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At Detroit Auto Show and beyond, the devil is in the details

If you were paying attention during the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), which opened to the public this weekend, automakers with the wherewithal are targeting smaller, entry-level luxury cars next year.
Posted: January 15, 2012 - 8:40PM
Author: Don Bain


Car makers are doing so in order to attract younger buyers to the better things in life and hopefully keep them there – in the brand’s bigger and better luxury cars as their ways and means increase. Which is ultimately a reconstruction of the European market model – where large SUVs and trucks take a back seat to more urbane, efficient, smaller, but poshly-appointed sedans and Eurowagons from the likes of Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and even Volkswagen.

NAIAS 2012 revealed new, luxurious small cars or concepts from Honda, GM, Nissan and Toyota, hoping to cash in on the expected combination of last years biggest trends – sales growth came from both ends of the spectrum – smaller, fuel efficient cars and premium, luxury vehicles.

Jeff Conrad, Acura vice president indicated he sees major growth coming from the entry-level luxury segment over the next several years, believing these vehicles will represent most of the growth in premium market, according to Robert Schoenberg in a post on

Brandon Mason, a Detroit analyst with the consulting company formerly known as Price Waterhouse Cooper (PwC) reportedly stated, "We've seen growth in the small car and crossover segment in general. It's only natural to expect the luxury segment to move that way as well."

Honda is putting their money on the Acura ILX, a model of their premium line with a base price under $30K. It’s basically a cleaned-up, formally-attired Civic which starts at $16K, so figure the rest goes into better tactile appointments and a lot of cutting edge tech and telematics – that’s what the younger buyer will want – all the bells and whistles (now known as apps) they’ve come to expect from all their electronics. More and more, to this market, cars are simply electronics that transport their bodies as well as their minds.

Hampden Tener, marketing manager for the smaller Cadillac ATS, notes that GM needs to sell more small luxury cars to improve the overall fuel economy of the brand. They like building Escalades even though the fuel efficiency is appalling, but the model makes lots of money for them.

GM’s track record with fuel economy has been rather dismal, but it IS improving. "We spent countless hours with compact luxury customers around the world - U.S., Europe and China" in designing the ATS, Tener said. "Instead of taking a set of parts and figuring out what we could make out of it, we asked what does the customer want and what parts are we going to need to get." So comes the dawn, eh?

Meanwhile the Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne IN has just published an interview with the GM exec that will oversee the coming ATS launch, by Tom Krisher of the AP.

It is Mary Barra’s job, as head of GM Product Development, to get the devil out of the details when it comes to the ergonomics of GM vehicles, like the new Cadillac ATS, one of her pet projects.

It’s a simple fact one poorly designed control, one misplaced knob or button can dash the hopes – not mention millions of dollars in development costs – when the slick magazines and slicker online sites sink their teeth into it.

Barra wants to improve GM’s competition in the premium small car market, putting an end to hurried prelaunch changes, which result in short term problems. Of course the reality of this entails overseeing 36,000 workers worldwide, including engineers and designers.

Barra has driven the op: Cadillac ATS models several times during its design and development stages. It reportedly resembles a smaller version of the popular CTS. “It really represents what our engineering team is capable of doing, starting with the gorgeous design,” she said. “I know it’s going to deliver.”

GM’s brands have their work cut out for them in terms of initial quality and reliability, ranking from 17th to 25th in the Consumer Reports rankings.
“There might be nothing wrong with this dial, but if it’s not in the right place or the button’s not in the right place,” it affects the ranking, Barra said. “It’s about attention to detail.”

As we all know, that’s where the devil lives.