Detroit, Michigan – Last year, Detroit got silly and beautiful at its annual auto show, displaying gonzo supercars and sublimely ridiculous toy trucks with a fervor that would make a peacock blush. For 2016, the focus felt a bit more mundane, with the focus solidly on where companies earn their profits, not where they turn heads.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles kicked off the day of practical festivities with the unveiling of the Pacifica minivan, a replacement for the long-running Town & Country, that goes on the market late this year. To the company’s credit, designers and product managers avoided the clichés that have doomed countless minivan launches. No one claimed that the Pacifica will make minivans cool again (as if they ever were), or that the Pacifica would radically change how the world looks at the vehicle class that acts as a visual guaranty that the drives are parents.
Timothy Kuniskis, head of passenger cars for FCA US LLC, says, “It has dual sliding doors. It’s clearly a minivan. The customers that have minivans love them, so we didn’t find the need to call this anything else. We’re just saying that this is the best minivan available.”
He adds that the company chose to change the vehicle’s name as a reflection of its complete redesign, one that features are more car-like front end, an upgraded engine and a plug-in hybrid version that is expected to go 30 miles per day on electric power alone – enough to keep most minivan-driving parents from needing to use gasoline engines at all on typical days.
Chrysler was far from alone in showing off the sorts of practical vehicles that get few hearts racing but tend to be the vehicles that need to succeed for companies to thrive financially. At General Motors, for example, the 2017 Chevy Cruze compact car was on display. Compared to the Chevy Volt, Corvette, or Camaro, it’s a bore. But it outsells those cooler vehicles combined, and it was a major part of GM’s shift from colossal losses to record profits as it exited bankruptcy.
”More than 30% of Cruze buyers are new to Chevrolet. It’s a very important vehicle for us,” says Alan Batey, president of GM North America. The updated model features aluminum engines, replacing the cast iron blocks available in the first generation, and the company is bringing a hatchback model to North America.
Even companies entering new segments did so with cautious practicality, not reckless abandon. Honda showed off the 2017 version of its upcoming Ridgeline pickup. When the company launched the original version in 2005, it was a radical departure on the truck world – a unit-body design (safety cage with attached panels), not a body-on-frame vehicle like every other pickup on the road.
That radical design departure allowed Honda to add features to the Ridgeline that no other company could imagine – a trunk under the truck bed, close-to-the-ground seating in the interior, car-like handling, and better fuel economy than competitors.
But the original Ridgeline was funny looking, and truck buyers stayed away. As Honda designer Jose Wyszogrod puts it, “Customers didn’t see it as a pickup.”
So the exterior of the 2017 model is much more traditional. At first glance, it’s clearly a small pickup, not very different looking than the Chevy Colorado or Toyota Tacoma. It’s still a unit-body design with a trunk, but Honda officials are promoting its essential truck-ness, not what separates it from the pack.
Designed from the same basic platform as the Honda Pilot SUV, the new pickup should be cheaper to build than the first-generation Ridgeline, which went off the market in 2014.
There were a few eye-catching, impractical designs on display at the first of two media days at the North American International Auto Show. Ford has a new version of the F-150 Raptor, souped-up sport pickup. It’s pretty much what’s on sale now but with bigger rear doors, making it as practical as a Raptor can get.
Buick’s Avista concept car, a two-door, four-seat sporty vehicle, drew a lot of attention from designers. Ed Welburn, GM’s vice president of global design, says the curvy model is nearly identical to the original sketches that its designer created.
”It wasn’t the typical exhaustive number of sketches to come up with what we all liked. It started with one really cool sketch, and we just went with it,” Welburn says.
Toyota’s Lexus division grabbed some attention with its LC 500, a sporty coupe based on concept cars the company has been showing for four years. The 467hp vehicle will be Lexus’ flagship and represent the future of the brand when it goes on sale late this year, company officials say.
Sources: FCA US LLC, Ford Motor Co., General Motors, Honda, Toyota