by Jeremy Cato

Detroit, Michigan – The future of the auto industry – or at the very least what we can expect from it in 2005 and 2006 – was there for all to see at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show in January.

Yes, the future was accompanied by the bloated rhetoric and the furiously impassioned marketing “blah, blah, blah” from sales types and CEOs pitching sheetmetal – but forget all that. The real proof in the car business, like no other industry in the world, is in the products.

That’s the beauty of this gig. Once you learn to strip away the hyperbole, the hype and the hard-sell, the real direction of the auto industry becomes crystal clear. The trick is to take a disciplined view of this industry through the prism of its new products, and to a slightly lesser, but critically important degree, its concept cars which point to the future – mostly the near future, these days.

Now more than ever and because profit margins are so thin, the auto industry just doesn’t waste money on the far-fetched notions and creative instincts of designers and engineers. What we saw on the floor of Cobo Hall in Detroit in January will soon be selling on showroom floors from Toronto, Regina and Vancouver.

To bring some sense the madness that is an auto show with more than 60 new model introductions and half again as many concept car unveilings, I’ve decided to divvy up the broad trends emerging in the car business this year and into 2006 into three groups, then pick two models for each to represent exactly what is going on in that category.

‘Mainstream Models’ are just that. Vehicles in well established market segments, segments such as mid-size sedans, traditional sport-utility vehicles (SUVs), luxury cars and sporty cars.

‘Novel Newcomers’ include crossover utility vehicles which are slowly but steadily replacing station wagons and minivans, along with interesting new entries in established segments – such as the made-in-Canada Honda Ridgeline pickup with its waterproof trunk capable of carrying up to three sets of golf clubs.

In ‘Daring Daydreams’ I’ve brought together examples of concept vehicles that illustrate the thinking of where the best minds in the auto industry expect customer tastes to take them. Concepts are an automaker’s vision of what a car or truck might be and because it does not need to meet strict safety and emissions standards, they still are always more daring than the real thing.

So without further ado…

2005 Nissan Xterra
2005 Nissan Xterra

2005 Mercedes-Benz M Class
2005 Mercedes-Benz M-Class

Hummer H3
Hummer H3

2006 Pontiac Torrent
2006 Pontiac Torrent
Click image to enlarge

Mainstream models

Nissan Xterra – Nissan showed off five new light trucks at the show — the Pathfinder, Armada and Xterra SUVs and the Frontier and Titan pickups. All are based on the same mechanical architecture. Together they represent significant competition for the established and highly profitable light trucks from the North American-based manufacturers, Ford, General Motors and Dodge.

In fact, the 2005 Xterra and its siblings demonstrate how serious import automakers are about taking on the domestics in the bread-and-butter light truck segment. Along those same lines, next year Toyota will open a new truck plant in Texas, a plant that will build the next-generation Tundra pickup.

True, Nissan right now sells only about one-fifth as many light trucks as Ford in North American (about 2.5 million for Ford versus less than 500,000 for Nissan). But Nissan and the other imports feel they can and will steal buyers away from the domestics with better products.

Speaking of which, the ’05 Xterra is more refined and comfortable than the rather crude truck it replaces. The engine is also much better, more powerful and smooth, and the transmissions deliver better shifts. This new Xterra is more civilized, but it remains a rugged, serious off-roader with a kind of rough charm to its styling. Look for the 2005 Xterra SUV to hit showrooms in March. Farther down the road, look for Nissan also to build additional versions of the Titan pickup, including a heavy-duty model.

Nissan officials concede that the truck segment is tough to crack for the imports. And they also say they will not stop trying to attract buyers with new truck models. The new Xterra is just one of many to come.

Other interesting mainstream SUVs and crossovers in Detroit:

Mercedes-Benz M-class – The original M-class went on sale in 1998 and won a reputation for good road-holding and innovative four-wheel drive. Quality has been another matter. The ’06 model, say Mercedes officials, is not only well built, but also has a richer interior, more space and an all-independent suspension beneath the shapely new sheetmetal.

Hummer H3 – The smaller Hummer sets five and shares its mechanical underpinnings with GM’s compact pickups, the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon.

Pontiac Torrent – a five-passenger, front- or all-wheel-drive midsize crossover that is similar to the Chevy Equinox. It is coming in the late summer.

Mainstream Cars

2006 Ford Fusion
2006 Ford Fusion

2006 Lincoln Zephyr
2006 Lincoln Zephyr
Click image to enlarge

Ford Fusion/Lincoln Zephyr – The Zephyr and the Fusion are five-passenger, midsize sedans designed to compete in the very heart of the car market, against the likes of the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Chevy Malibu. For Ford, they are critical.

Ford has let its once-best-selling Taurus become a rental fleet staple and the Fusion is the company’s latest, best effort to again become a major player in the family car segment. The Fusion is a longer, wider version of the Mazda6, with a choice of four- and six-cylinder powertrains and in the future, an all-wheel-drive option. Engines include a base 2.3-litre four-banger (160 hp) and a V6 with 210 hp. Transmissions include a five-speed manual and a five-speed automatic.

The Fusion’s three-bar grille will become the Ford brand’s face as more new models arrive in coming years. Meanwhile, it and the more luxuriously appointed Zephyr are the first and second of 10 new vehicles based on the Mazda6 planned from Ford over the next several years. The Mercury Milan, not sold in Canada, is a third.

As for the Lincoln side of things, the Zephyr hopes to compete against the likes of the Acura TL and Lexus ES330. Ford officials say the Zephyr will have the looks and driving dynamics to start breaking Lincoln’s stodgy image.

Other interesting mainstream sedans:

2006 Dodge Charger
2006 Dodge Charger

2005 Toyota Avalon
2005 Toyota Avalon

2006 Hyundai Sonata
2006 Hyundai Sonata
Click image to enlarge

Dodge Charger – Chrysler Group CEO Dieter Zetsche – wearing a cowboy hat and sunglasses — took the stage with NASCAR great Richard Petty to introduce the latest version of the Chrysler 300 – the 2006 Dodge Charger, which is dynamic to look at but more conservatively styled than the 300.

Toyota Avalon: The third-generation Avalon sedan is the first of six new or redesigned models Toyota plans to introduce this year. The new Avalon has a richer interior and a more powerful V6.

Audi A4 and S4: With a face-lift, the A4 and S4 sport a new look that represent Audi’s signature design cues going forward.

Hyundai Sonata – The ’06 Sonata will be built at Hyundai’s new US$1.7 billion plant in Montgomery, Alabama. It is one of seven new models coming from Hyundai in the next 24 months. The newcomers include the Accent XG, a mini-van Santa Fe and Elantra

Assorted other notable Mainstreamers: This year look for a new Mitsubishi Eclipse, a drop-top version of the Porsche 911 Carrera, a 500-hp Chevrolet Corvette Z06 (0-100 km/h in less than four seconds), and the redesigned Kia Rio subcompact sedan. Yes, it seems odd to call the Z06 mainstream, but 500-horsepower cars are no longer a particular novelty in today’s new car marketplace.

Novel Newcomers

2006 Honda Ridgeline
2006 Honda Ridgeline

2006 Subaru B9 Tribeca
2006 Subaru B9 Tribeca
Click image to enlarge

Honda Ridgeline – Honda’s first pickup truck, based on the Honda Pilot mechanicals and to be built in Alliston, Ontario, has an independent rear suspension and a water-tight trunk. It was a huge hit in Detroit, creating plenty of interest as yet another example of the Japanese onslaught on the truck market (see Nissan). The Ridgeline goes on sale this spring.

This truck has a four-door cabin with a smallish pickup bed in the rear. The bed is lined in composite material and reinforced underneath with three steel rails for added strength. Power comes from a version of Honda’s corporate 3.5-litre V-6 with 255 hp and towing capacity is rated at 2,272 kg.

Novel features include a rear seat that folds and latches up against the cabin wall and a tailgate that swings both ways – down like a conventional pickup and sideways thanks to left-side hinges.

Many auto analysts predict the Honda’s first pickup will be a winner. The “in-bed” trunk is a nifty feature sure to attract some buyers for a look-see and loads of safety features and the promise of decent driving manners might just convince them to write a cheque. Most, if not all, will be surprised to find that the Ridgeline sits closer to the ground than rivals like the Toyota Tacoma and Dodge Dakota.

Interestingly, GM is planning a line of new midsize trucks based on the upcoming Lambda architecture, and rumour has it the GM trucks will have many of the Ridgeline’s tricks. Analysts suggest the new GM trucks will come in less than three years.

Subaru B9 Tribeca – Subaru’s standard bearer as it pushes into premium territory is the new B9 Tribeca, a midsize SUV aimed at the likes of the Lexus RX330. The all-wheel drive Tribeca has three rows of seating (for seven people) and is the largest Subaru ever.

The Tribeca is not only Subaru’s first crossover wagon, but it also reveals a new look for Subaru, and that “design language” will find its way into the whole Subaru lineup in the future. Of course, the company’s “Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive” remains the Tribeca’s core technology. Power comes from a 250-hp flat-six engine.

Other Novel Newcomer pickups, SUVs and one hatchback of note:

Mitsubishi Raider pickup – The head of Mitsubishi’s research and design centre, Dan Sims, said with the Raider, Mitsubishi is getting back to its roots. “We were established as a truck franchise,” he said. The 2006 Raider pickup is based on the Dodge Dakota platform, but shares little more with the midsize pickup.

Audi A3 hatchback – This front- or all-wheel-drive compact four-door hatchback will have a 200-hp, turbocharged, direct-injection 2.0-litre cylinder or 250-hp 3.2-litre V-6.

Range Rover Sport – A 390-hp, supercharged SUV? Believe it. Using the Land Rover LR3 mechanicals as a foundation, Range Rover has come up with a racy truck capable of going fast both on and off road.

Mercedes-Benz R-class and B-class – The big, versatile R-class wagon hits showrooms later this year. Mercedes officials suggested a smaller crossover called the B-Class will also come as part of a vigorous effort from Mercedes to grab luxury SUV buyers.

Daring Daydreams

Jaguar Advanced Lightweight Coupe
Jaguar Advanced Lightweight Coupe

GM Sequel Concept
GM Sequel Concept
Click image to enlarge

Jaguar Advanced Lightweight Coupe (ALC) concept – Jaguar design director Ian Callum says the robin’s-egg blue ALC is officially a concept, but you can bet the next-generation 2007 XK8 and XKR coupe and convertible bear a strong resemblance.

Of course, Jaguar wasn’t the only automaker showing off a high-performance concept, but this is arguably the prettiest. It also takes Jaguar’s aluminum technology expertise to a higher level.

The concept has a bonded and riveted aluminum skeleton supporting aluminum body panels, which should drop curb weight by several hundred pounds compared with the current car. With less weight and higher-horsepower versions of Jag’s current V-8s, performance is should reach be amazing. Look for it in about a year.

Jaguar, of course, needs the next XK to be a huge hit. The British marque bought by Ford 15 years ago was supposed to be highly profitable by now, yet it is losing hundreds of millions of dollars.

The ALC has a number of styling elements designed to move the brand forward without cutting ties to the past. The front grille, rear window and hood pay homage to the E-Type. On the other hand, its broad shoulders, aluminum frame and tailored interior embrace 21st-century global automotive trends.

General Motors Sequel – Bob Lutz, GM vice-chairman in charge of new products, says his company is embracing the long-term potential of the fuel cell and hybrid technology. The Sequel shows where GM wants to go with fuel cells.

The drive-by-wire hydrogen fuel-cell concept SUV has a futuristic chassis designed to accommodate various vehicle bodies and has a 480-km driving range. By 2010, GM hopes to design and validate a fuel-cell propulsion system that is competitive in terms of performance and durability.

The Sequel is the latest in a series of fuel cell-powered prototypes GM has rolled out in recent years. The heart of this concept is the “stack” where hydrogen and oxygen are combined to produce both water vapour and electric current, energy that can be used to run electric motors.

In this case, the stack, along with the show car’s suspension, compressed hydrogen storage tanks, climate control system and brakes, are stuffed inside a skateboard like chassis onto which the Sequel’s body is attached.

Using the fourth-generation of GM’s fuel cell technology, the Sequel’s stack pumps out about 125 kW of power and can launch the vehicle from 0-100 km/h in about nine seconds – competitive with many V-6 SUVs. The next challenge for GM and other fuel-cell developers is to reduce costs.

Other Daring Dreamers of note:

Infiniti Kuraza
Infiniti Kuraza

Audi Allroad concept
Audi Allroad concept

Volkswagen Ragster concept
Volkswagen Ragster concept

Hydrogen-powered BMW H2R prototype
Hydrogen-powered BMW H2R prototype

GMC Graphyte Concept
GMC Graphyte Concept

Mercury Meta One concept
Mercury Meta One concept

Jeep Hurricane
Jeep Hurricane

Jeep Gladiator
Jeep Gladiator

Chrysler Concept - Firepower
Chrysler Firepower

Mazda MX-Crossport concept
Mazda MX-Crossport concept

Lexus LF-A concept
Lexus LF-A concept

Kia KCD-II Mesa concept
Kia KCD-II Mesa concept

Acura RD-X
Acura RD-X

Ford Shelby GR-1 concept
Ford Shelby GR-1 concept
Click image to enlarge

Infiniti Kuraza concept – This six-seater offers a view of the sky, thanks to a roof sectioned into three sunroofs.

Audi allroad concept – This crossover features innovative electronic systems (e.g., sensors to warn the driver he/she is drifting out of a lane) and a new 4.0-litre, V-8 TDI diesel engine with 286 hp fitted with a particle filter.

Volkswagen Ragster concept – This is a modified New Beetle with a flattened convertible roof. VW officials say they have no plans to build the Ragster.

BMW H2R concept – As Hydrogen-powered test cars go, the slick H2R is fast. With a hydrogen-burning, 285-hp 6.0-litre V-12 tucked underneath, the H2R set a speed record for hydrogen-powered cars at 300 km/h.

Volvo 3CC – An electric-powered car with 3,000 lithium-ion batteries, the 3CC is one of the many “green” concepts shown in Detroit. Its aerodynamic shape reduces wind drag and improves fuel economy.

Opel Astra diesel hybrid concept – GM of Europe plans to sell a production version of this front-wheel-drive, five-passenger compact hatchback. It has a 125-hp, 1.7-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel teamed with 30 kW and 40 kW electric motors integrated in transmission case.

GMC Graphyte hybrid SUV concept – The Graphyte is significant because this all-wheel-drive, five-passenger, gasoline-electric hybrid previews the advanced drivetrain GM will use to power production versions of the GMC Yukon and Chevy Tahoe SUVs in 2007. Under the hood is a 300-hp, 4.3-litre V-8 with cylinder deactivation, two electric motors and a four-speed automatic transmission.

Mercury Meta One concept – This full-size crossover wagon has a hybrid diesel-electric drivetrain. The twin-turbo, 2.7-litre diesel producing (248 hp) is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. That packaged is integrated with 35-kW electric motor and twin hydraulic clutches.

Jeep Hurricane concept – Conceived as the ultimate off-roader, the 670-hp Hurricane sports two engines – one in the front and one in the back. The vehicle also has an innovative steering system, which allows the car to spin on its own axis.

Jeep Gladiator concept – Dubbed a Flexible Utility Truck (FUT), the Gladiator is close to a production model. It has an open-air cloth top and an expandable truck bed.

Ford Explorer Sport Trac concept – Ford will introduce a production version of this four-passenger midsize four-door pickup with a 4.6-litre V-8 engine. It will replace the current Explorer Sport Trac. Like the Honda Ridgeline, the Sport Trac has an independent rear suspension.

Chrysler Firepower – Imagine a more aggressive looking Crossfire and you’ve got this Viper for the Chrysler division. There is a good chance Chrysler will build it, using a 6.1-litre, 425-hp Hemi for power.

Suzuki Concept X – Japan’s small car maker wants to push into midsize sport-utility crossovers and this concept hints at what a possible entry might look like.

Mazda MX-Crossport – The racy MX-Crosssport, like so many of the crossover utilities in Detroit, is officially a concept. Odds are, though, Mazda will build a production version.

Lexus LF-A concept – This concept sports car signals Lexus’s interest in super sports cars while also showcasing a bold new styling direction for Toyota’s luxury brand.

Toyota FT-SX concept – Yet another all-wheel-drive, four-door crossover wagon concept. Its design shows off the new corporate face of Toyota products.

Kia KCD-II Mesa – This full-size SUV has a rugged body-on-frame design, three rows of seats, a pair of skylights that run the length of the vehicle, and running boards that automatically retract when the doors are closed.

Ford SYNus concept – Here we have an armoured car that is really a reflection of the broader insecurity permeating every part of U.S. society. In effect, the SYNus is an urban assault vehicle on a smaller scale — steel curtains for the windows to bank-vault-thick doors and a combination-safe dial on the tailgate.

Ford Fairlane concept – A broad hint at what Ford is considering to replace the slow-selling Freestar minivan.

Nissan Azeal – Nissan will launch an all-new small car in 2006 and this is a hint at what it might be — a shrunken version of the 350Z sports coupe.

Acura RD-X concept – Look for Honda’s upscale Acura brand to sell a production version of this entry-level SUV in 2006.

Ford Shelby GR-1 concept – Could this be the successor to the Ford GT super car? Maybe. The GR-1 (“Group Racer-1”) is a sizzling two-door concept with a polished aluminum surface and a 6.4-litre V-10 (605 hp) under the hood.

Connect with Autos.ca