At first glance, there weren't many unexpected moments at the Detroit auto show this year. Sneak previews and leaks -- both planned and spontaneous -- took care of that. Besides, the favorable economics of the U.S. auto market drained most of the urgency and angst that have characterized past shows. But behind every car, there is a story, and a closer look both in front of and behind the proscenium exposes 10 surprising story lines embodied in the carbon fiber hoods and graphite-gray wheels.
1. Acura NSX concept
The new Chevy Corvette got all of the advance publicity, but it was the latest iteration of the Acura NSX that caused jaws to drop when it was revealed on Tuesday morning. Something of a technological marvel with a mid-engine hybrid powertrain and an instrument panel all but button-free, Acura's concept car claims to redefine the relationship between driver and car. Thought control in place of a steering wheel, anyone?
2. Ford Atlas concept
Made-for-TV spectacular reveals have (mercifully) fallen out of fashion, but Ford (F) revisited old ways and made some dramatic updates. As a live guitar band blasted out a musical accompaniment, six welders brandishing what appeared to be live, spark-spewing torches were lowered from the ceiling in a steel-look grid resembling the skeleton of an office building. Once they reached the ground, the Atlas itself dropped out of the sky from a different spot on the arena ceiling. With its lightweight construction and fuel-saving features, the Atlas, a concept for the 2015 F-150, was well-reviewed and challenged General Motors' (GM) coming 2014 trucks. And if the pickups don't work on the showroom floor, Ford can always open its own he-man production of Cirque de Soleil.
3. Maserati Quattroporte
The reentry to the U.S. of Fiat's Alfa Romeo has become a long-running shaggy dog story with no apparent conclusion, and CEO Sergio Marchionne has turned his attention to another under-performing brand. While Alfa went all-but-unmentioned at Marchionne's news conference, he talked up Maserati as a partner to Ferrari in the beautiful-but-ridiculously-expensive product segment. Besides the all-new Quattroporte, he has plans for a Maserati SUV and a new, smaller sedan that sound a lot more concrete than his dreams for Alfa that have proved so ephemeral.
4. Mercedes CLA and BMW 320i
Having largely filled all the white space in the premium luxury segment by pushing the tops of their model ranges well up into six-figure territory, Mercedes-Benz and BMW are heading down the price scale to entry-luxe country. Benz calls the CLA (top) "a style rebel" and is aiming at younger buyers with prices starting at $30,000. The more conservative four-cylinder BMW 320i (bottom) will start at $33,445. Moving downscale means the two German automakers risk sacrificing some of their exclusivity, but at the same time they will also be putting the squeeze on aspirants to luxury-car status (Acura, Lincoln, Volvo, Buick) as well as range-topping models (Avalon, Taurus) from mass marketers.
5. 2014 Lexus IS 350
Along with Mercedes, Lexus has one of the oldest owner bodies in the business and, again like Mercedes, it is doing what it can to shake that horse-collar. The "spindle grille" that now adorns every new Lexus isn't to everybody's taste, but the side-panel swales on the IS clearly say "sporty," and Lexus has fired its own volley in the transmission wars by outfitting the 350 with an eight-speed automatic gearbox.
6. Kia Cadenza
If anyone thought Kia's commercials with hamsters in the driver's seat meant it was content to compete in the smaller-car market, they only had to walk by its auto show stand to see the full-size Cadenza, featuring Kia's first V-6 for the U.S. market. Like other Korean cars, it will drive competitors to distraction by loading up with expensive options at a low, low price. Figure on around $35,000 for the flagship of this up-and-coming brand.
7. Toyota Furia concept
Toyota (TM) has obviously been watching Kia's inroads and is making an effort to infuse its durable Corolla compact with some curb appeal as previewed in this concept. The production version that arrives later this year will look a good deal less ferocious -- those 19-inch wheels are just for show -- but it sends another signal that Toyota is shrugging off its stodgy ways.
8. Cadillac ELR
The best-looking Cadillac since the 1958 Eldorado? It could just be this stunning hybrid that captures all the dynamism of Cadillac design elegantly in a smaller car. By draping the mechanics of the Chevy Volt in this arrow-shaped body, Cadillac is infusing the battery-powered car segment with some much-needed glamour. At prices north of $60,000 though, it won't find many eco-driven buyers.
9. 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee
Going where few other automakers have gone before, Sergio Marchionne has taken the very successful Jeep Grand Cherokee and given it a mid-cycle facelift in three years instead of the usual four, and well before the market demanded changes -- 2012 sales were stronger than 2011's. More than its face is getting lifted. The Jeep gets its own eight-speed transmission and a diesel engine option. It is a dangerous strategy, though. Accelerating the design changes means amortizing the costs over a shorter time period and hiking the overhead on each individual unit.
10. Carlos Ghosn and Nissan
For a man unaccustomed to failure and never known for his humility, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn performed a graceful mea culpa in front of a roomful of journalists by conceding that his expectations for Leaf EV sales were wildly off the mark. Ghosn refused to assign blame, but, characteristically, he reaffirmed his faith in EVs and took steps to make sure he doesn't fall short again. In an effort to juice sales, he cut Leaf prices 18%, announced the addition of a stripper model at a lower price, and reaffirmed his determination to see electrified cars reach 10% of the market by 2020.
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