Last year was a good one for global carmakers.
In the week before the North American International Auto Show that will start in Detroit Jan. 9, Audi, McLaren, Mercedes, Jaguar and Land Rover, among others, announced record-breaking sales numbers for December and predicted new highs for 2017. Some, like Ford, held steady in certain segments; the company’s F-Series finished its 35th straight year as the best-selling vehicle in the U.S.
American car sales are on pace to hit 17.3 million units for last year, a figure that is still being tallied but could reach 17.5 million, according to a December report by IHS Markit. And analysts say car sales in 2018-19 are likely to rise even more, thanks to anticipated tax cuts and national infrastructure policies in 2017.
While luxury automakers might be smiling during the Detroit show, only a handful will be there. Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Bentley have special new products to show the thousands of journalists who will congregate there, but Porsche, Jaguar, Land Rover, Tesla, Acura and Michigan-based Lincoln will skip it.
The word from many of them is that they’re saving new launches for the glitzier New York, Geneva and Los Angeles shows later in the year. The industry has shifted announcements about electric engineering and tech wizardry to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
“We are prioritizing our resources,” is the main refrain.
So expect to see bread-and-butter products such as Toyota’s Camry, the Lexus LS sedan and the Chevy Traverse take center stage next week in Detroit. On the luxury side, Audi will debut a brand-new SUV concept, while BMW Group and Mercedes-Benz each will unveil the next-generation models of foundational sedans — plus one or two electric-powered (at least partially) vehicles. Detroit-based Chevrolet will not bring the much-anticipated Corvette ZR1 sports car, though fans can expect to see it revealed soon enough, in the spring.
Here is a closer analysis of debuts to watch for. The show runs Jan. 8-22 at Detroit’s Cobo Center.
Along with the expected U.S. debuts of the A5 and S5 Cabriolet, among others in the Audi 2018 line, here’s a brand-new model from Audi that — apart from the flat roofline — just looks like a bigger version of the SUVs the brand already makes. There are a few other subtle differences: The sides are wider and squarer than the current production Q5 and Q7 models; the stance is positioned more forward than they are, too — closer to what the Audi Ur-Quattro looked like in the 1980s. We know few details about how fast or how expensive this latest big rig will be, but expect it to exceed the Q7 on both counts. A production model is expected later this year.
Kia does almost everything well. Why not a sporty, grand touring sedan? The company showed a concept along those lines in 2011. Unfortunately, it decided to first greenlight the K900, a massive cruise-liner of a luxury car that pretty much pleased only LeBron James, its pitchman. In truth, sporty fits the brand better than swanky. The production-model GT we’ll see in Detroit will lack some of the novel touches of the concept; gone are the suicide doors, for example. But Kia still employs one of the best designers in the business (Audi alumnus Peter Schreyer), so expect a stunner.
Bentley secret debut
Bentley is the only hyper-luxury automaker attending the Detroit show in any fashion, though it technically won’t be there. The British brand will instead host the debut of a mystery vehicle in a prominent downtown street on Sunday — at 10 in the morning, in Detroit, in January. Time to bundle up like the Michelin man, himself.
BMW 5-Series world debut
BMW will show off its best-selling 5-Series line in Detroit, which will include world debuts of the standard-issue 540i sedan, the performance-tuned M550 sedan, and the 530e iPerformance hybrid sedan, which completes BMW’s full line of plug-in electric hybrid vehicles. The new line will become available starting in February.
Each of the new variants has subtle engine and fuel-efficiency tweaks and comes with refined design details (this is a long standing pillar of BMW, after all) and new tech features, including remote control parking and advanced driver assistance systems, which is a semi-autonomous driving program. There’s a reason the series has sold more than 1 million units since it debuted in 1975: It’s very good.
BMW X2 Concept
Along with the sedan, BMW will reveal yet another take on the all-consuming crossover and light SUV segment: the X2 Concept. The company describes it as “displaying a distinctive design that stands apart from other BMW X models while maintaining the tradition of BMW Group’s coupe-making.” Basically, it looks like a shrunken version of the X3 crossover. The X2 is closer to the ground than the X3, more like a coupe, and it has oversized wheels with a long wheelbase and very forward-slanted stance. It’s all meant to make the car look sporty. BMW has not released any specifics yet about engine variants or performance numbers for this concept.
The Toyota Camry today is like Muhammad Ali was in the late 1970s; it’s still the champion, but the power is fading fast. Last year, Americans bought a Camry every 82 seconds, faster than any other vehicle save a few pickups. But bigger, boxier rivals are closing the gap quickly. The Camry will likely get lapped in 2017 by its sibling, the Rav4, and by Honda’s CRV. For its newest iteration, expect Toyota to dial up the sportiness, both in performance and looks. After all, driving dynamics are the one remaining antidote to SUV fever.
In Detroit, for a second time in just a few months, Cadillac will trot out its Escala, the handsome, four-door sedan that it says signals “the direction we are thinking about for technologies, automation, connectivity, interior design [and] craftsmanship.”
As previously reported, the car comes with 22-inch rims and “monkey-spoke” wheels, an aluminum grille, LED tail lights, and a clean body line that runs from the front to the rear. If it ever comes to fruition, it could be run on a twin-turbo, eight-cylinder engine, according to Cadillac President Johan De Nysschen.
Cadillac CT6 plug-in
Cadillac has slated its new sedan hybrid plug-in for sale starting this spring. It’ll debut in Detroit with a fuel economy estimated to be the equivalent of 65 miles per gallon. It will be able to drive 30 miles in pure-electric mode (at a top speed of only 78 miles per hour), or 400 miles using the battery and conventional gasoline engine paired together. Cadillac says the car will have a 2.0-liter, turbocharged, four-cylinder gas engine and total system power of 335hp and 432 pound-feet of torque. It will go from zero to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds. Prices will start at $75,095.
Mercedes E Class
Mercedes is adding subtle upgrades to the perennially popular mid-size sedan it’ll show in Detroit this year. The slightly longer, leaner E-Class will offer new 12.3-inch LCD screens, sleeker headlights, and new bumper options on the exterior. It’ll also have touchpad control buttons on the steering wheel and is reported to offer three different suspension options on its nine-speed transmission. Expect it to hit stores in early spring.
Lexus LS Sedan
This is the flagship sedan Lexus launched when it emerged as a brand in 1989, so you can imagine Lexus has spent plenty of time and resources perfecting it. The fifth-generation version that will debut in Detroit will have a premium rear-wheel drive and “a more dynamic experience” on the road than its predecessors offered, according to Lexus press representatives. This is all good to hear, since the current fourth-gen version has been on sale since 2007 and suffers from performance anxiety. Lexus has been reticent to unveil more information, and it’ll have its UX Concept crossover on the showroom floor for reference, but the most optimistic viewers can look at the LF-FC Concept sedan the company showed in Tokyo last year. With a little luck, the new LS will take design notes from that.
Infiniti QX50 Concept
Infiniti says this concept will be relatively close to the real thing it is likely to launch later in the year. The look of the new SUV is sleeker and more streamlined than its predecessors; it’ll have a new “pro pilot” technology (also used in Nissans) that enables the car to navigate slow traffic, cruise on the highway and monitor other cars automatically and without driver input.
The minivan game has turned into small ball. Buyers have grown scarce since three-row SUVs arrived en masse, but there’s also a dearth of competition, so an earnest, efficient player can make a real difference. Last year, Chrysler rolled out its all-new Pacifica, a tremendous piece of engineering with enough screens and technology to carry a sci-fi movie (albeit a boring one). Honda’s Odyssey is already capable enough, so expect the company to dial up the “content” in the coming model, with more screens, seats and active-safety features. In short, if it doesn’t have an even better vacuum, buyers may think it sucks.
Volkswagen Tiguan Allspace
The Tiguan has arguably been the brightest spot of Volkswagen’s business of late. While virtually every other VW got broadsided by the company’s diesel cheating, this midsized utility just kept buzzing along. U.S. buyers snapped up 22 percent more of them in 2016, thanks, in part, to a price cut. An update, however, is long overdue. VW showed its new Tiguan at the Frankfurt show in late 2015. Dialing up the design language of the Atlas, its larger, all-new utility, the model finally looked like something that would stand out in 2005. In Detroit, Volkswagen will roll out a larger version of the Tiguan with an additional third row of seats. A compact SUV that seats seven or eight: That’s the kind of product packaging magic that could let VW push prices back up again, Dieselgate be damned.
In its lineup of six SUVs, Chevrolet’s Traverse sits squarely in the middle: not quite as in demand as the smaller stuff, but likely to be more profitable. In years past, GM could have made these utilities out of cardboard and still sold 100,000 of them. But competition is tightening in the market for Wi-Fi-dense SUVs with three rows of seats. To keep up, the new Traverse will have to feature drastically freshened styling. A little more space wouldn’t hurt, either.