Georg Kacher looks back at the 2012 Detroit auto show

Published: 06 February 2012

More glitz and glamour, plenty of new concepts, growing confidence and a greater diversity in terms of engineering and design – this was the essence of the 2012 Detroit auto show, aka the North American International Auto Show.

Ford at the 2012 NAIAS

The Big Three in particular had regained an encouraging portion of their former strength. Ford’s new Fusion will of course become 2013’s Euro Mondeo, but sadly there is not much happening in Henry’s near-empty niche car park. Messieurs Mullaly, Kuzak and Farley were adamant that a Focus ST and a souped-up Fiesta will do a fine job stirring the emotions of the brand’s under-nourished European clientele. Too bad that the proposed XXL saloon derived from a stretched Mondeo platform has been canned, that the much-talked-about Capri remains a fata morgana as long as there is no suitable rear-wheel drive platform, and that the Lincoln brand is not yet deemed fit to cross the Pond despite that nice Fusion-derived MKZ styling exercise.

Fiat at the 2012 NAIAS

A fit is allegedly what Fiat group CEO Sergio Marchionne threw when he spotted the Chrysler minivan show car which must have been created under the influence of a highly marketable new psychedelic drug. Perhaps there exists a niche market in Southern Mongolia for a quirky barge like this, but the next Voyager out in 2014 better be more mainstream. It will be very interesting to see how Chrysler and Dodge are going to turn the freshly acquired Italo-DNA into 12 or so new global mid-size products. The Giulietta-based Dart was an okay effort, even though some elements like the side view looked as if they were shaped by Designers Anonymous. What we did not fully understand prior to Cobo 2012 was that C/D has actually been reengineered for transverse and longitudinal engine installation, which reminded veteran showgoers of the original LH/LX matrix that was meant to be FWD, RWD and AWD compatible.

GM at the 2012 NAIAS

GM is still reaping the benefits of the Lutz era which is definitely over now that the silver fox has began working for Lotus and for Via Motors of plug-in SUV/MPV aspiration. Small concept cars dominated the General’s display this year, but sadly neither the BMW 1-series coupé clone aptly badged 130R nor the front-wheel-drive Tru 140S clad in Honey-they-shrunk-my-Murcielago livery are going to take the bow-tie brand anywhere. While Tru is genetically a Cruze-based Korean immigrant, 130R stole the underpinnings of the thoroughly convincing Cadillac ATS.

Now here is a possible win-win situation. If that state-of-the-art compact rear-wheel drive package becomes available among friends at an affordable transaction price, Opel is said to be keen on revisiting the Manta/Calibra battleground, and this time the future product people are even talking about an open-top version. In exchange for the ATS hardware, the small Opel Junior out late in 2012 may go global, and this could even include selected US metro areas. Other showfloor-sourced GM gossip revolved around the 2014 Corvette which retains the current mechanical layout (the C8 may still be mid-engined) but will be downsized in terms of dimensions, weight and engine displacement. Downsized as in 5.5litres and 440bhp, which are the numbers quoted for the base model.

The Germans at the 2012 NAIAS

The German contingency had brought a bunch of lukewarm concepts to Detroit: VW Bugster E, Audi Q3 Vail and a couple of MB E-class hybrids did not exactly rock the show. Behind the scenes, the Teutontic delegation kept talking about a cutback in alternative propulsion offerings. In an uncoordinated yet strangely concerted action, Audi, BMW and Mercedes in particular decided to reduce the number of PHEV offerings, to delay introductions and to stall lighthouse projects like the all carbon-fibre E-class, the carbonfibre-intensive RR Phantom replacement and the super-lightweight Audi quattro spyder.

Speaking of no-shows, we should also mention casualties like the axed Porsche 550/Audi R5/VW BlueSport, the RIP Mercedes R-class replacement, the no-longer-current Audi A1 cabrio/shooting brake/Q1 extensions, and the glut of proposed front-wheel and all-wheel drive BMW 1-series models of which only a handful of entry-level cars are now likely to survive. Which is good news for those who still believe in the rear-wheel drive Z2, 1-series coupé and 1-series drop-top due in the 2015-2017 timeframe.

The one exception to the German green tech scepticism concerns the fuel-cell. Mercedes is still going to launch a FC-equipped B-class in 2014, Audi is considering tapping VW’s FC know-how for the 2014 A4 replacement, and BMW has also jumped back on the FC bandwagon again. We expected a formal FC joint venture agreement with GM to be announced at the Detroit Show, but apparently there are still a few more details to be sorted, and the BMW-Toyota link – which is purely PHEV-related at this point – may have also affected the schedule.

While Audi is concentrating its PHEV efforts on the modular E-quattro matrix based around an electrified rear axle, BMW and Mercedes are struggling with much more complex solutions which need to match their rear-wheel drive architectures. Once more, it is hard to understand why the two German premium giants don’t pool their resources to address non brand-relevant R&D and procurement issues.

By Georg Kacher

European editor, secrets uncoverer, futurist, first man behind any wheel