Who has it right in the auto industry? After three days at the Detroit Auto Show, I'm convinced companies stressing fuel-efficient and practical vehicles like Toyota and Honda seem destined to widen their lead on American and German rivals. That just may be my preference as a consumer talking. As GM Vice Chairman Robert Lutz was quoted as saying in a local newspaper, there's still plenty of consumers looking for “red meat” as in power and V-8s.
That's what I found so confusing at this year's show, the most important auto event in North America. Companies are still rolling out new V-8s and at the same time talking about the importance of lowering CO2 emissions. And this time, it's not the Americans! Indeed, Kia introduced its first V-8 for its new Borrego SUV. BMW pushed out a twin turbo 400 hp 8-banger for its new X6. For its part, Audi showed a new version of its R8 mid-engine sports car with a V-12 diesel. Don't they put those in locomotives?
I heard precious little about V-6s becoming power's standard bearer, but chalk that up to Motor City's performance bias. Indeed, a Detroit newspaper ran a long feature ruminating whether the cost premium on hybrids will scare off consumers. In five years, there may well be more hybrids sold than solo gas power plants.
And who should emerge as a big backer of V-6s? None other than GM Chairman and CEO G. Richard Wagoner Jr. Allow me to back up. One of the wonderful things about the auto show is unfettered access to top executives. They want you talk to them and shoot pictures of them fawning over their new creations. So I grabbed Wagoner who happily obliged when I asked him to go on camcorder.
Here's what he said about the V-8, which has made GM billions in profits for more than half a century.
“The V-8 does provide an image halo and is an important part of a total lineup, but you are going to see a lower percentage of V-8s as we ramp up fuel economy. Higher fuel prices are getting customers to think about sixes. Some sixes are so competitive, you don't have to step up to eights in a lot of cases.”
The proof? Smaller V-8s and more V-6s are already showing up in Chevy Silverado pickups.
On the other end of the spectrum, hybrids and forthcoming plug-in versions, hydrogen fuel cell cars and small diesels were everywhere at the show in both concept and production vehicles. Indeed, Honda's i-DTEC four-cylinder diesel will go into a European Accord this year and an unspecified Acura in the U.S. (my guess it's the forthcoming restyled TSX). Honda will also start leasing a hydrogen fuel cell car in southern California. For its part, Toyota says it will beat the 2020 CAFE deadline for 35 mpg and will introduce two new hybrids at next year's show while accelerating its plug-in hybrid program.
And you have to admire the underdog Chinese, which want to come here and sell fuel-efficient vehicles. The car industry has never been big in China. Consider one company's roots: Changfeng Motors, started in 1950, was 7319 Factory of The People's Liberation Army until 1996. Yes, some Chinese-made cars look like souped-up golf carts, but as Chinese consumers hit the road in bigger numbers, they will drive real cars that are hybrids or powered with a four-cylinder gas engine. And they'll be cheap. Chamco plans on selling a four-door AWD pickup here for less than $20,000.
Selling sex appeal, performance and far-out concept cars, the auto show is a lot of fun. We have three exclusive photo galleries online showcasing the Chinese vehicles and what was hot at the show. Also, take a look at our video auto walk-thrus and exclusive interviews with Daimler AG Chairman Dr. Dieter Zetsche aka Dr. Z, VW President Hans-Jorg Hungerland, Ford Chief Creative Officer J Mays, Fuji Heavy Industries (Subaru) CEO Ikuo Mori and Wagoner.
As always, write me at email@example.com or visit my blog Design Engineering at Large.