Every Auto Show has a halo car, a best in show that everyone is talking about. This is especially true of the major auto shows like the annual Detroit show, because manufacturers save their best new production and concept car debuts for the top shows. With Detroit being the largest auto show in North America, traditionally it’s where the Big 3 domestic carmakers pull out all of the stops. This years “Halo Car” is, as long expected, the new Corvette Stingray. It’s the one that puts the real shine on the show, but there is more to a new car debut than just shine. Car shows are famous for a mix of exotics you can’t afford and concepts that aren’t even for sale, but they also present some real life trends that will shape the consumer market to come. I am highlighting the top debuts here, not just the ones I think are the coolest or best looking but the ones I think will have the most impact on the automotive market moving forward.
5) Jeep Grand Cherokee Jeep’s Grand Cherokee has been one of the top selling SUV’s in the world since it’s early 90′s debut. Now, the current model, as good looking as it is, isn’t totally new to this show. It’s actually just an update of an already released version. So why does it make my Top 5? Fiat used the debut of the Grand Cherokee to confirm they are building Jeep’s in China, not for export to America, but for sale in the Chinese marketplace. They plan on expanding to Russia as well in the near future.
Why is this important? Since WW2 first brought the original Jeep on world tour Jeep has been one of the most iconic brands on the planet. It represents America to the global community the same way Coca-Cola and Levi’s do, but unlike blue jeans and Coke Jeep has always been a bit of a boutique operation: recognizable but never truly mass market. Fiat is banking on changing that, expanding production and expanding sales along with it to turn Jeep into a major global sales force. Big news for the seven slot grill guys.
4) Chevy Silverado/ GMC Sierra On the outside the new GM pickups are an evolutionary step forward, and could almost be mistaken for a mid model refresh instead of a new truck. The real news is under the hood: a line up of brand new engines. GM claims the new trucks will set a new benchmark for refinement and engineering and considering their track record this is a claim we have to take seriously. Instead of going with smaller more fuel efficient engines they built big, heavy duty traditional truck engines with features like direct port fuel injection and cylinder shut off (turns a V8 into a 4 cylinder) to get both fuel economy and top end performance.
Why is this important? With the Ford and Chevy full size trucks long the best selling vehicles in the US any redesign on either of them is a big deal. Throw in that GM has totally redesigned their engines at a time they are lagging behind Ford in truck sales and this is likely to be a game changer one way or another.
3) Chevrolet Corvette Stingray The most visible car at the show by far, and as the 7th version of America’s best recognized sports car the new Vette could arguably go number one on the list. I held back for 2 reasons: it’s a relatively small seller, there just isn’t that much market out there for $50,000 plus 2 seater sports cars. And I don’t know enough about the suspension yet. I love the new look, and the new engine sounds amazing, so this is a big step up for the Vette already. The two biggest knocks on the Vette for years have been dismal interiors and obsolete suspensions compared to European sports cars. The new interior looks like a winner, but the news on the suspension has been quiet. The last Vette has leaf springs in the back! Leaf springs! Until we know if the Vette is trying to grow up and play seriously on the track I am not quite ready to place it on top.
Why is this important? For GM the Vette is the ultimate Halo car. When the Vette is looked at as a truly world class sports car like in the 50′s, 60′s, and to some extent late 90′s-early 2000′s, GM is looked at as a truly world class company. When the Vette is looked at as a second rate sports car (70′s, 80′s) GM is looked at as a maker of second rate product. In a business where reputation is everything Corvette defines GM like no other car.
2) Cadillac ATS/ELR I am calling this one a tie for Cadillac because they had two truly important cars in the show. The ATS won the award for North American car of the year, and it’s a huge feather in GM’s cap. GM has been trying to compete with luxury Euro imports like BMW since the 80′s. The first efforts were an abysmal failure, the Cimarron was a Cavalier with a leather package, the Catera was a Malibu with a leather package. Both were embarrassments that still crop up on “all time worst ever” type lists. They finally built the all new from the ground up CTS in 2003. It was a very good driving car with a very good engine and very bad interior that was sort of in between the BMW 3 and 5 in size. Best Caddy ever in that class but not best in that class. The ATS is a direct head to head challenge to the BMW 3 series in size and performance, and has been applauded by enthusiast magazines, even beating the 3 series in head to head comparison tests. Very big deal.
The ELR is big for a different reason: Caddy has gone back to it’s “rebadge a Chevy and add leather” roots here and it may actually work this time. The ELR is basically a second gen Chevy Volt with styling upgrade and a leather package. The thing is, the styling is fantastic. Unlike the stubby shabby looking Volt the ELR is really astonishingly good looking. And the interior may be the best interior Cadillac has ever produced. Unlike the Volt this thing looks like a car that is worth $50-60,000 to own. And since GM has had the Volt technology on the street long enough to begin working out the kinks it should be better engineered, which means better ownership experience. The ELR has a chance to be an electric that actually works for consumers, with GM bringing it.
Why is this important? In spite of their Escalade bling machine success Cadillac is still known as a company that makes boring old cars for boring old people. They have a reputation (sadly earned) for being behind the times in styling, interior quality, and engineering and performance. Competing successfully against the BMW 3 series and bringing a popular and successful electric to the worldwide market will change the entire Cadillac brand. It gives them entry to youthful buyers, global marketplaces, and could bring big profit back to a struggling company.
1) Toyota Corolla Furia Concept Every other car on my list is a ready for production or in production already. This Toyota concept is the only one you can’t buy at some point this year. So why put a concept car on top? Two reasons: first off, this isn’t just a concept, it is a concept of the world’s most popular car. Corolla is the first automotive brand to sell more than 30 million units, and has been the world’s most popular car since the late 90′s (although Ford is debating this for 2012). Second, it’s a massive departure for the brand. Corolla’s have been re-engineered and re-designed regularly but have had a single spiritual focus since 1966. They have made it to the top by making an incredibly bland, but very reliable, efficient and inexpensive economy sedan. I jokingly call Toyota the car for people who don’t like cars, and to an extent that is true: Toyota’s are visually unassuming, quiet, undemanding, uninteresting to drive, and generally stay out of their owners way. The Furia is a polar opposite, everything about it from the loud paint to the big rims to the aggressive snout to the “Furia” name screams for attention.
Why is this important? With Ford Focus knocking at the door (or barging through, depending on how you count) Toyota is going full on game changer with a concept of a Corolla that is a much more youthful, edgy style than anything we’ve seen from this model before. It’s a huge risk, but if it pans out will be the the thing that not only keeps Corolla number one globally, but keeps Toyota there as well. The Lexus styling cues on the front may be the new face of Toyota’s full line up as well, so keep an eye on this one.