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Car makers unveil 50 new models


DETROIT: While they may or may not end up in driveways, there were plenty of vehicles turning heads at this week's North American International Auto Show, including Hyundai's new luxury sedan, a Cadillac coupe, Chrysler's green concept cars and a hybrid Toyota pickup.

Slumping US car sales did not slow down the action at the grandaddy of the car show circuit, where car makers introduced more than 50 production and concept models in three media preview days. High fuel prices did not play much of a role, either. For every plug-in hybrid or fuel-cell concept, there was a 620 horsepower Chevrolet Corvette or a brand new full-sized sport utility vehicle from Kia. Chrysler promoted a tiny electric concept car as well as the full-sized Dodge Ram, which made a grand entrance alongside 120 longhorn cattle.

“The overriding theme was that there was no theme,” says Jack Nerad, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book, the car buyers' guide.

Car makers put a head-spinning variety of fuel-efficient technologies in cars at every price range. There was the $US80,000 ($91,000) Fisker Karma, a plug-in electric hybrid sports car with Maserati good looks that can travel 80km on a single charge. BYD, one of four Chinese car makers at the show, unveiled a plug-in hybrid sedan that will go on sale in China for under $US30,000 this year. Ford introduced EcoBoost, a direct injection, turbocharged engine which it says will improve fuel economy by 20 per cent. Even Ferrari unveiled an ethanol-capable F430 Spider.

Diesel engines, which are about 30 per cent more efficient than their petrol counterparts, made a big comeback now that cleaner diesel fuel allows them to meet emissions standards in all 50 US states. BMW unveiled its first diesel-powered vehicles for the US market, the 335d coupe and X5 xDrive35d sport utility vehicle. Audi showed a 500 horsepower diesel super car concept, the Audi R8 V12 TDI, which can go from zero to 90km/h in 4.2 seconds. Daimler offered a diesel option on its GLK compact sport utility vehicle, among others.

But diesels were not limited to German car makers. Toyota announced it would soon offer a diesel V-8 in the Tundra pickup and the Sequoia SUV, while Honda said it would put a diesel engine in its Acura sedan in 2010. Chrysler put a diesel hybrid in its Jeep Renegade concept vehicle, while General Motors has a diesel engine in its Saturn Flextreme plug-in concept car.

David Champion, the senior director of Consumer Reports' Auto Test Centre, says diesel used to connote pollution and big trucks. He is eager to see if clean diesel has changed that perception, and if US consumers will choose diesel even though it is no cheaper than petrol.

“Whether the marketplace is going to endorse diesels remains to be seen,” he says.

Other car makers met demands for more fuel-efficient vehicles by downsizing. The Hummer HX concept, a Jeep-like offroad vehicle with a removable roof, would be the smallest Hummer ever if it is made. Toyota's A-BAT concept is the Prius version of a pickup, with a hybrid powertrain and a 1.3m bed. Land Rover unveiled the compact three-door LRX concept, while parent Ford showed the Ford Explorer America concept, a reworking of its phenomenally popular SUV that uses a unibody frame — rather than the traditional truck frame — to save fuel and give the vehicle a more car-like ride.

“Explorer has been such an important model for them over the years. Taking that in an inventive direction that's still true to the Explorer name could be a big success for them,” Nerad says.

Ford also got kudos for the eye-popping design of its Verve concept, which showed what Ford's subcompact may look like when it hits the US market in 2010.

“Here's your proof that good design doesn't cost any more than bad design, but it makes all the difference in the world in terms of buzz,” Global Insight car analyst Aaron Bragman says of the Verve.

Other cars generating serious buzz were the Cadillac CTS coupe, a sharp-looking, two-door concept that many analysts agreed was a highlight of the show, and the posh Hyundai Genesis sedan.

Hyundai hopes Genesis will help it compete with other luxury makers when it goes on sale this year for just under $US40,000, but analysts aren't sure the bet will pay off, saying the Hyundai name means great value but not luxury. “You don't sell Mercedes-Benz and BMW because they're great value. You sell them because of the cachet and the image,” Bragman says.