In recent years, automakers at the North American International Auto Show have used Detroit as a place to lament the sorry state of the U.S. economy and profess dour outlooks for the upcoming year. Now, it’s the place they express their optimism.
After potential carbuyers hunkered down during the throes of the recession, luxury car producers are counting on 2012 to be the year indulgence makes a comeback.
Optimism is rooted in a strong finish to the previous year. Among the notables: Rolls-Royce posted its best sales year ever. In December, Bentley posted its second-highest sales month in its 92-year history. Mercedes-Benz enjoyed a strong finish to the calendar year, boosting its year-over-year sales in December by 27.1 percent and finishing 2011 up 16.0 percent overall.
And BMW, which narrowly eclipsed Mercedes-Benz to claim best-selling luxury brand honors, ended 2011 more than 13 percent ahead of the previous year’s pace, as both German brands knocked Lexus from the #1 spot.
“This year, there really seems to be a lot more buzz, a lot more new product and a lot more good, new product,” said David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports’ Auto Test Center. “People are looking forward to better sales figures for next year, but it’s a very, very crowded marketplace.”
With that in mind, here’s a glance at a few of the latest luxury offerings that captured some attention in Detroit this week.
It was the 3-Series that keyed BMW’s ascension to the top of the luxury-brand sellers, unseating long-time champ Lexus. And it will be the 3-Series that decides if BMW holds that spot. The vehicle accounts for more than 50 percent of the automaker’s U.S. sales, and the sixth iteration of the venerable leader arrives next month.
The 328i holds a 240-horsepower, 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine, which comes with either a six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic transmission. It’s roomier on the inside and remains comparatively light compared to the 5 and 7 series. “The 3 series is so important to BMW, and this looks like it’s going to carry on,” said David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports’ Auto Test Center.
General Motors’ biggest splash in its hometown takes direct aim at the BMW 3 series. The Cadillac ATS was unveiled Monday, and while it would be tempting to call it a smaller version of the previous CTS, GM North America president Mark Reuss says it’s a redesigned chassis, weighing less than its class counterparts, that distinguishes the latest model. It includes Cadillac’s first five-link independent rear suspension.
Chris Berube, lead development engineer, says the ATS builds on the legacy of the CTS. That might be a concern, says David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports’ Auto Test Center. “It’s quite an interesting car, but it took GM eight years to get the CTS reliable,” he said. “I just worry about the reliability of that car coming out.”
Fresh off the company’s second-best sales month in its nine-decade history, Bentley unveiled two new models in Detroit that contain a V8 engine developed in collaboration with Audi. The engine boasts a 500-bhp, and transitions from V8 to V4 mode under light-throttle load.
Bentley sees room in its fleet for both the GT and the W12, which it will continue to develop, and believes separate markets exist for both cars. Although no price point has been set, company executives say the GT will be priced slightly below the W12.
They say the newest models will emit 40 percent less CO2 than previous ones. And while Bentley enthusiasts aren’t often the first to conjure images of the fuel conscious, Consumer Reports Auto Test Center Senior Director David Champion says that the environmental push is trickling upward even to the likes of Bentley.
“Even though they want their luxury automobile, customers are a little more concerned about being seen as green,” he said.
Among the 40 or so products that debuted in Detroit this week, the larger SUVs that dominated the landscape in recent years were largely absent. The Q3 Vail concept was one of few exceptions.
The turbo-charged engine features 2.5 liters and 5 cylinders that produce 314-hp. If produced, the compact SUV could gain traction in the popular market segment, as well as bolster Audi’s chances of gaining ground on BMW and Mercedes-Benz in the U.S.
One of the highlights of the NAIAS was the Acura NSX concept that perhaps best combined the two major trends seen throughout the show: increased emphasis on style and fuel efficiency. The concept, which uses a hybrid system, would likely be built in Ohio, a significant departure from preceding models’ Japanese roots. Regardless of where it’s manufactured, many are happy to see the model return at all following a seven-year hiatus.
A V6 engine in a sports car is perhaps an anomaly, but the NSX makes its case for instead focusing on a favorable power-to-weight ratio. "Like the first NSX, we will again express high performance through engineering efficiency," said Honda CEO Takanobu Ito. "Even as we focus on the fun-to-drive spirit of the NSX, I think a super-car must respond positively to environmental responsibilities."
Lincoln enthusiasts spent the entire Detroit Auto Show raving over the future of the new MKZ concept because, well, there’s not a lot to talk about in the present. Lincoln ranks last in luxury-car sales, and the concept could very well be its reinvention or last gasp.
Concerns have lingered that recent models have been nothing more than a dressed-up Ford Fusion, so Lincoln engineers stressed that the MKZ differentiates itself under the hood as well in an exterior style that provides some oompf.
“We are not introducing a new car,” said Derrick Kuzak, Ford’s group vice president for global product development. “We are essentially introducing a new brand.”
The sedan will have multiple powertrain options in front-wheel drive and all-wheel configurations, but engine specifications are still under development.
Throughout a busy few days in Detroit, Mercedes-Benz executives were eager to tell the assembled crowds that their new SL stands for “super” and “light.” And the sixth generation SL is about 275 pounds lighter than its previous iteration, a plunge achieved through more lightweight aluminum construction and downsized engine.
The SL550’s V8 delivers 429 hp that’s routed through a seven-speed auto to its rear wheels. A 12 percent bump in horsepower gives the latest version a 0-to-60 speed of 4.5 seconds, significantly faster than the 5.2 seconds achieved in the previous model. Like its rival BMW, the SL’s width grows in this model, in this case by 2.24 inches. Headlights flushed to the side accentuate that growth.
Mercedes finished 2011 with a 27.1 increase in monthly year-over-year sales, and when it arrives in showrooms, the SL should certainly keep the automaker in its neck-and-neck race with BMW to claim the title of top luxury seller in 2012.
Lexus, of course, held the title as America’s top-selling luxury brand for 11 consecutive years before Toyota’s mechanical difficulties and Japan’s catastrophes dropped sales by 13 percent last year and allowed BMW and Mercedes-Benz to surpass it.
Sales dipped below 200,000, but with nine new models due in showrooms this year, Lexus general manager Mark Templin says the carmaker should sell at least 240,000 units. “We’re back in the game,” he told reporters at the Detroit auto show.
And how might Lexus write its comeback story beyond 2012? In addition to its flagship GS, the automaker revealed its LF-LC concept in Detroit. It’s sleek and sexy, in the same vein as a potential competitor, the Acura NSX, which also debuted this week.
It was designed in Newport Beach, Calif., and touts hybrid power along with what the carmaker calls “cutting edge driving dynamics.”
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