Detroit auto show: Big and bad is back

DETROIT (AFP) - Big and brash is beautiful after all.

Or so it appears in the world of the American vehicle enthusiast, after the Detroit auto show this week rolled out a series of ever-larger cars and menacing trucks.

At a time when there is a trend for many objects to become smaller, and after some hints the auto world was going the same way, this year's Detroit auto extravaganza presents a stark contrast.

It has much to do with the low cost of gasoline, experts say, but is also about taste.

Take the aptly named new Nissan Titan pickup, unleashed on Monday at the North American International Auto Show and a hulking beast that can tow more than 5 tonnes and is over 5m long.

This is a true "warrior", Mr Brent Hagan, Nissan senior planner, said.

"It's a very appropriate name for the full-size truck segment. Truck customers like trucks that are big and bold, they match the personality of the customer.

"With trucks, it's about capability and performance. No other vehicle that you can buy can tow the levels of a full-size truck, so the name Titan matches the fullness, capability and capacity.

"At focus groups, the name resonates very well. Truck customers tend to have a little bit of bravado about them and think of themselves as 'Titans'."

Nissan has its work cut out to catch up with Ford's F-150 pickup - named North American truck of the year in Detroit and the best-selling car or truck in the United States.

With the pick-up segment the most profitable for automakers, the bigger-is-better trend looks set to continue - to the chagrin of those more concerned about the environmental impact.

And then there is the increasingly popular CUV ("crossover") and SUV segment of an auto industry, buoyed by the best sales figures last year in nearly a decade in the United States, and low interest rates and cheaper gas.

At a lavish reception in downtown Detroit - itself on the slow upturn after bankruptcy - Mercedes presented its GLE Coupe mid-size crossover.

Meanwhile another luxury brand, Bentley, gave tantalising glimpses of its first SUV and announced it would be called the Bentley Bentayga. It will hit the streets in 2016.

The Bentayga will be "the most exclusive SUV in the world", said Mr Wolfgang Durheimer, chief executive of Bentley.

Also at it were Audi, which unveiled its next-gen Q7 luxury crossover, and Volkswagen with a concept crossover. Even Hyundai displayed a concept pickup, among the many others.

Mr Alec Gutierrez, a specialist with Kelley Blue Book, a vehicle valuation and automotive research company, said that the desire for big, luxurious vehicles was strongly linked to low gas prices.

"There's a shift in consumer preferences that we observed in the last three months from smaller cars to big cars," he told AFP.

"That shift has accelerated lately. It may last at least six more months - it is sustainable and viable.

"Our expectation is that gas prices will stay low for at least six months."