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2017 NAIAS (Detroit Auto Show) Highlights Up Close and Personal


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Learn More: 2017 NAIAS (Detroit Auto Show) Press Pass Coverage

By Steve Purdy and Thom Cannell
Senior Editors
Michigan Bureau
The Auto Channel

Detroit January 12, 2017; Here we go again – another gathering of the international motoring press in Detroit, still arguably the center of the universe for the U.S. auto business. While manufacturing, design, some engineering and marketing is spread out around the country and the world, southeast Michigan is the home of at least 75% of the U.S. automobile R&D and the majority of the business functions. Every serious automaker and supplier must have a presence here it seems.

Off-site events and carefully leaked information previewing vehicles we will see at the show began weeks in advance. General Motors, Nissan, Honda and many others take over unusual venues around rapidly recovering Detroit to show off their new offerings and court the sometimes-jaded press. We love it though, as we see the city perking up and the auto business thriving.

A substantial new element of the NAIAS this year is a series of keynotes by people like John Krafcik, former U.S. boss at Hyundai during that Korean company’s meteoric rise and now running Google’s self-driving vehicle development arm called Waymo. Krafcik talked about progress with the cute little self-driving cars we’ve seen and promised their new fleet of fully autonomous Chrysler Pacificas will begin testing on public roads in California and Arizona in the next few months.


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We also heard a pep talk about Detroit from Dan Gilbert who now owns a good share of downtown and more than a dozen successful businesses. Other speeches and a couple dozen tradeshow-style booths filled much of the lower level of the exhibition center – sort of a miniature CES show. They called it AutomobiliD and it featured startups and a variety of small techie companies shilling their transportation related projects.


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The NAIAS, one of the five most important motor shows in the world, traditionally begins with the North American Car and Truck of the Year Awards with a new category added for 2017 – Utility (SUV and CUV) of the Year. Because the jury is composed of about 60 independent journalists the competition is not tainted by commercial considerations. And, the winners are: Chevy Bolt an electric sedan as Car of the Year; Honda Ridgeline as Truck of the Year; and Chrysler Pacifica as Utility Vehicle of the Year.


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Over at the General Motors exhibit we got to see the newest iteration
of the long-in-the-tooth but still popular GMC Terrain small crossover which got a complete redesign. With new styling it now looks more like other GMC vehicles including sharper, more flowing design details with a floating rear roofline. The interior gets completely redesigned with better materials, much more technology and push-button shifter on the console. Three new turbocharged engines, including a 1.6-liter turbo-diesel, all mated to a 9-speed automatic transmission, will get Terrain down the road quickly and efficiently.
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Then, at the Chevy stand they began by introducing Michigan’s U.S. Representative in Congress, Debbie Dingle and Lansing mayor, Verg Bernero, to tepid applause (not much love for politicians these days) before showing the new version of the 3-row crossover (7- or 8-passenger) Traverse, sister model to Buick’s Enclave and GMC’s Acadia, all built in Lansing. They’ve added everything the competitors have like hands-free tailgate, surround vision, and fold-flat floors with creative use of cubbies. But, they’ve reduced cargo space a bit. It’s still bigger than many other three-row haulers. Base powertrain, by the way, will be GM’s new 2.0-liter turbo.


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For the first time in history a Chinese automaker with ambitions to be a player in the U.S. market occupied a notable space on the main floor of the show, just across the aisle from Toyota and Lexus. GAC is the Chinese partner for Chrysler, Mitsubishi, Toyota and others. Outsiders must have a Chinese partner to do business there and GAC is a successful one. They are also already selling cars in 14 markets around the world. They brought 4 vehicles to Detroit including a cute concept car, a full-size SUV and their mainstream sedan. Looks like they’re nearly ready for prime time but no word on when we might see them in the U.S. market.


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Auto enthusiasts and journalists know and love Bob Lutz, “The Ultimate Bob” he is sometimes called because of his larger than life personality and penchant for attention-getting quotes. Though well into his 80s and long retired from the day-to-day mainstream auto business, Lutz continues to ramrod projects at VLT Automotive, a firm that takes Heinrik Fisker designs and makes high-performance cars out of them. So far they’ve delivered a handful of Corvette-powered Fisker sedans called Destino. The Viper-based car they showed here last year comes next and new for the auto show this year is a muscular, brash SUV with a visual character of GM’s Hummer line of 20 years ago. Bob was on hand, leaning on his cane (still suffering serious sciatica, I presume) and holding court with enthusiasts and journalists. It is great to see him strong and still in the business.


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Ford generated considerable controversy here this year without showing much. Everyone was disappointed not to see a hard copy or even pictures of the promised new Bronco for 2020 and Ranger for 2019 to be built in Detroit. Much of their time was spent talking about tech stuff and their new mission of being a mobility company. They did make a welcome announcement that we’d see diesel power for the F-150 soon.


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Over at Lincoln we saw a tarted-up version of what will be the new Lincoln Navigator. We’ll see it in production later this year. The current Navigator is as boxy as a milk crate and needs an update badly. We don’t have many details on content for this upcoming truck but they hope to compete better with Suburban and other big SUVs. We’ll see if Lincoln is up to the task. Don’t expect to see the gull-wing doors or three-step entry system shown here but the styling is what you’ll get, we’re told.


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Toyota and Lexus hosted perhaps the best-attended press conferences and spared little expense on the productions. While we’ll never see the days of cars falling from the ceiling and crashing through windows or longhorn cattle brought in to launch a new pickup, it’s good to see some big production values for some of these intros. At Toyota we saw the new, more-brash-than-expected new Camry – another hit to be sure. Camry has been the perennial best selling sedan in the U.S. forever, it seems. Mr. Akio Toyoda himself introduced the new one here.


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At Lexus we saw a striking redesign of the huge, lower, lighter LS sedan, now with twin-turbo V6. This flagship model for the luxury brand also won the respect of the distinguished EyesOn Design panel as having the best interior of any new car on the floor.


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Kia revealed a new rear-wheel drive sedan with great performance cred called Stinger. With a solid 365 horsepower twin-turbo V6 supporting a 0-to-60 time of just over 5 seconds and forward-looking style this one may compete well with some of the German sport sedans, they hope. Stinger took the EyesOn Design award for best new production car.


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Nissan made a big splash in Detroit, first showing Rogue Sport, their newest small crossover. The regular Rogue grew in size as it was redesigned so they needed something smaller (but not as small as the quirky Juke) and they designed it with lots of character. It’s a foot shorter than Rogue and gets a rather tepid powertrain with optional all-wheel drive but will be infused with, or at least available with, all the techie stuff you could ever want.


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Nissan’s concept car called Vmotion 2.0, caught my eye and was the hit of the show for me. The company says this angular, long hooded, crisp and complex look will be the design language for their sedans into the future, and it includes a new interpretation of the “floating” roofline incorporated into the current Maxima. Driverless details are part of the thinking here as Nissan continues to work on their ProPILOT self-driving system. Vmotion earned the EyesOn Design award for best concept car.


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Nissan, as a company, had the most introductions as its premium Infiniti brought the all-new Qx50 Concept rife with next-generation technology aimed at fully autonomous driving. Admittedly the QX50 is production intent with its “cabin forward” silhouette and high profile hood line. A focus on interiors shows Infiniti’s increasing focus on exceeding Lexus and Mercedes in Luxury; three different leathers flow throughout the cabin. More important, the powertrain features Nissan’s award winning variable compression engine, an industry first. The engine will make its debut in model year 2018.

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The Germans made some news as well with Audi showing cabriolet versions of the S5 and A5 with acoustic soft top and the SQ5, a serious sport version of the Q5. Most flashy was the Q8 Concept showing a new, more complex design direction for the normally conservative brand. As you might guess with Audi, it is loaded to the hilt with tech. Audi’s president of the Americas, Scott Keogh, called this past year “challenging,” referring, we assume, to the diesel cheating scandal in which they got caught up with along with VW.


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And Volkswagen, bless their struggling hearts, brought the most unusual concept vehicle we saw at the show this year. The van-shaped electric called I.D. Buzz shows styling cues of the much-loved microbus and includes self-driving features. It sits on VW’s new modular electric platform from which they intend to develop more electric vehicles. Since they are giving up on diesels we hear they will be going full-tilt on developing more electrics.


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The 2017 North American International Auto Show usually reflects what is going on in the industry but it is not always easy to discern what it all means. While the industry had a banner year in terms of sales, and consumer confidence is the highest it has been in years, we saw fewer wild concept vehicles and fresh new products than we expected. And that, I expect, simply reflects the industry’s increasing conservatism where everything must have a clear business case to be made. No more frivolity.


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We would love to see automakers get back to doing things just for fun like in the old days, but that might be a long time coming. Speaking of fun – we did get a preview of Pixar’s new CARS3 due out this summer. Stay tuned for that.


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The show opens to the public on Saturday, January 14th and runs through Sunday, January 22nd. Get all the details at www.naias.com

© Shunpiker Productions and Cannell & Associates