop-top. With the most gorgeous models in the show.