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2009 Detroit Auto Show Wrap-up

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Not Our Usual Show

By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

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It was the worst of times; it was the worst of times; at the Detroit auto show this week. Politicians attended during press week to make sure the bridge loan money was not being squandered. Normally flamboyant hospitality events were toned down or absent but we found plenty of people with enthusiasm for the automobile business and plenty of cars to justify that enthusiasm. Who knows how long this trough in the economic history of the country will last or what it will take for people to start buying cars and light trucks again, but the automakers are ready with whatever you could want. We saw it all this week at the North American International Auto Show.

Let’s begin with the visuals. Walk into the north door of the 600,000-square-foot main hall of Cobo Center, take a slow, counterclockwise stroll and you will be shocked at the utter lack of flash and pizzazz that once characterized the Detroit auto show. Ford, first on the right, has been toning down their section for a few years so you might not notice the change right away. Subaru, next on the right, occupies a narrow buffer hall between Ford and GM with the two Chinese manufacturers. No eye candy there. But GM, who occupies the entire northwest quadrant of the show floor looks rather stark compared to past displays. A few video walls and turntables add some color and movement but gone are the multi-level structures with wide stairways and flashy, loud and colorful displays for each brand.

Along the rear wall Toyota and Lexus aren’t nearly as stark but they’ve toned down just a tad as well. Still attractive in a simple way their stand is open and inviting.

In the center of the floor the Chrysler area is the most shockingly unadorned. Where once a spectacular rock wall and waterfall punctuated the Jeep stand there are now only cars and light trucks poised naked without any adornment at all. Of course, we’re viewing this during press days so perhaps they’ll do something more for the public.

Bucking this trend toward simplicity the Germans, along the south and east walls, appear flush with the same classy, but not ostentatious, displays they’ve always had.

THE DETROIT THREE (No longer the “Big” Three)

GM – In my view GM made the best showing of new products in Detroit this year – particularly at Chevy and Cadillac.

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The Chevy stand was strewn with great new stuff. We saw what amounts to the pre-production version of the Volt extended-range electric car which has managed to maintain enough of the concept Volt’s panache to remain boldly attractive, the production Camaro including a red SS version, the new bread-and-butter small car slated to replace Cobalt called Cruze, a concept (slated for production) small CUV with modern attractive lines called Orlando, a 5-door version of the successful Aveo subcompact and a Smart-sized little concept we’ve seen before called Beat. That’s a lot of new stuff for one brand.

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At Buick the big news is a redesigned LaCrosse. The exterior styling is attractive from some angles but overall does little to bring the brand anything that would appeal to a younger demographic, but the interior is stunning.

Pontiac has dropped plans for the cool, G8-based sport pickup shown in New York last year but added a G8 GTP. They also have the sexy little Solstice coupe in the corner.

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Back at Cadillac we found elevated on a slanted turntable the best looking car at the show – Cadillac’s Converj concept based on the Volt platform featuring the next level of Cadillac’s edgy design language – swoopy, flowing lines along the side with vertical themes front and rear. That low-slung coupe is thrilling. Simon Cox, of GM’s UK design studio, the guy responsible for this design, tells me that it is quite practical and could be brought to market without much further development. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Nearby are two new Cadillac production cars, both based on the award-winning CTS – the second-generation SRX and a CTS Sportwagon. These two are similar in shape and style, but different in stance and utility. Both show Cadillac is on a roll, I think.

FORD – At Ford a pair of production cars took center stage.

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First, and most important in the overall scheme of things, the totally redesigned Taurus with some of the proportions and look of the new Lincoln MKS, is much improved over the tepid Ford 500/Taurus it replaces. Ford is desperate for a mainstream car with the appeal of the original Taurus which boldly took the family sedan market by storm in the early 90s. While not as cutting-edge as the original, this one is attractive with some interesting and unusual design elements.

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The fun new Mustang, introduced in Los Angeles last November, proves that it’s not yet time to throw in the towel on cars that can get our adrenalin flowing. Here in Detroit Ford introduced the new version of the Shelby GT500. Carroll Shelby at age 88 came to help with the introduction. They all insist that it’s not just his name on the car. He contributed substantially to its development.

Also at Ford is another major announcement – the 2010 Fusion/Milan Hybrid will manage an amazing 41-mpg in city driving, better than the existing Prius. That may be a game changer for Ford.

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Ford also gives a nod to the need for eco-friendly future cars with a small, luxury 4-seat concept car called Lincoln Concept C, which looks a bit silly to me but reflects Lincoln’s long-range view that there will be money to be made in luxury, high-zoot, small cars.

The Lincoln brand also gets a new big CUV, the Lincoln MKT (‘T’ for touring) with optional twin-turbo, EcoBoost V6. This big three-row-seat luxury cruiser is boldly styled with Lincoln’s signature double water fall grille.

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The most beautiful car in the Ford family neighborhood is the Volvo S60 sedan concept. They’ll be redesigning this mid-size sport sedan in the next year or so. This high-style design is a clue to some of the bold changes we’ll be seeing at Volvo. This S60 shows beautifully exaggerated lines that I expect when toned down will make for a beautiful sedan.

By the way, the name Mercury was not spoken once at the show as far as I know. While Mercury has versions of the mid-size sedan and small SUV, there appears to be no future for the brand. I’ve named the winner of my annual “Most Anachronistic Vehicle” to be the long-in-the-tooth Mercury Grand Marquis, which still sells well to an over-80 demographic, I suppose.

CHRYSLER – The New Chrysler Corporation display gets the award for most distressed.

About the same square footage appears to be in use as in previous years but without adornment of any kind. This is the display, you may recall, that has in the past featured a 30-foot-high rock wall, with a Jeep attached half-way up, alongside a massive waterfall programmed with patterns and messages in the falling water. This is also the company famous for product launch gimmicks that make the front pages and national news. Gimmicks like driving a Grand Cherokee up the steps and through the front window of the Cobo Center, catapulting a minivan into a frog pond and driving a herd of longhorn cattle down Washington Avenue escorting a new Ram pickup.

That showmanship is gone entirely. The Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge and Gem vehicles are spaced out around the unadorned center of the hall.

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Jim Press, Chrysler’s number three guy, leaned enthusiastically into his pitch at the press conference while introducing a bevy of electric vehicles, essentially one on each of Chrysler’s car and light truck platforms. We know not whether there is any substance to their promises of production or performance. The best of those was the new version of Chrysler’s full-size sedan – this one called 200C EV – which purports to be an electric version of the next generation of the car that stunned the industry a few years ago and sold like hotcakes. It’s a great-looking update. Let’s hope they survive long enough to produce it.

The brash Viper still adds excitement to the shrinking collection of Chrysler cars. Fewer iterations of the Chrysler 300/Dodge Charger are in evidence but most still have appeal, in my view. Challenger is the newest product, but is not in a high-volume segment.

On the downside the Sebring convertible garnered the dubious distinction of being the worst quality in the annual Consumer Report survey and we’ve heard rumors that Chrysler is selling the PT Cruiser brand and its tooling to the Chinese.

Not a good showing for Chrysler overall.


TOYOTA/LEXUS/SCION – The smart folks at Toyota cut back considerably on their activities here as well but still had a positive, optimistic presence. Usually they show plenty of new production stuff as well as concepts, at least one from each division. This year we have a new Prius, third generation of this most popular hybrid car. The new one is rated at 50-mpg in the city, keeping ahead of the pack. They’re one step ahead of Ford’s new Fusion Hybrid. Competition is getting stiff in the hybrid sedan segment.

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At Lexus I was surprised by the introduction of an all-new car slotted between the small, sporty IS and the mid-size, conservative ES. This one is called the HS250h (‘h’ is for hybrid, you probably guessed) and it will only be available with hybrid power. The Lexus division of Toyota, by the way, was first introduced here at the Detroit show 20 years ago. Lexus also introduced a lovely new convertible based on the IS with a retractable hard top. Since there is no more SC, they needed a convertible in the lineup.

SCION – We found nothing new at Scion but they again brought the three-tiered display of colorful Scion cars – one of the few vertical displays. Scion has perhaps the youngest demographic of any brand and their display reflects that fact.

NISSAN/INFINITY – Conspicuous by their absence Nissan and Infinity just were not there. We heard that the Detroit area dealers wanted to use the space and man it themselves but the corporation nixed the idea. I’ll resist the temptation to editorialize. It’s just a shame that they didn’t take the opportunity to show their line of excellent products at least to Detroit car buyers, not to mention thousands of international journalists.

HONDA/ACURA – Honda still doesn’t need to make much of an auto show splash to get customers. Their product continues to stay with, or just ahead of, the best of modest, efficient transportation. Some advanced electric and hybrid technologies on display give the techies among us something to browse but nothing else was there to make news.

Acura has refreshed the entire line of cars over the past year or two including bold, somewhat controversial styling, and second-to-none technology. While they brought nothing new to the Detroit show the entire display looked fresh.

MITSUBISHI – In a dark area behind some of the independents we found four unremarkable Mitsubishi cars brought by dealers. Mitsu declined to spend the time and money on a display at Detroit but one of the dealers took it upon himself to make a tiny showing.

SUBARU – The Subaru stand was tucked into a narrow area between GM and Ford, as we mentioned earlier, sharing the space with the two Chinese manufacturers. On their elevated turntable a concept of what the next Legacy might look like jumped out at me. Crisper edges, LED lighting and generally updated details bring Subaru’s mid-size sedan into its next generation. A silver paint job without clear coat made the body look like polished aluminum.

KIA – Some were skeptical about the timing of KIA’s launch of their large crossover, the Burrego last spring just as fuel prices were spiking. I’m not sure how sales are going but it is a good, conservative contender in that market. New at Detroit (first shown last fall in LA) is the cute little Soll, a sporty, boxy little fun thing.

HYUNDAI – The eye catcher at the Hyundai stand is the sexy, red Genesis coupe. The Genesis sedan won the North American Car of the Year award and can be had with a remarkably sophisticated V8 engine that sings like a German engine at high rpms. The coupe version, first shown at the New York show last spring, sadly cannot be had with the V8 but is still a thriller with the V6. And, like sister company KIA, the entire line of products cost less than comparably priced competitors from the US and Europe.

The first Chinese maker is BYD. “Build Your Dreams” is what the letters stand for but there’s not much dreamy about the designs on display. They say they’ll have an electric vehicle in the US market by 2011, but don’t hold your breath.

The Chinese are becoming familiar at the Detroit show. They’ve been here for about four years now in one form and another.

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BRILLIANCE – With design by Pininfarina, engineering by Porsche, BMW and other Europeans, and marketing plans that appear rather nebulous, I’m not expecting to see them in the US market soon either. Brilliance builds about 300,000 cars/year in China, some of which are contract builds for BMW. I especially liked the sleek red coupe, though it looks like it’s already a bit out of style.


Judging from the south and east isles of the show you’d not know there was anything wrong in the industry or the economy. That’s where the German displays are located.

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VOLKSWAGEN – The VW stand looks just as nice as ever with one concept car and lots of practical products. The concept is a cute little 50-mpg, turbo-diesel, BlueSport roadster with styling that is unmistakably VW. It uses mostly off-the-shelf parts, so is eminently produceable and gets about 50-mpg with a purported 700-mile range. VW leads the fray in bringing clean diesels to the US introducing a Touareg V6 TDI here in Detroit as well. Plenty of young product specialists man the floor to answer all our questions.

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MINI – The spiffiest display at the Detroit show seems to traditionally belong to MINI, usually with more interactivity than is evident this year. But this year’s display is made out of faux ice blocks for a really cool design. News at MINI is the North American introduction of the MINI convertible which has been successful across the pond. And, like nearly everyone else this year, MINI presented an electric car, the MINI E, for which they’re claiming a 150-mile range on lithium-ion batteries “under ideal conditions,” whatever that means. For performance enthusiasts they’re showing a red John Cooper Works Clubman dressed to the nines at just about 30-grand. I’d like this one in my driveway, though it wouldn’t spend much time stationary, I’ll bet.

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BMW – My pretty blonde has been thinking about replacing her 10-year-old SLK with another small convertible/hardtop and we found just the car for her at the BMW display – the new Z4 roadster with retractable hardtop. The design is evolutionary and even more sporting then the last model. BMW also presented an X6 with hybrid power due out later this year.

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AUDI – By far the most auspicious display was at Audi. This is the company that was nearly driven from the US market about 20 years ago by the bogus “unintended acceleration” scandal. Now, here they are, making the best showing of anyone at the Detroit auto show with fine products in just about every segment of the market. On the final day we found that Audi had won two of the four prestigious design awards presented by the EyesOn Design committee for both the best concept and best production automobile. The concept car called Sportback appears to be nearly production-ready with 3.0-liter turbo-diesel power and Quattro permanent all-wheel drive.

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My choice for money-is-no-object car is the bright red, race-bred Audi R8 V10. This super sports car has all its bulges in the right places. All aluminum and magnesium beneath the skin, the R8 is one of the most technologically advanced cars at the show and looks like it’s begging to rip through the desert at 150-mph.

And, Audi gets my design award for the best display stand at the show. The cars are color coordinated and the architecture understated and elegant.

MERCEDES/MAYBACH – Big news at Mercedes was the introduction of the new mid-size E-Class sedan at a private party off-site. This reporter was not invited to that reveal but I did have the current generation E-Class a few weeks ago in Bluetec Diesel form. It is a classy, pricey luxury car and the last of the Mercedes line to get updated.

Mercedes SL65 AMG V12 super car at over $300,000 makes 661-hp and makes my heart throb. On a milder note the Bluetec diesel system is being applied to more M-B products.


BENTLEY – Seeming a bit incongruous, Bentley announced a biofuel-capable engine update.

ROLLS ROYCE, LAMBORGHINI, and MASERATI are notable just for their presence in Detroit.

FISKER and TESLA, the two newest manufacturers of fully electric cars confidently touted their solid futures. Tesla produces a neat little pure electric roadster and just inked a deal with Smart to provide electric drive components for the latter’s upcoming electric version. Tesla has stolen award-winning designer, Franz Von Holtzhousen (of Mazda fame) to design its new products. Fisker, who already had a beautiful plug-in electric sports car priced above 100-grand is now showing slightly more affordable sport sedan, called Fisker Karma, at around 90-grand. All appear to this low-tech kind of guy to be well sorted out, but I suppose time will tell if they can make a go of it.

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LOTUS – Because of the half-dozen automakers who opted out of the Detroit show this year space was available for some of the smaller guys. It was great to see Lotus back on the main floor. I think the only time they’ve been there before was when they were briefly owned by GM and found themselves tucked in the rear of the GM stand looking like a sad little orphan. Now, as always, Lotus makes great little light-weight sports cars in addition to doing a big business as contract engineering.

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BAT 11 – Finally, the biggest surprise at the Detroit show was the Bat 11. Anyone familiar with Alfa Romeo in the 50s and 60s will know the Bat cars, a series of wonderfully exaggerated sports cars with wild, curving fins. Well, a dentist who grew up in west Michigan, had one of these cars as a kid and has taken it upon himself to design and build a modern version of his Bat car as a memorial project for his late wife who died of breast cancer. After a modest start he was able to convince Bertone of Italy, designer of the original Bat cars, to help and the result is this retro-cool, modern concept called Bat 11. This is, by the way, the only time in the history of the Detroit auto show that an independently owned car has been allowed on the main floor.

We're hoping that the prognostications about the auto industry bottoming out sometime this year are accurate. That means it will be getting better – if only slowly – before next year’s Detroit auto show. The talk of expanding Cobo Center to accommodate more cars and more displays was totally absent this year after being on the front burner for the past few years. I hope we’ll need that space soon.

Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved