DETROIT—Once the crown jewel of the US auto industry, the annual North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) has lacked a bit of its usual luster in recent years. Like November’s Los Angeles Auto Show, Detroit has felt the effect of many OEMs instead choosing to annually exhibit their work at the wider-reaching Consumer Electronics Show.
That said, there was still plenty to see in Detroit this year. We encountered replacements for best sellers like the Toyota Camry, BMW 5 Series, and Ford F-150. Kia grabbed plenty of attention on the eve of the show with its sporty Stinger GT. And, of course, there were concept cars. Whether outlandish or almost production-ready, these event staples lurked almost everywhere we looked.
We’ve had plenty of coverage from Detroit this week after pounding the floor of Cobo Hall for the two-day press preview. And after having a moment to reconsider both the crazy and cool, we’ve made our picks for the 2017 best in show. In a couple of rare instances, we’ve even given more than one award to the same vehicle.
Coolest new large sedan: BMW 5 Series
This category featured the stiffest competition. While the Kia Stinger is an interesting new entrant to the market, and Toyota’s eighth-generation Camry will sell millions, BMW decided Detroit would work well for the world premiere of its latest 5 Series. Thanks to a diet of aluminum, magnesium, and some high-strength steel, the new 5 Series (codenamed the G30) is up to 137lbs lighter than before despite growing ever so slightly longer than the previous F30 generation.
There was a pair of new 5 Series models on display at NAIAS. There was the M550i xDrive, an all-wheel drive version with a potent 465hp (347kW), 480lb-ft (650Nm), 4.4L twin-turbo V8. This will top the range until the inevitable arrival of a new M5 sometime in the future. But to us, the more interesting option is the 530e. It’s the first 5 Series hybrid and comes in either rear- or all-wheel drive. It couples an electric motor to BMW’s 2.0L turbocharged inline four for a combined output of 248hp (185kW) and 310lb-ft (420Nm).
Coolest new SUV/most interesting new concept: Audi Q8
This is the first of our double award winners. Our love of a good concept car is well-documented, but they tend to fall into one of two camps. First, there’s the designer’s flight of fancy, like BMW’s series of Vision Next vehicles. These are often styling exercises that may never translate to the road. But second, there’s the teaser—thinly disguised but production-ready machines that are meant to get the public ready for an imminent arrival. It’s into this category that Audi’s stunning Q8 SUV falls.
Even though the Q8 was presented to us as a concept, Audi will put it into production in 2018. Traditionally, luxury car makers have built flagship sedans to pack full of their latest technology, but those sales are drying up as customers opt for SUVs (and their greater inherent practicality) instead. So it makes perfect sense for Audi to go after this emerging market with an SUV that we think will sell in volumes that the related A8 could never aspire to. It can’t hurt that Bentley seems to be finding homes for the Bentayga, a rather ungainly looking SUV with a plutocratic price tag, built on the same MLB evo platform.
The Q8 cuts a bold dash, with flared wheel arches and a rakish C-pillar that intentionally evokes the Ur-Quattro of the 1980s. It also gave us our best look at the brand’s newest interior design direction, a riot of angular brushed metal and haptic feedback “black panel” displays that are elegantly integrated rather than appearing as an afterthought. The fact that the Q8 will be offered as a plug-in hybrid—which should ameliorate some of the worst characteristics of the big SUV—makes us even happier.
Coolest new hatchback/most exciting new battery electric vehicle: Chevrolet Bolt
Now we get to our second double winner, the Chevrolet Bolt. Yes, it’s true there were few new offerings in either category at this year’s show. And, yes, it’s true that the Bolt has been seen before. But as the first long-range EV from someone other than Tesla, it continues to be a car that captures our attention. Of course, it captures the attention of others, too. Famed Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak—who’s also on his fourth Tesla Model S—took delivery of his Bolt at the beginning of January, announcing on Facebook that he prefers the Chevy’s UI and day-to-day practicality.
At $37,495 (before tax credits), the Bolt will be the cheapest long-range battery EV on our roads, at least until Tesla starts pumping out Model 3s. Its 60kWH battery gives the car a range of 238 miles, and performance should be peppy with 266lb-ft (360Nm) of torque on offer (power is 200hp/150kW). The one-box body style is compact, but attention to detail on the interior (notably very thin seats) maximizes interior space, TARDIS-style.
Our brief drive in a pre-production Bolt at CES 2016 was encouraging, and later this month we’ll get our first proper go in the final version. If it’s at least as competent as the Volt plug-in hybrid, we think it will be a winner. What’s much less encouraging is the fact that five years after Tesla started selling the Model S, the Bolt remains the only long-range battery EV on offer from any of the traditional OEMs. Car industry, you need to do better.