SUVs to the Front: A 2017 New York Auto Show Report

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Apr 13, 2017

Tuesday night. The first press day of the auto show is a mad blur, with all the major press conferences. It’s such a crowded schedule that the automakers have started introducing their models at pre-show parties, including Acura with its new TLX.

The Acura TLX and its new snout. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Jon Ikeda, general manager of the Acura division, talked about Acura taking its new NSX racing at the 24 Hours of Daytona. It’s a company with a history. “A year ago,” he said, “Acura was 30 years old.” Now there’s a thought. He said the company these days has “a relentless focus on precision-crafted performance. And now we’re turning our attention to sedans—they’re still a critical pillar of the brand.”

The curtains came off the new TLX, with everything forward of the A pillars completely new. The upmarket A-Spec model will pair a 290-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 with a nine-speed auto and either front- or all-wheel drive. It also gets the performance trim, with dual exhausts, a spoiler, and blackout 19-inch wheels. Lower specs get a 206-horsepower, 2.4-liter four, and an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic.

Inside the TLX. I dug the infotainment system. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I could live with a TLX, even without all that A-Spec stuff. The car had a nice two-screen infotainment system that let you dial in your operating system on the upper panel while you were choosing your music on the lower one. The seats offer ventilation, and there is wireless charging for your phone.

Elle King gets down. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The night was sparked by a five-song performance by Elle King, who was rocking—despite an echoey sound system. She performed what she said was her “favorite song,” the Beatles’ “Oh Darling.” Her drummer, bassist and guitarist all looked very similar—skinny guys with long hair and beards—brothers, maybe?

The Buick Enclave Avenir: People are buying the top trims, so why not cater to them? (Jim Motavalli photo)

It was only a few doors down to Buick, which didn’t have live music, but did have a nice outdoor porch. Duncan Alred, vice president of Buick Global, introduced a new iteration of the Enclave, the Avenir. I noticed that he’s British, and asked somebody with a GM badge about the sudden influx of Europeans into the company. “We just pulled out of Europe, and they had to work somewhere,” he said.

GM, like many global brands, is pushing major product introductions, so consumers don’t have to deal with stale offerings. Buick has seven new models (Cascade, Envision, Encore, LaCrosse, Regal Sportback, Regal TourX and the Enclave). Avenir is a new luxury sub-brand offering the top available trim.

Inside the Avenir: The SUVs are luxurious these days. (Jim Motavall photo)

According to Alred, Buick is the U.S. "fourth-largest luxury brand, and it’s at least that in China, where the company’s cars are highly prestigious. You’ve probably heard that Buick sells more cars in China than in the U.S., though it’s the American flavor that appeals to foreign buyers.

The author (right) makes a new friend at the Kia stand. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Alred also said that 90 percent of its buyers are going for the two top-tier models, indicating that (as was revealed by Nielsen at the press breakfast) crash avoidance is the top priority with consumers—even more than connectivity. And the safety suites are either standard or available only on the high end.

Tricked-out SUVs like the Enclave Avenir are selling very well indeed, and variations on it are all over New York this year. Buyers get a standard 3.6-liter V-6 with nine-speed automatic, capable of towing 5,000 pounds. The twin-clutch all-wheel-drive system, borrowed from the Envision, is quite effective—as I saw during a winter driving event at Lime Rock. The Enclave is a big seven-passenger SUV, with such features as a standard rear-camera mirror, heated front and second-row seats, and (in the Avenir) even an air ionizer to keep it smelling fresh as a daisy.

Seen in Midtown Manhattan: SUVs are today's kings of the road. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Wednesday. Walking to the Javits Center, I noticed one of those New York vertical car storage facilities, and nearly every vehicle on it was an SUV. It’s an off-road world; we just live in it.

Jason Stein of Automotive News gave us the highlights of the new Global Trends Report. Nobody had to tell me that “safety is the key to success of automated driving,” but it was interesting that only a quarter of the World Car of the Year jurors think that fully self-driving cars will be with us in the near-term.

The World Car awards, chosen by a team of 75 international auto journalists, gave the World Urban Car award to the BMW i3; the World Green Car of the Year to the Prius Prime; and the World Performance Car of the Year to the Porsche Boxster/Cayman. The Jaguar F-Pace took home both World Car of the Year and World Car Design of the Year. They had both cups on their stand during the Jaguar/Land Rover press conference later in the day.

Toyota's FT-4X Concept: It's all about those Millennial campers. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Toyota was jazzed up, and showed a replacement for the Toyota FJ Cruiser. Remember that big boy? It seemed very un-Toyota at the time, but now it just seems prescient. Kevin Hunter of Calty Design, Toyota’s west coast studio, said a variant of what was called the FT-4X Concept is “quite likely” to be built. I’m sure it will.

"This'll look great on Instagram!" (Jim Motavalli photo)

Toyota’s aiming the FT-4X at millennials who, Hunter said, are “casual core” and like to get out and explore. “They’re also spontaneous, and like to take off at a moment’s notice,” he said. The video showed four or five ecstatic young people camping with a certain Up With People earnestness.

Cool features: Power outlets on the roof, dome lights that could be detached for use as flashlights, and a North Face armrest that converts into a sleeping bag. A Go Pro camera is built into the driver’s mirror.

The 2018 Lincoln Navigator has an inner glow. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Lincoln had jazz playing—Miles Davis’ version of “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” It seemed to go with what Ford CEO Mark Fields told us was Lincoln’s theme of  “quiet luxury.” The concept is selling quite well in China, apparently. Lincoln is up overall 71 percent over the last four years, thanks—again—to a plethora of new models, including the new Continental.

Fields and Lincoln chief Kumar Galhotra unveiled the new 2018 Navigator, describing it as “a full-sized SUV for today’s more active and tech-savvy families.” It’s BIG, and it  has 75 new features (aluminum body, 450-horsepower motor, 10-speed transmission, a USB port for every row). But rather than describe them all, the Lincoln team was keen to talk about its new range of valet services.

If your Continental or Navigator needs servicing, Lincoln technicians will come to your house or office and pick it up, leaving you with a loaner. The car comes back washed. Salesmen will also make home or office visits. This was over the top: Lincoln’s new Your Lincoln Chauffeur program provides a “carefully screened” driver to help you get to the airport or run errands. You can even summon them with an app.

Inside the Subaru Ascent SUV Concept. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Subaru President and CEO Tom Doll showed off the new Ascent SUV Concept, and like the Toyota it’s definitely headed for the market. A big, bright and airy interior was key, and we should see a finalized production version in a few months. Subaru’s bestsellers, year after year, are the Outback and Forester, but the Cross Trek—with a new model for 2018—is third. Also coming in 2018 is a new Outback.

The new Subaru concept points to the company's future design language. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Mercedes didn’t have jazz, but a DJ playing Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa.” I hadn’t heard that one in a while. Benz showed a new convertible E-Class (4.6 inches longer than the old one), with a top that can retract in 20 seconds (at speeds of up to 30 mph).

The Mercedes AMG GT Concept. It was right from every angle. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The big news for me was the U.S. premiere of the Mercedes AMG GT Concept, by far the most beautiful new model I saw at the show. Sure, it has AWD and a bi-turbo V-8 with 800 horsepower, able to reach 60 mph in less than three seconds. But all that was secondary to the GT’s absolutely gorgeous lines and glowing red paint. AMG chief Tobias Moers called it the “world’s fastest family car,” ensuring that “your children will never be late to school.” AMG sold almost 100,000 cars worldwide last year and had its strongest quarter ever from January to March; it’s on a roll.

The Mercedes AMG GT Concept looked fast even when standing still. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Honda brought out its whole Clarity family. We’ve seen the fuel-cell car, and 100 of those have been sold in California (there’s a waiting list for more to reach customers). But the plug-in hybrid and battery car are new. The former has 42 miles of electric range, and a total of more than 300. The battery car offers only 80 miles on a charge, with commuting and affordability the key—both the battery and plug-in cars will sell in the mid-$30,000 range. A new hybrid is coming, but it will be a whole new car, not built on the Clarity platform.

Now there's a whole family of Claritys. (Jim Motavalli photo)

American Honda Vice President Steven Center said the plug-in hybrid will be the volume leader. The fuel-cell version is available only in California, and the battery car is for California and Oregon (though that could change). Honda hopes to sell 75,000 Claritys of all types in the first four model years. It needs to achieve that, in service of a much bigger goal of two-thirds of its sales being electrified by 2030.

Center said the fuel-cell car is for “true believers” who want to be on the green cutting edge; the battery car for “purists” who swear by charging up, and the plug-in hybrid, I suppose, is for the rest of us. He added that the company has found “the white space” in the market, with affordable green cars.

Volvo's new  XC60 (left) shares a stage with a new plug-in hybrid version of the S90. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Volvo brought out its new XC60, which is based on the same platform as the bestselling XC90. Volvo’s Stefan Karlsson told me he’d worked on special suspension for the XC60, “a transverse leaf spring—like the Corvette.” He said the new car is for buyers who want “an improved driving experience in a car that is compact and  agile.” Volvo also unveiled a plug-in hybrid version of the S90 sedan, and said a new XC40 is on its way later this year.

Jaguar/Land Rover didn’t show a physical car, but spokesman Stuart Schorr could wave those trophies won by the F-Pace. There’s a new 2018 trim for the Land Rover called the Velar, one of four versions now. The F-Type has also been facelifted for 2018. My personal favorite part of this is a GoPro camera option with “Rerun,” an app that records your best lap times, spits back the data, and lets you re-experience the ride on video. 

Genesco Manfred, head of Genesis, showed a new design language form for the brand in a concept car called the GV80--powered by hydrogen. Quad headlamps are part of it. Genesis will have six models by the end of 2020, and two of them will be SUVs like the GV80 (which is chasing the BMW X5).

Genesis said its new concept was powered by hydrogen modules of some kind. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Finally, I was able to spend some time with Peter Rawlinson and his new Lucid Air (no drive, alas). In the Javits Center’s Crystal Palace, Lucid was showing off by far its most finished car, a driver described as an “alpha” car tester that’s been beautified for the show, with a near-production interior.  

The Lucid Air displays Derek Jenkins' grill-free design. It's an electric, it doesn't need a grille! (Jim Motavalli photo)

Rawlinson was the chief engineer on the Tesla Model S. There’s no doubt he’s got that car in his sights here, but it’s not a bad target. The Lucid Air will be a formidable competitor.

The taillights are an almost psychedelic optical illusion. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Vice President Derek Jenkins came to Lucid fresh from designing the fourth-generation Mazda Miata. “I hit the ground running, with a mission from Peter to design an executive jet for the ground.”

According to Chief Technical Officer Rawlinson, the car has the exterior dimensions of a Mercedes E-Class, but it exceeds the S-Class in interior space. It certainly has excellent rear-seat legroom. Our tester even had the optional reclining seats, again modeled on airline practice, and I went back almost prone. After a day at the auto show, I could have stayed there, too.

The Lucid's display was fairly intuitive. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The interior really is quite marvelous, tasteful, spacious, and featuring intuitive on-screen displays. There are actually four screens, and they all do useful work. Cool exterior features include a taillight display that seems to go on forever—an optical illusion, apparently; and headlights with 487 micro lenses on each side.

There was lovely woodwork inside the Lucid Air. California Walnut, we hear. (Jim Motavalli photo)

We didn’t leave the Javits, but the Lucid Air is really supposed to shine on the road. With the 100-kilowatt-hour battery (developed with Samsung), it will have 315 miles of range, but (as with Tesla) a larger pack is available—130 kilowatt-hours for 400 miles. With 1,000 horsepower, the Lucid has been tested well north of 200 mph. Zero to 60 comes up in less than 2.5 seconds.  

The 1948 Playboy. Could you get away with that name today? (Jim Motavalli photo)

The North American International Auto Show is about new cars, but I was thrilled to see the Saratoga Auto Museum’s stand, which included an original Playboy Roadster from 1948. Could you call a car the Playboy today?

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