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2005 NAIAS - Steve Purdy's Trends and Highlights


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By Steve Purdy, Detroit Bureau

SHOW TRENDS This year’s North American International Auto Show press days, attended by more than 6,500 journalists from all over the world, was serious business. The challenges of continued market fragmentation, cost containment and globalization have industry players on their toes and intensely competing – heads down, nose to the grindstone, on task. American car companies continue to loose market share to the Europeans and particularly the Asians. China looms not only as a potential customer but as a serious competitor as well. That’s not to say, however, that there weren’t some great fun and exciting new products presented. Cautiously optimistic was the tone. Color, flash, pizzazz and throbbing music punctuate nearly every press event. Here are a few of my humble observations.

SPORTS CARS I was amazed to find at least 8 new sports cars on the floor. The Lexus LF-A represents that company’s first foray into the over $100-grand market. An angular forward-looking design the 500hp super car hints of future Lexus design directions. The more traditionally shaped, masculine Chrysler Firepower is made of mostly off-the-shelf components without much further development needed. Built on a Viper chassis, powered by the existing 6.1-litre Hemi V-8, Chrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche calls it a Corvette challenger. Saturn’s Sky roadster joins Pontiac’s Solstice on the GM entry level sports car scene. Corvette Z-06 adds the inevitable super-performance level to the classic American sports car. Jaguar’s Advanced Lightweight Coupe, though saddled with a convoluted name, hints at future directions for the classic British marque. The Nissan Azeal is more aptly called a sporty coupe but looks the part of a sports car or perhaps a pocket rocket. The Volvo 3CC, with its unusual 2-plus-1 seating arrangement defies categorization. And, the striking Ford Shelby GR-1, decked out in polished aluminum knocks one’s eyes out in more ways than one.

HYBRIDS GM spent its first of three press conferences describing its hybrid and fuel cell strategy. Dry! Dry! Dry! GM will first be applying hybrid technology to large vehicles like busses and trucks. Gradually the systems will find their way into every-day automobiles as the General continues development of the hydrogen fuel cell. The concept Sequel, a skateboard-like fuel cell platform, is approaching practicality in its third generation. The Ford Escape Hybrid, honored as the North American Truck of the Year, will be sharing technology in the next few years with Mercury and Mazda cousins. In ’07 Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan will follow. Honda and Toyota are fully producing excellent hybrids and we’re beginning to see similar power trains in a variety of pickup trucks. Lexus is in the market with a sophisticated hybrid RX 330 as well. Hybrids are the universally accepted “bridging technology” that will get us from the crass and corrupt conventional gasoline powered internal combustion engine to hydrogen-powered fuel cells, so they say. Just to be different BMW showed off a speed record car boasting a V-12 internal combustion engine powered by liquid hydrogen. Ask your engineer pals why they would do that, because I sure don’t know.

LOTSA HORSEPOWER An unmistakable trend in the industry, evident at NAIAS, is the lust for more and more horsepower in everything from sports cars to utility vehicles to Mom and Pop sedans. Why do we continue to add horsepower? Because we can! Engine technology, lighter materials and more efficient design in every system of the automobile allows more power without sacrifice in fuel economy or emissions. I say, bring it on. There’s no such thing as too much sex, or too much horsepower.

BEST CONCEPT CAR We have come to expect the best in concept cars to come from Chrysler. We were not disappointed. The Jeep Hurricane boasts a Hemi up front, a Hemi in the rear (335hp each) and all four wheels able to turn in opposite directions, sort of like casters on an office chair. It turns or spins literally on its own axis. Turning radius: zero. It ought to be able to climb anything. We’ve also come to expect Chrysler design and styling elements to be spectacular. Again – no disappointment.

MOST SIGNIFICANT NEW CAR The second generation of the formerly stodgy Toyota Avalon appears to be destined for a best-in-class position for value and desirability. The first generation Avalon, in this humble reporter’s opinion, was terminally bland. The new one is stylish, balanced and being specifically marketed to empty nesting Boomers – like me. Power is significantly increased, styling drastically improved and content surprisingly flush.

BEST VIDEO In the old days entertainment at the auto show, both for the press and the public, was by stage. Scantily clad women, dancers, magicians, actors portraying engineers – all have gone the way of the carburetor. Now it is the job of huge video screens and booming music to get our attention. My favorite videos are the ones of rally racing, a pure form of racing that takes place in the forests and mountains and deserts of the world. At the Audi stand we see old footage of Michelle Mouton, first female rally racing champion, catching air and four-wheel drifting in her old Audi GT Quattro. Around the corner at the Mitsubishi stand a racing Pajero/Montero stars in thrilling video of the epic Dakar Rally across the sands of North Africa where death looms over every dune.

MOST IMPORTANT AUTO EXECUTIVE (BARELY) IN EVIDENCE We’re used to seeing Deiter Zetsche and Bob Lutz every time we turn around at the show but we hadn’t expected to see Malcolm Bricklin, the irrepressible promoter and idea man who produced his own cool and competent sports car in the 70s before bringing the first Subaru to the US and being responsible for foisting the Yugo on an unsuspecting public. Bricklin is back with a plan to import a brace of new Chinese vehicles with backing from the Chinese government and other investors. He expects to sell each car, sport-ute and crossover at about 30% below its competition. Look out Korea. You’re next to be challenged. By the way, Bricklin reminds us that his Yugo was the only car never recalled - probably because they didn’t last long enough to be recalled. (Remind me to tell you the story of my 8,500-mile run in the Cannonball One Lap of America in a Yugo GVX sometime.)

MOST FUN NEW CAR New to the US anyway. The sexy little city cars called Smart are scattered all over Downtown Detroit and a bunch of them crowd a small display space near the back of the hall. A family of premium little vehicles, Smart is a subspecies of Daimler-Chrysler. They’ve come to gage the market. Will they find a following here? I certainly hope so. They’re tiny, but they ain’t cheap.

BEST HOSPITALITY Chrysler’s Firehouse Pub, Cigar and Martini Bar is the gathering place for media and anyone else who can get past the door guards. It is the place to be and be seen, eat, drink and be silly. Until a few years ago Chrysler was famous for lavishly entertaining the visiting press with a huge, one-night party complete with the most outrageous entertainment, food and drink imaginable. Now they take over the downtown Detroit firehouse - normally the home of the department’s administration as well as a fleet of fire trucks - empty it out and construct a most warm and friendly pub. Open every night of press days, DaimlerChrysler executives, including the charming Mr. Zetsche himself, tend bar and schmooze with the troops.

MOST CULTURALLY INCONGROUOUS (HOMELIEST?) NEW CAR The Infiniti Kuraza, 6-door, 6-passenger luxury sport wagon, rolled out with flashing lights, booming music and gasps from the crowd. What is that thing? The styling is most aptly described as incongruous. Jutting front fenders roll into a windscreen and rounded top flowing rearward like a cartoon car. Three doors open on each side to reveal three rows of two generous seats each separated by a center console running the entire length of the ‘luxury sport wagon’. Luxurious, indeed! Six NFL linemen would be comfortable in that cavernous leather interior. The styling would fit right into the Tokyo Motor Show, but it sure looks odd and awkward in Detroit.

MOST ANANCRONISTIC The mid-engine Acura NSX is now 14 model years old. Virtually unchanged over all those years it is not overpowered, overdone or overbearing like many newer high performance sports cars. Last year the Acura folks presented a concept car hinted to be a replacement of the trusty NSX but this year they carefully disavow any such plan. So, it may go on forever.

BEST NEW COLOR Jaguar had three of its sedans lined up with identical paint jobs in pearlescent British Racing Green. From a distance they just looked like our favorite 1960s and 70s sports car color - BRG. But get a little closer and the pearl begins to glow.

BEST FOOD IN A SHOW STAND VW’s team of chefs presented a grilled beef tenderloin with au jus and a sweet red sauce over potatoes accompanied by lintel soup with a dollop of whipped cream and shredded prosciutto. For desert a colorful fruit pastry with raspberries and blueberries. One simple journalist could not hope to sample all the wonderful food around the show floor during press days, but I tried.

POSTSCRIPT The 2005 NAIAS was my 42nd “Detroit” auto show. I’ve missed only one since 1963 when my brother Wendell and our pals Tom Gray and Elf Wilcox made the four hour drive on wet and icy roads from our little town in mid Michigan into The City in Tom’s ’54 Ford convertible known as “The Thunder Chicken.” Interstate 96 was only about 1/3 complete in those days. It was a mighty adventure for this 15-year-old. About the only thing that is still the same is that the show is about cars. Later I’ll make a list of all the things that are different.