Detroit 2012: Quandaries from Afar

Photo (c)2012 General Motors

It was tough picking just nine from a plethora of debuts from the North American International Auto Show. Detroit yielded plenty of excitement, tempered with some criticism. I, for one, had my share of concerns and quandaries.

It was also tough to stay balanced here. For example, I had to choose one General Motors debut from about three production vehicles and two concepts. There were two that made the grade: The Buick Encore compact crossover and the Cadillac ATS. I chose the ATS because of its potential impact on the marketplace – if done right. For a brand to go into battle in one of the most competitive segments in the automotive market with something that matches up well on paper yields the most attention. Hence why I wrote what I did on the ATS.

What about the Encore? It is a segment breaker. Buick went with a global product that defies any conventional thinking in our marketplace. In Europe, where it will be marketed as an Opel or Vauxhall, the new compact crossover will be thrust into battle with other mid-to-upper level small crossovers – such as the BMW X1 and Audi Q3. In the USA, BMW has decided to keep the X1 north of the border for Canadian consumption. Audi is set to introduce the Q3, however. Not even the Suzuki SX4 or the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport has the level of luxury the Encore offers. Perhaps the Buick will become an interesting proposition for small upscale urban families looking for a city-friendly crossover to scoot around in.

Maybe that is the answer for justifying the Encore. For all we know, the X1 and Q3 could be priced in the same ballpark as the Korean-built Encore. Perhaps the Buick will come in at less than the two other luxury compact crossovers. Aside from the price point, is there a market for such a vehicle? That would depend on whether there is a surge in fuel prices as the analysts are predicting. As the trend had been towards downsizing to lessen the obligation to the gas pump, the Encore's opportunity to exploit these conditions would help GM's cause greatly to justify offering the vehicle on sale here.

Then, there's the Acura NSX concept to consider. Having been around the original mid-engined sports car when I took delivery of my Integra, I always thought that could not improve the breed. Honda put every effort to make this one right, despite its competition having moved the bar far afield during the original NSX's lifetime. This concept clearly gives us a different picture of what a NSX could be if given all the tools in the world to achieve this.

As part of the announcement, Acura stated that the NSX is being designed and built in the USA. It may seem pretty ambitious for Honda to have their supercar built on this soil, but perhaps showing off the first Accord ever built in the USA the day before indicated how serious they are in doing so. Yet, will this NSX do what the previous one did? Will be an attainable supercar for the modern driver while showing it can run with the Ferraris, Lamborghinis and McLarens of the universe?

Speaking of the Accord, has Honda achieved the same result as they did with the current Civic on the new Accord? It looks the same as it was, but perhaps nipped and tucked. Is there something else lurking underneath that would make it different? Or, are we going to go through the same criticism that had been heaped on Honda over the past year or so?

Evolutionary design is fine if you have a strong enough following not to stir the loyalist's ire. Maybe it is what the critics have been missing all along. What about lamenting of the loss in engineering leadership and the execution of the IMS hybrid petrol-electric system? That could be the least of Honda's worries considering the fallout from the natural disasters throughout Asia that interrupted the Japanese automotive industry. Maybe we need some evolution before Honda gets back to being revolutionary again?

However, my biggest quandary is focused on the Lincoln MKZ Concept. As it is based on the new Ford Fusion, there are some distinctive elements that set the Lincoln apart intentionally. Clearly, Lincoln has taken the 21st Century approach to the Continental of 1961 vintage – flex the envelope of what a luxury car is supposed to represent. Instead of integrating fins and shrinking the size of the flagship a half-century ago, Lincoln infused a truckload of technology as part of the luxury package to make a different statement than the ATS or the BMW 3-Series…despite it being in the same segment by virtue.

However, design philosophies and levels of luxury are just a part of the puzzle to revive the Lincoln brand. During the press conference for the MKZ unveiling, Ford's marketing head Jim Farley explained that Lincoln must be focused on improving the customer experience. Instead of what Farley calls a "big-box retail" approach to the pre- and post-sales experience of any given luxury brand, door-to-door vehicle deliveries and webcams showing your Lincoln being repaired are extraordinary extensions of the customer satisfaction experience – things not even Lexus and Infiniti had envisioned in 1990. Yet, a luxury car brand not only must be able to provide peerless service from the moment a consumer expresses an interest in the product to the day that vehicle is no longer in that owner's possession. It must have a product worth owning during that process.

These are things I must bring to Chicago next month. Not just questions, but the understanding where these vehicles are going from Detroit onward to the auto show circuit. When I also attend the Minneapolis show in March, I want to be able to express what these vehicles are telling us with the people I bring to the Convention Center. This is the challenge I have when I question the reasoning behind these vehicles.

To be continued…

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