2008 New York International Auto Show Steve and Thom Wrap-Up



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NEW YORK INTERNATIONAL AUTO SHOW
A Wrap-up of the Top US International Auto Shows
By Steve Purdy and Thom Cannel
TheAutoChannel.com
Detroit Bureau

Four major US auto shows with international importance keep us busy all winter. Los Angeles begins the season in November where the Asian influence is felt and where automobile enthusiasm is most pervasive in the general populace. Detroit is next in January drawing by far the most international media attention and therefore the most new product introductions. But space is seriously limited. Chicago in early February is a wide open show mostly in terms of having the most space, but we always find great new stuff there as well. Now, here we are in New York in March where we see most of the fresh new products from the other three shows plus a few treats the manufacturers have saved for this final blast into the model year.

We, your intrepid Detroit Bureau team of Thom and Steve, drove the 11-hour, I-80 trek so we wouldn’t have to suffer the ongoing indignities of airline travel. Besides, BMW had an X-5 in Detroit that needed to be delivered to New York. It was a lovely, easy drive across Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey just ahead of a devastating rainstorm that caused local flooding in our wake.

STEVE: First, if you’ll indulge me, I’ll relate a little travel adventure some have called a typical Manhattan adventure.

Thom and I got into Manhattan just in time to hook up with long-time pal Mike Allen of Popular Mechanics and get to the Suzuki dinner scheduled for Tuesday evening in Tribeca. After dinner Mike and Thom dropped me off at my hotel just a half block from the Javits Center and they headed to Mike’s place in New Jersey. Much to my dismay the desk clerk apologetically informed me that they did not have a room for me in spite of my pre-paid reservation. He also said they had been calling around for an hour and could find no other available room anywhere in Manhattan.

You can imagine my concern being a provincial fellow entirely unfamiliar with this particular big city. I was imagining sleeping in the hotel lobby or perhaps being a street person for the night. Finally, the night clerk (an older Indian fellow) found a room near Times Square, so I hopped in a cab and headed out. The New York Inn wasn’t easy to find since the entrance was a dirty, broken glass door between a sandwich shop and a vacant store front. Inside, the clerk sat behind a cramped counter bulging off the narrow hall. My room was up three flights of rickety stairs with torn carpeting and the key wouldn’t work the massive lock. Finally I figured out the lock’s idiosyncrasy and got into the tiniest, shabbiest room I had ever seen. The bathroom was so small that in order to shave in front of the mirror in the morning I had to have one leg and foot in the shower stall. The bathroom door was fashioned out of three rough plywood panels barely fit together and slathered with white paint. Fortunately I had to endure that cramped environment only one night since my reserved room became available the next day.

Back at the Javits Center overlooking the Hudson River two days of press conferences revealed more great machines to tempt the car-buying public. Here is an overview:

The New Chrysler’s purported savior, Bob Nardelli, opened the show with a keynote talk at breakfast. His confidence and optimism were infectious for many of us. Nardelli insists the company’s turnaround is on schedule and that the automobile market has either bottomed out or is nearly at bottom and ready to improve. Sure hope he’s right. Nardelli also bragged that between them, the top three guys at Chrysler (himself, his predecessor Tom LaSorda and Jim Press formerly of Toyota) have a hundred years of experience between them. It will take all that to get Chrysler back on a solid footing.

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First on the press conference schedule was Acura. Dick Colliver, handsome, white-haired executive VP of sales, introduced the new TSX, second generation of Acura’s 3-Series challenger. The styling reflects an evolutionary change in Acura’s “clean edge” design language and increased efficiency and luxury are hallmarks. Power comes only from a 201-hp, direct injected, 2.4-liter four-cylinder. Nice looking, obviously high quality, but a tad behind the curve in power.

THOM: Before we congratulate Acura on the TSX, let’s remind ourselves that this car, called a semi-luxury entrant for the USA, is essentially what Europe knows as a Honda Accord. That said, it’s a very good-looking car, but as Steve says, a bit down on power when only numbers are considered.

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STEVE: Geoff Day, director of communications at Mercedes-Benz, standing beside a lovely old finned 190D from the mid-60s, insisted that “blue is the new green” as he introduced three new diesel vehicles coming to the US yet this year: R, ML and GL BlueTECs . All use the AdBlue urea injection exhaust treatment to exceed emissions standards in all 50 states. They are planning a coast-to-coast demonstration run recreating the one done by the 190D which took $35 worth of fuel back in its day. In fact, with diesel fuel costing an average of 30% more than gasoline in most parts of the country, I’m not sure what they will demonstrate. M-B announced as well the coming of an extensively restyled M-Class and redeveloped flagship SL-Class of which traditionally 50% have been sold in the US.

THOM: Diesel is, indeed, a conundrum. Fuel price has traditionally been a minimum of 30% less than gasoline. At a 30% premium, it does erode the apparent diesel advantage of 20-40%. It does not, however, change the fact that clean diesel is more carbon neutral.

Math, never a consumer strong point, suggests that an SUV buyer gets around 15 mpg while driving an ML, or one of its competitors. Larger SUVs get less. Driven 15,000 miles with gasoline at $3.75, that’s $ 3750 per year in fuel. A diesel should provide a mixed environment fuel economy of 25 mpg. At $4.30 per gallon, your diesel should cost $2580 per year, a saving of $1170. Even leased cars should come out ahead on that kind of mathematics. (And while I’m at it — everyone, please do some simple math before you buy a hybrid or even trade in that paid-off SUV for a small car. It takes many $800-dollar bills to pay for a new car, and $800 is likely the fuel cost difference between your car and a new one. Do The Math!)

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STEVE: Nissan was next up revealing the bold new Maxima. Of the mainstream sedan builders, I must say Nissan may be doing the best job of making them good looking, unusual and full of content. The new Maxima uses a slightly shorter wheelbase (certainly an unusual change), paddle shifters, 290 horsepower and Nürburgring tuned suspension. Nissan describes the design theme as “liquid motion.” I think it’s mighty good looking. Also on the Nissan stand we saw the Denki Cube Concept, a cute little two-box previewing “future small car strategy for the North American market.” Though the concept version is an electric with lithium-ion batteries, we’ll not see that power system here. We will see an update of the Japanese Cube at US Nissan dealers next spring (2009), they promise.

Tom Purvis, BMW North America’s dapper CEO, spent much of his allotted time talking about a 50% expansion of their South Carolina factory where 500 more American workers will be hired with production by 2012 expected to reach 240,000 units - Z4, X5 and X6, much of that for export. Who said American workers can’t compete. BMW is on a roll to be sure. The new 1-Series Coupe and Convertible to be on sale within weeks of the NY show, a new twin turbo V8 engine with 400 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque is coming. The 4th generation M3 is on the way and this fall, look for a twin-turbo diesel making as much torque as the existing 6-liter V12. BMW is promising a hybrid in ’09. See what I mean? On a roll.

THOM: BMW’s diesel is a uniquely exciting concept for the US. All of the power—both horsepower and torque—you expect from BMW, plus the added benefits in fuel economy increase and carbon footprint reduction. The engine will have variable twin turbochargers and Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) exhaust management with urea injection. It produces 265 hp and an astonishing 425 lb-ft of torque at 1700 rpm. It will be fitted to a BMW X5 (3.0sd) and 3 Series 335d. Savvy drivers know it is torque that they experience as power, and with this engine, the X5 3.0sd will accelerate 0-62 mph in 6.2 seconds while getting an average fuel economy of 19 City/25 Highway. A 335d should out-slalom a 335 with ease.

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STEVE: The prize for worst entertainment goes without a doubt to GM/Pontiac. Three interesting reveals were preceded by perhaps the most dismal boy band I’ve ever heard. These skinny youngsters should have stayed in someone’s garage. They bounced awkwardly around the stage without a hint of discernable music or any audience rapport whatsoever. Bob Lutz showed up then and put everything right by introducing the first really fresh stuff from Pontiac since the Chicago intro of the rear-wheel drive, Holden-based G8 in ’07. Topping the list here in NY is a 400 horsepower G8 GTP, a well-executed Solstice Coupe and my personal favorite, a G8 sport truck. Think El Camino updated.

THOM: I echo Steve’s visceral response to the performance and product. For any media relations folks, yes, you need to tell us your brand is young, hip, reaching out to the 20-somethings (who currently cannot afford this vehicle,) and trying to reconnect with customers. Please remember who the attending audience is. Your uber-hip reconnections are always delivered at decibel levels far greater than those permitted by law in your factories. Would you please distribute, and require use of, earplugs? They are a requirement of every factory tour, and the factories produce less cacophony.

Now, to business cases. You’ll have to stretch to convince me that a huge number of pickups will be sold based on the sales of SSR. If the product is priced right, it should have a 3-5 year lifetime and be a hit with customizers and suburban families. G8 presents a far more appealing package. Solstice Coupe? That’s the winner.

STEVE: Not much new at the New Chrysler press conference. A series of “value packages” was announced giving buyers more popular options for less money across a range of Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep products. Of course we’re all on pins and needles in anticipation of the Dodge Challenger to be at dealers soon to thrill all the muscle car lovers out there. Challenger, it was announced in Chicago would be only built in the RT version to start with but the story changed in NY. Now it seems there will be an SRT8 version as well as an entry-level V6-powered version. I’d say that is a smart strategy assuming they will be able to meet demand. This will be another hot new pony car like Mustang and the upcoming Camaro. Challenger looks great and content seems to be up to expectations.

THOM: Having multiple models will dilute the aura of exclusivity that an SRT8-only launch would create. It might insure that the launch is profitable, and continues profitable until nostalgia runs its course. Remember, please, that both Mustang and Camaro sell/sold best in V6 models that brought instant smiles to everyone; regardless they lacked a pavement-ripping V8.

STEVE: We saw Dick Colliver again over at the Honda display where an updated Fit tiny car made news. Built in five countries and sold in 100 countries, Fit gets some updates like a longer wheelbase, freshened styling, paddle shifters, standard ABS and six airbags. “Small has become smart once again,” said Colliver.

THOM: Both Steve and I attended a January briefing called “What Drives Detroit? Put on by The Foundation for American Communications, one of the more interesting points was the “bright new future” that recent fuel economy requirements mandate. For instance, they said that the “number of known unknowns is far exceeded by the number of unknown unknowns.” In other words, what we don’t know will kill us, or perhaps our industry. They pointed out that, using a vehicle’s outline footprint to determine whether it meets the new 35-mpg standard, a smart fortwo would fail. Where would that leave the Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, Toyota Scion, and all the other intelligently designed small family vehicles?

STEVE: Volvo brought the new XC60 mid size CUV for its first showing on this side of the pond. Smallest of the respected XC range the Belgium-built XC60 exhibits the higher ground clearance, large wheel arches and muscular shoulders of its siblings.

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Porsche, who simply skipped the Detroit auto show this year, presented some fun with a limited edition Boxter produced to honor the RS 60 Spyder that won Sebring in 1960. Special styling features inside and out as well as 303 horsepower (more than the Boxter S) distinguish the RS 60 and justify the 65-grand price tag. Of the 1,960 examples to be built 800 are expected to come to the US.

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Perhaps the most controversial concept presented was from Scion called Hako Coupe Concept. Hako means ‘box” in Japanese. Influenced by both the Japanese and American youth cultures the bright orange Hako with 18-inch wheels, vertical windshield, an unusual roofline and wonderfully artistic details takes the xB formula in a fresh direction. Scion buyers have the youngest average age of any brand and Scion knows they have to keep ahead of the curve to bring new youngsters into the showroom. It was certainly a polarizing design as I overheard extremes of opinion but nothing in between. That divisive quality, by the way, is universally acknowledged to be an element of good design.

THOM: I watched as the very continental designer of Hako chatted with the designer of Suzuki’s Kizashi 3. Hako is equally multi-cultural, with (to me) obvious homage to the chopped coupes of California. Design has surely evolved beyond the Domus and Samurai armor divisions that occupied design studios in the 80’s and 90’s.

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STEVE: The second day of press conferences began with the presentation of the World Car of the Year awards honoring the best vehicles that are sold and built in five countries or more on two or more continents. Judged by an international panel of respected journalists the awards are presented in a variety of categories with one big winner. Green Car of the Year went to BMW for the 119D. Both the Design Award and the Performance Car awards were won by the Audi A8. And the World Car of the Year honor was presented to the Mazda 2 (sadly, not a car we get here in the US).

Over at Kia, in addition to a mid-cycle update of the bread-and-butter Optima, we found another concept coupe called Koup. This front-wheel drive lusty coupe is powered by a 2-liter twin-scroll turbo, direct injected 4-cylinder making 290 horsepower. Flared wheel arches, a squinty, aggressive face and upswept lines make it look poised for action. Lots of carbon fiber, red Brembo brake calipers and a flashy interior contribute to a stylish ambiance. In fact, it looks to be nearly production ready.

Mitsubishi had one of my favorite concept vehicles – a retro-styled little electric car that looked sort of like a marriage between an old VW Beetle and an old Saab with tapered tail.

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This was one of three little electrics in the “iMiEV” line. That means Mitsubishi Innovative Electric Vehicle. Engines are mounted just in front of the rear axle allowing for gas or electric applications.

THOM: I, too, loved the iMiEV electric bugs. In fact, if you had your eyes and ears wide open, New York was a battleground for two re-emergent technologies, clean diesel, and battery power. There were press conferences centered on electric from GM and their Volt vehicle platform, Mitsubishi, Subaru, and others were specifically chatting up the robustness of their choice of batteries for near-future vehicles.

Actually, they referenced the robustness of, and the production status of lithium-ion batteries, which include three competitive chemistries. Nobody, except chemistry wonks cares about whether the winner is lithium-ion with iron phosphate, lithium-ion with cobalt oxide, or lithium- ion with manganese oxide electrolyte. Nope, we care how far the battery can take us, how long it takes to recharge, and how much replacements cost.

Cost per battery package is very high, now. But companies like NEC are partying down with Nissan to bring their chemistry into production, as is Mitsubishi, and GM (with A123Systems and Compact Power, Inc.) These new batteries promise to be modular, so can be stacked to deliver more power or range (ushering in an era of electric drag racing?) or when individual cells reach end of life.

Mitsubishi, for instance, offers several charging options. They are: overnight, plugged into your home (and they say the cost of a “thankful” should be $2.00,) a quicker charge on 220V from your cloths dryer or range, or a 20-minute rapid charge like your mobile phone. That would require a dedicated special charging device.

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STEVE: There is always fun to be had at MINI. This year it was the announcement of a sub-brand called John Cooper Works to market lots of accessories, bits and pieces to personalize, hop up and dress up one’s MINI. “Racing is in our blood,” goes their tag line. Historically, it was John Cooper who first saw and exploited the racing potential of Sir Isaac Issigonis’ little economy car back in the 60s.

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The phrase “politically correct” was not heard at the Saleen press Conference. Rather it was the roar of a 465-horsepower Dan Gurney signature edition Mustang. Saleen, formerly a racecar builder, now “America’s #1 Niche Carmaker” according to their modest self-assessment, modifies cars and trucks (mostly Fords) into flashy and fast street machines. Company spokesman, Chris Theodore, describes their Mustang project as taking about 1,000 good Ford parts off and installing 1,000 exceptional Saleen parts in their place. Saleen also showed a brashly classic sports car concept called Raptor running on cellulosic ethanol and making 650 horsepower.

Over at Suzuki we were treated to the third of three wonderful luxury sedan concept cars. The first, a far out 4-door coupe called Kazashi featuring turbo-diesel power and wild but graceful styling, was shown at Frankfort last September. Then Kazashi 2 was revealed at Tokyo a month later with slightly more realistic but still fantastic styling and large V6 power. Here in New York we saw Kazashi 3, one more step closer to production-ready. With stylishly massive front, low-slung profile, and beautiful 21-inch wheels I think anyone would be proud and thrilled to be seen behind the wheel of this one.

THOM: I’m not thrilled about the very large eagle’s beak nose of Kizashi, even though it is interesting and distinctive. Hmmmmm, Barbara Streisand never had problems. I could be off base. On the flip side, Kizashi 2, the SUV, should be a hit in the popular crossover Ute market.

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STEVE: Hyundai also showed a production-ready luxury coupe, in fact, it might be the most ready, scheduled to be at dealers early next year. The Genesis luxury sedan – V8-powered, rear-wheel drive, content comparable to the Germans – was shown to nearly universal approval at the Detroit show. The purely concept coupe was shown at the LA show a few months earlier. Now this production coupe is ready for public consumption with over 300 horsepower from a high-tech V6, or 212 horsepower from a turbo 4. Great looking, in my subjective view.

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News from Subaru included hints of a diesel boxer coming within 2 years and presentation of the R1e electric car already in use in both Tokyo and London in very limited numbers. It’s a cute little thing based on the existing subcompact R1 with a 50-mile range and 65-mph top speed. It can be recharged to 80% with a 15-minute quick charge. Battery life is expected to be about 10 years or 130,000 miles. Those numbers and this tiny car are where pure electric cars are right now. Subaru says they want to be a world leader in electric car technology.

Finally, up on the mezzanine, a well-attended conference was held to announce the new automobile version of the world famous X-Prize. You’ll recognize that name from the project to prove the practicality of civilian space flight.

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The Automotive X-Prize has a goal to “inspire a new generation of super-efficient vehicles that help break our addiction to oil and stem the effects of climate change.” Ten million dollars, much of it put up by the progressive folks at Progressive Insurance, will incentivize competitors to come up with production-capable vehicles that will get 100-mpg. Two classes will be available: mainstream 4-passenger cars and an alternative class. And there will be separate competitions for manufacturers, academic teams and regular entrepreneurs. So, get ready. Applications will be available in a couple of months at www.progressiveautoxprize.com.

So, there you have it, the New York International Auto Show, last major show of the season, where a great deal of balance characterized the offerings. Lots of green products along with enough rumbling, grumbling performance vehicles to keep everyone interested - sedans, SUVs, CUVs, light trucks, sports cars and all combinations thereof - something for everyone, to be sure.

One last Manhattan adventure bears note, if you’ll indulge me for a few more paragraphs.

With press conferences all wrapped up and no invitations to further social events I was writing up my notes in my nothing-special hotel room when I decided to go for a good long walk back over to Times Square to search out a nice place to eat. I knew from my Tuesday experience that it is about a $6 cab ride and seemed quite far – so my plan was to walk as far as I felt like and cop a cab back. Well, the late afternoon sun was warm enough to be comfortable and the walk felt so good that before I knew it I was passing through the dense glom of people buzzing around Times Square. I was heading north along Broadway where I saw a bunch of tree tops ahead. It was way too busy to try to eat in Times Square and I probably would have had to wait in line somewhere.

As many of you will know, those trees were the south boundary of Central Park where I continued to explore on foot as far in as the Tavern on the Green. As dusk settled in the full moon was rising over the rooftops to the east glowing a soft creamy white. Feeling like I was not dressed quite well enough to eat at the Tavern I turned and started hoofing back south as the temperature dropped and the wind whipped up. I must have passed hundreds of interesting eateries before finally settling on a classic old diner near the Lincoln Tunnel within a few blocks of my hotel. A $7 mushroom and cheese omelet suited me just fine.

The Friday drive home was easy until we hit Toledo. A vicious winter storm blew in and glazed the pavement depositing about four inches of freezing slush on the road surface. This time we were in a BMW 335 shod with performance summer tires – not the treads you want, of course, in these conditions. Thom was at the wheel. Only his experience and coolness under fire kept us skating straight and out of the ditch or retaining wall where dozens of other cars found themselves. He finally got stuck in the street in front of his house.

Join us next year for more auto show adventures.

© Steve Purdy and Thom Cannell, All Rights Reserved

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