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The 5 most interesting concepts at the Detroit auto show

Published January 17, 2013

The North American International Auto Show opens to the public Saturday in Detroit, but the media got to see everything earlier this week and we weren’t disappointed.

More than 50 new vehicles, or major revisions of new vehicles, are on display this year. For the first time in a long time, the 500 cars on the floor from dozens of different makers are both exciting and realistic, marking a welcome optimism for the automotive future.

The North American Car and Truck/Utility award winners were also announced, with the titles going back to Detroit-based makers for the Cadillac ATS sports sedan and the Ram 1500 pickup. Both makers called their wins a turning point for the domestic industry.

But there are also plenty of concept vehicles on display here, which show what cars are going to look like not long from now. Here are the most interesting:

Ford Atlas

This is the surprise of the show because there was no information leaked beforehand. It’s believed to herald the 2015 F-150 pickup truck, the best-selling vehicle in North America, which will be as fuel-efficient as Ford can make it.

The Atlas is big and capable, but has focused its fuel economy on affordable ways to cut through the air with as little resistance as possible. This includes a front air dam that lowers beneath the bumper at highway speed to smooth the slipstream under the truck, but raises at lower speed to increase ground clearance.

Like some of Ford’s cars, the Atlas has active shutters in the front grille that only stay open when the engine needs to be cooled, but close at other times to improve aerodynamics. It also has shutters on the wheels that close at speed but are open at other times to just look better, and running boards that retract when driving to cut down on wind resistance.

Technology inside makes the daunting size of the truck more manageable, with electronic live-screen aids for hooking up a trailer and even backing up a trailer.

Ford didn’t say anything about the powertrain of the Atlas except that it would be powered by its successful Ecoboost engine. The truck also has stop-start technology to turn off the engine when not moving, but this is automatically disabled when it knows it’s towing something.

Toyota Furia

“Please don’t try to open the doors,” said Toyota USA vice-president Bill Fay when he introduced the Furia. “This is an external design concept only.” Which means the Furia has nothing behind its dark-tinted windows except enough to drive it on stage, but the whole point is to see the shape of the next-generation Corolla.

This is a much more aggressive-looking car than the average Toyota, and considerably more dynamic than the tried-and-true Corolla. It’s “an early indicator of where our compact-car design may lead in the future,” said Fay, who used the word “furious” several times to describe Toyota’s ambition.

There’s a seductive band of light that fills the front of the car beneath the hood, together with LED diamond-shaped lights flanking a deep grille. A swept-back windshield and sloping roof, together with an athletic Lexus-like rear, are a big styling move for one of the world’s best-selling cars.

Corolla customers are usually more concerned with value and reliability than appearance — few would tick off the option box for the Furia’s 19-inch wheels or carbon-fibre accents, so they’ll surely never see production. But the rest of it might.

Hyundai HCD-14

The HCD-14 could show what the next-generation of Hyundai’s Genesis sedan might look like, after going through “Fluidic Precision” design treatment. This means a sharp door crease under the windows, a smooth roof all the way to the very back, a huge, deep grille on the front.

It’s more interesting inside, though, where drivers will be encouraged to keep their eyes on the road and their hands on — or at least close to — the wheel. The dashboard is not filled with buttons and switches, but a large heads-up display on the windshield will give information to the driver. In turn, cameras will track the driver’s eyes on the virtual dashboard, and even the driver’s hand-movement gestures, to predict commands.

This is technology that already exists. The challenge is to make it work without being even more distracting than it is already. The good news is that if Hyundai can really do it, then it won’t be overpriced.

Nissan Resonance

There was plenty of styling jargon thrown around at the introduction of Nissan’s Resonance, which is likely to herald the next-generation Murano crossover.

“In profile, the energetic counterline shows counterpoints of dynamic fluidity and pure edginess,” said Nissan’s global product planner Andy Palmer. Er, right.

The Resonance is “for customers with a bright and optimistic outlook for the future, particularly U.S. customers,” Palmer added, suggesting it is “a bold proposal that expresses our aspiration to maintain global crossover leadership well into the future.”

The interest here is in the styling, which makes the mid-sized CUV seem larger inside than it is, with steeply-raked A-pillars allowing the panoramic sunroof to seem to float. The interior is supposed to feel more like an airport’s VIP lounge than a car’s cabin, with a layered, almost holographic, display for the driver’s instrumentation.

Oh, and it’s powered by a hybrid drivetrain. Of course it is.

Volkswagen Crossblue

The Crossblue is a seven-passenger SUV that will replace the Routan minivan next year. It will use the Passat platform and be built in Tennessee, but don’t expect next year’s production model to be too similar to this concept.

It’s throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, at its powertrain: a plug-in 2 L diesel-hybrid engine with two electric motors to power its four-wheel drive, allowing up to 22 kilometres of pure electric travel. Fuel consumption is rated at 2.6 L/100 km when it accounts for that non-diesel-powered extra distance.

The engine will be powerful: up to 305 hp, but the diesel allows for lots of extra torque, coming in at a claimed 516 lb.-ft. The version here is built to carry six people, but there’ll be an option for a seven-passenger version, too.

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