The Detroit auto show, the first major motor show of the year and one of America's most important car events, is underway in Michigan. Here, manufacturers reveal their latest products and discuss the future of their companies, their models, and the industry itself.
Key themes this year have been European CO2 targets and how difficult they will be to reach without diesel, the gradual decline of the sedan (saloon) sector in the States, and the new Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen. Obviously there are plenty of pickup trucks as well.
Andrew English reports.
Jetta set for US relaunch – but won't return to Europe
Volkswagen’s Jetta, previously known as Bora and Vento, was never more than a Golf with a boot even when it was launched in 1979 and it never sold more than 10 per cent of Golf’s numbers in the UK.
“Its great selling point was to a dwindling band of sales staff who could lock samples into the boot,” revealed one insider.
The last assault on our senses came in 2011 when the Mexican-built Jetta went on sale in Europe pitched against the then-new and jolly nice mark VII Golf. Without going into the realms of Clarksonesque diatribes about the Mexican work ethic, the Jetta, which was built in Puebla, wasn’t desperately well made and some of its cabin materials 'didn’t bear favourable comparison' with the Wolfsburg-built Golf.
It was also bland beyond belief. We suggested it had been in FBI’s witness protection programme, received plastic surgery and is living under a new identity in Saskatchewan, Canada. As rivals we suggested a nice sit down or a packet of Werther’s Originals.
Notwithstanding, there was serious reputation at stake with the car. Two of VW’s biggest beasts, chairman and R&D boss Martin Winterkorn and his more sceptical head of research and development, Ulrich Hackenberg, had a bet that Europe would learn to love this Golf with a boot. Hackenberg bet against, Winterkorn arranged a lavish launch and lots of marketing spend.
“There was no money in it, but some very serious wine,” revealed a spokesman.
Wherever he is now, we hope that Hackenberg is raising a glass as, for Europe, Jetta is no more and this brand-new version will only sell in the US, with China getting it’s own special version of a Golf with a boot.
“If we take regionalisation at all seriously, we should only sell the car in the States,” said a spokesman, putting a very brave spin on it.
With prices starting at $18,545 (£13,444) this is a car for young people just starting out at college rather than the older folk who bought the old Jetta/Bora/Vento in Europe.
Adieu then, Jetta, it wasn’t particularly nice to know you.
Ferrari SUV 'by definition will drive like a Ferrari'
“It will look like whatever Ferrari decide it should it should look like,” said FCA chief Sergio Marchionne when asked about the forthcoming Ferrari ‘truck’ – he baulked at this description and called it an ‘SUV’.
“But by definition it will drive like a Ferrari,” he added. “There are enough people at Ferrari to want it to drive like a Ferrari that if I tried to change that they’d take me to the shed...”
Honda and Acura offer little to waiting Brits
It’s largely a case of ‘nothing for you here, move along please’ at Honda/Acura, which had two new vehicles – one of considerable visual merit, but neither destined for Europe. Best was the new Honda Insight, a good-looking saloon that would fit between Civic and Accord.
Compared to its predecessor, this was a big move forward, even if it did look straight out of the 'How To Design Cars At Mazda' booklet. It has a 1.5-litre petrol hybrid system running on the Atkinson cycle for improved economy and while this car was a concept a spokesman said the car was ‘definitely going into production for America’ but could give a similar undertaking for Europe.
Instead we had to peer into the windows of the now two-year-old Honda CRX and wonder what it’s going to drive like when we first get our hands on it this summer. On the Acura stand, we saw the new RDX, a full-sized SUV of mildly pleasant demeanour, though a little conservative considering what was going on at Lexus. Again, nothing for us here, Honda has no plans to bring it to Europe.
North American Car of the Year and Truck of the Year
Actually there’s a third dimension to this traditional announcement, Utility of the Year.
Just in case you thought that Volvo’s XC60 is a rather chi-chi luxury SUV, prepared to be re-educated, because it has just won the Utility of the Year accolade. If it’s all the same to you, though, I’ll not be taking one on a collection run to the local builders’ merchant.
The Car of the Year award went to Honda’s Accord, while Truck of the Year is the massive Lincoln Navigator.
Ford Mustang Bullitt roars in for 50th anniversary of Bullitt
We've been here before, of course, not just with Steve McQueen's 1968 Fastback star of the Peter Yates-directed eponymous police procedural with an eight-minute car chase. In an almost-too-good-to-be-true coincidence, Ford found McQueen's original car, which had been "missing" for 40 years, and drove it on stage for the pre-show press conference. The new Bullitt model was driven on by Molly McQueen, Steve McQueen's granddaughter.
Mustang Bullitt tributes have been filling Ford showrooms ever since the original film - there have actually been three. In 2001, we drove the first example of these Bullitt-branded Mustangs on the original film chase route, getting air on Potrero Hill. It wasn't a very nice car; powerful, but like a runaway train.
The new 50th anniversary version goes on sale in the US this summer and musters a monster 475bhp and 420lb ft of torque. It's based on the 2018 version of the Mustang, which Europeans get this spring.
So there's the signature Highland Green paint, with 19-inch wheels and red brake calipers, and they've even put on a fake fuel filler on the back. Inside there are special Recaro seats with green stitching and a Bullitt electronics package including an upmarket stereo.
Expected to be priced at less than the £32,000, 526bhp GT350, the Bullitt version will come to the UK - but with production being limited (though Ford isn't saying how many will be built), there's likely to be a fight to snap them up.
Lexus reveals Californian-designed LF-1 Limitless SUV concept
A full-sized luxury SUV concept from Lexus, the LF-1 Limitless, has been unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show, the same venue where 20 years ago the Lexus RX300 luxury SUV was launched. Lexus claims that was the first-ever luxury SUV (although Range Rover and Jeep might have some justification in disputing this), and that the same market now has more than 50 competitors.
Using the company's LS large saloon platform (also shared by the LC Coupé), the LF-1 is designed to accept a range of drivetrains from fuel cell, hybrid, plug-in hybrid and battery electric. Like many rival manufacturers, Toyota's luxury brand is committed to producing an electrified powertrain in all its vehicles in by 2025.
The LF-1 has been designed by Toyota's Calty Design Research Center in California. With a length of over five metres on a near three-metre wheelbase, the designers had the proportions to give the vehicle a distinctive shape, a long bonnet and a sloping rear tailgate with 22-inch wheels.
At the same time they had the space to allow the interior to offer generous and equal comfort for everyone on board.
Conventional buttons and switches are replaced with motion-activated controls and there's a minimal display in front of the driver. Limited self-driving technology has been incorporated in the design, with a “chauffeur mode”, which allows full hands-free driving.
There's also a four-dimensional satnav system, which not only guides you but also anticipates the needs of driver and passengers, road and traffic conditions en route to suggest fuel and rest stops, although there's not mention of how it deals with the plaintive cry of "Are we nearly there yet?" from the back seats.
We spoke to Kevin Hunter, president of Calty, about the new LF-1 Limitless:
Q: It looks huge, just how big is it?
"It's 5,014mm long, 1,986mm wide, 1,605mm high and the wheelbase is 2,974mm.
"It's a good size because we wanted it to complete in the premium crossover sector, but in the high-performance arena. We also wanted it to run on 22in wheels and tyres [the LS saloon has 20-inch wheels].
“It's called LF-1 Limitless because we wanted to extend the notion of taking the car to extended places."
Q: Does it share the LS saloon's underbody hard points?
"No, not exactly. They're different with a shorter wheelbase, and it's shorter overall and taller. So we have modified the proportions and it's not exactly based on the LS."
Q: It looks as though Calty has calmed the Lexus throw-everything-at-the-car-in-a-bucket style a bit. Was that an aim?
"Calm? Well, we did want some of the impact which was developed by the LC, but we also wanted a more fluid, sexy and sculptural shape with a robust quality. Something that spoke of the premium market, but also a provocative design.
“We're a young brand, so we can take some chances and push design perhaps further than the older premium marques with lots of baggage."
Q: I love the rear end, which hasn't been strength of Lexus designs in this class so far.
"That rear did take a lot of work and we had several different design iterations, but we were after a clean and simple style, which could also express the width and athletic stance.
“The blade-type tail lamps are an example, they're like beautiful crystal art pieces.
“We did spend a lot of time on the rear, even moving the emblem at the back to a different location to reduce the gravity and emphasise the stance."
Q: Is it a shooting break? It's certainly got that style.
"We didn't create it as a traditional shooting break, but we did want the back to be that little bit 'faster' to create notion of speed. We were looking for new proportions in crossover style, more towards that of cars rather than trucks.
“Yes there is a competitive market out there for performance SUV crossovers. The BMW X6, though, is taller and more SUV-like. We're trying to create a nice land between the integration of car and SUV, but planted low and feeling more like a performance vehicle rather than a rock-hopper.
“It's more like this being a very capable road vehicle with four-wheel drive, so it could have appeal in parts of Europe and the snow belt areas of the US."
Q: And is this the answer for those who are looking for a stylish alternative to a station wagon [estate]?
"That station wagon question is interesting, because we did look at a number of ways of packaging this vehicle, with some designs which were lower and higher than this.
“We decided that some of these looked too wagon-like and we wanted a new direction, but yes, for those looking for a stylish station wagon, this could be an alternative, perhaps with a bit more utility."
Q: What are you hoping for the style? Is this as near as damnit to the finished article?
"We like to generate our concept vehicles with a hint of reality. And here we are hoping to create the same sort of reaction from the public and dealers that we got with the LF/LC concept [Lexus Future-Luxury Coupé, which was unveiled at Detroit in 2012]. That got such a spectacular reaction from the public and dealers, which encouraged the company to push it through the system."
Q: Why the Detroit show debut? Can we read any significance in this?
“Detroit is a really important auto show, on a global scale as well as the US, and we're really pleased to be here.
“It's also a lucky show for us. The LF/LC got such a great reaction and we're hoping for the same for the LF-1."
Mercedes Benz G-Class
Mercedes-Benz has kept faith with Motor City's annual car shindig and strived to get journalists over the pond and pull something out of the hat worthy of their attention for press day, or at least its classy cocktail party on the eve of the same.
This year it launched the much-anticipated revamp of the G-wagen or Geländewagen which, thanks to the company's new naming convention, is now called the G-class.
It set the new 4x4 in the almost derelict 4,038-seat Michigan Theatre, opened in 1926 and designed by Rapp and Rapp for the Balaban and Katz Theatre company. This extraordinary temple to silent movies and live bands was built on the site of Henry Ford's first garage and hosted live performances from everyone from Bob Hope, the Marx Brothers, Frank Sinatra, Harry James and Duke Ellington. It closed in 1976 and it's now an extraordinarily evocative car park, so plenty of ironies there.
Anyway Mercedes-Benz's pièce de théâtre was the transformed version of a rough and tough 4x4 conceived by the Shah of Iran in 1972 and built for the last 39 years on the original press tools by Magna Steyr in Graz, Austria. What they don't tell you in that by the time they'd made a civilian version in 1979, the Shah has been deposed by Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the Iranian Revolution.
This new version is 53mm longer and 121mm wider, but 170kg lighter thanks to the new body being built of different grades of steel, with aluminium used for the wings, bonnet and doors. The cabin has been reworked to take advantage of these new dimensions, with more passenger shoulder room and a lot more leg room.
Underneath there's a new independent wishbone front suspension connected directly to the ladder-frame chassis and, at the rear, the rigid axle is newly located with four radius arms and a Panhard rod to control lateral movement.
While the engines and the nine-speed automatic gearbox are new to the G-Wagen, the vehicle retains its old-style locking differentials in the front, rear and centre units, along with a transfer box giving a complete set of crawler gears. Control of all this has been partly assumed by a new Dynamic Select electronic brain which has five driving modes, including a new off-road G-mode. The dashboard looks to be taken straight out of the current E-class, with double screens across the facia.
To look at the G is pretty much still the tough, go-anywhere vehicle of old. Mercedes even boasts about retaining the charm and fixtures of the old model, including external door hinges, a rear-mounted spare wheel and the hippopotamus-nostril front indicators, which sink into the bodywork in the event of an imminent crash.
Inside they've kept the distinctive grab handle, which threatens the teeth of an unbelted passenger, and the old chromium diff-locking controls. It also claims to have maintained the "characteristic closing sound of the doors" - read a mechanical cacophony, then.
It was a bit of a rambling launch, with Dieter Zetsche, Mercedes Benz CEO, giving a long speech and citing Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi - of all the songs to reference about a huge 4x4 which uses a lot of fuel.
Then Arnold Schwarzenegger turned up and said he'd been born in Graz, like the G-wagen, had gotten all strong and muscly, like the G-wagen, and that he felt they were "true twins", which was faintly embarrassing and everyone clapped nervously and hoped he'd go away.
Instead he hung around and gave Zetsche a cowboy hat, which wasn't at all embarrassing...
The new G will be launched as a G500 416bhp, 4.0-litre biturbo V8 petrol model (as shown at Detroit). The UK will get a barnstorming Mercedes-AMG G63 this summer, with a somewhat more practical G350 diesel arriving early in 2019.
It’s been eight years since Chrysler’s truck division was reformed as Ram and it’s done OK since, selling an annual 570,000 trucks - about 160 per cent up from where it started in 2009. Its British boss, Michael Manley, bearded and raffishly rumpled, looked at ease on the stand as he introduced the new Ram 1500, a stalwart of the pick-up market.
“At every truck launch,” he said, “irrespective of the manufacturer, you will hear ‘Best’, ‘Most’ and ‘Capable’ used far more than any of those words should be used in a 15-minute time frame.”
It raised a laugh, though there’s a more serious point behind it, which is one of getting buyers and keeping them. Ram does well with customer loyalty and that means they come back time after time.
It might just be that SUVs and trucks save the day for the Detroit Auto Show, too. Rumours abound that Mercedes CEO Dieter Zetsche’s love affair with Motor City is wearing thin, with stiff opposition from less romantic voices on the board who prefer the glamour of Los Angeles, the techy chaos of CES at Las Vegas and the clubbable chic of New York.
Jaguar Land Rover is already a no-show at Detroit 2018. But what Detroitans like is trucks; it’s minus 10 degrees and snowing outside for Pete’s sake, who wants a saloon? Perhaps the big three US car makers as well as the Japanese need to take stock and make Detroit more a national show.
It won’t mean thousands of foreign journalists jay-walking on the freezing street, but it’s survivable.
This big, US-styled SUV hasn't pulled up many trees in European markets, where its undoubted comfort and good equipment levels haven't compensated for its weight, bulk and thirst.
The new version is claimed to have been taken to a European-friendly charm school, although the 335bhp/380lb ft ST version launched in Motor City isn't likely to come to Europe, where so far the diesel-only line-up has used the Blue Oval's 207bhp twin-turbo TDCi unit.
A new version of the Edge will arrive in Europe later this year with improved handling and braking and what are promised to be new diesel engines and transmissions. The electronics pack is also uprated, with new camera- and radar-based safety systems including accident-avoidance steering assistance, pedestrian detection and adaptive cruise control with stop/go capability and lane centring, which will give the Edge a limited form of self-driving in traffic jams.
The company also unveiled a US-only version of its Ranger, Europe's best selling pick-up with a 2.3-litre Ecoboost petrol engine and a 10-speed automatic gearbox.