NAIAS 2012 Design Review

2012 marks the 24th year that the NAIAS in Detroit has been listed as an International Auto Show. Even with the recent increase in importance of the other shows, Detroit still accounts for the a larger number of introductions than Los Angeles or Chicago and this year is no different as more than 50 models made their world or national debut. The recent problems faced by the domestic auto industry seem to be in the rearview mirror and you could feel the collective sigh of relief on the show floor. Even the weather smiled on the opening day of the press conferences as temperatures were in the positive for the first time since 2008. The manufacturers are back in the business of introducing new vehicles and competing head to head for every last sale.

One thing you can never accuse the show in Detroit of, is being overly-oriented towards the green car spectrum. That is not to say that green isn’t a clearly defined goal of every manufacturer at the show. It is just that the typical US market, and especially the Midwest market, favors the more subtle ecological products like the mild hybrid. When your morning commute is more than 60km like mine was for many years, a full electric is not a feasible solution. Adding to the long commute is the fact that morning temperatures can be below -20 degrees C in the winter and afternoon temperatures over 25 degrees C in the summer (several electric car manufacturers cautioned me about recharging in below freezing weather). The Detroit show did however, continue their unique Green Car test track in the basement however the trees and shrubs that made it so nice just two years ago are now gone. They have been replaced by sand, a obvious nod to the fact that green cars have not yet taken a hold in this country.

Concept : Acura NSX

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Honda says: “In this new era, even as we focus on the fun to drive spirit of the NSX, I think a supercar must respond positively to environmental responsibilities.” Takanobu Ito, president and CEO of Honda Motor Co., Ltd

Spec Sheet: Two seat sports car utilizing a unique 2 Electric Motor Drive Unit with a Bilateral Torque Adjustable Control System driving all 4 wheels. The NSX concept is small, only about a foot longer (0.3m) than a Mazda MX-5

Not many details were revealed as the production version is still 3 years away but what we can tell you is that will generate its performance by an efficient use of technology. Like the Tata eMO listed later, is not any larger than it absolutely needs to be. “Like the first NSX, we will again express high performance through engineering efficiency” added Ito. 

Concept : Lexus LF-LC 

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Toyota says: “The concept hybrid 2+2 liberates the idea of a sport coupe and pushes the boundaries of performance, style and technology.” Mark Templin, Lexus group vice president and general manager

Spec Sheet: The front-engine, rear-wheel drive LF-LC features Advanced Lexus Hybrid Drive, delivering both driving performance and fuel efficiency.

Unlike the Acura NSX, the Lexus LF-LC is not intended to be a production vehicle, but a design study to advance the redefinition of Lexus with emotive, avant-garde beauty and advanced technology, yet remain within reach for premium buyers. Chosen as the EyesOn Design Concept of the show, the design has more little details than I could list in a space twice this long. The key design cues that may show up on future product Lexus include the mesh spindle grille and the lighting details. More and more manufacturers like Lexus are taking advantage of LEDs and other new lighting technologies that not only performs better, but also draws less power.

Concept : Nissan e-NV200

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Nissan says: The concept “previews a near-future production version of a full electric vehicle designed to provide business or families with flexible, roomy interior space, while achieving a dramatic CO2 footprint reduction"

Spec Sheet: The eNV200 uses the complete drivetrain from the Leaf, which means it has a 80 kW AC electric motor and a 24 kWh battery pack. 

The eNV200 Concept from Nissan takes the small vanette that won the New York City Taxi contest and mates it with the Leaf's drivetrain.  A test fleet of this concept is currently under evaluation.  To ensure this electric vehicle bears some corporate resemblance to its cousin, Nissan has grafted a new nose on the van.  Complete with a center changing port door (I would just call it a flap) and a new lower fascia, it does indeed look similar to the Leaf.   The rear sports clear lens "Altezza-style" tail lamps and the wheels are finished in the light blue hue that is becoming de rigueur for electric and hybrid vehicles.  The exterior body is painted in a customized version of Aqua Blue which is intended to "express a sense of environmental friendliness".    Inside the concept includes the aforementioned blue accents, and a center cluster that functions like a tablet computer.  At the introduction Nissan even fed the press chili dogs from a Cheli's Chili Bar converted van (for those who don't know Cheli's Chili Bar belongs to former professional hockey play Chris Chelios).  By the way, I enjoyed the chili dogs much more than the grilled cheese from the NV van at the Los Angeles show.  The NV200 has been in production in Europe since 2009 but the NY City taxi version will be built at Nissan's plant in Cuernavaca, Mexico.  There is no word on where the eNV200 would be built but this concept looks like a no-brainer.

Concept : Tata eMO

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Tata says: "It's the right size for urban transport -- easy to park, yet seating four adults comfortably, with a back seat able to be converted into substantial cargo space."

Spec Sheet: The result of an internal engineering study to prove their capabilities, the eMO features a length of under 3m and a unique liquid-cooled, dual-motor, front-wheel-drive system coupled with an air-cooled, 18.4-kilowatt, high-energy/density battery.

The eMO is an unusual concept in that it wasn't developed to prove out any specific technology, but to prove out the engineering and design capability of the Vehicle Programs and Development group (VPD) of Tata, a complete engineering and product development services company. eMO is not some sort of counter-culture reference, rather it stands for electric MObility after the team responsible decided to a focus on a city or “New Urban” electric vehicle with an emphasis on the design following the functionality and use of the vehicle. The project was a collaboration between the various VPR offices in Detroit, Pune, Coventry and Stuttgart. Aside from perhaps picking a better name, it looks like the team hit their target fairly well. The goal they developed was to build a vehicle that balances:

  • Vehicle Cost of Ownership and Usage

  • Innovation and Technology

  • Consumer Features and Usable Interior Space.

The concept features some interesting thinking. For example, there is no trunk - you can either carry passengers or cargo in the back but not both. “We believe that most vehicles on the market are actually oversized and over-specified for the majority of consumers’ daily use,” says Fisher. “Our objective was to find the right size for this type of electric vehicle with the appropriate range and speed, without reducing safety and daily usability.” With a projected MSRP of $20,000 (US) it could be the most affordable electric car on the market (if they decide to build it).

Concept : Smart For-Us and eBike

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Mercedes says: “With a wink and a smile, the Smart “For-Us” turns the automotive world upside down once again, challenging ideas about what today’s urban pickup might look like.”

Spec Sheet: all-electric power. 55-kilowatt magneto electric motor taken from the upcoming 3d generation Fortwo electric drive model. The battery pack provides 17.6 kilowatt-hours of electric power and can be recharged from 20 to 80 percent in only 3½ hours, and a full charge takes no more than eight hours.

The For-Us pickup concept was something we did not expect in Detroit. Smart CEO Dr. Annette Winkler said, “We at Smart love pickups – if they are small on the outside, large on the inside, very safe and extremely comfortable". I had no idea Smart was so in love with an American institution like the pick-up. The For-Us is about three feet (0.6m) longer than the Fortwo which makes it about the size of a Mini. The eco-friendly pickup was shown with range-extending eBikes in the bed that charge while they are parked. This could be just the thing for those people with range-envy, sort of like a lifeboat on a yacht. The Smart eBike is actually a hybrid – as soon as the rider begins to pedal, a Bionx rear-wheel hub motor begins to help out. Pedal power is transmitted to the rear wheel by a quiet, durable belt drive, while a three-speed gear hub provides simple gear changes. The motor has a range of 60 miles bringing the total range to about 160 miles. In truth, the eBikes are not intended so much as range extenders, but to take the occupants to those places the For-Us cannot, like parks and trails.

Pre-Production: Tesla Model S

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Tesla says: " the world’s first premium sedan engineered from the ground up as an electric vehicle"

Spec Sheet: a four-door, sportback sedan with five adult seats and two optional, rear-facing children’s seats. Power is provided by a 270 kW electric motor and liquid-cooled, Lithium-ion battery packs are available in 40 kWh, 60 kWh and 85 kWh sizes.

The Model S shown at the NAIAS Show was a "Beta" build - the phase of development before final production. The term "Beta" is Tesla’s Silicon Valley roots, denoting a near-final test phase. Deliveries of production vehicles are finally slated to begin this summer. We have been following the design and the development of the Model S for the past couple of years as the Tesla Roadster was the first electric car that ever got out juices flowing. If fans of the internal combustion engine have oil in their veins, I guess fans of full-electric cars must have electrons coursing through their body. One of the great benefits to the Model S's architecture and floor-mounted electric powertrain is class-leading passenger and cargo space. Like the Porsche 914, the Model S features a 28.7 cubic foot trunk at the rear and another 8.1 cubic feet at the front. The unique design of the vehicle structure also makes it easy to introduce future models. The upcoming SUV will use identical mechanicals and only require a new body - which Tesla produces in-house in their aluminum-intensive factory in Freemont, California. Tesla sells cars directly to customers online and through its global retail network of 20 stores. The stores also serve as hubs for Tesla’s mobile service technicians, the Tesla Rangers, who make house calls to owners homes and offices no matter where they are located.

Concept : Toyota NS4 Advanced Plug-in Hybrid

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Toyota says: The “NS4 demonstrates Toyota’s take on the human connection to the car with technology that considers both emotional and rational relationships, person-to-car and car-to-society.” Jim Lentz, Toyota Motor Sales USA president and chief operating officer

Spec Sheet: another concept without any real details about the specifications. The NS4 is a Camry sized vehicle and since it was driven on the stage while I was in attendance I can assure you it operates in full electric mode at low speeds.

The NS4 is not just an environmentally friendly concept, it was also designed to push the envelope in human and machine interaction. The concept’s Human-Machine Interface (HMI) provides a user interface built around a multi-touch screen with the look and feel of a smartphone. The HMI system is even capable of “learning” driver preferences and habits to anticipate driver responses in specific environments and situations. This concept represents a truly connected vehicle, offering the latest technology in a responsible and convenient package. The concept also includes the latest safety technology like the next generation Pre-Collision System (PCS) with lane departure, rear-end and pedestrian collision avoidance technologies designed to predict collisions under certain circumstances and help avoid them.

Concept : VIA VTRUX

VIA says: "The fuel economy of a Prius™ with the payload of a pickup"

Spec Sheet: The VTRUX replaces the standard General Motors V8 engine with eREV which includes a smaller V6 combustion engine, an 150kW electric generator and a 300kW electric motor. The 24 kWh liquid cooled Li-ion battery pack gives a 40 mile range, after which the dual mode generator kicks in and powers both the drive motor and recharges the battery.

The packaging of a body-on-frame vehicle like a pick-up truck offers numerous advantages for battery placement such as safety (between the bed rails) and improved handling (under the body structure). The strong electric drive motor also allows a substantial 1500 pound towing capacity. But perhaps the most interesting and novel feature on the VTRUX is that VIA has designed the onboard generator to also provide exportable power. Now when a service truck has to go on-site to work, it no longer has to bring along a separate generator.

We had a chance to talk to both Board Member Bob Lutz and Chief Engineer Nick Zielinski about this unique offering. Lutz indicated he joined the board because he believed in the technology and the people behind the startup (Side note: Many of the key brains behind the eREV powertain came from the Chevrolet Volt program) and the technology makes much more sense in a large vehicle like a pick-up or SUV than in a smaller one like the Volt. Lutz commented "The Volt is about the same size as a Cruze which already gets 40mph so the improvement is minimal. But the fuel savings on something that only gets 15mpg is much larger". After talking with Zielinski I realized that this truck offers a benefit to consumers as well as commercial customers. Since I live in an area of Michigan that is prone to power outages due to inclement weather, storms and heavy snow or ice fall, having a vehicle like this would allow me to run my whole house off my personal vehicle...powerful!

Concept : Volkswagen E-Bugster

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VW says: "an electrified Beetle!"

Spec Sheet: This two-seat speedster was conceptualized as a zero emissions vehicle and is powered by an 85 kW E-motor whose central electric module only weighs 80 kg. It can sprint from 0-60 mph in 10.9 seconds and has a range of 180km in the urban world thanks to its 28.3 kWh battery pack.

The name E-Bugster comes from a combination of ‘E’ for electric, ‘Bug’ for the American nickname of the Beetle, and ‘speedster’ for an open-top two-seater. Volkswagen decided to put this concept together to demonstrate that sportiness is still possible with an environmentally friendly drive train. With a body height that is 90mm less than the production Beetle, the E-Bugster is also about 30mm wider due to the larger 20" wheels. The concept includes a new fascia that incorporates the C-shaped LED Daytime Running Lights that have become the signet of Volkswagen electric vehicle studies since the e-up! in Frankfurt. The innovative drive train incorporated in the E-Bugster includes regenerative braking and will be placed in production in the 2013 Golf. The concept also includes the application of a new Combined Charging Systems which was developed in cooperation with German carmakers Audi, BMW, Daimler, Porsche as well as American partners Ford and General Motors/Opel. This system allows the E-Bugster to be ‘filled up’ via a different charging methods like single-phase AC (typical household electricity) or dedicated ultra-fast DC charging stations.

Also read...Volkswagen E-Bugster Unveiled

Production: Volvo XC60 Plug-In Hybrid

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Volvo says: " an electric car, a highly economical hybrid and a powerful high-performance car all rolled into one"

Spec Sheet: Turbocharged 2.0L 4 cylinder engine from the VEA engine family with 208 kW, a 34 kW integrated starter/generator and a 12 kWh lithium-ion battery pack located under the load floor.

The XC60 Plug-in Hybrid was presented to the press as three cars in one as the driver can choose one of three different driving modes via the buttons on the instrument panel. In Pure mode the car drives in full electric mode with a range of about 35 miles. In Power mode the gasoline engine and electric motor are combined to provide maximum performance. And finally, in Hybrid mode the gasoline engine and electric motor "cooperate to provide maximum driving pleasure with minimum environmental impact". The three modes give a driver the possibility of using Hybrid mode when leaving their home in the country, switching to Power mode for the twisty bits and finally switching to Pure mode when entering the city to minimize the environmental impact.

This Plug-in Hybrid provides stunning performance, 0-60 mph in 5.8 seconds, 50 mpg estimated on the US EPA loop and a total range of 600 miles. Volvo has made a conscious decision not to design a specific appearance for their hybrid vehicles. The technology has been designed to be used in all their vehicles and the inclusion of the system should not alter the design. Volvo has, however, made small design changes to improve the aerodynamics of the car such as developing the special 21 inch wheels on this model to lessen drag. Volvo also makes changes to the colour and materials used to invoke the feeling that this car is different. In this case the XC60 was painted in a stunning semi-matte white paint. The interior also features unique detailing and colors, such as sober dark-blue leather upholstery and inlays of blue-grey wood.

Frank Schwartz is the main voice behind the thesupplierblog, the spiritual successor to the chromtecblog. A long time automotive enthusiast, Frank has spent years working hand in hand with the automotive industry on products as varied as cruise controls, fuel injection systems, exterior lighting, trim components and wheels. Thesupplierblog is intended to be a real-world resource for automotive manufacturers and dealers where open discussion of industry issues is encouraged

For an A-Z of car releases at the NAIAS 2012 please see Frank's website!