North American International Auto Show 2011

Twelve months ago ‘eco’ was an explicit theme at the 2010 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). A year on, the 2011 event has become subtler in promoting its green credentials – or put them to one side – depending on your viewpoint. As the home of the US muscle car and pick-up truck, environmental awareness has never ranked that high on Detroit’s agenda but there was still a strong sense at the show that foreign oil dependency should be avoided and that sustainability is “a good thing” and worth investing in. 

Two extreme recessionary years featuring the high profile bankruptcies and subsequent drastic restructuring of GM and Chrysler has certainly restricted or at least delayed future product planning – significant concepts were thin on the ground at the 2011 show – but despite that, the show seemed more busy and full than in recent years and hopefully through more robust sales of mainstream models can come new (and greener) innovation. Here are Green Car Design’s 2011 Detroit highlights…

Concept : Kia KV7

Kia says : A modern-day activity MPV with the functionality to transport seven people while also serving as a connected social hub for adventure-seekers.

Spec sheet : Large MPV concept that rejects notions of ‘sportiness’ in exchange for the cool functionality of “the box”.

One of the 2011 Detroit show stars, the Kia KV7 concept reveals a brand whose confidence is growing with every car it launches. The concept has elements of the current Ford Flex about it and pays homage to the much smaller but similar aesthetic of the second generation Nissan Cube, but it still imagines a distinct interpretation. The approach of Kia’s US design team is refreshing as chief designer Tom Kearns, puts it: “From the outset, we felt the category was in need of an honest reassessment. Everyone seems so desperate to attach the word ‘sporty' to their MPV even though MPVs, at their very core, are simply boxes.” So Kia made one, but a wonderfully elongated example with smooth edges, a long wraparound window from the windscreen A-pillars backward, added a smart interpretation of Kia’s new tiger-style front grille and a lounge-style interior with reclaimed teak floor, four swiveling seats, a mini-lounge with rear seating for three and a Wi-Fi-enabled fold-down tabletop touch-screen computer display. This is the sort of car many families and/or road-tripping adventure-seekers would buy now, if it were available. Kia: Please build something as close to this as you can soon.

Concept : Ford Vertrek

Ford says : “The Vertrek’s job is to prepare the US public and current Escape customers for a radically different vehicle to the one they’re currently driving” – Martin Smith, Ford of Europe design chief.

Spec sheet : Sleeker new global compact crossover concept that will spawn a production version quite similar in 2013 or so to replace both the European Kuga and US Escape models.

Ford is still on a design roll. To these eyes this concept is the epitome of how a refined compact crossover should look. Muscular but not bodybuilding, bold but not cartoonish, the proportions speak of responsible power and refinement outside but also good cabin space inside – which should feel light and airy due to the Mohican-style panoramic sunroof. The grille has a mix of new Focus and C-Max but lacks the aggression of some other marques’ models that suggest a desire to eat the car in front. Let’s hope the production car really is similar to this. Either way, expect frugal Eco boost petrol engines, the latest diesel TDCi units plus a hybrid option under the bonnet.

Concept : Porsche 918 RSR

Porsche says : Mid-engined coupé concept is a technology test bed for intensive development work in the field of hybrids.

Spec sheet : A mix of the 918 Spyder concept shown at the 2010 Geneva and the 911 GT3 R Hybrid racecar combined to make a new sportscar.

This motor racing concept is based around Porsche technicians’ desire to generate additional power in an intelligent way. The monocoque body is made of lightweight but super stiff carbon fibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP) and like the 911 GT3 R Hybrid it gains extra power by ‘syphoning’ off spare energy to a device called a flywheel accumulator when the vehicle brakes. Charging takes place when the two electric motors on the front axle reverse their function during braking and become generators of rotation energy that the flywheel accumulator then stores. Says Porsche, “at the push of a button, the driver is able to call up the energy stored in the charged flywheel accumulator [up to 204hp] and use it during acceleration or overtaking manoeuvres”. All clever stuff but due to the size of the flywheel accumulator – which takes up the space where the passenger seat and footwell would normally be – the tech only looks to have an application for racing rather than road cars for now.

Concept : Mini Paceman

Mini says : The Paceman combines the classic Mini concept with the defining features of the Mini Countryman and the style of a coupe

Spec sheet : Another brand extension for the small car brand into larger car territory with two- and four-wheel drive options.

That the new Mini Paceman concept is already billed by some pundits as a potential rival to the Range Rover Evoque three-door shows just how far both brand identities are currently being stretched – albeit one upsizing and the other down. That both look great suggests that – in this case – both brands have respectively enlarged and shrunk with care. One clue as to why the Paceman coheres better as a design than the Countryman small 4x4 say, is perhaps given by designer Marcus Syring: “In contrast to the more vertical design of the Countryman, we’ve given the Paceman Concept a horizontal emphasis and accentuated the width rather more.” This is a positive move for Mini and should be pursued. Unfortunately, we could not evaluate the interior as there wasn’t one behind the blacked-out windows, but we have been assured it is a four-seater.

Production : Toyota Prius v

Toyota says : The Prius v – v for versatility – uses the same platform and hybrid unit as the current Prius hatchback, with a more flexible design to meet the needs of growing families with active lifestyles.

Spec sheet : Longer MPV petrol/electric hybrid production car with double the regular Prius’s boot space goes on sale this summer in the US and probably Europe too by 2012.

Toyota has been flagging up its intention to considerably expand its hybrid range in the US for some years. The Prius v is the next step. Logically realizing not everyone with green leanings can fit all their stuff into a regular Prius hatchback, the Japanese brand has created the Prius v, boasting 970 litres of load space behind the second row of seats – which can slide back and forth and also recline through 45 degrees. To allow longer items to be carried, the front passenger seat also folds flat. On the ‘eco plus’ side is a panoramic sunroof made of resin that saves 18kg compared to glass roofs of the same size. On the ‘design minus’ side is a dish-water dull exterior and a centre console that looks like its buttons and switches were sourced (and thrown randomly) from the chaos of the pick and mix sweet counter.

Concept : Toyota Prius c

Toyota says : The Prius c Concept – c represents city-centric vehicle – will appeal to young singles and couples who want an eco-sensitive, high-mileage, fun-to-drive Prius.

Spec sheet : Super similar concept to last year’s FT-CH concept – the yellow/green one remember? – will be the cheapest Prius yet when it goes on sale in the US in 2012.

This concept is interesting because it’s a Prius that finally manages to look green and cool at the same time – mind you it’s still a concept so there’s plenty of time for Toyota to water it down for production next year. Conversely, this concept is slightly annoying because Toyota is calling it something new when it’s essentially the same design as last year’s FT-CH concept (see our 2010 Detroit review) bar a few slight differences around the front. New for 2011 are more production-feasible lamps (although the headlight box graphic is the same), less dotty side vents, an extra slim upper grille addition, a new body-coloured splitter lip detail plus new wheels. Keep it like this please.

Production : Mercedes Aesthetics No.2

Mercedes says : “We show simple surfacing – but not boring – done in a very sculptural way, so that you're like, ‘I must have this car’”– project leader Hans-Peter Wunderlich

Spec sheet : Interior-inspired sculpture that hints at the design direction of the brand for its forthcoming quartet of small vehicles.

Mercedes started showing sculptures in addition to concept cars last year in Detroit. The model of a car draped in a motorshow sheet giving subtle hints at the second-generation CLS went down very well and the brand repeated the innovative marketing move for this year’s Detroit show. For 2011 the theme is much more interior-focused but the sculpture, entitled “Aesthetics No.2”, is still very dramatic, evoking an organic bone-like exterior structure inside which floats a curvaceous instrument panel punctuated by a series of aviation-inspired air vents and a high central transmission that runs between the two oversized seats. At 5.6 x 1.83 x 2.6 metres most of the dimensions have been exaggerated compared to a normal car to help show the interior forms better but the overall effect is positive, interesting and arty. Expect the next A- and B-Class interiors to look something like this.