Detroit 2017: SUVs Dominate, Mostly Made in the U.S.A.

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jan 10, 2017

DETROIT—It’s called the “Trumpchi,” and it’s a brand-new 200-mile-range electric car from China’s GAC, displayed at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). The embarrassed chief engineer, Hao Su, denies that the name has anything to do with currying favor with the incoming administration. “We’ve had that name for 10 years,” he said.

The GAC Trumpchi GE3 from China. The name is, well, coincidental. (Jim Motavalli photo)

GAC says it plans to be on the U.S. market in two years, but other Chinese companies have said that before and missed their deadlines. We’ll see. The big news in Detroit, besides the Trumpchi, was much prognostication about connectivity and self-driving cars, a plethora of new SUVs to meet Americans’ seemingly insatiable appetite for them, plus a lot of talk (whenever possible) about model lines being made right here in the U.S. of A.

What's in a name? Plenty, when it's "Trumpchi." (Jim Motavalli photo)

Here's the Trumpchi on video:

Green car introductions (discounting the Trumpchi) were few and far between, though the all-new 238-mile electric Chevy Bolt was the North American Car of the Year. (It’s also the Motor Trend, and Green Car of the Year).

There was much anticipation for Toyota's new Camry, and it didn't disappoint. It's bold, sure, with the massive front grille that's in vogue now. A designer said the prow was inspired by an America's Cup catamaran racer.

The Kia Stinger had serious muscle. Not dad's Kia. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Also new and getting hearts racing was the Kia Stinger, with some serious muscle when equipped with a 3.3-liter, twin-turbo V-6. Did I hear 365 horsepower? The design, out of Kia's Frankfurt studio, could have been a bit more original, but as spokesman James Bell pointed out, it will certainly get consumers thinking about this Korean brand in a different way. "It will shake up the thinking," he said.

The restyled Toyota Camry was a big hit at the show. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I started the day at Adient, a new company (headquartered right here in Detroit, USA) that does seating and interiors. Its big reveal was of its AI17 car seats (for autonomous cars by 2020 and beyond) that turn toward each other when driving isn’t required, recline to full La-Z-Boy deep recline, and pivot to deposit their occupants on the street after their hands-free experience.

Are you ready for autonomous seats that swivel to let you in or out? (Jim Motavalli photo)

But what about accommodating the belts and airbags (which need to be precisely aligned with the seats)? That’s a discussion for another day. “Obviously, this is a vision,” spokesman John Gomez told me. Some self-driving visions show seats facing each other, but anyone facing backwards is going to get airsick.

Automakers can't go wrong with big SUVs, these days, including this 2018 Chevy Traverse. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Chevrolet is basking in the Bolt’s green glow. Kathy Beslic, the Bolt's marketing manager, thinks the average customer will skew younger, in their 30s and 40s, and be very tech savvy. "They'll also be more urban focused," she said. "We're bringing range and price together for the first time." Chevy sold 579 Bolts in December.

Bolt Marketing Manager Kathy Beslic says the average customer will be in their 30s and 40s, tech savvy and urban. So far, males have dominated.(Jim Motavalli photo)

But Chevy is also is selling many, many SUVs and showcased the 2017 Trax and a new Equinox on its way. Unveiled was the 2018 Traverse, with two second-row seats that slide to let passengers in to the third row. There’s a reminder if you leave stuff in the rear seat, and a light to show you where to kick your foot to open the rear liftgate. Boxy, but good?

Audi's Q8 Concept is heading to production next year. SUVs gave the company a banner year in 2016. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Audi has SUV fever, too—everything’s coming up Qs. Buyers can’t get enough of its 4X4s—despite the “challenges” of the VW parent company, Audi has had 72 consecutive months of growth in the American market. There’s a new Q5 coming in the spring, with a 345-horsepower turbocharged S version that can reach 60 mph in less than six seconds.

An Audi A5 Cabriolet for the non-SUV lovers. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Unveiled in Detroit was a Q8 Concept that points the way to a production version next year. Predictions that it will sell are safe—the company sold more than 100,000 Q7s. “The sedan segment is down and SUVs up in 2016,” said CEO Scott Keogh. He also said diesels are on their way out, and electric is the future.

Audi U.S. CEO Scott Keogh meets the media. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Volkswagen had to endure shouted questions about its executive being arrested by the FBI, and talked about “regaining the trust of our customers.” But it still made a splash with the I.D. Buzz, by my count the third concept car based on the Microbus. (I may have missed one or two.) As I’ve said many times before, why not just build the darned thing?

The VW I.D. Buzz is only its latest retro concept based on the Microbus. It's time to produce it already. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The I.D. Buzz is certainly cool enough. It’s all-electric, with 270 miles of range, and motors on both axles producing 368 horsepower. Of course, it’s a concept car so they can and do make all kinds of claims. Ten laser scanners! Wireless charging!

The VW Atlas is a new midsized SUV, made right here in Chattanooga. (Jim Motavalli photo)

VW is abandoning diesel, and its all-new Atlas midsized SUV and redesigned Tiguan (with 10.7 inches more length) will run on gas. The Atlas will be made in the U.S., at the state-of-the-art Chattanooga plant. The Atlas will start at $30,000. To win back old customers, and gain some new ones, VW is going to have to be very competitive at the bottom line.

BMW is preparing an X2, so it has all the SUV segments covered. (Jim Motavalli photo)

BMW will have a new X2, and the concept version was on view in Detroit. This is a wild guess here, but I think it will probably sell more than the new luxury/performance M760i xDrive, which will sport a V-12 and 610 horsepower. The latter is expected to sell for $154,000, and the former for around $34,000 (its British price).

Nissan had one of the hits of the show with its Vmotion 2.0 design study--a hint of things to come. The disappearing C pillar is big these days. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Some companies departed from the SUV blitz—Nissan with a new design concept, and Lexus with the all-new LS500. I liked both for their clean-sheet designs. The Lexus, which hearkened back to the original LS400, will be powered by a 415-horsepower twin-turbo V6, coupled to a 10-speed automatic. Zero to 60 will take just 4.5 seconds.

Mark Fields meets Bill Ford. Ford does things in a big way.  (Jim Motavalli photo)

Ford is bringing back the Bronco and the Ranger, venerable names, and hybridizing two of its icons, the F-150 and Mustang. But we saw none of these. Thirteen new electrified models will be out in the next five years, one of them a new 300-mile electric SUV. An autonomous hybrid is also in the offing, as is a wireless charging pilot program.

As with other automakers, there was much talk of new Silicon Valley partnerships. Ford is working with Bloomberg Philanthropies, and there was Mike Bloomberg up there on the screen.

The Honda Odyssey was restyled, with the third row in mind. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Honda has sold 100 million vehicles, and has been in the U.S. since the first Accord rolled off the line in Ohio in 1977. Today, 96 percent of U.S.-spec cars are, you guessed it, made in the U.S.A. Honda is predicting that two thirds of its global sales will be electric by 2030. It was great to see the Clarity fuel-cell car, which is just going on sale. The big news, though, was a redesigned Odyssey minivan. Here's the Odyssey on video:

Since buying an Odyssey myself last year, I’ve noticed how many of them are on the road. The new one isn’t a radical departure, but it adds features like Cabin Talk, which lets parents talk through wireless headphones to their third-row kids. Third row users say they feel left out, apparently. Now they can control the rear-seat entertainment from their smart phones, and answer their own “are we there yet?” questions with a travel app.

Of course, by the time we get to autonomous cars, there may be no parents aboard to answer questions like that.

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