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2008 Detroit Auto Show - Steve and Thom Wrap-Up

2008 NORTH AMERICAN INTERNATIONAL AUTO SHOW(select to view enlarged photo)

  • SEE ALSO: Every Press Conference VIDEO Unveiling

    2008 Detroit Auto Show
    By Steve Purdy and Thom Cannell
    Detroit Bureau

    STEVE: It’s now easy being green, despite Kermit’s refrain. In fact, being green is nearly required of any company seriously competing in the mass automobile market, and most of the specialty markets. Green cars, crossovers, SUVs and light trucks at the 2008 North American International Auto Show in the Motor City are everywhere. Even Ferrari presented a biofuel capable sports car.

    According to Auto Alliance we have here at the Detroit motor show: 34 flex fuel vehicles from 8 manufacturers, 1 hydrogen vehicle from BMW, 24 hybrids from 9 manufacturers, 10 diesels from 4 manufacturers.

    Chevrolet Camaro (select to view enlarged photo)

    In spite of the Green Glare and H2 haze, we found no shortage, however, of the traditional muscle, performance and wretched excess vehicles we love so much.

    THOM: This greenness is somewhat disingenuous. Diesel, E85, electric, all have infrastructure problems like where’s the E85 pump anywhere but Iowa and Illinois. Electricity is great — as long as you get it at night when power plants throttle down or blow up, and diesel, bio-diesel anyway, is unobtaium if you value your new car or truck warranty.

    And forgive me, but putting D85 capability on a Ferrari is like a beauty mark on Tara Banks; interesting, $150, and superfluous.

    STEVE: But that’s not to say that the industry’s new offerings are boring. Quite the contrary. There is nearly as much excitement and intrigue as ever in this, one of the world’s most important motor shows.’s intrepid team of reporters spent long, grueling, intense days immersed in the show and exploring every nook and cranny looking for the news.

    We’ll walk you around the floor and point out the highlights – the best and worst, hottest and most tepid, the important and the superfluous. We’ve both been covering the show for longer than we care to admit. We’ve had our cargasms and our chills-up-the-spine as well as grand disappointments while browsing the expansive, but jam-packed floor at Detroit’s Cobo Center.

    Starting with the corner closest to the icy Detroit River, the south wall, we enter the hall to a disappointment. Porsche, traditional occupier of the first space, did not attend this year. Apparently, they thought the Midwest was not an important enough market to justify the cost of a major display. We thought that to be an odd decision, since more national and international media attend this show than any in the US and most in the world – nearly 7,000 this year. BMW and VW didn’t mind, though because they soaked up Porsche’s space grinning all the way.

    THOM: Porsche was one of the first to point out that somewhere very North of 10 trillion, yes TRILLION dollars are due to come into the hands of all of us boomers. How odd that they think the Detroit and Mid-West has no disposable income or self-indulgent grieving children.

    BMW 1 Series Convertible (select to view enlarged photo)

    STEVE: BMW, then, had more room to show the slick new 1-Series cars including a just-out convertible. The buzz around the stand confirms that BMW fans – driving enthusiasts for the most part – can’t wait to get their fannies into the little car with the agility of a gazelle.

    Along with all the existing BMW stuff, the all-new X6 was presented. This new crossover activity vehicle will be built alongside the X5 and Z4 at the Spartanburg, SC plant.

    MINI (select to view enlarged photo)

    Next door at MINI the big news was a car they described as a modern iteration of a “shooting brake,” an early 20th century term for station wagon. This one, as you might guess, is just as retro and cool as the regular MINI, just a bit longer with double cargo doors in the rear.

    THOM: The 1 Series is pricy as BMW self-admittedly doesn’t really know how to make “cheap” BMWs. Thus Mini, which if you know the history must have a few more tricks up the sleeve other than the upcoming SAV

    Subaru originated the whole SAV/Crossover market with Forester; I wanted something a little bit more stylish and aggressive. I also want the Europe-only (so far) diesel engine.

    Subaru Forester (select to view enlarged photo)

    STEVE: Subaru chose Detroit to preview the new-for-’09 Forester on a new platform with “sport-sedan dynamics” including longer wheel base. At dealers in the spring of this year the substantially updated Forester can be had with a turbocharged and inter-cooled 2.5-liter boxer 4-cylinder making 244 horsepower.

    Volkswagen Passat CC (select to view enlarged photo)

    STEVE: At Volkswagen most of us were stunned by the new Passat CC 4-door coupe, expected to be in production later this year. The styling is right out of the Mercedes CLK book with swooping character lines rising toward the rear then falling off into a tapered tail. Power comes from any one of two turbo-diesels or three direct injection gasoline engines. Both inside and out it looks to be a full measure upscale from the present Passat but the price is projected to be just a few grand more.

    THOM: The price for a Passat CC 4-door coupe 2WD 2-liter isn’t announced, but look for it to hit squarely in the mid $20s. This is an astounding value in style and grace. Surely the top-end model with V6 and AWD and who knows what options will top $40,000, but at the base it is a gorgeous automobile with room for your family.

    Suzuki X-HEAD  (select to view enlarged photo)

    STEVE: Making its North American debut is the chunky, Suzuki Tonkaesque X-HEAD concept sport truck. Tall, narrow and stylish the stubby truck has three configurations for different proposes: camping, rescue and fashion. The is the concept that just reached out to me begging me to get aboard and drive it through some rough stuff.

    Across the isle Nissan introduced an out-on-the-edge concept of what a next generation minivan might be, if that genre doesn’t go the way of the station wagon. The aesthetic and design details say practicality with beauty.

    Nissan Quest Concept (select to view enlarged photo)

    Finished in soft white and featuring innovative mechanicals it might be the optimal way to transport the soccer kids and watch their game sitting in the van with panoramic side door open and seats turned sideways. Speakers are built into the back of the side door frames and a button on the dash can interrupt all the headphones and speakers in the vehicle for messages from the driver. Also gracing the Nissan booth is the awesome GT-R super sports car we’ve all seen in the magazines. It’s even more impressive in person.

    Not much new at Infinity but those deluxe Japanese products are uncompromised in luxury and performance. One new feature to be offered on some is the 360-degree camera views. With four cameras, one at each corner of the vehicle an image is projected onto the nav screen that gives that full-around view. It is better than you might guess.

    THOM: Nissan must bring discipline to bear on the minivan as we writers provided the first and most enthusiastic endorsements of the Quest. Admittedly they screwed up the user interface—the whole center stack sloped in the wrong direction making use distracting and darn near impossible.

    Nissan's GT-R is simply a Porsche fighter and supercar contender - a McLaren at 1/3 price?

    STEVE: Audi gets my vote for the best display. Looking up to the 30-foot-high ceiling of Cobo Center we see banks and banks of lights that have been balanced remarkably well to illuminate the large display of mostly silver display cars. Just a few colored lights integrated into the mass added an extra visual element.

    R8 V12 TDI (select to view enlarged photo)

    Audi also presented plenty of hot cars, centered on the forward-looking R8 V12 TDI (turbo diesel) super sports concept car. For both mechanical and styling ingenuity it would be hard to top that one – zero-to-60 in just over 4 seconds, top speed 186 mph, 500 horsepower, 738 pound-feet or torque . . . smokin’!

    Audi, as you may know, has been campaigning this diesel engine in a race car with overwhelming success. Sharing the spotlight at Audi is the new top-of-the-line TTS, a 272 horsepower screamer, enhancing the revered, fun, TT line.

    2009 Mercedes-Benz SLK Convertible (select to view enlarged photo)

    Among all the Teutonic admirables across the isle at Mercedes-Benz a restyled SLK in red draws us in for a look at the other good stuff. The SLK is updated in terms of style but more importantly is redesigned underneath as well.
    Mercedes-Benz Vision GLK  (select to view enlarged photo)

    It comes in 2-liter compressor, 6-cylinder and AMG versions.More mainstream are two all new compact SUVs called Vision GLK Townside and Freeside. Fresh angular styling grace these two hints of future products for Mercedes-Benz.

    THOM: You knew Audi could make desirable automobiles and superior interiors. But R8 in person makes most Pets and Centerfolds slovenly in comparison. A big surprise, in some colors and lighting the new Mercedes-Benz C Class looks frumpy. Not so the new SUVs which remind us of the stern countenance of decade-old Willys Jeepster for its slab-uprightness.

    STEVE: Back toward the center of the hall we can browse around the Chrysler Corporation’s expansive displays. With three distinct brands and dozens of models we can entertain ourselves for quite a while hopping from one to the other. Let’s start with Dodge.

    2009 Dodge Ram Pickup (select to view enlarged photo)

    First, let’s talk about the intro of the new Ram pickup. Chrysler has been known for dramatic and off-the-wall gimmicky press conferences and this one was one of the best. With the press assembled on the cold bleachers in front of Cobo Center a cadre of cowboys (and a couple of cowgirls) drove 150 head of longhorn steers three blocks from Larned Street to the Cobo Arena. In the center of the herd were two new Ram trucks.

    I’m trying hard to avoid the obvious reference to bovine excrement or the effluent from the north end of a southbound steer but the point about the “all-new, bold, powerful, get-out-of-the-way Dodge Ram design” was made. Ram is nicely updated, dressed up and re-featured. Most surprising is their first-in-segment multilink solid axle rear suspension with coil springs rather than the traditional leaf springs. As tough? We’ll see.

    Dodge also introduced a new small crossover called Journey. It looks to be rather conventional and will be launched in a few months. We’ll try to get an invitation to the launch so we can give you some details.

    THOM: Which may be the least impressively styled Chrysler in recent memory; where is Tom Gale when needed. However, at its sub-$20,000 price point can there be much style? Tom always told me that great design costs less than mediocrity, and sold better. The interior is far better, though decidedly overly plasticy, and offers genuine comfort and innovations like hidden compartments under the front seats.

    Chrysler Concepts 2008 Detroit Auto Show (select to view enlarged photo)

    STEVE: Jeep and Chrysler had little new to show. Three concept cars – one from each brand – got lots of attention. All three feature plug-in electric technology with each exploring different back-up propulsion.

    Chrysler ecoVoyager Concept  (select to view enlarged photo)

    The Chrysler ecoVoyager Concept reminded me of the one-box shape of the 1930s Scarab with an elegant, aerodynamic shape embellished with subtle character lines moving gracefully and interacting gently along the flank. Huge chrome wheels pushed far out to the corners and a classically boat-shaped tail contribute to a feel of timelessness. Power comes from a plug-in electrical system with hydrogen fuel cell to extend the range. The ecoVoyager, by the way, won the Eyes on Design Concept Truck of the Year Award, the judging panel for which is composed of the most respected designers in the world.

    Jeep Renegade Concept (select to view enlarged photo)

    The Jeep Renegade Concept is a plug-in electric with a BLUETEC diesel range extender. “Stylish Green” is the tag line for this one. An open-air pure off-roader with cut-away doors and cut down windshield, it’s not painted, rather the soft green no-gloss color is molded into the body parts.

    THOM: OK, I’ll say it, the Renegade is derivative of several other Jeep concepts like Compass, and so screamingly feminine that even an Olive Drab paint job can’t give it the testosterone it needs. Hummer whipped ‘em.

    Dodge ZEO Concept (select to view enlarged photo)

    STEVE: Finally, the rear-wheel-drive Dodge ZEO Concept is an entirely electric “2+2” sports car with a claimed 250-mile range. Power is from a 200 kilowatt (268 horsepower) single electric motor with a zero-to-60 time of less than six seconds and a lithium-ion battery pack. Bold and brash with radically extended fenders the four-scissor-door body structure open forward for the front seats and rearward for the rear seats. Interesting, but of course, impractical. These are, after all, concepts.

    smart fortwo (select to view enlarged photo)

    Before we get to the back of the hall we pass the tiny display of the tiny “smart” car. (Forgive the lack of capital letters, please.) The smart fortwo, imported by racer and businessman Roger Penske, will begin arriving at dealers this month (January ’08). This is the second generation smart redesigned for entry into the US market. To reserve yours just give your dealer $99 and wait – probably for a long time as the first 15,000 folks already in the queue get theirs. Check out my recent review of the smart. I love it.

    On the back wall is perhaps the most vibrant collection of automobiles of one brand – Toyota, of course. Now with successful vehicles in just about every conceivable segment they’ve added one more, though they won’t admit it.

    2009 Toyota Venza (select to view enlarged photo)

    Essentially a Camry station wagon with a bit more height called Venza. More car-like than an SUV and more SUV-like than a car, so it’s exactly what we have been calling a crossover, or CUV, for these past many years. They call it a “sedan crossover” and insist that it is a new segment. This one, I say, is much closer to what always was a station wagon. Venza will replace the Solara in the Georgetown, KY assembly plant and we can certainly expect it to be content rich. I think it’s quite stylish and good lookin’.

    But I don’t think Thom agrees.

    THOM: I can’t resist that bait, having described the previous pre-Tundra concept as an overbaked potato. This Venza should have that much style, but playing safe has never affected Toyota, or Honda for that matter.

    Toyota A-BAT Concept (select to view enlarged photo)

    STEVE: On a nearby raised turntable spins the A-BAT concept compact truck riding on a unibody platform. Almost infinitely reconfigurable to hall bulky (but light) loads, including 4’X8’ materials, the A-BAT has lots of drawers, shelves, cubbies and pockets. Positioned below Tacoma, it’s powered by a small 4-cylinder and Toyota’s Synergy ™ hybrid system and has no significant towing capability.

    Lexus brought nothing entirely new to Detroit, though the eye-catcher in their corner of the hall was certainly the sleek, red LF-A Roadster, a 500-horsepower, V10-powered super sports car concept. The “F” designation on Lexus products stand for high performance.

    This was GM’s year. Not only did they show lots of new stuff, but what they showed got lots of respect. Most auspicious, I think, was Cadillac. My “Best of Show” and Eyes on Design award winner for Best Concept Car is the striking Cadillac CTS Coupe Concept. No one had a hint of its existence - one of the few times a car has had a debut here without at least some leaks.

    2009 Cadillac CTS (select to view enlarged photo)

    The CTS, just revised to rave reviews less than a year ago, was skillfully massaged into a two-door coupe with intense, angular lines diving into a dramatic boat tail rear. Instantly recognizable as a Cadillac CTS this coupe shows what GM Design can do when led well. Cadillac also showed the fresh CTS-V performance model with 550 horsepower – which Bob Lutz calls “the fastest four-door sedan in the world - and another angular concept called Provoq that hints at a new SRX.

    2009 Chevrolet ZR1 Corvette (select to view enlarged photo)

    Chevrolet presented the long awaited ZR1 Corvette, with carbon fiber everywhere, a see-through hood and 620 horsepower. How they can manage that much power in such a civilized sports car is beyond me. The classically American Corvette is still the most high-performance sports car for the money, in any of its iterations. Also at Chevy, the new Malibu, out for just a few months now, won the honored North American Car of the Year award just a year after its Saturn sibling, Aura, won the same award. Not bad, eh? And Impala is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a special edition.

    THOM: Steve is correct, though I vacillate in thinking Provoq ugly/thematic. Surely it has the new face, but side views are overly chiseled. Elsewhere, just buy some GM stock and lobby your legislators to intelligently (oops) apply logic to the way American’s use and buy cars. FYI the “precipitous drop” in pickup trucks is only 3.5%.

    STEVE: Hummer H1 is gone, as you probably know. Nothing else new at Hummer except a particularly Jeepy concept called HX.

    Hummer HX (select to view enlarged photo)

    The story goes that the design staff got three youngsters just out of design school and turned them loose with minimal parameters. The result is a versatile, small, reconfigurable, two-door off-roader high enough off the ground to straddle a buffalo calf.

    THOM: HX merits more than a footnote. It absolutely out-Jeeps Jeep with openness, astounding ruggedness, and a design that would bring true off roaders (at least those few who don’t home-build) into the showroom. It would surely ignite showroom traffic if a business case, i.e. profitability, could be reasonably made.

    Buick Rivera Concept (select to view enlarged photo)

    STEVE: The Buick stand seemed rather staid with competent but uninspiring sedans, the popular Enclave CUV and a concept car first seen at the Shanghai show last year. Look closely and you’ll see that this Buick concept was “designed in China.” I guess we shouldn’t be surprised since Buick now sells more cars in China than in the home market.

    Saturn has had some solid successes lately - Car of the Year honors for Aura last year, a vastly improved Vue and now a two-mode Vue Greenline Hybrid.

    Saturn Vue Greenline Hybrid (select to view enlarged photo)

    Presenting a concept called Flextreme, the green folks at Saturn explore the GM E-Flex system consisting of an electric motor powered by a lithium-ion battery within a sporty hatch-back hiding two Segway scooters in the back.

    And, speaking of green projects, GM announced a partnership with an Illinois company called Coskata, Inc. to produce ethanol from non-grain sources, mostly waste products. The goal, touted by GM boss Rick Wagoner, is to produce ethanol at less than $1/gallon using less than 1 gallon of water per gallon of fuel produced. One unit of energy in will equal 7.7 units of energy out. Oh yea? We’ll keep an eye on that one.

    Hyundai Genesis (select to view enlarged photo)

    The big news from the Koreans is the introduction of the Hyundai flagship sedan called Genesis featuring rear-wheel drive, a 4.6-liter, 369-hp V8, 6-speed ZF transmission, sophisticated suspension and surprisingly luxurious trim. Conservative but attractive styling, 8 airbags and all the expected content will make Genesis a contender. Though prices have not been officially announced we can expect it to be 15 t0 20% less than its comparables.

    Mitsubishi Eclipse Concept (select to view enlarged photo)

    Mitsubishi is still struggling to come up with a strategy and some products to get back on its feet in the US market. The Sports Car Concept on their stand – perhaps the next Eclipse – continues the hints of a new Eclipse from previous similar vehicle studies, this one with an intensely deep red paint. Beside it is a soon-to-be-produced, super-fast, little rally racer to compete with Subaru’s SRX. Looks like it might be a serious threat. Get that one on a dirt road at full throttle. I dare you.

    Now, how about Ford? Well, there’s good new and there’s bad news. The good news is that we find some promising new products and concepts in the corporate portfolio. The bad new is the stock price is so low it may take more than that to get them off the skids.

    Lincoln MKS (select to view enlarged photo)

    At Lincoln, the MKS is the new big Lincoln due later this year as an ’09 model. While many thought it a bit less than auspicious, I thought it quite nice. Large enough and pretty enough to be a fresh new full luxury sedan, we’ll see how it is priced and positioned in the market. MKS exemplifies Lincoln’s bold new styling language. The MKT, a large and lovely concept “ultimate touring vehicle,” uses lots of recycled materials to make an elegant statement about pleasure on the road.

    THOM: MKS is a decidedly stylish car and possess a tasty intro-luxury interior. It needs, however, an even more upscale interior to be sold as a luxury contender. Or so said a dealer from Illinois who also sells Korean cars that offer apparently similar interior features for much less.

    Ford also said something very interesting, that Turbocharged Gas Direct Injection (TGDI) can provide performance similar to diesel at a much lower price point. Would you buy a 450 horsepower car with 450 pound-feet of torque that got near-diesel mileage with only a $1000 (vs. $3000 diesel or $6500 hybrid) price increase? Hell yes, and you’ll see that engine in F150 in 2009.

    2009 Ford F150 (select to view enlarged photo)

    Ford’s new, or significantly revised F150 grows 6” in wheelbase and 6” in crew cabs. The frame uses hydroformed front sections and fully-boxed rear sections for precision and strength. Don’t count the F150 out.

    STEVE: Ford protectorates, Jaguar and Land Rover are nearly sold to Tata of India. At Jaguar nothing new, just the current Jaguar models reeking of sensuality.

    At Land Rover, the LRX concept crossover got a lot of positive buzz. Stylistically modern, it keeps to Land Rover’s off-road heritage adding sustainable transportation technologies and asks what if LR built a compact premium off-road capable vehicle with turbo-diesel hybrid power. Perhaps Tata can do it.

    Mazda Nagare (select to view enlarged photo)

    Mazda continues a series of remarkable, far-out concept cars designed around a theme having to do with a Japanese concept of “flow” called Nagare. This year’s Taiki expressed that theme beautifully with flowing lines that insinuate the wind. Another concept called Furai translates that design into racing form. I’ll call them the most philosophical cars at the show.

    Ford, as we all know, is slowly finding its way into the new automotive world. With the redesign of the F-150 – the most popular vehicle in the US market – Ford is showing that it is dedicated to staying ahead of trends. With the GM competitors redesigned last year and the Dodge Ram freshened for ’09, I think Ford was wise to do it now.

    Also at Ford we saw the preproduction version of the boxy Flex. Nearly as practical as a minivan but much more long and square, I’m concerned about the styling becoming passť before its time. I’ll try to wait judgment until we’ve has some seat time and a better look later this spring.

    2009 Ford Verve (select to view enlarged photo)

    Most promising at Ford is the beautiful Verve Concept. This is a small car based on European designs that will be in the US market in a few years. Brash styling and functional design stand out.
    Ford Explorer Concept (select to view enlarged photo)

    A uni-body Explorer Concept, designed to take advantage of Ford’s Ecoboost direct injection, turbocharged engine technology, also got lots of attention.

    Elsewhere around the floor we find a few independents. One of the most noteworthy, Fisker, is a name we have not seen at NAIAS. Their “environmentally friendly premium car” looks so graceful that it might be a Maserati or an Aston concept but it’s a California project of Quantum Technologies and Fisker Coachbuild, LLC.

    Fisker Electric (select to view enlarged photo)

    With cutting-edge plug-in hybrid propulsion it has just a little four-banger to extend the claimed 50 mile range on electric only. In order to enhance the car’s image they’ve added an acoustical function that artificially makes big-engine sounds when driving in the “spirited mode.” This one gets my award for “most silly gadgetry.”

    And finally, let’s talk about the Chinese.

    Much ink has been spent and much speculation bouncing about concerning if, when and how the Chinese will become players in the US market. This is the third year we’ve seen Chinese displays – first one (Geeley), then two and now five. I must say, after attempting to speak with them all, I found only one with even a rudimentary sense of what they are doing.

    Chairman Li of Changfeng Motor attempted to give a speech in purely phonetic English. The problem was that he was pronouncing the English words in Chinese phonetics so we struggled to understand just 10% of his ideas. Geeley seems to have moved backward.

    Bei Jing Li Guang
Ming (select to view enlarged photo)

    And a company called Bei Jing Li Guang Ming Automotive Design Co., Ltd presented a line of cartoon cars you’d be embarrassed to drive on the golf course. I liked the names, however – “A Piece of Cloud” and “The Book of Songs.”

    Appearing most ready for prime time is the Chamco Auto group who have two vehicles, a small pickup and a small SUV that appeared well sorted out and decently designed. Though underpowered by our standards they promise prices 20% cheaper than anything in their segments, and they promise to be bringing vehicle here by 4th quarter of ’08. We’ll see.

    Watch this space throughout the year as Thom and Steve expand on these cars and trucks one at a time.

    © Steve Purdy and Thom Cannell, All Rights Reserved