By David Thomas on January 14, 2011
Concept cars didn’t really steal the show in Detroit this year, but neither did the new cars that will hit dealerships throughout the year. These debuts may be vitally important to each of their respective automakers, but none made the sort of splash this show was eagerly awaiting.
2012 Toyota Prius V
David Thomas: Winner
The big green W is simply because a bigger Prius will get 40 mpg. This will be the most efficient vehicle of its size on the road. However, the styling is so bland inside and out that I’m not sure eco-friendly, fashion-forward families will consider it.
Joe Wiesenfelder: Winner
A Prius with more space? Sure, why not, especially if it gets a combined 40 mpg at a time in automotive history when we’re praising compact cars for doing so.
Kelsey Mays: Winner
Toyota’s reputation has been sullied in the past year, but there’s still tremendous equity in the Prius name, recalls notwithstanding. Expanding the lineup has been a long time coming, and the Prius V looks, at first glance, reasonably well executed.
Joe Bruzek: Winner
I was sold on the Prius V the second I sat in the spacious sliding and reclining rear seat. That’s where I’ll stay, too, because I felt overwhelmed sitting in the driver’s seat looking at the cluster of dashboard, stereo, climate controls and the new Entune grouped together in the middle.
2011 Jeep Compass
Chrysler has done such a good job updating its lineup this past year that it should be commended; however, the company failed here. Besides the awful rhinoplasty of the new grille on a completely unchanged body of the old model, the interior plastics are still rough enough to cut skin.
I think the front end is a big improvement, but when you step around the side and rear, it’s basically the same old Compass, which didn’t need to exist in the first place. I agree with DT on the interior. Chrysler should have dumped this thing and put the resources into the Patriot.
As DT points out, the Compass’ new face is spoiled by its clumsy profile and humble interior. The crossover has a lot more standard features than last year, but its base price has ballooned more than 25 percent over the price of the 2010 model. If Jeep expects to command that kind of money, the Compass needed major improvements in both quality and design. It received too little of both.
Not enough has changed to make the Compass more interesting. It’s nice to look at up front, but beyond that it doesn’t feel very different.
2012 Volkswagen Passat
I don’t mind the new Jetta’s slightly less-nice interior because it is still on par or better than cars like the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. I’d say the new Passat is even less of a step backward in quality compared with the drastic drop in starting price. It will compete on price and content with the Accords and Camrys of the world, and it is larger and more stylish than both.
Once I stopped fixating on how the grille looks like the Honda Accord Crosstour’s, I found a very roomy car that, as DT says, isn’t as cheap inside as the new Jetta. These were show cars, of course, so we’ll have to withhold a final judgment until we see the entry-level trim.
Volkswagen wants to become the world’s biggest automaker by 2018. We’ve seen the gauntlet thrown for expansive sales volume before — and it came from Toyota. The Passat competes with the market’s leading family cars, and its mammoth backseat repeats what Honda and Subaru did with their family-sedan redesigns. But quality takes an appreciable dive, and the old Passat’s excellent turbo four-cylinder kicks the bucket for Volkswagen’s corporate five-cylinder. The five-banger isn’t terribly refined or fuel efficient, and the Passat will likely be the heaviest VW to carry it. That can only hurt both fronts.
Like JW mentioned, the models open to us on the show floor were not the base S trim level. I sat in a TDI, SE and SEL trim, and to me they didn’t seem to have much degradation of quality to be called offensive. The materials and design still very much looked classier than a lot of its competitors. Yes, it’s sad to see the great turbo engine gone, but the considerably lower price — no doubt helped by the naturally aspirated five-cylinder — should put this on more shoppers’ radars.
2012 Ford C-Max
The C-Max is better-looking with a better interior than the similar Mazda5. That doesn’t mean everyone wants to buy one. A slightly higher price tag hasn’t helped the Euro-bred Fiesta, and I have a feeling that will be the same issue the C-Max faces. However, the Mazda5 saw its best sales when gas was $4 a gallon. Perhaps the rapidly changing price of gas could set the stage for C-Max.
I like this one for the same reason I like the Mazda 5: It’s a handy in-between size. It also seems like it will accommodate taller people better, simply because of how the seats are configured. Do I think it will be a sales winner? No.
The C-Max has similar versatility to the Mazda5 but looks to win in cabin quality and, with its optional turbo 1.6-liter four-cylinder and fuel efficiency. I’m skeptical that even the best execution can overcome Americans’ stigma against sliding doors, which the Mazda5 has had some trouble against. Like Joe said, the C-Max probably won’t catch fire in terms of sales, but it still gets my vote for a job well done.
I had a tough time trying to care about the C-Max. The thing is, I’m a fan of the Mazda5 and its size, gas mileage and price, but I just couldn’t muster up any enthusiasm about the C-Max. I felt cramped on the inside, but not uncomfortable — the Mazda5 has an open-air feeling that I didn’t feel in the C-Max. Maybe my impressions will change once we get behind the wheel and drive the "EcoBoosted" mini-minivan, but on auto show merits, I’d have to say loser.
2012 Buick Verano
Buick’s styling is exceptionally elegant, even if many of the models resemble each other. While the Verano may look like the Regal and LaCrosse up front, it has a distinct rear and classy interior. But a premium, domestic car this size has never succeeded in the U.S., and the Verano won't reverse that trend.
Tough call on this one. Because it comes from the Cruze, I have no reason to suspect the Verano will be anything but a good car, but copying is a risky endeavor, and what I see isn’t enough to justify it. Is there really demand for a compact Buick in the first place?
Buick is the fast-growing major brand in America, and a case could be made to ride that wave into a few new vehicle segments. A compact car bodes questionably for the upscale brand, even if it’s based on the well-rounded Cruze. The car’s chrome-laced rear just looks goofy, and cabin materials — though better than the Cruze’s materials — fall short of other Buicks. We’ll wait until the production models arrive to proffer a final verdict, but the early signs don’t look good.
Buick’s lineup seems crowded enough right now to add another entry-level premium car. The LaCrosse and Regal already start within $750 of each other. I don’t think the Verano could get by commanding a premium over the Cruze based on looks alone; pricing will be an important factor that we don’t know right now. The Verano does look good, though.
2011 Chrysler 300
Unlike the Jeep Compass, the 300's redesign is well-executed and turns what used to be a retro-gangster look into something more modern and elegant. Inside, it is exceptionally comfortable with nice materials and a standard center touch-screen. A new, improved V-6 engine will also make it more accessible to more buyers.
There are some major improvements on the inside and under the hood, but the styling is a big disappointment. Much of what made this car unique is gone.
I beg — demand, really — to differ. The 300’s updated components add welcome elegance, and even the base model seems upscale. The cabin could offer appreciably better materials than the 300’s Dodge Charger sibling (it doesn’t), and I wish Chrysler brought the Grand Cherokee’s leather-wrapped dashboard here. But this is a handsome bit of work, and the Pentastar V-6 should prove far more capable than the old 3.5.
The 300 goes a long way into making it feel more "executive," which is the way I like to describe it. The previous 300 had an aggressiveness that’s lost with this redesign, but that approach is best left to the Charger, anyway.
2012 Chevrolet Sonic
My designation is given only with the caveat that I expect the Sonic to be similarly priced to the bottom-basement Aveo. If so, the interior is actually quite good for that amount of money. Sure, it may be Ikea simple, but there are functional cubbies everywhere and lots of headroom. Something you don’t always find in small cars.
Points for interior space and overall improvement over the Aveo, but I guess I’m just being superficial today. I respect the unique headlight treatment, but I can’t say I like it. And as I've said about the Cruze Eco, Chevy needs to learn to make it less noticeable that its large grilles are really large panels with holes punched out of 40 percent of the surface.
If Chevy can match the Aveo’s sub-$12,000 base price — while including the now-required electronic stability system and earning decent federal and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash-test ratings – it will be quite a feat. The Aveo did little of that. Still, there are other reasons to like the Sonic. The hatchback’s cargo area has a trick panel that allows for a taller cargo area or a flat load floor with the seats down, and cabin materials seem decent. I could do without the cartoonish styling, however.
When I used to doodle pictures of cars on my school notebooks, they always had sharp headlight angles, hunkered-down stances and rearward body lines that swept up. The sedan’s looks alone catch my attention because of those styling cues. The inside didn’t leave as lasting of an impression, but it’s a definite improvement over the Aveo.
2012 Hyundai Veloster
The Veloster surprised me in almost every respect. It’s striking in person, even if a bit too funky for my personal tastes. It will get an estimated 40 mpg and weighs about the same as a Mini Cooper. And it’s almost utilitarian with a third door for easy access to the rear seats and a rather large cargo area.
Going bold doesn’t always work. Here, it does. The styling will win more supporters than detractors. The cargo area is awkward, and I’m dubious of the fun factor because Hyundai still has work to do in terms of ride and handling, but I think the styling alone will serve it well.
Indeed, how the car handles will determine its fate, but at the outset the Veloster looks promising. The third door threw me for a loop, but the car has the right ingredients for success — including a name that, Cretaceous Period puns aside, demands attention.
The Veloster is like two cars in one with its unique door configuration. Yeah, it’s been done before, but it will work in the Veloster because the rear door on the passenger side is hinged like a normal sedan instead of a tiny, frustrating, reversed-hinged door.
2012 Ford Focus Electric
I think we’ve hit electric fatigue, and this is only the second all-electric vehicle to come from a major manufacturer. Ford’s boasting about how impressive it is was also off-putting, especially since there weren’t hard numbers on range and performance. But nothing points to it being as efficient as the lighter Nissan Leaf. And if the Prius proved anything, it's that folks want to flaunt their greenness in a unique-looking vehicle, not a green version of a common economy car.
The Prius proves that a car that gets 50 mpg (or 46 mpg in the previous generation) will dominate no matter how it looks. The Focus is a good-looking car, so we’ll see how it does in electric form. Details are few, but I say it’s a winner for having a more robust online charger that speeds charging time.
When I spoke with Ford engineers in Michigan last December, they made bold claims on how the Focus EV would outdo the Leaf: faster charging, equivalent or slightly better range, the same federal tax credit and a modular charging station that could save hundreds over the home stations offered by GM and Nissan. Ford needs to make good on those assertions, but right now I’m prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt.
If Ford can hold up its claim to match or better the Leaf’s range and charging rate — and do it in a car that’s nicer and less awkward-looking than the Leaf — then I could get behind the Focus Electric. There are still a lot of “ifs” and unconfirmed information, however.
2012 BMW 1 Series
My two beefs with the current 1 Series are the chintzy interior and the high price tag. The 2012 seems to address one of those concerns, and it ain’t the price. Now the doors are lavishly appointed in leather, and the dash seems to be better-made, too. It no longer feels like a second-rate Bimmer at first-rate prices. The M version didn’t impress me much in terms of looks, but I’m sure dynamically it’ll be a blast to drive.
Were we looking at the same car? The dash and doors in the 128i and 135i at BMW’s display had similar materials as the outgoing car’s. They’re decent, but the 3 Series across the display felt richer inside — which is to say nothing of the rest of BMW’s lineup. The 1 Series’ styling updates are welcome, but its essential dimensions haven’t changed. It still looks stubby. Driving dynamics notwithstanding, the improvements weren’t terribly compelling.
JB: Loser, except for the M coupe
I haven’t been as critical about the 1 Series’ interior as others and didn’t really notice too much of an improvement on the inside of the 2012. The M coupe is where it’s at with widened fenders, steamroller rear tires and M3-like lower grille. Oh yeah, more power, too. I’ll take one.
2012 Mercedes-Benz C-Class
The exterior changes bring the C-Class in line with the E-Class’ styling, but what the car needed more than anything was interior upgrades. It got ’em.
*The C-Class wasn't on the show floor during the media days for the rest of the team to weigh in on.
Managing Editor David Thomas has a thing for wagons and owns a 2010 Subaru Outback and a 2005 Volkswagen Passat wagon. Email David