Kia, Honda, Toyota trot out models worthy of note at auto show

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Toyota Motor President Akio Toyoda unveiling the newly-redesigned Camry at the North
American International Auto Show.

DETROIT: The German-designed sports sedan rolls onto the stage with some serious swagger.

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Guess the brand.

Even with a dozen tries, you might not get it right.

The vehicle is a Kia, the South Korean brand that took a big step last week at the North American International Auto Show.

Analysts reacted strongly to the model, the Kia Stinger, with praise but also questions about whether the automaker, long known as a low-cost leader, could pull off such an ambitious plan.

“I wouldn’t bet against them,” said Jake Fisher, director of auto testing at Consumer Reports.

The Stinger was one of the most critically lauded vehicles at a show that also saw the reveal of a new design for the top-selling Toyota Camry and a features-laden new version of the Honda Odyssey minivan.

The show was set against a backdrop of record-high new-car sales in 2016 and a forecast that 2017 might fall slightly short of the mark. And auto companies were eager to tout their investments in US jobs and plants, a message likely aimed at President-elect Donald Trump.

“The presence of someone who wasn’t even there was felt very intensely,” said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for Autotrader.com.

During his campaign and in the weeks since his election, Trump has used Twitter to criticize automakers who are investing in Mexico, and he has threatened to place tariffs on cars coming into the United States. At the same time, he has offered praise in response to new investments in this country.

Stinger makes its mark Kia polishing its image
Kia has spent years polishing its image, with improvements in reliability and handling to go along with its traditionally low prices. It is a path that has been taken, with success by fellow South Korean brand Hyundai, with whom Kia shares common ownership.

A preliminary version of the Stinger, called the GT concept, was revealed in 2011 at the Frankfurt Auto Show. This led to the version that was rolled out with fanfare last week in Detroit, which will go on sale as a 2018 model year vehicle.

Kia designed the vehicle at its offices in Germany. The engineering development was in South Korea, led by an executive who previously had been at BMW. Comparisons with BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi were encouraged.

“The Kia you knew 10 or even five years ago is gone,” said Michael Sprague, chief operating officer of Kia Motors America, speaking in Detroit.

Engines for the European-looking Stinger are still in development, but Kia says a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder will produce 255 horsepower; an optional 3.3-liter V6 pushes that up to 365 horsepower. Kia is targeting a zero to 62 mph speed in 5.1 seconds.

The Stinger goes on sale in late 2017. Pricing and other details were not announced.

The Stinger continues an evolution of Kia into a brand that attempts to compete in a wide array of segments. Its current top seller is the Soul, a subcompact SUV with pricing that starts at $16,100.

It is a leap to go from selling the Soul to selling a sports sedan with a European flair, and some analysts question whether Kia is up to the challenge.

The Stinger “has an opportunity to work really well in an auto show setting but not in the real world, which is always a danger,” said Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst for Edmunds.com.

Krebs is of the same mind. “It gets attention at an auto show,” she said while noting that overall sales are down for sporty sedans.

Stinger represents a stride in Kia’s (and Hyundai’s) effort to evolve in the face of a skeptical public.

“Every step of the way, they kind of prove people wrong,” he said.

Odyssey deluxe
Honda unveiled a new design for the Odyssey, which is one of the top-selling minivans.

The segment is much smaller than it used to be, but remains large enough, and its vehicles profitable enough, that several automakers continue to update their offerings.

The new Odyssey comes with a long list of features in on-board electronics, cabin comfort and safety. It goes on sale this spring. Pricing has not yet been disclosed.

Honda said the model will make everyone in the family happy, from the driver to the passengers in the third row. The engineering design was done at Honda R&D Americas in Raymond, Ohio.

(Information from the Associated Press was included in this story.) TNS

Fisher noted one feature that he sees as a big step forward: The Odyssey’s second-row seats can easily slide from side to side and front to back.

Honda calls this “Magic Slide” seating, and said it solves several problems faced by parents who are putting children or cargo into the vehicle through a side door.

Other companies have tried this type of seating, but Honda’s approach appears to be better.

“I think you’ll see other automakers follow,” Fisher said.

An advancement in seating is not likely to make minivans cool, but it will help Honda remain close to the top of the segment.

Camry redesign
Some of the country’s top-selling vehicles had news at the show. Ford announced a freshened version of the F-150 pickup with additional options and features, changes that are significant but not a full redesign.

Meanwhile, Toyota showed off a new design for the Camry, the country’s best-selling sedan. The 2018 Camry has a sleeker design and an array of new features, all while remaining familiar to existing fans. It goes on sale this summer. Pricing has not been announced.

The new look was introduced by Akio Toyoda, the company’s president, in a lighthearted presentation.

“A customer will have two very distinct Camrys to choose from: sexy and very sexy,” he said, referring to different versions of the model. “I know calling Camry sexy might be overstating things for some, but truly do believe our designs hit it out of the park this time.”

Caldwell described the event as the “Akio Toyoda comedy hour,” and she liked the tone.

As for the Camry itself, analysts generally liked it.

“It’s a hugely important vehicle,” Krebs said. “They definitely put some style into it. I bet it will stay the best selling.”

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