Detroit auto show: Think small

Think small. Think fuel efficient. That is the theme at this year’s Detroit auto show, also known by the official name North American International Auto Show. This year’s expo does not have the kind of heart-pounding displays of horsepower and luxury of past years. But there are some very significant models that tell us where higher fuel prices and tougher emissions regulations are pushing the cars of tomorrow.
Judging by the new models and concepts on display, carmakers are trying to make the case that you can have a hot car and a bit of fun driving it but without having a panic attack at the pump. There are compact Buicks and a subcompact from Chevrolet. Ford has a small people mover. Honda has the new Civic and both Mini and Hyundai are trying to give us more fun in a small package. Here are seven cars worth checking out.

Honda_Civic.jpgMost significant: Honda showed off a new concept car that is, more or less, going to be the new 2012 Civic when it goes on sale this spring. You can tell by the aggressive curves in the car that Honda is trying to get its mojo back. Honda’s market share fell to 10.6% in 2010 from 11% the year before. The Civic is a perennial winner for the company and vital to its success. Styling has never been the Civic’s calling card. This one takes a bold step with a fast backward-sloping roofline and some curves in the side panels that reminded me a bit of a Hyundai Tiburon. More important for Hondaphiles, the car has the company’s vaunted i-VTEC engine and a hybrid option will be available. We’ll see if its bold new look will get any love from outside Honda’s loyal followers.

buick_verano.jpgBiggest turnabout: You’ve heard the cliché “as big as a Buick.” It comes from a description of a spider in Woody Allen’s film “annie Hall.” I doubt anyone will say “as small as a Buick” when the compact Verano goes on sale late this year, but the 2012 Verano compact tells us where carmakers think the market is headed. General Motors figures fuel will only get more expensive and that luxury buyers will want creature comforts without shelling out a fortune for gasoline. The car’s 177-horsepower engine will get 31 miles per gallon on the highway with the 2.4-liter engine. A 2-liter turbo model comes later. The Verano will be an interesting test. Can Buick, which grew 52% last year, sell small cars to younger luxury buyers? On the surface it’s a tough sell. But who would have thought a year ago that the Lacrosse sedan would be one of the hottest cars on the market?

mini_paceman.jpgPick of the show: The Mini Paceman is my pick for the best design at the show. It’s Mini’s future crossover SUV and it probably it is dead one for the brand. It’s stylish, sporty, has a bit more space than a Mini Cooper but can go off-road. Stylistically, the two-door Paceman is an athletic version of the Countryman, Mini’s existing crossover suv. The two-door Paceman doesn’t look as upright as its more practical forebear. In the rear, it has haunches like it’s going to pounce. The concept had Mini’s 1.6-liter turbo engine used in the John Cooper Works performance cars and the ALL4 all-wheel drive system. That’s a strong hint that the Paceman will offer both as options. That will make it an off-roader with tire-burning potential. One bonus: They will probably ditch the Paceman name. Mini USA President Jim McDowell said in an interview that, onfortunately, consumers associate it with ’80s video-game sensation Pac Man.

toyota_prius.jpgThe comeback kid: Beating up on Toyota is a favorite pastime these days, what with their quality woes, lost market share and fallen image. I’ll give the company some accolades. The Prius c concept takes a hybrid franchise known for its egg-shaped fuel sippers and takes it out on the edge. The car leans forward like it’s in motion. The headlights are pushed up the hood and closer to the windshield as if the car is barreling down the highway. The car has shoulders, which makes it look more muscular. This car will come to market in the first half of 2012. One word of caution: There is no telling how much of the concept car’s edgy design will make it to the showroom.

FordCmax_12.jpgFord gets in the game: Nissan and GM have a jump on Ford in the green-car game. Next year, Ford will make a big statement with the C-Max Energi, a five-passenger plug-in hybrid small SUV that the automaker says will get better fuel economy that the Chevy Volt. Untested fuel economy ratings are always suspect; the Volt gets 37 mpg if it runs the gas tank dry. GM may even upgrade the Volt before the C-Max Energi goes to market. But it still looks like a good package. It’s more spacious that the other EVs and hybrids on the market and can go 500 miles using a full battery charge and tank of gas.

hyundai_veloster.jpgHyundai makes a bold statement: The Hyundai Veloster will go on sale in 2012 as a boldly-styled three-door coupe that promises to be a fun ride that gets 40 mpg on the highway. It doesn’t need a hybrid-electric system to do it, either. It mates a dual-clutch transmission with a direct-injection 1.6-liter engine to maximize fuel economy. The interior is inspired by sporty motorcycles. This could be a hit with younger buyers given the curvy styling and fuel economy. Hyundai has moved well beyond selling just on price.

vw_passat.jpgBiggest snoozer: And last, the new Volkswagen Passat is the German carmaker’s attempt to offer more value and become a big-volume seller in the U.S. market. The company only has 2.2% of the market, so it is dropping the price of the Passat by some $7,000 to get close to $20,000. The cabin looks like a VW, with well-crafted appointments and a certain German precision to the construction. On the outside? There isn’t much to it. The sides of the car are pretty flat. The back end reminds me of a Saab. Overall, the Passat is undistinctive. The selling point is affordable German engineering with options like a 2-liter diesel engine that is expected to get 43 mpg on the highway. That will have to win buyers because the design won’t turn many heads.

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