Gaining momentum

It’s a big year for all the auto manufacturers.

March 13, 2012
by Gerry Frechette

Purchasingb2b January-February 2012: Fleet Management print edition

It’s a big year for all the auto manufacturers, as they rebound from the economic depths of a few years ago with a plethora of new products and technologies, many of which were shown at the recent auto shows in Los Angeles in November, and Detroit in January, the two first big American shows of the season. The trend is definitely towards efficiency, with electric power playing a big part in that, but even the traditional gasoline engine is seeing huge advances in both consumption and performance, and that is good news for the luxury and performance cars there will always be a demand for.

The so-called Detroit Three—Chrysler, Ford and General Motors—were front and centre, especially at Detroit, with significant unveilings across the technological and segment spectrums (except for trucks, for which 2012 is an “off” year).

Chrysler debuts the Dart

Chrysler filled a hole in its line-up with the compact Dodge Dart sedan, based on an Alfa Romeo platform. The Caliber was a sales disappointment, so Chrysler is hoping the stylish Dart with its Italian soul will stir up the compact market a bit. Initially, it will be offered with standard gasoline-engine powertrains, and look for it to be very competitively priced. At LA, Chrysler showed the fun little Fiat Abarth with turbo and 160hp.

Ford Escape and Lincoln MKS

At Los Angeles, Ford showed the all-new Escape CUV and revamped Lincoln MKS, the former nothing like the conservative previous version. Fusion is now all-four cylinder, as is becoming common from Ford, with 1.6L and 2.0L turbo EcoBoost engines the options over the standard 2.5L non-turbo. A new “intelligent” fourwheel drive system is available, and we have little doubt that a version or two with electric motors on board will follow soon.

Lincoln MKS

The new feature getting the buzz is the “kick to open” power liftgate. Owners simply wave their foot beneath the rear bumper, and the liftgate opens or closes. Cool.

Other Fords shown at LA were more oriented to the performance market, with the Mustang Shelby GT500 (650hp and 200mph) leading the way, and concepts— sure to be produced—of the sporty Focus and Fiesta ST models.

GM looks to world cars

GM continues its move into smaller “world” cars for North America with the new micro-compact Chevrolet Spark, made in Korea. It is aimed at young urbanites, promising low price and fuel consumption, handy size and edgy style. Ten airbags and air conditioning are standard on all models, and power comes from a 1.2-litre four-cylinder with 85hp. We are told that after a year or so, Chevrolet will introduce an all-electric version. GM also debuted the new Cadillac XTS mainstream luxury sedan that replaces both the DTS and STS models. GM describes it as a large, accommodating car that can carry four people in extreme comfort.

Cadillac ATS

Ironically, two of GM’s unveilings at Detroit kept to the LA script—a Cadillac and a small Chevrolet. The Caddy is the ATS compact sport sedan, and its mission in life is nothing less than taking on the Germans, and especially the iconic BMW 3-Series sedan. Light-weight, rear-wheel drive and new suspension design are among the primary strategies, along with competitively powerful four- and six-cylinder engines.

On the Chevrolet side, the already-introduced Sonic subcompact gets the sporty treatment with the RS model. With the expected trim upgrades inside and out, and the same output from the 1.4-litre four found in regular Sonics, the performance is raised by different gearing in the six speed manual transmission, unique suspension tuning, and rear disc brakes. Buick unveiled the very compact Encore, intended for those seeking an economical but luxurious little crossover with all-wheel drive available.

Nissan steps up

In the face of the onslaught from the Detroit Three, the “foreign” manufacturers were not holding back, either, and several vehicles should get some attention from fleet and corporate buyers. Nissan is getting into commercial vans in a big way, and the latest, still just a concept, is the eNV200 all-electric, based heavily on the architecture of the Leaf sedan and therefore with a similar driving range. Given the existence of the Ford Transit EV, we expect Nissan to build this van soon.

Hybrids breeding like rabbits

The proliferation of hybrids continues, and perhaps surprisingly, even the two manufacturers most known for diesels in North America showed a couple. Volkswagen unveiled the Jetta Hybrid compact sedan, while Mercedes-Benz showed the E400 Hybrid luxury sedan, a step up in hybrid tech from the previous S-Class version, being a two-mode power train that can run on electricity only.

The one we’d really like to see is the Mercedes E300 Bluetec hybrid, also shown at Detroit, with four cylinder diesel and full hybrid drivetrain, which would have incredible economy, but may not make it to these shores in the near future. In any case, the introductions at Los Angeles and Detroit prove that the auto industry is once again alive and well in 2012.               b2b