6 Top New Cars At Detroit Auto Show

DETROIT MainStreet) -- The 2012 Detroit Auto Show sent a clear message: Detroit is back.

Auto sales continue to trend upward after two years of gains. The Detroit Three are all profitable and all three gained market share in 2011 -- partially because of one-time woes that befell their principal competitors.

The mood of this year's show was positive, said Ford ( F) CFO Louis Booth in an interview. "You can see two things so far," Booth said on the second day of the auto show press preview. "One is lots of great products launched by all manufacturers. The other is a continued strong emphasis on fuel economy, which is increasingly important to customers."

Commenting on the new Ford Fusion, Karl Brauer, editor of the TotalCarScore a car comparison site, noted that most new cars today are well-made and reliable. "Design is one of the most important things right now," Brauer said. "It's all that's left, because nearly every new car is dependable, comfortable and safe."

Here is our list of the top six cars from major manufacturers that were unveiled at the show.

2013 Cadillac ATS
GM ( GM) got a jump on everybody, distributing photos of the ATS on the eve of the press preview and formally unveiling it early Monday.

Don't think being first is not important to Detroit's automakers. Ford and Chevrolet are arguing about which is America's No. 1 brand.

ATS is a lightweight, rear-wheel drive vehicle with one of the lowest curb weights in the segment of less than 3,400 pounds. GM called it "the most agile and lightweight Cadillac." The most fuel-efficient ATS will get 30 mpg on the highway.

The car represents GM's effort to take on BMW and Mercedes, leaders in the luxury segment, just as it took on small car makers a year ago when introducing the Cruze, which ended the year as the 10th-best-selling vehicle in the U.S. and our choice as car of the year.

"It looks like they are going right for the jugular with BMW, trying to build a car that will out-handle the current 3 series," Motor Trend Editor Edward Loh said. "It's a bold assertion by Cadillac, because BMW created the sports sedan segment and Cadillac has never been a player in this field. To even talk about taking on BMW, they have to go through Mercedes, Audi and Lexus."

2013 Ford Fusion
Ford introduced a new Fusion even though the existing Fusion is the country's sixth-best-selling vehicle and third-best-selling car.

The change speaks to the brutal competition in the midsize sedan segment. Among the other top five cars in the segment, Toyota ( F) has a new Camry, GM will soon have a new Malibu, Hyundai and Nissan have popular vehicles -- the Sonata and Altima -- and Honda ( HMC) unveiled a new Accord at the auto show. (The next car you will see is the Accord.)

As for the new Fusion, it represents "a complete departure from the Fusion's previous styling," said Brauer of TotalCarScore. The midsize market is home to brutal competition, he said, "but that's where the volume is."

Ford's design goal was "to give the mainstream sedan buyer a top-drawer visual experience, adding some emotional appeal to an already sensible choice," said Chris Hamilton, chief exterior designer, in a statement.

Among the new technologies in the Fusion is a lane-keeping system, which uses a small camera to trigger an alert for drivers drifting out of a lane and can even apply pressure on steering to help bring the car back to a proper position.

2013 Honda Accord
Last year was tough for Honda, which suffered supply chain difficulties because of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan as well as flooding in Thailand. Additionally, the newly designed Honda Civic was poorly received.

Honda's U.S. sales declined 6.8%, compared with a 6.7% decline for Toyota. Five of the seven top U.S. automakers gained ground, and the total market gained 10%.

Meanwhile, sales of the Accord declined 17%, to 235,625, while sales of the Civic declined 15%, to 221,235. They were the two biggest losers among the top 15 vehicles.

"Honda is using the Detroit Auto Show -- in the backyard of the Detroit Three -- to broadcast to the world that both the Honda and Acura brands are back with an inventory pipeline replenished from last year's Japan earthquake and the promise of new core products," said Edmunds.com analyst Michelle Krebs, in a statement.

The new Accord will be the same size as the existing model, but it will have a shorter wheel base and less weight, making it more fuel efficient.

"When the concept Accord hits the market in the fall, Honda will have revamped its three core models -- Civic, CR-V and Accord -- that account for two-thirds of its U.S. sales," Krebs said.

2013 Dodge Dart
The resurgence of Chrysler, which not long ago was given up for dead -- again -- was among the auto industry's biggest stories in 2011. So big that even CEO Sergio Marchionne growing a beard was news at the auto show.

But Chrysler is still missing one thing: a credible entry in the compact car segment. To get one, Chrysler reached back into the past for a name.

"They resurrected the name from the 1960s," said Loh, of Motor Trend. "The car looks spectacular, and Dodge is offering a bunch of interesting four-cylinder engines," including one called the Tigershark.

The Dodge Dart will be the first Chrysler based on Fiat architecture and will be built at Chrysler's Belvidere, Ill., assembly plant. Pricing will begin at $15,995, with the car scheduled to come to market in the second quarter of 2012.

Ralph Gilles, Chrysler's head of design, told Automotive News that Dart's sleek styling, some of which derives from the much larger Dodge Charger sedan, is risky in a compact segment where styling is generally more subdued.

"It's such a populated segment that we have to stand for something. If you don't do that, you end up being another also-ran," Gilles told the newspaper. "We'd rather take a risk and find the unserved. There are a lot of unserved people out there that want a car that's exciting, that maybe are downsizing, and this is a perfect place for them to fall into."

2012 BMW 3-Series
Congrats to Cadillac for unveiling the ATS, but the competition is not exactly standing still.

Hours after Cadillac unveiled the ATS, BMW showed its 2012 3-Series, which is faster, roomier and more fuel efficient than its predecessor.

The car will go on sale in February and will be available in a hybrid.

"BMW has taken very few risks with the car that accounts for a third of its total sales," said Edmunds' InsideLine.com contributor Michael Taylor. "Such is the planning in Munich that the 3 Series shares parts with other family members, both lesser and greater."

BMW had a good year in 2011, posting its best sales results ever as worldwide sales rose 14%, to 1.7 million. In the U.S, a 15% December sales increase enabled BMW to surpass Mercedes as the No. 1 luxury brand, with annual sales of 247,907. The two had battled to replace Lexus as the top luxury brand in the U.S.

"BMW Group sales momentum has been increasing all year and this new burst of consumer confidence filled our dealer showrooms, putting BMW over the top," said Ludwig Willisch, CEO for BMW of North America, in a statement as December results were announced -- a bit late because initially BMW and Mercedes hesitated to report sales, given the intensely close competition.

BMW announced Thursday that it will spend $900 million to expand its Spartanburg, S.C., plant, enabling it to build 350,000 vehicles a year, many of them for export. The plant produces the BMW X3, X5, and X6 SUVs.

Lincoln MKZ Concept
The luxury segment is not huge, but it is a place where vehicles produce far higher profit than compacts, so it is understandable Ford would like to have a bigger presence.

The Lincoln MKZ concept car, unveiled at the auto show, "shows a strong hint of where Lincoln is going," Ford's Booth said.

"We can compete with the premium brands," said Booth, noting that Lincoln will "not be exactly like BMW or Lexus -- we think we can find a set of brand characteristics that resonate with our customer base." The new MKZ will go on sale in the fall.

Among the recognizable brand design elements ensuring recognition as a Lincoln is the split-wing grill, resembling the two wings of a bird, that was introduced on the 1938 Lincoln-Zephyr. The concept has a long, sweeping roofline that enables a flowing aerodynamic appearance and a glass roof that creates an airy, open interior.

The luxury segment accounts for 11% to 13% of overall U.S. sales. While Cadillac sold 152,389 units in 2011, Lincoln sold just 85,643.

Brauer of TotalCarScore said the MKZ concept has "a presence" that should serve it well as it seeks to make its mark. "A premium luxury car needs to be special," Brauer said. "You can't get started in the luxury sector if you don't have that nailed down, and Lincoln hasn't done that in a long time. But this car has that sense."

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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