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Preview - 2011 Detroit Auto Show

author photo by Autotrader January 2011
January 7, 2011

This is the big one. Why else would the whole automotive world descend upon Detroit in the middle of winter? Its official title is the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) and somewhere between 30 and 40 world premieres are expected this year. Judges for the 2011 North American Car and Truck of the Year will also be giving the results of their deliberations.

This home turf of the Big Three domestic car makers is usually where they make their grand announcements. After the bail-outs and restructuring, 2011’s show is the first one where Chrysler and General Motors can re-establish and – to a certain extent – re-invent themselves.

However, Detroit is important for foreign brands as well. For example, after an absence of four years, Porsche is back and showing off an all-new model.

Home grown

One of Chrysler’s better efforts has been the 300 sedan. For the 2011 model year, it has been re-designed and had its cabin renovated with nicer materials. Following its debut in Detroit, Chrysler wants to move the 2011 300 slightly more up-market, which implies a higher price.

Europeans have enjoyed Ford’s C-Max since 2003. Based on the compact Focus platform, it offers plenty more headroom. Now there’s an all-new Focus and with it an all-new 2012 C-Max. This time, North Americans can get in on the act. There’s seating for up to seven (the third-row seats are smaller), a park assist option and something really useful for people with hands full of shopping and/or kids: a liftgate that raises automatically. Just waggle an ankle under the rear bumper to make it work.

Goodbye, Chevy Aveo subcompact. Hello, 2012 Chevrolet Sonic hatchback and sedan. There might be something a little lustier on the Chevy stand, a 2011 Camaro Z28. Apparently, it will have a supercharged 6.2-liter V8. The same kind of engine in a current Cadillac CTS-V makes 556 hp.

Everyone is looking at hybrids and battery technology these days, but that’s not to say Detroit won’t have some whiffs of old-time fuel. Like the GMC Sierra All Terrain HD Concept pickup. Using a traditional body-on-frame construction, this truck has been created for off-roading from its torquey diesel 6.6-liter V8 to its raised suspension and knobbly BFGoodrich “mud terrain” tires. GMC describes this concept as “pretty realistic” so maybe there’s a production possibility if the reception is good.

Germany calling

There has been talk of a new Porsche sports car, smaller than a Boxster, which could be fun. But the major announcement the company has promised for Detroit could well center on the Cajun, a compact SUV that might just have two passenger doors instead of the usual four. Kind of an SUV mashed up with a coupe.

Since Audi has recently released details of its revamped 2012 A6 executive sedan, there’s a good chance the car might make the trip to Motor City. It’s due on sale in the summer, with a 300-hp supercharged 3.0-liter V6 and a choice of front-wheel or all-wheel drive. There will be gadgets, including an infra-red pedestrian detection system.

For BMW, the 1 Series gets a lot of attention. The usual coupe and convertible have had some aerodynamic tweaks for the 2012 model year. But the most exciting version is the 2011 1 Series M. Yes, a sportier little rear-drive coupe. Instead of 300 hp from the turbocharged 3.0-liter six found in the 135i, this one has 335 hp.

Volkswagen is expected to be revealing its new mid-size sedan, currently named the New Mid-Size Sedan (NMS). This model will be specifically for North America, built in VW’s new Chattanooga plant, going on sale in the second half of the year and anticipated to cost around $20,000.

Although pictures have already been released, the revised 2012 Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan makes its public debut at the Detroit show. The cosmetic changes seem mild, but the cabin receives a new instrument panel and a high-resolution screen. And there are more changes in the engine bay. A new twin-turbocharged four-cylinder endows the C250 with 201 hp. The C300 keeps its 228-hp 3.0-liter V6, but the C350 gets a new 3.5-liter V6 and 302 hp, a bump of 34 extra horses. There’s also talk of a BMW M3-rivaling version coming later in the year: a C-Class AMG Black Series with a 5.5-liter turbo V8 and around 570 hp.

Important imports

The next generation of Civic is a year late. Honda put back its plans and re-redesigned it. All that has been released at the moment is a sketch, but a three-dimensional 2012 Civic concept will be unveiled at Detroit, giving pointers to how the street-bound version will look. Its dimensions are expected to be extremely similar to the current model.

Now the Sonata has shaken up the mid-size sedan segment and the Elantra looks like doing the same thing in the compact class, Hyundai’s virtually unstoppable progress will turn to subcompacts with a new generation of Accent. Another new Hyundai has made a firm appointment for Detroit, the Veloster coupe. This little front-wheel-drive machine should go on sale at the end of 2011, with a 1.6-liter four making something in the region of 140 hp.

Concept corner

Ford will also be previewing a new generation of its Escape crossover SUV. Officially, it’s a concept, but Ford says this will “signal [the Escape’s] future direction.” The 2012 Escape is expected to come out later in 2011.

Mini says this Paceman crossover coupe “could be another building block” in expanding the company’s range. Based on the latest vehicle to grace Mini’s showrooms, the Countryman “SUV,” the Paceman has only two passenger doors and more of a coupe profile. The engine is the same turbocharged 211-hp 1.6-liter four that powers the lively John Cooper Works version. If this ever becomes a production model, it should also have an all-wheel drive option.

Kia’s latest concept is a minivan. The KV7 sports at least one ostentatious gull-wing side door, offering easy access for up to seven occupants. Kia has said that the Soul Forte Koup and Sportage “bear a close resemblance to the original concept designs that preceded them.” Which might be the company’s roundabout way of saying that a production version of a KV7 may not differ much from this study.

Green scene

Toyota should be showing its seven-seater hybrid: the Prius Family. Also expected is a Prius hybrid with plug-in technology and also a brand new concept vehicle using some variation on the now familiar Synergy Hybrid Drive powertrain.

China’s BYD will be attending, even though the Warren Buffett-backed company doesn’t actually sell any cars in the United States. It’s all about the profile, especially its E6 electric car, claimed to have a range of 150 miles, and the S6DM plug-in hybrid SUV that can run up to 38 miles on electric power alone before a 2.0-liter gasoline engine kicks in.

Although only a rumor at this point, there have been whispers that a hybrid version of the Audi Q5 premium compact SUV could also show up.

2011 North American Car and Truck of the Year

A panel of 50 automotive journalists have deliberated and cogitated, and they will proclaim the winners at the Detroit show on January 10. On the car front, it’s between the Chevrolet Volt, Hyundai Sonata and Nissan Leaf. Truck-wise, it’s the Dodge Durango, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ford Explorer. It’s a sign of the times, but not one of these SUVs is still based on a truck.

From all counts, it looks like Detroit could become the center of the car world once again – or definitely for the next few weeks.

author photoCOLIN RYAN has driven hundreds of cars thousands of miles while writing for BBC Top Gear magazine, Popular Mechanics, the Los Angeles Times, European Car, Import Tuner and many other publications, websites, TV shows, etc.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Preview - 2011 Detroit Auto Show - Autotrader