As I mentioned in my last blog, a few colleagues and I spent the first part of last week attending the North American International Auto Show in Detroit (hopefully you had a chance to catch our show updates on Twitter and Facebook).

Maybe the 40+ degree weather had something to do with it, but the atmosphere at this year’s show bore some resemblance to shows held prior to the recession. Unlike the scavenger hunts of the past few years, coffee and finger foods were easy enough to find, and judging by my almost always obstructed view, the show was very well attended by the press corp.

There’s good reason for the nascent optimism.  We closed out 2011 on four straight months with a SAAR above 13M units, and considering the quality of product unveiled at this year’s show, we should have little problem building upon that success this year.

Let’s look at some of the more highly anticipated production unveilings to make the point.

FORD FUSION 

Ford pretty much knocked the cover off of the ball in terms of the car’s design.  

The Fusion has a modern, clean luxury look about it that should be eagerly embraced by an increasingly design-conscious consumer (the front-end definitely has Aston influences).

In addition to its sharp looks, the Fusion will come with three engine choices (two of which are turbocharged), both a hybrid and a plug-in EV variant, and a slew of technology options.  The Fusion will also come with AWD, making it one of the few nameplates in the segment to offer this option.

If there were a best in show award, my vote would have gone to the Fusion.

HONDA ACCORD 

Historically Honda has treaded a safe path in terms of design updates, subtly changing things enough to rekindle demand but not enough to alienate the faithful.  While the Accord’s reskin isn’t as dramatic as the Fusion’s, there are enough unique cues to set it apart from other recent Honda updates (officially the Accord was a concept, so hopefully Honda doesn’t water things down for the production version).

For starters, a deeper front-end, revised beltline, and slightly flared rear wheel wells dramatically improve the car’s stance.  A sculpted hood, LED fog lights, and an integrated exhaust up the style quotient too.  Taken as a collective, the car has more of an aggressive stance than the outgoing model.

Honda plans to launch the Accord with three new engines based on the “Earth Dreams” technology announced at back in November which the company says will result in “top level driving performance and fuel efficiency”.  They’ll also be bringing back a hybrid model after a five year hiatus, but this time in plug-in guise.

Each year a dominant handful of nameplates punch it out in the mid-size car segment to see who can steal share from whom, but predictably only one – the Toyota Camry – can claim outright sales victory.

After seeing the new Fusion and Accord and considering that a new Nissan Altima is right around the corner (last year’s no. 2 bestseller), it’s going to be VERY hard for the Camry to retain its position of dominance going forward.

DODGE DART 

The Dart is the first Chrysler Group car to be based on a Fiat platform and it’s Dodge’s most legitimate compact car offering in what seems like an eternity.

During its presser, Dodge stated that it wasn’t interested in building a mere appliance.  Given the car’s contoured shape and its slew of trim levels (5) and features – customizable heads up display, heated steering wheel, rear-cross path detection sensor, lane departure warning sensor (the latter three all class exclusives) – the Dart definitely leaves the segment’s days of basic transportation far behind.

Dodge claims the Dart will achieve 40 mpg on the highway which will place it among the most fuel efficient in the class.  Although sales expectations weren’t announced, Dart sales should easily triple those of the outgoing Caliber (35k in 2011) and in the process earn Dodge a place among the top seven brands on the segment leaderboard.

CADILLAC ATS 

The ATS is Cadillac’s new luxury compact entrant that will take on the likes of the Audi A4, Mercedes’ C Class, and the perennial segment sales leader, the BMW 3 Series (the next CTS will grow in size and move up a class).  

Cadillac isn’t just targeting the 3 Series’ share of sales with the ATS, but also the universal recognition that the Bavarian model is the standard in the class for driving dynamics.

Per GM, they’ve created a car with a lightweight chassis that has low mass and razor-sharp steering.  The base 2.5L I4 aside, they’ve also powered the car competitively with an Ecotec 2.0L turbocharged I4, which at 270 horsepower bests the 3 Series base turbo (same displacement) by ten ponies.

To hear GM tell it, the ATS has all of the ingredients necessary to be a real driver’s car.  Based on known specs and their rigorous testing of the car at Germany’s infamous Nurburgring, there is little reason to doubt the claim. 

We’ll have to wait and see how this translates to new sales however.  BMW’s new 3-Series was also on display in Detroit and it doesn’t appear that they’ve done anything to harm the considerable amount of brand equity that the model enjoys.  Cadillac’s somewhat polarizing corporate design theme may also prove something of a barrier in luring new customers to the shield-and-crest fold.

This thought on Cadillac’s design is a good way to close this post. 

Manufacturer’s made it pretty clear at this year’s show that they believe design will take on an increasingly important role in determining future success (both Ford and Acura joined Dodge in actually vocalizing this sentiment).

While it makes sense that manufacturers will have to rely more on fashion in order to separate themselves from the pack considering the parity in terms of technology, powertrains, fuel efficiency, price, etc., it certainly won’t make life any easier for them. 

Now instead of “simply” keeping up with the Joneses on the more mundane need items of safety, price, and efficiency, manufacturer performance will increasingly be dictated by the emotional connection their designs have with consumers.  Bland design, no matter how good the underpinnings, will prevent a model from living up to its fullest potential.  On the other hand, good design can play a significant role in changing the fortunes of a company.

Judging by the great product unveiled in Detroit, this expansion of consumer choice will play a key role in stimulating yet another year of new sales recovery.