But the new stars with the best box-office prospects were a trio of boxy small SUVs: the Ford Escape, the Honda CR-V, and the Mazda CX-5. Americans' demand for tall wagons with all-wheel-drive — the cross-training sneakers of the auto world — has never been more fervent, and for their makers, the stakes have never been higher.
For Ford, the new 2013 Ford Escape attempts to replace a decade-old model that was once the bestselling SUV in the country. Designed to be sold around the world as the Kuga, the new Escape eschews the block styling for a slipperier shape that mimics the Ford Focus, with which it shares basic components. Three engines — including two EcoBoost turbo four-cylinder models — replace the V-6 and hybrids offered previously, while promising better fuel economy and up to 237 hp.
Although the Escape will boast a long list of tech features — from automatic parallel parking and shutters for better aerodynamics at highway speeds to a liftgate that can open with a kick under the rear bumper — it's no longer available as a hybrid. Ford says the smaller C-Max hybrid will serve the same market when it debuts next year, and that the smaller EcoBoost actually offer betters mileage on gasoline alone, for a lower cost.
Mazda's march to full independence from its days under Ford's control begins in earnest with the 2013 CX-5. Built from a new chassis, and carrying Mazda’s more curvaceous styling cues, the CX-5 sports a 155-hp, 2-liter four-cylinder engine tied to either a manual or automatic six-speed transmission. Those specs aren't thrilling even by small SUV standards, but Mazda's tuned the CX-5 for fuel economy, not power — getting 26 mpg in city driving and 32 mpg on the highway with the six-speed automatic, likely best in class.
The interior offers the requisite entertainment screens and space, with a few tricks like a rear seat that can fold three different ways from a remote switch. The real trick may be getting a wider range of shoppers to give Mazda a chance.
The toughest assignment belongs to the 2012 Honda CR-V, once the class leader of the segment. A combination of natural disasters and lukewarm designs has put Honda off its game this year, and the CR-V needs to perform well from the start.
Built from the Civic chassis, all CR-Vs will come equipped with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder motor good for 185 hp. While the new CR-V gains a few miles per gallon from its predecessor, Honda’s decision to stick with a five-speed transmission means the CR-V will struggle to match either the Ford or Mazda’s mileage.
Outside the breadwinners, there was more muscle flashing than a bodybuilding contest. By the end of the press preview, one Chevrolet executive was issuing challenges to Ford through a Detroit News critic to take the 2013 Chevy Camaro and the 2013 Ford Mustang to a shootout at Germany’s famed Nürburgring. The Camaro ZL1 only has 580 hp, compared to the Ford Shelby’s 650 hp, but a true face-off would be closer thanks to the Camaro’s more modern suspension.
If they race, the pace car could be the Jaguar XKR-S, a 550-hp, $130,000 convertible of which only 25 will make it to these shores. And the undercard could feature an autocross-off between the Fiat 500 Abarth, the 160-hp sport version of the Cinquecento, and the Subaru BRZ, the company’s first rear-wheel-drive sports car shown as a thinly disguised STI concept.
The other mini-trend came in the realm of large sedans, from the flashy Cadillac XTS and flowing Hyundai Azera to the revamped Volkswagen CC and Lincoln MKS. Of the four, the XTS offered the most glamorous interior accouterments, but the most striking design belonged to the Azera, a model that had been overlooked in Hyundai's booming lineup. As Hyundai's success shows, a little beauty works wonders for making everyday owners enthusiasts.