Detroit Auto Show 2010

If you were asked to name any auto shows renowned for their environmental design and product unveils, Detroit wouldn’t even appear on the radar judging by recent years’ events. Trucks and muscle cars have been its mainstay for so long that anything smaller or greener barely got a look in.  But walking round the 2010 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) – an event that some industry watchers weren’t even sure would take place given the collapse of Detroit big guns GM and Chrysler in the middle of 2009 – felt like an exhibition in transformation.  Sure there were still big cars – from specials editions of the Ford Mustang and Dodge Viper muscle cars to large luxury and performance saloons like the Cadillac XTS and Buick Regal GS – but Detroit also saw a greater green and small car focus in 2010.


The US launch of the European-spec compact and frugal Ford Focus hatch and saloon was arguably the biggest news of the show and the debut of a 37,000 sq ft ‘Electric Avenue’ exhibit in the main show space featuring almost 20 electric vehicles including the production-ready Mitsubishi iMiEV and Nissan Leaf EVs was another pointer. Electric prototypes of the Fiat 500 and Volvo C30 on their respective stands plus in the Michigan Hall the return of the EcoXperience arena dedicated to electric drive opportunities reinforced the eco theme. The times they are a-changin’.

Read on for Green Car Design Report from Detroit to see how much and how quickly…

Toyota FT-CH Concept

Toyota says: The FT-CH meets Toyota’s strategy to offer a wider variety of full hybrid choices to its customers, in addition to the introduction of plug-in hybrids and battery electrics.

Spec sheet: Compact Hybrid concept (thus the ‘CH’ bit of its name) designed to imagine a sub-Prius-sized Toyota petrol/electric car.

At some 560mm shorter than a Prius, the FT-CH concept is Toyota’s take on a smaller and more affordable hybrid car. The likeable design was penned in Europe at Toyota’s ED2 studio in Nice, France by Ken Billes (exterior) and Ben Urwin (interior) and says Billes, “follows all the aerodynamic rules”. Billes also believes the small bonnet with very slim lights could make a good signature for Toyota’s soon to be expanding hybrid range (the firm wants to launch eight all-new hybrids in the next few years in the US alone).

Inside are also examples of green thinking. Urwin says the interior design was “based around reducing components” and cites the three-piece dashboard, the interior door panel made of less than six parts and the seatback and squab frames made of the exact same pressing as pertinent examples. The shape and function of the dashboard is also relevant, with air vents built into the heavily scored surface graphically reinforcing the sense of (and actual) airflow through the cabin from the low front exterior air splitter. Although officially billed as a design study for now, expect something similar to the spirit of this vehicle to make production within the next three years, to paraphrase Billes,“Toyota doesn’t make concept cars without reason.”

Audi E-tron Concept

Audi says: Concept showcases advanced technology of the original E-tron in a more compact yet no less appealing package.

Spec sheet: Lightweight (1350kg) aluminium and carbon fibre-reinforced plastic body powered by two electric motors and a lithium-ion battery pack.

Giving any two concepts the same name will always cause confusion, especially when they’re similar-looking, made by the same company and launched within months of each other. Audi’s second E-tron concept is such an offender – launched in Detroit in January 2010 not four months after its namesake predecessor at September 2009’s Frankfurt show – but despite this blip in Audi’s otherwise super-slick marketing the second car is also exciting from a green design viewpoint. At 3930mm, it is 290mm shorter than the original E-tron, 110mm narrower and 10mm lower, making it a potential future ‘R4-sized’ production car compared to the original’s more R8-like proportions. The exterior design is arguably more coherent than the already very clean original E-tron with uninterrupted flowing lines and some construction techniques that could only be made due to the lightweight materials used. For instance, as project leader Steve Lewis points out, the large all-in-one nature of the carbon fibre-reinforced plastic bonnet and fender panel would be very hard to make out of steel and could lead to new more efficient production techniques – while pleasantly reducing the number of shut lines on the concept. Inside the second E-tron is similar to the first one – all stretched leather and satin metal – and showcases eco-focused slim seats featuring aluminium-frames and carbon fibre seat panels but with more exposed carbon fibre, especially in the interior door panel area. Again, it’s a thoroughly taut and muscular piece of sculpture, and according to interior designer Florian Flatau, consciously avoids the cutesy soft look of many recent eco car designs.

VW New Compact Coupe

VW says: A concept that delivers the seemingly contradictory mix of a petrol-engined, practical, performance-oriented coupe with extraordinary economy and sub-100 g/km CO2 emissions.

Spec sheet: Petrol/electric hybrid coupe with a 150bhp 1.4-litre TSI engine mated to a 27bhp electric motor.

The importance of the New Compact Coupe (NCC) concept is to show how VW will transform its current Jetta – a somewhat dull and amorphous-looking fish with ill-defined soft and gently curved flanks – into a more angular and decisive saloon in keeping with VW Group design boss Walter de Silva’s new direction. The sixth-generation Jetta will get the NCC’s slim grille already seen on the 2009 Polo and to a lesser extent the 2008 Golf – but will not be ‘closed’ – unless on super-eco Bluemotion models for greater aerodynamic benefits. It will also sport a pronounced side shoulder line and similar rear lights and should appear lower, wider and more solid on the road – without appearing aggressive. Based on the Eos platform, the new Jetta – due on sale in the US late 2010 and in Europe early 2011 – should also share the NCC concept’s 2650mm wheelbase but will likely be a little longer, higher and narrower. Although shown in concept as a three-door car with a strict four-seat cabin divided by a high central spine, the next Jetta range will begin life with only a four-door, five-seat version. A coupe more akin to this concept could still follow though. The production-ready interior will be familiar to current Golf drivers but, bedecked in bright white, the ribbed leather seats and lightly reflective horizontal-line dashboard detailing convey a sense of purity appropriate with this concept’s eco leanings.

GMC Granite Concept

GMC says: Takes the brand’s trademark capability in a new, more progressive direction. If brought to market, the Granite would be the smallest GMC ever.

Spec sheet: 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine powers a flexible four-seater MPV/SUV crossover that is just over four metres long.

Although conventionally powered, the Granite’s small displacement engine and compact package represent a real environmental departure for the US brand normally more associated with big bore blocks and large trucks. As Frank Saucedo, GM’s California-based director of design, put it: “It’s more about size and mass rather than any specific change in materials. The goal behind this concept was to do a compact box but in a premium way to a younger professional market. They don’t haul wood or boats and don’t need a van or an SUV. They’re looking for something a little different.” Neat touches inside include seats that as well as folding back and forth also fold along the car’s symmetry line into the middle of the car – to allow, for instance, a bike to be placed alongside the driver. The design’s details are not overtly ‘green’ but its size and concept – showing that ‘premium’ and ‘small’ do not have to be strange bedfellows – makes this concept eco-focused for the US market.

BMW E-Active Concept

BMW says: Yet another milestone along the way to achieving CO2-free mobility providing a taste of a purely electrically-powered BMW based on the 1-series Coupe.

Spec sheet: 170bhp electric motor powered by a lithium-ion battery able to achieve 60mph in nine seconds and 100 miles on one charge.

Don’t expect any Vision Efficient Dynamics-type concept design grandeur with the Concept Active E. Rather It’s a full-electric car based on a 1-series Coupe and packaged to ensure room for four passengers, as opposed to BMW Group’s first EV prototype, the Mini E which lost its rear seats to a massive battery pack. There are specific green design details beyond BMW’s design packaging breakthrough though. Beyond the clichéd exterior graphics featuring circuit boards to ram home the car’s electric powertrain the concept features specifically lighter alloy wheels, bespoke items in the instrument panel pertinent to EV-driving and perhaps most visually interesting, various smart blue-lit elements including the roof fin and charging point.

Honda CR-Z Concept

Honda says: Sporty hybrid coupe promises exciting driving dynamics.

Spec sheet: 1.5-litre petrol engine with electric motor combines to offer 124bhp plus 56.4mpg and 117g/km of CO2.

The 2007 Honda CR-Z concept unveiled at the Tokyo auto show looked a thoroughly exciting design and prospect, since it was soon announced the car would go into production. Forward-wind to 2010 and the US-spec production car was revealed in Detroit but in the intervening years some of the original concept’s eco swagger seems to have been lost. Yes, there’s still that bold grille-dominated front face but the front headlights have lost their dynamic LED graphics and blue-tinged glow. Yes, the profile is still broadly the same wedgy shape as before (and 295mm shorter than the five-seat Insight) but gone is the original concept’s floor-to-ceiling black glass back end with twin centre exhausts, replaced instead by a more mundane twin-window hatch similar to those found on other green-aiming Hondas like the FCX Clarity and European Civic. For the US market the car’s interior package has been reduced to two seats plus a weird small fold-down section and compartment where the ‘plus-two’ rear seats of the European and Japanese versions would have been. I.e. the US version interior hasn’t been separately re-packaged and makes Honda’s bold design maxim of ‘machine minimum, man maximum’ ring a little hollow. Inside there are very few other design cues that signal a green car except for the driver dials and information graphics. Let’s hope it drives superbly well to make good on Honda’s promise of producing the world’s first dynamic hybrid car, otherwise it will end up as merely a less practical Insight costing more money and for less eco benefit.