NAIAS Detroit Show Preview: A Grand 2012 Launching Pad for Auto Brands


The U.S. economic climes are growing about as balmy as the unseasonably warm weather expected next week when global automotive media and industry executives descend on the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. And car brands from Acura to Volvo are poised more than they have been in a few years to try to take advantage of the platform to launch new models, brag about technological innovations, tease with concept vehicles and spin their stories to several thousand curious journalists, bloggers, TV producers and hangers-on.

Overall, NAIAS will feel more like the golden days of yore than a Detroit show has in years. For example, Nissan is making a return to the exhibit after a couple years’ absence during the Great Recession. Fuel economy and electrification will continue to be strong themes as they have been for the past few years, but with a slow but steady multi-year recovery in the U.S. market underway, auto brands will be emphasizing “happier” themes such as exterior-design departures and interior connectivity technologies.

Audi plans to use the show to unwrap a concept “Vail” version of its compact Q3 just for the U.S. market, where the company plans to introduce several more models in the years ahead as it tries to supplant BMW as the world’s largest luxury-car maker by 2015. Audi sells only about half as many vehicles in the American market as BMW and Mercedes-Benz at this point, but the Volkswagen-owned brand has been growing by leaps and bounds in teh U.S. already. Audi executives have said they’re also looking at the idea of making SUVs in the United States as its two German rivals do already.[more]

Cadillac will take the covers off its new small sedan, the ATS, on Sunday evening, hoping that the all-new vehicle will steal some momentum from its rivals in the increasingly important entry-level upscale market. Caddy has struggled for decades to field a compact nameplate that truly intrigues American buyers enough to deviate from imports, but executives believe that the ATS’s combination of styling, technology and prices that begin at less than $36,000 finally will position Cadillac to compete with the likes of the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4.

Ford has been relatively quiet on the product front over the last several months, directing most attention to a new Escape SUV. But at NAIAS, Ford will be making a lot of noise about its new 2013 Ford Fusion, a product that represents the company’s bid to shake up the family-sedan market in the same way that its smaller Ford Focus and Ford Fiesta — with Sync and other great content such as self-parking — have advanced that segment. For one thing, Fusion’s styling will be more visually differentiated from its predecessor than most consumers will expect.

Honda, badly in need of some new-product zing since its new Honda Civic was only quietly received last spring, plans to unveil an Accord Coupe at the show. This is more important than other concept vehicles might be because of the extremely crucial role played by the Accord in the somewhat limited Honda lineup and because of the fact that Honda’s production models usually end up pretty well mirroring its concept cars.

Lexus will highlight its 2013 GS sedan, a key model for the luxury brand that was so plagued by supply shortages last year. The car will go on sale this year. Lexus also will be boasting about the 2013 version of its LX full-size sport-utility vehicle that is due out later this year.

Lincoln has been getting by on fumes for the last year or so in terms of new products, and the unveiling of a new version of its MKS SUV at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November did little to change that. The Ford luxury division has been promising that seven new or significantly modified vehicles will be arriving by 2014. And it will feature an MKZ mid-sized sedan concept that will show off Lincoln’s new direction at the Detroit show. But mainly Lincoln will be trying to generate interest with its display — double the size of last year’s space and arranged like an art gallery, rather than a typical auto-show display, adorned with works by Detroit artists.

Mercedes-Benz plans to live-stream on Facebook the debut of its 2013 SL-Class roadster from the Detroit show. This completely overhauled new generation of SL is sporty and lighter-weight than its predecessors because its body is constructed almost entirely of aluminum, good for a significant 275-pound reduction in the SL trim level that will first be introduced to the U.S.

Nissan will be highlighting the seven-seater Pathfinder concept (at top) along with innovations around safety and green technology, its ambitious plans to branch out from the Leaf, and the expansion of its Infiniti premium brand.

Scion plans to feature its 2013 FR-S compact rear-wheel-drive sports car in its North American auto-show debut at NAIAS; it will go on sale in the U.S. in the spring for the Toyota-owned youth brand.

Toyota will unveil its NS4 advanced plug-in hybrid concept vehicle (get a glimpse below) as well as make the North American debut of the Prius c hybrid, the fourth member of the Prius “family” of vehicles.