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DETROIT AUTO SHOW: Japan's big boys in spotlight

Toyota, Nissan and Honda shine at big show

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DETROIT -- Japanese auto manufacturers were unusually circumspect at this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Smaller companies such as Mazda and Subaru did not debut anything, having launched new products at the Los Angeles Auto Show in late November. And Mitsubishi wasn't even present at the show. Neither was Suzuki, having recently announced it was pulling out of the U.S. market.

That left the larger manufacturers -- Toyota, Nissan and Honda -- to strut their stuff. But, instead of overtly touting green technologies such as hybrids and electric vehicles -- though still championing greater fuel efficiency -- Toyota and Honda mostly chose to focus on new concepts and near-production-ready vehicles for popular and profitable market segments.

2014 Acura MDX Prototype

Acura's debut of the 2014 MDX prototype offers a "strong indication" of the styling and design direction for the third-generation, seven-passenger SUV.

"Our goal is to advance on MDX's already great dynamic performance while improving fuel economy and luxury comfort," said Mike Accavitti, vice-president of national marketing operations for Acura U.S.

The "Aero Sculpture" styling of the prototype reflects significant gains in aerodynamic efficiency, up 16 per cent compared with the 2013 MDX, said Jon Ikeda, chief designer at Acura Design Studio.

The MDX prototype's exterior and arcing roofline (38 millimetres lower than the outgoing model) encase what Ikeda promised would be an even more spacious and versatile cabin compared with the MDX. The prototype features a longer wheelbase that increases second-row legroom and improves third-row seat access.

"While we aren't showcasing the interior today, I can assure you it will further improve the already great functionality in the cabin and cargo area while really amping up luxury, comfort and quiet," said Ikeda.

The 2014 MDX will also feature a new, more rigid and lightweight chassis, including new front and rear suspensions. A direct-injected 3.5L i-VTEC SOHC V-6 engine with Variable Cylinder Management will, says Honda, deliver improved torque and more spirited performance while reducing fuel consumption "to class-leading levels." Attention was also paid to improving cabin quietness.

Unfortunately, the new model will lose its Canadian connection, with production moving from Alliston, Ont., to the company's manufacturing facility in Lincoln, Ala.

Acura NSX Concept

Acura also provided a teaser, showing a more updated version of the NSX Concept, showcasing further evolution of the upcoming supercar's styling and design, including a first look at one "possible" direction for the interior design.

This newest concept is still based on the expected underpinnings of the car Acura will bring to market. It maintains the low and wide stance and proportions of the original NSX Concept, which first debuted at the 2012 North American International Auto Show.

When it makes its entrance in approximately two years, the production NSX will be powered by a mid-mounted, direct-injected V-6 mated to Acura's Sport Hybrid SH-AWD (Super Handling All-Wheel Drive) system.

Honda Urban SUV Concept

Based on the next-generation Fit platform, Honda's Urban SUV Concept looks as though it will compete with smaller compact crossovers such Buick's new Encore when the production version comes to market in mid-2014. It will be manufactured along with the new Fit at Honda's newest North American plant in Celaya, Mexico.

While Honda would not disclose any information regarding the Urban Concept's drivetrain, the company said the production version -- part of Honda's Global Compact Series -- will feature the company's Earth Dreams technology.

(Earth Dreams involves Honda's latest-generation fuel-efficient engines with low environmental impact.) The production Urban will be priced and positioned below the CR-V within the Honda light-truck lineup. Further, the production model will use the centre-tank layout featured on the Fit and will include the configurable Magic Seat setup that provides numerous passenger and cargo options.

According to John Mendel, executive vice-president of sales at American Honda, the Concept is intended to provide the basis for a fun-to-drive and fuel-efficient small SUV with "aspirational design, flexible packaging and next-generation connectivity targeting active lifestyle customers." The concept styling showcases strong character lines and a wide stance, with hidden rear door handles giving it a coupe-like presence. Measuring 4,300 mm in length, the Urban SUV Concept is 228 mm shorter than the CR-V, making it "the ideal size for navigating both crowded city streets and open mountain roads."

Toyota Corolla Furia Concept

Calling 2012 the Year of the Hybrid for Toyota, executives from Toyota Canada proclaimed 2013 the year when the automaker becomes the "inspired" choice for consumers, courtesy of products that will appeal to their hearts as well as their minds.

Having rebounded from bad press over recalls as well as natural disasters that put a serious crimp in 2011 production, Toyota kicked off the Detroit auto show with the Corolla Furia concept, a sporty compact sedan that revealed styling cues that "consumers can expect to see" on the next-generation Corolla, the most popular model the company sells in Canada and the second-most-popular in the United States.

The concept is an exterior styling study by Toyota designers, and it builds on the automaker's product-development mandate to create more dramatic, "expressively designed" vehicles.

"The Corolla Furia Concept is an early indicator of where our compact car design may lead in the future," said Bill Fay, group vice-president and general manager of Toyota's U.S. division. "It blends a heightened emphasis on dramatic design and modern elements of high technology to generate curb appeal that will surprise a lot of people."

The Furia's Iconic Dynamism design theme features a most un-Corolla-like interpretation of the compact sedan, targeting a younger, hipper audience with an aggressive stance and 19-inch alloy wheels pushed to the car's corners, with short overhangs to help emphasize the long, 2,700-millimetre wheelbase.

The design includes a swept windshield, sloped roofline and pronounced fender flares. The aggressively styled front fascia, with a blacked-out grille treatment, also highlights a pair of sculpted front LED headlamps that combine with the rear composite LED tail-light assemblies. Carbon-fibre accents enhance the Furia's wheel-wells, rocker panels and rear valance.

2014 Lexus IS

Tired of playing second fiddle to the German automakers in the very competitive and lucrative compact sport sedan segment, Lexus unveiled an all-new, longer and far more aggressive IS model range consisting of the IS 250, IS 350 and F Sport in both rear-wheel and all-wheel drivetrains. (Nissan's Infiniti division also took aim at the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class with its new Q50 -- formerly the G37.)

Also, for Europe, Japan and select international markets (not North America), the IS 300h becomes the first IS to come with Lexus Hybrid Drive.

"The IS has always been precise and fun to drive," said Mark Templin, Lexus U.S. group vice-president and general manager. "The all-new IS kicks it up a notch with true sport sedan driving dynamics, state-of-the-art on-board technologies, and an all-new design that makes it look fast even when it's standing still."

The engine lineup is unchanged from the previous-generation IS, with the IS 250 powered by a 204-hp 2.5-litre V-6 and the IS 350 featuring a 306-hp 3.5L V-6. However, the new models adopt a Drive Mode Select system, which offers switchable driving modes -- Eco, Normal, Sport and, for the IS 350 only, Sport S+.

Toyota says the 2014 IS is the first Lexus model to adopt G-force Artificial Intelligence (G-AI) control in Sport mode. This system automatically selects the optimal gear and downshift pattern in response to G-force, and maintains the selected gear through a corner.

The rear-drive IS 350 inherits the eight-speed Sport Direct Shift (SPDS) automatic transmission from the IS F high-performance sedan, with quicker shifts, full torque converter lockup and throttle blips in manual mode. The rest of the model range comes with a six-speed automatic.

IS F Sport models are the recipient of dynamic enhancements, in addition to exclusive exterior and interior design features. Both the front and rear suspensions and electric power steering are retuned for the F Sport. An adaptive variable suspension system is set up for F Sports, while variable-gear-ratio steering is also offered on the IS 350.

The IS goes on sale this summer.

Nissan Versa Note, Resonance

Infiniti's brethren at Nissan also unveiled some new products at the NAIAS, including the 2014 Versa Note and the Resonance concept vehicle.

The new Versa, which goes on sale in June, is the fourth of five new models Nissan is introducing. It features an updated design, new features to improve fuel efficiency including an active grille shutter.

It also comes with an industry-first around-view monitor and features a starting price of $13,348.

The Resonance concept gives a glimpse into the future direction of Nissan crossovers, although it is hard to believe some of the edgy and futuristic design elements in this model will ever make it to a production vehicle. It features a bold new front end, including a V-Motion grille and cool headlight design.

The roof's floating design is created through the use of the thin, steeply raked A-pillars, large full-length glass panel and flowing D-pillar design, Nissan said.

Whether or not this design will resonate enough with consumers to force Nissan's hand and put some of these elements into a production vehicle remains to be seen.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 25, 2013 F4

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