Saturday, January 23, 2010

Eric's Auto Show Report

The Spirit of Detroit on Woodward Avenue at Jefferson Avenue, 2 blocks from Cobo.

This was a very important year for the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Hall in downtown Detroit. The U.S. car companies are trying to reinvent themselves amid the turmoil of a harsh economic climate that saw them move a lot less sheet metal than they would like, and all the other car companies and suppliers are feeling the crunch as well. It's survival time, so you better show the best you have to offer!

Ford Motor Company is on an unbelievable roll right now. As the only major US automaker not to take a government bailout they are in an enviable position. They have a huge lead in product development and it shows. They are releasing hit after hit after hit. First came the redesigned Fusion and Fusion Hybrid, then the Taurus and Taurus SHO, the Mustang, The Focus, and finally the Fiesta. This was by far the most impressive lineup of the show, and from top to bottom all the new Ford products show extremely high quality. This is especially evident in the interiors. Their cars are good looking, they perform well, and they are made right. If you are looking for a car you would be doing yourself a serious disservice to overlook this brand. And no, I don't work for Ford. I have never even owned one -yet.

Ford Taurus

Ford Focus

Ford Fiesta

The return of the Ford Mustang "5.0" with a 5 liter engine putting out 420 horsepower.

General Motors
It's evident that GM is not that far behind Ford in their product development, and you can see that they are serious about their new product. Two monumentally important cars for GM are the Chevrolet Cruze and Volt. These cars are crucial to GM's success. The Cruze is their new compact car and shows lots of promise. Handsome looks combined with good fit and finish and an upscale look to the interior make for an appealing car. GM must sell this car in high volume to compete in the marketplace. In order to be taken seriously by the rest of the world, the Volt electric car must be a success. The development cost for this car is extremely high, but if it succeeds in sales it could make GM a technology leader and push aside the established "Green" cars like Toyota's Prius on the must-have list. With Toyota's current recall woes likely to get worse, now is a perfect time to show some authority and reclaim the global sales lead. Brand consolidation has sharpened GM's focus. Buick continues to sell well in emerging markets like China and Cadillac is offering some desirable models. At the end of the day it's all about making what people want to buy.

The new 556 horsepower Cadillac CTS-V coupe

Cadillac's damn-good-looking CTS wagon

The super-important Chevy Cruze

The plug-in electric Chevy Volt

Eric tries to drive off in the new Corvette Grand Sport

The only view most people will see of the 638 horsepower Corvette ZR-1

Chrysler's low-key display didn't yet have much in the way of new product to show. Since joining with Fiat recently new products are currently under development, but we won't see anything significant until at least next year. We are all eager to see what they come up with, but make no mistake - Chrysler's back is up against the wall and this is their last chance. They must have some impressive new products soon to survive. I think their recent creation of the new "Ram" brand for trucks (separate from Dodge) is a step in the wrong direction. The worst thing they can do right now is dilute their brand identity. An association with Fiat makes more sense than the previous arrangement with Daimler and should provide some smart choices in vehicles soon.

This Dodge Viper ACR set the production car lap record at Laguna Seca Raceway in November.

Forget about the Fiat cars of the 1970s (please!) The cute little Fiat 500 is a modern car with modern quality expectations.

Most people don't realize it, but tiny little Ferrari, with it's meager production of 6,000 cars per year is a huge technology leader, with many of their innovations coming directly from their participation at the pinnacle of motorsports technology in formula 1. Some of their innovations include paddle-shift manual transmissions, carbon-ceramic brakes, underbody aerodynamics, launch control, high specific output engines, deformable aerodynamic elements. The new 458 Italia has a specific output of 125 hp/liter from its naturally aspirated engine.

The beautiful Ferrari California with its retractable hardtop

Mazda's product lineup shows a cautious evolution with no real surprises. I am not a big fan of the "corporate look, and Mazda has taken a step in the wrong direction with their "Nagare" theme incorporating large plastic-y grins on the front of their cars with funky looking air intakes and headlights. This theme has lamentably even been applied to the beloved Miata which remains otherwise a great little sports car.

Honda had one of the quietest displays at the show. There was only the bulbous new Accord Crosstour to show in the way of new product, which was drawing universal yawns from the public. Honda also showed it has caught the weird Japanese styling bug over at the Acura stand, where all of its products were sporting huge chromed beak-y grilles. I don't know why you would want the front of all your vehicles to resemble some kind of bird, but I'll make a report right here as soon as I figure that one out. Honda is lucky to have a good reputation for quality product. If they had to rely on style it wouldn't be good. But they are a diversified company and the largest engine manufacturer in the world. They make motorcycles, generators, industrial, commercial, and go-kart engines and lawn equipment. They are now even making robots and jet airplanes.

I try not to have a bias in my reporting, but I have to admit that for me Toyotas have no more appeal than a household appliance. Their products are high quality and reliable (sticking accelerator problems aside) but they are not high on the desirability scale. As such, I skipped their booth entirely. Hey, someone has to make cars for people who don't care about cars. I am not sure who the $300,000 super-ugly Lexus LF-A sports car is for. I say for that kind of money my car better have a Cavallino Rampante on it. If you don't know what that is you might just deserve to own a Toyota.

Tesla Motors is a small company at the forefront of electric car technology. They make high performance plug-in electric sports cars based on lightweight Lotus chassis. They are a good looking and fast alternative in the $100-150 K price range.

Volkswagen, Porsche, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Subaru, etc.
There were many other automakers present at the show displaying their wares. While I took the time to check most of them out I didn't see anything that was significant enough to be considered an important product in the industry. All manufacturers have product cycles, and you can't bring exciting new product every year or you'll go broke paying for the development and tooling costs. One thing is for certain however - cars continue to get better than they have ever been. They are more reliable, more efficient, more powerful, better handling , and safer than in the past. The economic shakeup and the promise of alternative fuels and sources of propulsion make this time in history the most significant turning point since the beginning of automotive history. We are going to see some exciting things in the coming years, so buckle up because it's going to be a hell of a ride!

The precious little Mazda Miata - photographed from the rear so you can't see what they did to the front end styling.

The new $189,000 Morgan with the light and speedy Lotus Exige in the background.

The Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG is the modern take on the 1953 300SL Gullwing.

This face is often copied by the Chinese. The Mercedes-Benz Maybach limousine is the original, and it's what to get when your neighbor "only" has a Rolls-Royce.

The Honda CR-Z has years of work and hybrid technology so that it can get the same mileage as the CR-X did over 25 years ago. Here's a hint: just make it 1800 pounds with a small 4 cylinder and skinny tires like you did back then!


Alyjean said...

you know so much honey - i don't know how your brain doesn't explode. :)

Anonymous said...

Oh boy! I want that little Fiesta and in that very shade of green!

What a report! I agree with Allison.