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An Industry in Transition

Direction.

Direction. Judging from the concepts and production vehicles on the floor of the North American International Auto Show, it's what every automaker was searching for.

The 2008 North American International Auto Show in Detroit was the first chance for automakers to show they were moving in a more “energy responsible” direction after months of gasoline above $3/gallon and Congress requiring future fleets to average 35 mpg. And to a limited degree, that’s what they did. There were glimpses of the future in vehicles like Ford’s Verve B-car (in both sedan and hatchback forms), Chrysler’s ENVI electric drive and propulsion concepts, and yet more variations of GM’s E-Flex architecture. But then there were what might be considered detours if they weren’t such core products to the vehicle manufacturers: the redesigned 2009 Ford F-150 and Dodge Ram. To say nothing of the 200 mph Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 and BMW’s twin-turbo V8-powered X6 SUV “coupe.” Even Hyundai launched a V8, rear-drive luxury sedan, while its partner Kia borrowed the new Tau V8 for its Borrego large SUV, thus making its tagline, “The Power to Surprise,” seem to be both an understatement and surreal. Then there was Audi. Ever the iconoclast, it showed a twin-turbo, 500 hp diesel-powered supercar at the same time executives from the domestic automakers publicly predicted the eventual demise of V8 engines in their passenger cars and, surprisingly, light trucks. More than direction, the word schizophrenia comes to mind.

 

Volkswagen Passat CC

This—not the Phaeton—is what should have been VW’s first foray into the luxury segment: the Passat CC. A 4-door coupe that follows in the same vein as the Mercedes CLS, the CC evokes more emotion while encapsulating the new design theme for the VW brand, most noticeably the larger V-shaped radiator grille and upswept headlamps. From the side profile, the Passat CC displays a strong shoulder line that projects a fit, tailored appearance and is accentuated by frameless doors. The rear taillamp design exudes a modern, contemporary appeal.

 

Cadillac CTS Coupe Concept

A concept in name only. The CTS Coupe should be on the market early in ’09 and is likely to be just the first in a series of models that will aggressively position Cadillac against BMW. GM says the clean, sharp-edge design was influenced by cut diamonds. The design also pays homage to classic Cadillac design cues, including faux “tailfin” vertical tail lamps and stacked headlamps. To keep the side profile clean, designers borrowed the hidden door handles from the XLR roadster and eliminated the B-pillar, both of which would have broken up the side profile. The other compelling news is that GM says it plans to park its new 2.9L turbo-diesel and 3.6L direct-injection V6 which could mark the return of diesel to GM’s car line in the U.S., while GM Design chief Ed Welburn also hints at a 6.2-liter V8-powered V-series Coupe.

 

Saab 9-4X Concept

This concept brings together all of the design cues for the next generation Saab products, according to GM North American design boss Bryan Nesbitt. The goal is to make Saab more visible by borrowing cues from Aero X sports car concept, along with historical features like the wrap-around windshield and prominent C-pillar. “We need Saab to have a more distinctive identity going forward,” Nesbitt says, adding future Saab interiors will play off high-end camera design and art glass esthetics, and maintain Saab’s airplane cockpit interior architecture. The 9-4X will share its underpinning with Cadillac’s small crossover that appeared recently as the Provoq Concept (see AD&P February 2008).

 

Toyota Venza

Toyota’s venerable Camry sedan platform has spawned yet another variant with the debut of the 2009 Venza crossover. Designed and engineered specifically for the North American market, Venza isn’t a station wagon—tagging it as such probably would mean its immediate demise—yet lacks the truck-like demeanor of a 4Runner. This 5-passenger crossover displays one of the most aggressive interpretations of Toyota’s traditionally conservative design theme with its in-your-face grille, and Lexus-like roofline and D-pillar design. Even though the math doesn’t work, Toyota says the Venza’s instrument panel was designed to give both the driver and passenger a feeling of having access to 60% of the controls from their seating positions.

 

Fisker Karma

“A green American premium sports car company.” That’s the moniker Fisker Automotive has adopted for its fledgling enterprise. The $80,000 Karma sedan is slated to break into the plug-in hybrid battle in the fourth quarter of 2009. Fisker and Quantum Technologies partnered to develop a lithium ion battery pack with a range of 50 miles that’s supplemented by a small internal combustion engine to charge the battery when needed. Though its “Q DRIVE” powertrain is unique, company founder Henrik Fisker’s design is less so. An alumnus of BMW, Aston Martin, and Ford, Fisker’s bag of tricks relies heavily on themes established by Aston Martin–the side profile and rear fascia, in particular–and BMW–the front fascia and grille.

 

Dodge Zeo, Chrysler EcoVoyager and Jeep Renegade

“Although Chrysler Design seems to have lost its magic—given such things as the Chrysler Sebring, Jeep award during NAIAS. (Word is, one design exec dodged a bullet thanks to that.) Funny thing: the EcoVoyager scored for truck Compass, and Jeep Commander—there was a touch of sparkle with the Chrysler EcoVoyager concept vehicle, which won a design design, its pug nose, front-drive chassis, and cab-forward positioning notwithstanding. Unfortunately, the Renegade and Zeo design themes have been regurgitated by Chrysler in many forms over the past few years, which leaves one to wonder why it is taking these themes so long to reach production. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that all three concepts utilize some form of lithium-ion battery power for propulsion. Or said another way: the powertrain underpinnings don’t (yet) exist.

 

 

 

Mercedes-Benz GLK

Let’s hope this is the last example of the ill-fated DaimlerChrysler marriage. Just as Jeep looked at the Cherokee and gave birth to its uninspiring Commander, Mercedes took cues from the boxy G-Class SUV and transplanted them onto a small SUV. The result is the awkward and stylistically arthritic GLK, a vehicle that fails to fit in with the rest of the Mercedes family from a design perspective. Equally perplexing is the GLK’s interior, which is bulky and atypical of Mercedes-Benz’s luxury ethos.

 

Land Rover LRX Concept

The LRX is the first Land Rover concept to be designed from the-ground up by design boss Gerry McGovern, and a strong indication of where Land Rover is headed in the future. The sleek three-door LRX is more compact than any Land Rover before it—5.9 in. shorter than the LR2 and 8.1 in. lower—and is more car-like in its appearance, signaling the brand’s intention to build up an on-road side to its business. McGovern’s team graced the LRX with a strong tapered roofline and wheel arches, and a well-defined shoulder line. The aggressive shape of the greenhouse boosts the sporting appeal, as do the glass-covered A-, B- and C-pillars, the latter of which have openings to increase rear visibility. The refined grille and tail lamp treatments also bring a modernist appeal to Land Rover design, even as it harkens back to the roots of the brand. Maybe Ford should ensure McGovern stay with them when Tata buys Land Rover and Jaguar by giving him J Mays’ job.

 

Mitsubishi RA Concept

Is this the next Mitsubishi Eclipse? Insiders say it’s close, but that what’s truly important is what’s peeking up through the hood—Mitsubishi’s new Tier 2, Bin 5 compliant, 16-valve, 2.2-liter turbo-diesel four-cylinder engine with 201 hp and 310 lb.-ft. of torque. Even though the powertrain is the star, the RA’s design marks yet another interpretation of the bold design theme first seen in the Lancer and marked by an inverted slant nose, trapezoidal grille and muscular wheel arches. Two things almost sure not to make production are the RA’s butterfly doors and all-glass roof, though the idea of an EVO coupe—the RA uses its all-wheel-drive system—built in Normal, IL, is very appealing.

 

Mazda Furai Concept

Think Mazda intends to return to LeMans? Think again. Though built on the Courage C65 chassis Mazda’s LMP-2 race cars used during the 2005 and 2006 ALMS seasons, Furai is meant to do no more than take Mazda’s Nagarre surface language to the extreme. The designers worked alongside Computational Fluid Dynamics experts from Swift Engineering to tune the design for maximum “drag versus downforce” efficiency, and plans to utilize design Furai’s cues in future production models. Under the rear bodywork sits a 450-hp RENESIS-based R20B three rotary engine running 10% ethanol and reportedly ready to humiliate just about any exotic powerplant around. Think of it as proof that sustainability can be lots of fun.

 

Ford Explorer America

Word has it that the front fascia of the Explorer America will be redesigned so it looks less like Honda’s similarly robotic second-generation Pilot front end. However, there’s little doubt the overall package of the Explorer America is a harbinger of what’s to come for America’s most popular midsize SUV. Based on a unibody structure and powered by Ford’s line of “EcoBoost” turbocharged direct-injection gasoline engines–there’s a 2.0-liter four-cylinder under the hood–the Explorer America shows how future models will live up to the name with relatively undiminished off-road capabilities, while emphasizing the real-life urban adventures most SUVs encounter. Expect Ford to keep the lightweight, organic interior materials, but ditch the floating-globe navigation system inspired by Freeman Thomas’s adolescent memories, he claims, of watching Lost in Space.