Tussle For 2012 Begins At LA Auto Show


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Many new-vehicle unveilings at this week's Los Angeles auto show, where media previews begin tomorrow, reveal some of the crucial puzzle pieces automakers will leverage to extract the most from what promises to be another uncertain and unpredictable market in 2012. On the tactical level, the 2012 LA show features two major new models in one of the United States' hardest-charging segments — compact SUVs— and a host of new plays in the suddenly up-for-grabs luxury market.

And that's before anybody gets to the “green” factor, always an LA-show emphasis. Only this year, with sales of hybrid-electric vehicles flagging and continuing doubts about depth of the demand pool for expensive and limited-range electric vehicles, HEVs and EVs aren't as prominent. Instead, with gasoline prices stabilizing to partially-tolerable levels and the recessionary market still wary of expensive alternative-drive models, most automakers' LA show message is about the new fuel-sipping attributes of newly revised plain 'ol gasoline-engine models.

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Compact SUV Boxing Match
Circumstantial product-development cycles bring together at the LA show the two strongest players in what remains one of the U.S.-market's most significant segments, compact SUVs. Ford Motor Co., which currently has no trouble consistently clearing dealer lots of its Escape — despite an aged platform and only vaguely contemporary styling — is unveiling an all-new Escape that production-izes the well-received design of the Vertrek concept (above) and seriously ups the ante in the powertrain department with two new EcoBoost 4-cylinder engines.

Directly against the Escape is the 2012 Honda CR-V, the fourth generation of what has become the segment benchmark. Honda's LA show debut of the CR-V is expected to reveal a careful evolution only, a move that might be expected given the gravity of messing with success in such a high-pressure segment — but a strategy that might yet again win Honda criticism for extreme conservatism in the face of ever-improving competition.

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Luxury-Car Scrap
It's widely known that Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus luxury-vehicle unit, beset by problems ranging from March's earthquake in Japan to lingering questions about the parent company's attention to quality, is going to lose its position as the U.S. market's No. 1 luxury brand. Circling to pull at the Lexus carcass are Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz, BMW AG and General Motors Co.'s Cadillac.

Cadillac brings one of the LA auto show's most-crucial unveilings with the XTS (above), the car that at once becomes the brand's new flagship (so long, unloved STS) and new upper-midsize entry, too, effectively replacing both the STS and the fullsize DTS. To say there's a lot riding on the XTS is understatement: Cadillac has long been a tertiary player in the heart of the luxury market, where the BMW 5-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class reign, so Cadillac has to prove the XTS worthy of taking the fight to the Germans — a feat that for decades has eluded the Detroit brand. The XTS is based on GM's front-wheel-drive Epsilon II architecture, although all-wheel-drive will be available. But the car's front-drive derivation may hurt it against the traditional rear-drive provenance of the German (and Japanese) competition.

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Also from GM will be a Buick concept car, the Lacrosse GL (above), that seems to tilt uncomfortably towards Cadillac's ground with a high-opulence version of the LaCrosse. The LaCrosse already rides on the same Epsilon hardware that is used by the Cadillac XTS, so Buick's move to foreshadow a ultra-premium version of the LaCrosse appears to be at odds with the company's efforts to minimize customer scavenging among its four remaining brands.

Also at the LA show are two new luxury crossovers, the production version of Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s Infiniti JX and the Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG. Infiniti takes on the 7-passenger crossover market — such as it is — with the JX, a unibody fullsizer that presumably would eventually take the place of today's truck-based QX. The JX is V6-powered and is backed by Nissan's favored transmission technology, the continuously variable transmission, all of which presumably makes the JX a better fuel-economy citizen than the overly brawny, V8-toting QX.

One might consider the perception of fuel-efficiency to be the least of Mercedes' concerns with the 518-horsepower ML63 AMG, but the company in fact is trumpeting the fact that the performance crossover's 5.5-liter twin-turbocharged V8 is significantly more frugal than the previous-generation ML63's 6.3-liter V8. Then again, there's the new availability of the AMG Performance Package that brings power to 550 horses and raises top speed to the 174 miles per hour all affluent soccer moms insist upon.

Hyundai Motor America also might be considered dipping a toe into the shallow end of the luxury pond with its all-new Azera fullsize sedan. The car certainly is more of a design statement than the current Azera, although the larger and visibly more upscale-appearing new 2012 model may lead to confusion within the Hyundai showroom, what with the Genesis sedan already well-established as the brand's near-luxury player and the curious Equus handling the flagship role. Perhaps Hyundai dealers plan to explain the 2012 Azera remains front-wheel-drive — competitors include the Nissan Maxima, Buick LaCrosse, Toyota Avalon, et. al. — while the Genesis and Equus are rear-drivers.

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Compact Performance
For all the LA auto show's green undercurrents, there are a surprising number of performance models up for de-sheeting. These include several variants of the 2013 Ford Mustang, including a 650-horsepower GT500 that Ford said will exceed 200 mph. Fiat will show the 500 Abarth (above), and we'll see a new Dodge Challenger and Charger SRT variants from Chrysler Group LLC. On a tamer note, the 5-door Ford Fiesta ST, with a 180-horsepower EcoBoost-upgraded version of the standard Fiesta's 1.6-liter 4-cylinder will make its debut.

General Motors' Chevrolet planned to unveil the 2013 Spark microcar (top), a 5-door hatchback that seats four. Power comes from a 1.2-liter 4-cylinder that generates 85 horsepower. The Spark completes an all-new compact-car model range for Chevy dealers that began with the Cruze, moved down to the subcompact Sonic and finishes with the Spark, which will joust with the 2012 Scion iQ and smart fourtwo, although most subcompact cars are likely to be cross-shopped with this new generation of microcars.

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