Detroit motor show finds unsure footing in Middle America

Motown’s motor show clinging on to its premier-league status

Detroit my be broken and broke (the city filed for bankruptcy in 2013 and is still being bailed out by the state of Michigan) but it's still Motown, Motor City - the traditional home of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler and it is to the freezing and frequently dangerous city at the head of it eponymous river, on the shores of Lake St Clair, that we trek every January for the start of the world motor show season.

The Detroit motor show (technically called the North American International Auto Show) was once one of the powerhouses of the global motor industry, much as Detroit itself was once the one, true home of the car. Those days are gone, though - most of the big American car companies have either died or moved out and the capital of cars these days is far more likely to be in Stuttgart, Seoul or Tokyo. Or California, if Tesla has anything to do with it… Likewise, the Detroit motor show has diminished in its importance, overshadowed by the likes of the LA motor show and the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, held just last week.

Quite apart from wondering why anyone would brave the bracing Michigan winter to hack out to the vast Cobo Centre for the show, the car makers have nevertheless brought at least some interesting new metal to Detroit.

Merc E-Class

Volkswagen and Mercedes kicked things off last night and this morning with two significant unveilings. The new Mercedes-Benz E-Class saloon may have had its global debut undermined by internet leaks of its style and specs, but it's still a hugely significant car both for the Mercedes brand and for global car markets.

Even in an age of compact saloons and hatches and inevitable SUVs, the E is still the pivot around which the rest of the Mercedes range turns. Mercedes refers to this new one (based on a platform shared with both the smaller C-Class and larger S-Class as 'the most intelligent saloon.' "The E-Class is the core of the Mercedes-Benz brand and in the past has repeatedly redefined the standards in the business-class segment" says Prof Dr Thomas Weber, Mercedes head of research and development. "Now it carries this tradition into the future with a wealth of top-class innovations. The new E-Class takes another major step towards fully autonomous driving. In addition, it enhances efficiency, safety and comfort, reduces the stress level when driving and intensifies the motoring pleasure."

By autonomous driving, Weber means that the new E-Class will be able to, depending on the local statue books, be able to more or less entirely drive itself on motorways and will even have a valet parking mode, where it can drop you at the kerb, go off and park itself and then come back when you call it. We’ll be very disappointed if the buttons for those commands aren’t marked ‘Sit’ and ‘Here, boy!’

The E-Class is debuting at Detroit with two new engines - a 2.0-litre petrol turbo with 184hp and 132g/km of Co2 emissions, and a new 2.0-litre diesel with 195hp (and with a 150hp version yet to come) and emissions of just 102g/km. There will also be a plugin hybrid variant and, of course, the monstrously powerful E63 AMG.

VW show

VW’s show debut was rather more low-key, but still significant. As the fug of the diesel-gate scandal still swirls about the brand, VW brought along the new Tiguan SUV, shown in concept (actually a thinly-disguised production car) GTE Active form. That means it sticks to VW’s promise to develop and sell more electric and hybrid cars (plugin hybrid module, two electric motors, 150hp petrol engine, 1,000km range, 30km on just the batteries, 221hp) and the chunky tyres, increased ride height and rugged-looking body kit are an obvious tilt of the hat to America’s preference for cars that mimic the wilderness-plugging prowess of the Conestoga covered wagons of the (Hollywood-sanctified) wild west. The Tiguan, bigger than before and eventually available with a seven seat layout, will be critical to VW not merely gaining new acceptance in the American market, but once again expanding its sales base on the North American continent.

Hometown for Opel’s parent

General Motors will use Detroit to both look forward and look back. Its Buick Avista concept is a big four-seat coupe based on the Chevrolet Camaro muscle car and mixes rear-wheel-drive, 400hp and svelte looks. It could be, potentially, a preview of a revived Riviera coupe (a classic nameplate from the sixties and seventies) - Buick is big in China and a luxury coupe could go down well there. Relevance for Europe? Not much - Opel's plans centre around a range-topping SUV, not a sexy coupe.

We’re also not sure about Opel’s plans surrounding Detroit’s other big GM story. It may have been revealed at the CES, but the Bolt electric car is still a significant stage presence at Detroit. From the company that made its name with the small-black V8, a compact, 300km-ranged all-electric hatch is still a big statement to make, especially in a nation where falling petrol (sorry, gas…) prices have driven a return to big pickups and bigger engines.

Opel hasn't yet committed to a European version of the Bolt yet, but it's hard to believe it won't do so. The company got its fingers burned by almost non-existent sales of the Opel Ampera (a plugin hybrid based on the Chevrolet Volt) so hasn't yet given a solid yes or no on the Bolt, but Opel CEO Karl-Thomas Neumann recently told that "we know we need the technology. If no one buys diesel in the future, we need more electric cars. It's a very expensive exercise. There are some early adopter customers who love it and may pay for it, but it's very difficult to get any scale, any volume on this. We don't just want to badge something, we want to make it an Opel."

Fiat Chrysler plans

Cross-town rival Chrysler made a name for itself in the eighties as America's true automotive innovator, creating the original MPV just ahead of Renault's launch of the Espace. Long gone now from Europe, Chrysler now looks to be innovating again, with the new Pacifica. Using a name culled from an early-2000s model shared with Mercedes-Benz, the new Pacifica really is all-new - it's said to use a bespoke platform, and shares nothing (not even a name) with the clunky old Voyager that it replaces.

The cabin is what you'd expect - big, spacious and full of toys and seats, but the real innovation comes underneath. Alongside a standard 3.6-litre V6 engine, there's a hybrid model too, making it the first hybrid full-size MPV on sale in America. One for Europe, perhaps? Perhaps not. A spokesman for Fiat-Chrylser Automobiles in Ireland, told The Irish Times that "we do actually have a seven-seater in the shape of the 500L MPW but the likelihood of the Pacifica coming to Europe would be low - it wouldn't be in keeping with Jeep brand values and the last FIAT-branded US seven seater, the Freemont, wasn't sold in the UK and Ireland." A shame - it looks a like an impressive large family car.

For those thinking that small electric cars and sensible people carriers aren’t quite ‘Detroit’ enough, fret not - Ford was on hand with its new F-150 Raptor Supercrew.

Ford Pass

For those uninitiated in the arcane ways of the great American pickup truck (and the F-150 is without question the greatest, at least in sales terms, of those) the Raptor Supercrew is larger (longer wheelbase and a wider track than before), more powerful (411hp and 590Nm of torque from its heavily updated 3.5-litre turbo ‘Ecoboost’ V6 petrol engine), tougher (heftier suspension and more than a foot (300mm) of wheel travel at each end) and yet lighter (by 220kg in fact). Pickups have struggled to gain acceptance outside of the world of commercial vehicles here, but there is just a tinge of regret that this monstrous 4x4 won’t make it to this side of the Atlantic.

Who could fail to be charmed by a vehicle which includes a ‘Baja Setting’ (named for the famously gruelling off-road race down the Pacific coasts of California and Mexico) in its electronic menu?

Perhaps we can find rather more relevance in the facelift for the Ford Fusion saloon. Already on sale in the States for three years now, and is essentially identical to the Ford Mondeo sold here. We’ve only really had the Mondeo for just over a year, so our cars won’t get this update for at least another twelve months, but on the outside, there are some clear differences - most obviously a new radiator grille, which gets upturned corners to head off the old criticism that Ford was simply stealing its styling from Aston Martin, and new lights and bumpers front and rear.

There are few changes inside (a new SYNC3 infotainment system and a Jaguar-style rotary controller for the automatic gearbox) but there are changes under the skin. There is revised suspension with new anti-roll bars and new spring settings, and the 1.5 and 2.0-litre EcoBoost turbo petrol engines get respectively upgraded to 200hp and 250hp. (The less said about Ford-owned Lincoln's reveal of its distressingly underwhelming-looking new Continental luxury saloon, the better…)

Ford also launched its new ‘Ford Pass’ - an app and a lifestyle experience (forgive the buzz phrase) that allows “Ford vehicle owners and non-owners alike, reimagines the relationship between automaker and consumer.” The app allows you to pre-pay for city centre parking, use share-and-ride services (Ford seems set to rival both Uber and GM’s own Lyft service), call for roadside assistance with things like flat tyres and, through an Apple-store series of high-street and shopping mall ‘Ford Hub’ locations chat, informally, with Ford experts about their future and current transport needs. Needless app-adoration or genuine car-to-customer innovation? Time will tell.

Elsewhere, autonomy was the buzzword of the show. Mercedes had already shown off the fact that it's E-Class is getting lots of robotic-driving tech, while Kia was busy announcing its DriveWise self-driving sub-brand and a high tech, partly robotic concept called the Telluride which previews that robot technology as well as the styling of a forthcoming full-size SUV.

Volvo’s new saloon

Volvo too is pushing the self-driving button pretty hard - on the back of a hugely pleasing announcement that Sweden’s biggest car maker has sold a record 500,000 cars in 2015, Volvo was also promising that the new S90 saloon and estate will come with Pilot Assist software as standard (at least in the US where such things are already being legislated for). The system can drive the care by itself at speeds of up to 128kmh, albeit only “on roads with clear lane markings.” Don’t try this on your local boreen…

Tesla no-show

However, Tesla, arguably America's most important car maker right now, is a Detroit no-show (alongside such others as Jaguar, Land Rover, Bentley, Mini and McLaren). Tesla instead decided to garner publicity for itself away from the show's halls by announcing an upgrade to its self-driving system. While some of the mods are safety related (such as not allowing the driver to climb in the back seat when the system is on…) there is also a new autonomous parking system (albeit one that requires you to stand and watch the car as it parks) and a system which can communicate with your home to switch on lights, or open electric gates or doors. However, Tesla boss Elon Musk went further from that, predicting that within two years, "if you're in New York and your car is in Los Angeles, you can summon your car to you from your phone and tell the car to find you. It'll automatically charge itself along the journey. I might be slightly optimistic about that, but not significantly optimistic."

An American car that can drive itself coast-to-coast without a driver on board? Presumably, and somewhat sadly, Detroit is unlikely to be included as a stop-over…

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in motoring