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Muscling Up at the Detroit Auto Show

Green cars give way to performance vehicles at NAIAS.

by on Jan.15, 2014

The new Corvette Z06, dubbed "The Big Nasty" by GM's global product development chief Mark Reuss.

What a difference a year can make.  When the doors opened at Detroit’s Cobo Center for the 2013 North American International Auto Show, visitors were greeted by an array of new hybrids, plug-ins and pure electric vehicles, and even got the opportunity to drive some of the latest green machines on a special course in the sprawling convention center’s basement.

While there are a number of green machines on display as the 2014 auto show gets set to open to the public, the spotlight is shining in a different direction.  Nowhere is that more apparent than at the Toyota stand.

Power to the People!

Only last November, the Japanese giant detailed plans to put a new hydrogen car into production by 2015. But while a prototype is on display, Toyota’s big news for Detroit is the FT-1 sports car concept which, the maker notes, was outfitted with a classic, high-performance internal combustion engine, not one of its many hybrid drivetrains.

The Toyota FT-1 makes its debut.

And Toyota’s by no means the exception.  Muscle cars were in abundance during a two-day media preview earlier this week, with barely a word spoken about alternative fuel technology. But for those who might fret about a return to the auto industry’s old, gas-guzzling ways, manufacturers did take pains to note that their newest performance cars are more fuel-efficient than in the past, the 450 horsepower Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, for example, getting as much as 30 miles to the gallon.

(Click Here to check out the new Corvette Z06.)

Chevy is back for more at the 2014 auto show with the unveiling of an even more potent version of the ‘Vette, the new, 625-horsepower Z06.  Across the Cobo floor, Ford will be giving the public a first look at the all-new, 50th anniversary Mustang.  But Detroit makers are by no means the only ones bulking up, as the Toyota FT-1 demonstrates.

(For more on the 2015 Mustang, Click Here.)

The Japanese maker’s U.S. design chief Kevin Hunter told reporters that the show car – its name an abbreviation for “Future Toyota” – is “emblematic” of the direction it plans to go in the future, spurred on by CEO Akio Toyoda, a serious performance fan and occasional race car driver.

The Infiniti Q50 Eau Rouge concept is likely to return in production form.

Then there’s Nissan.  Perhaps no industry leader is more passionate about battery power than the second-largest Japanese maker’s own chief executive Carlos Ghosn. But plans to produce a high-end version of the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle for the company’s upscale Infiniti division have been put on hold “until late in the decade,” revealed Johan de Nysschen, a former Audi executive who took over the helm at Infiniti in late 2012.

(For more on Infiniti’s plans, Click Here.)

In Detroit, the Nissan subsidiary focused on its Q50 Eau Rouge, a high-performance version of the midsize luxury sedan it launched for 2014.

“The question (is) whether you can be a serious global luxury brand without a performance division,” said de Nysschen, quickly offering the one-word answer, “No.”

Indeed, a quick check of the offerings at other high-line stands would support that position.  BMW is using the North American International Auto Show, or NAIAS, to introduce its new M3 and M4 high-performance models.  Mercedes-Benz is launching a new 12-cylinder version of its big S-Class sedan and a new, high-powered S-Class Coupe.  Lexus, the Toyota subsidiary that, in past years, rolled out a number of hybrids in Detroit instead is debuting its new RC F, a 450-horsepower screamer meant to compete with the new BMW M4.

The new 450-horsepower Lexus RC F

“Everybody is trying to come up with a halo car for their brand,” says Dave Sullivan, senior analyst with AutoPacific, Inc., pointing to Lexus as an example of why this is important. While hybrids may have given the maker a green sheen, it also earned Lexus a reputation for building stodgy, appliance-like products.

There are other factors at work, suggests Sullivan, including the general revival of the U.S. automotive market.  And with more money in their pockets, many buyers are looking to add a little excitement to their lives –especially with fuel prices down from last year’s peak and looking likely to stay stable for awhile.

Industry analysts caution that, by their very definition, halo cars tend to be low volume. But there’s significant demand for some models.  In fact, the U.S. accounts for nearly half of the sales for Mercedes’ ultra-powerful AMG models, with Southern California alone generating nearly a quarter of worldwide demand, according to U.S. CEO Steve Cannon.

BMW's new M4 coupe uses a six-cylinder turbo to produce 431 horsepower. Photo credit: Len Katz.

Sales in the so-called Premium Sports segment are expected to roughly double from 2011, when recession-racked demand bottomed-out, to around 62,000 in 2016, according to an AutoPacific forecast.  Among more mainstream models, the consultancy expects the new Mustang to drive a 20% boost in demand, to 91,000 that year.  Even little Subaru has big expectations for the all-new WRX STi “hot hatch” it is showing off in Detroit.

The good news is that by cutting out mass, improving aerodynamics and using new technologies, most all of these models are getting markedly better mileage than before. The engine in the Corvette Stingray, for example, uses direct injection and can even shut off half its cylinders when power demand is light. Most new Porsches have a Stop/Start function in which the engine shuts off instead of idling, firing up automatically when the driver’s foot lifts off the brake. And new double-clutch and 8- and 9-speed automatic gearboxes further improve efficiencies.

(Stop/Start likely to be an industry norm by 2022, says new study. Click Here for more.)

So, while the revival of the muscle car may frustrate environmentalists, regulators and insurance actuaries, fans are pleased to be getting what is for them the best of all worlds.

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