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2012 Detroit auto show: Reflections on the Clone Wars

Consumer Reports News: January 11, 2012 11:08 AM

As I made my last tour of the Cobo Center show floor in Detroit, it struck me how few new models stood out to me this year. I love that most unveilings were practical, or at least skewed toward the practical, from traditional mainstream models edging upscale to prestige brands reaching down toward mainstream budgets. The cars that etch themselves into my memory are distinctive in appearance, function, and/or mission, leaving so many others anonymous in an army of clones.

Having shot most of the photos for our coverage, I had each car square in my viewfinder several times as I tried to get clean, uncluttered images. (No small task with thousands of other people trying to do the same, mind you.) It is definitely not a good sign when I have to walk around the car to triple-check what model it is.

Take Cadillac, for example. Following the path blazed by Buick, it seems a smart move for GM’s premium line to move into the small-car category, while preserving brand character and edging the package in a more youthful direction. But the ATS just blends in with all the other sharply creased Cadillac models, including the new XTS. Design consistency is important, but I can imagine consumers getting a bit confused at the dealership, let alone when reading the meaningless alphanumeric designations when researching. (Look at Lincoln’s lineup, and you’ll see what I mean.)

2013-Audi-A4-Allroad.jpgWalking through the Audi, BMW, and Porsche booths, I had the same feeling. Beautiful designs, all rendered in small, medium, and large. Pick a size.

A related trend is being risk averse when redesigning. I appreciate that success is a fragile circumstance these days, but from an enthusiast perspective, you want a new car to be visually distinctive and exciting. At the simplest level, if the car doesn’t look fresh enough that your neighbor notices it in the driveway, something isn’t connecting.

New 911 Cabriolet? Uh, looks like the old one. And then there is the new master of the Clone Wars, Honda. Can you tell the new Civic from the old one from 50 feet? Now the Accord follows suit. Again, the upside is that the old Accord is a good car that is tastefully executed, but when taken as a whole, such cars don’t stand out in my consciousness.

On the other hand, there were numerous designs that were daring, exciting, and truly memorable. Starting with my initial tour of the show, the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ look more exotic and expensive than their anticipated pricing. And that’s a great thing.

2013-Ford-Fusion-blog.jpgFrom the new unveils, I thought the Acura ILX, Chevrolet Code 130R, Ford Fusion, and Nissan Pathfinder succeeded in being fresh, bold, and memorable, while remaining true to their brands. (The Acura NSX is gorgeous, but it looks a bit too Lamborghini Gallardo to join this club.)

I rather like the Audi Q3, Buick Encore, and Toyota Prius C for adapting the brand character into new forms, though they all look like sidekicks to more memorable characters. And somehow the Dodge Dart was the most forgettable. Kinda like the last Neon.

Scan through our 2012 Detroit auto show coverage and see which designs stand out to you. As the week progresses, we’ll be posting more videos, offering a closer look at the most notable models.

Jeff Bartlett

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